Food rewards in horse training

I’ve been training horses using positive reinforcement (food rewards and scratch rewards mostly) for about twenty years now. Does this mean I don’t learn and realise new things anymore? Nope. I just realised something I think is pretty interesting. If this is one of these “Everyone knew that” cases then good for you (and why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?)

One of the horse lectures I give is on recognising the different ways horses express themselves (facial expressions, including pain, and behaviour) and during it I talk briefly about making inferences based on how a horse looks or behaves. Is it allowed or should you just observe? My opinion is that we as people infer things allt he time, the key is to recognize when we’re doing it.

If the horse has its ears pinned back, for instance, instead of inferring it hates your guts or is being moody or a pain, you should always make the inference in the horse’s best interest. Check for pain, ulcers, saddle and bridle fit, oestrus pain in mares etc. If the behaviour is seen around feeding and/or training using food rewards, consider it might be the horse simply having an emotion that initiates a behaviour it has known how to do since being a very young foal.

Case: Ilo

I have a homebred mare called “Ilo” (meaning “joy” in Finnish) who I’ve trained using both positive and negative reinforcement since she was around 3 weeks of age. She has a facial expression and behaviour I see fairly frequently while training: ears slightly pinned back and sometimes blocking my path by curving in front of me. While the behaviour has irritated me, especially as I would have liked her to look like the other horses I train (= expressing an open, interested, positive mood) it has never felt dangerous or even aggressive.

She doesn’t do this if we’re just walking alongside each other in the field, nor does it seem to be related to pain or discomfort. I see this only when training her from the ground and usually when I’m also moving. I’ve thought before that it relates to irritation or frustration. It’s not easily trained away, I’ve tried both negative and positive reinforcement and a combination of both (to straighten her out, not trying to clicker train her ears forward).

I’ve seen and heard about simliar behaviour in other horses, too. Some are mild, some have a more intense form, blocking the trainer when trying to leave for a break or even kicking. It is usually only related to training with food rewards and in my experience, the higher value the reward (carrots come to mind), the more likely the horse is to show it. All horses don’t do it, in my non-scientific opinion, perhaps one horse in ten or twenty.

How to solve the problem? Teach a “take a break” cue and leave some food for the horse when going away.

The lightbulb, finally

Fast forward to this spring. We have two new foals this year and as I’m updating my “How to tame and train your foal” online course I’ve been filming them a lot. That’s when I saw it. The very similar set of behaviours, the near identical expression, first in one of the foals, then in the other. And after that I realised I’ve seen it in other foals before, laughing at it as people do.

In short: There is the foal who wants to nurse and the mare who is walking. The foal will often curve in front of the mare, under her neck, and will pin its ears, sometimes making a bite or kick threat (like the foal in the video).

The mare doesn’t have a leadership problem, nor is the foal being bossy, crazy nor impolite. It’s simply being a horse.

(The mare is recovering from a hoof abscess, which is why she walks like this.)

Why is this important? Well, at least it cut me some slack as I’ve beat myself up now and again for accidentally training my own horse to look sour and cut across my path. Also I think it’s important to make inferences that cuts the horses some slack, too: If we consider it possible that a horse, when feeling frustration or just simply being motivated by the food reward, may be exhibiting a simliar behaviour to the foal on the video clip above we may take the behaviour itself with more calm and ease.

When coming across a horse exhibiting a more intense form of this behaviour we may be more ready to make the necessary adjustment to the training situation instead of just giving up the idea of training this particular horse using food rewards, thinking the trainer is incompetent or the horse crazy. At the moment I don’t think this has much to do with the training at all.

Disclaimer: I’ve been wrong many times, I may be wrong now

The reason I’m going out on a limb writing this down, is this: The more empathy we have for both horses and people, the better both will fare. If, when you see this behaviour in a horse next, you are able to think of it simply as a grown-up foal wanting a drink of milk (= food reward) you may be able to see the behaviour as that and act accordingly.

Another reason is that if you consider this behaviour a training issue, relating to frustration due to trainer mistakes (horse getting stressed) and try to fix it as such, you may get bogged down in making hundreds of unneccessary repetitions and the training won’t progress as it could.

Have you seen this behaviour? What do you think of my possible explanation?

Next up: Using positive reinforcement is the most natural way of training a horse there is

“Ilo” as a young foal.



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Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Uncategorized


So What Is It You Do, Exactly?

Someone asked me that recently. Well, officer, one thing led to another.
Short recap:

  • Loved horses and other animals since I was little, started riding at the age of 5.
  • Rode at low levels and not very well, groomed horses competing at national level here (here = Finland) in dressage, show jumping and eventing as a teenager
  • Became interested in photography and worked as a freelance photographer, doing mainly books
  • Happened to see renown Finnish animal trainer Tuire Kaimio work and became interested in animal training
  • Got to work with different animals in movies and TV as her assistant and then by myself
  • Learned a lot about how to train animals, became one of the first to gain the then new professional animal training degree in Finland
  • Have trained horses, dogs, cats and also some chickens and cows
  • I still write articles for various equestrian magazines, photograph people and animals but mainly I work with horses and horse owners
  • I give lectures on horse behaviour and training, travel around the country and also have both animal training students and ordinary horse owners and riders come here to practise horse training in practise
  • I use science based training methods and a combination of reward based training and properly applied pressure and release techniques
  • I try to keep myself as up to date as possible on horse behaviour and training and also work to make horse keeping more species appropriate (ie. making sure the grazing animal can move and eat at near the levels it would in nature)
  • I aim to make things easy both for the horse and handler and to make the horse think that difficult things are fun

A few video clips to illustrate what I do. Teach horses to stand still and enjoy being injected by the vet:

Teach horses to come when called even though they’ve escaped:

Worked on some TV and movie sets with horses, trained the horses for this commercial:

Teach horses to load into the trailer:

If you want to contact me, send me an email at and if that doesn’t work – Gmail is notorious for putting your emails in the spam folder – try Facebook at


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Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Uncategorized


The Colonel’s Ill-fitting Gloves

Some fifteen years ago a friend of mine who was interested in horse friendly dressage riding found an association online which was dedicated to preserving lightness in dressage. She contacted the association and asked if there was anyone available to come to Finland and teach some ordinary amateur riders.

This is how Colonel Carde, then president of said association (Allege-Ideal), also former ecuyer in chief of the Cadre Noir, French National Team Coach and member of the French Olympic Team began to hold clinics in Finland.

They still continue: the Colonel will teach at two clinics in Mäntsälä, Southern Finland, in May and June 2017. I warmly recommend anyone who is interested in riding to be in the audience.

Colonel Carde in 2016.
[joke]Now let’s talk about me[/joke]

A few words about my background when I first started auditing Colonel Carde’s clinics. I’ve been riding from the mid-seventies when I was a kid and have been interested in dressage more or less since then. In the 1980’s I saw Kyra Kyrklund training a young Matador and I still remember clearly a mare called Tosca, ridden by Eeva Holmström, because she had the best extended trot I had ever seen. I watched a lot of training and competitions in dressage, working as a freelance equestrian journalist and photographer.

I also had the opportunity to watch and photograph international shows, among others the Hamburg Derby where an 8 year old Rubinstein II debuted at Grand Prix level and Dr. Reiner Klimke showed Biotop. I also followed the World Championship dressage with interest and conflicting emotions in 1998, when rollkur was already on the scene and horses like Donnerhall competed against the new wave.

So I had watched a lot of dressage and tried to learn as much as I could.

The Ill-fitting Gloves

When Colonel Carde came to give clinics in Finland he still often rode the horses himself to train them and give the rider the correct feeling. I was in the audience at the first clinic, watching with interest. The first ten minutes I saw him riding I remember thinking that he had very badly fitting gloves on as he seemed to lose his grip on the reins all the time and take a new grip.

The horse was of the kind which easily hollowed, put his head up and chewed the bit while leaning on the reins. Was for a while longer, but then he changed. He flexed at the poll, rounded his neck and back, stepped softer and moved more flexibly. His mouth quietened and relaxed. He became calmer, and more content. All in those ten minutes.

I don’t remember the exact moment I realised that there was nothing wrong with the fit of the Colonel’s gloves. Probably someone wiser than me mentioned it. This was not my best moment as a spectator, but I did realise how little I knew.

Colonel Carde relaxed his fingers to reward the horse as soon as the contact improved. At the beginning every few seconds. It was just a topic I’d hardly heard mentioned before this and certainly not often enough. The horse was allowed to try different things, but when it stopped resisting the contact for a second, it was rewarded by giving the reins. Repeated that often and with such skill, the change was obvious and quick. This is operant conditioning at it’s best: The horse was allowed to learn from the consequences of his own actions.

”As soon as the horse yields, you give”
I have had the opportunity to watch enough of Colonel Carde’s riding and training and he truly has an exceptional understanding of both horses and dressage. The kind of classical dressage (I hesitate to use the word classical because of some of the odder riding having that name added to it) where ordinary horses are trained to move better and better all the time. I’ve seen the best riders in the world but in my opinion Colonel Carde is still in a class of his own as a rider.

I also hadn’t previously seen working on collection without at the same time holding the horse back; horses finding a peaceful cadence while keeping active. I also got to hear the perfect answer to the question of whether raising the horse’s neck will help with collection: “Yes, but only if the horse is round.” Round meaning flexed at the poll, withers up, not nose behind the vertical.

Round horse. Four beat walk. Colonel Carde and Junker in 2005.

“Horses are nice creatures. If they understand, they do.”

How can this knowledge be transferred so that it isn’t lost? The secret to good dressage training isn’t complicated but it certainly isn’t easy either. It is a combination of tradition and feel, knowledge of the horse and practical application.

I once read a book, where biologist Mark Carwardine and author Douglas Adams chronicled their search for what were then the most endangered species of the planet. It was aptly named Last Chance to See.

I hope that Colonel Carde will continue to share his knowledge for fifteen years more. I hope his students are able to preserve what he has been showing them all these years.

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Posted by on May 20, 2017 in Uncategorized


Hey, FEI!


Various studies have shown that too tight (tighter than in the image above) nosebands/cavessons will compromise horse welfare. Tight nosebands also press the cheeks into the sharp edges of the teeth, often causing discomfort and sores inside the mouth. Be smart. Check your nosebands. And it’s not the crank noseband (as in the picture) that is the problem, it’s how tight it’s fastened.

McGreevy, Paul, Amanda Warren-Smith, and Yann Guisard. “The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 7.3 (2012): 142-148.


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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Uncategorized


Natural or Not?

We can only train horses to do things they have the ability to. Yes, we can train them and make them stronger, more supple, more eager to work. But we cannot train a horse to do a back flip.

Every time we sit on a horse, we upset his balance. This doesn’t mean that the horse cannot, after training, do almost as well with a rider than without. What it means is that we should train the horse in hand first, so he has the opportunity to find his balance without a rider. This gives him the opportunity to start building the right kind of strength and flexibility for whatever it is he will do later under a rider.

Let’s train our horses so that they have the best chance to succeed! When the horse learns that people never ask him to do impossible things, his trust in both people and cooperating with people will grow.

_MG_1390 (2)
Yes, you can train a horse to piaffe in a forward-down-out stretch. Even a fat little pony, provided his conformation makes it possible.

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Posted by on September 1, 2016 in Uncategorized


The Beginning of the End?

I I were a media strategist, I would have done it on purpose. Adelinde Cornelissen couldn’t have hoped for better luck than the [false] rumour spreading like wildfire: That her horse Parzival had suffered a hairline fracture to the jaw which caused the need for the rider to pull up in the middle of the Grand Prix in Rio.

Misdirection of Attention

If you aren’t a horse person and/or you have missed this, the horse stuck out his tongue as far as he could in the middle of the dressage test and the rider decided to retire. Not permanently – the rider that is – but for the 19-year-old horse Rio was supposed to be the final show. Now newspapers have been running sob stories about the heroic rider who quit the Olympics “to save her horse”. Hw she loves her horse. How he is the most important thing to her.

(What apparently happened was that an NBC reporter mixed up two horses, one show jumper really suffering from a hairline fracture and Parzival, who suffered from a suspected insect bite. I don’t really believe any media strategist was involved.)

But I think I’ve read something similar in the hilarious book version of the BBC TV series “Yes, minister.” I suspect that in politics it’s done all the time. Smoke screens. Misdirection of attention. Politician gets caught doing something embarrassing. As news of the impropriety is about to break, the powers behind said politician plant another, much more radical piece of news. Something that isn’t true. The result? The second piece of news is discredited, vehmently so, proof of its inaccuracy is presented, much righteous indignation aired. Mostly it works well: the initial scandal is forgotten in the furore.

Who is the Enemy?

Let’s be clear on one point: I don’t disapprove of competitive dressage. I’m not your enemy. I actually think that horses can be ridden, transported and shown without their well being being compromised too much. It can be done, if done properly.

I do however object to horses suffering because of competitive dressage or any other sport. In my opinion, no valid justification exists for causing an animal suffering because you want to compete. I especially object to sugar-coating something that should be the cause of universal disapproval. Something that in itself could – and in my opinion should – be the end of the FEI having control of horse welfare during competition.

What happened, if the news stories are true, was this: Parzival, was taken ill on a Tuesday. High fever, swelling on the head. He was treated by a vet, given intravenous fluids and the fever went down. All well and good. These things happen. Bad luck.

What happened next is the part I still have some difficulty believing. In spite of this, more than one veterinarian (Dutch team and FEI) and the rider herself decided that the horse was fit to compete the following day. The horse, as the world saw, was not. If you have ever had a high fever you know that you’re not fit to exert yourself in any way the following day.

That is what really happened. Disregard the rumour of the fractured jaw. It is completely irrelevant. The FEI vets, the Dutch team vets and the rider all let the horse down. This to me is evidence enough to prove that the FEI isn’t capable of taking the welfare of the horse into appropriate consideration. The team vets and rider certainly weren’t.

If we want to keep horses in the Olympics and keep the social license for horse sport at all – and after this case, and the two jumping riders being eliminated today because of excessive spur and whip use, it may well be the beginning of the end of horses in the Olympics – there is an obvious need for truly impartial experts monitoring the welfare of the horses. The FEI has failed spectacularly.


This poor horse is not in the Olympics.

It is perfectly possible to train and show horses without making them suffer. I think that it’s time to make changes from within before they are made from without as happened to commercial greyhoumd racing in New South Wales.

Edited to add: No, it’s not the double bridle. It’s what you do with it. In the image below: Coco Paradieso ridden by Mia Kainulainen in Colonel Carde’s clinic in Finland.



Posted by on August 14, 2016 in Horses


The Horse in Pain

First a note on horse mouths in general: When watching horses being ridden or driven it’s good to keep in mind that the default setting on a horse in trot or canter is with the mouth closed. A horse mostly opens its mouth when eating, biting, whinnying, yawning, scratching itself or another horse and when a foal “snaps” with its jaws when getting too close to an older horse. A horse at trot or canter doesn’t keep its mouth open unless it’s actually whinnying or neighing at the same time. If a horse has its mouth open while being ridden or driven it is probably trying to ease pain or discomfort.

This image is also in my colleague Anna Kilpeläinen’s blog (now in English) and I found it very illuminating. What do you see in this picture?


Fortunately there have been a couple of well executed studies on pain expressions of the horse, making it easy for anyone to educate themselves more on the subject if they put in a little effort.

What did you see in the picture above?

I can tell you what I saw.

Pain. I’d even go as far as saying suffering. In this image the hand holding the rein is blameless at the moment the picture was taken: the contact seems light. Still the horse’s expression is one of suffering. How can you recognise it? At the very least from these details:

  • The position of the ears
  • The tension and expression of the area around the eye
  • The expression in the horses’ eye (or lack of it in this case)
  • The tension of all muscles

The horse in the picture may have one or several other reasons for being in pain but the one which all horse enthusiasts should have spotted instantly is the badly fitting bridle. It looks like the horse has been saddled – or bridled – with a bridle two sizes too small.

The headpiece almost digs into the root of the ear and the browband is far too short. Because of it the browband settles too high, pinching the root of the ear as well. The noseband is also too small and causes pressure to the bone above the horse’s ear. The  throat lash is too short: even when the head approaches the vertical there should still be some slack in the throat lash. This means you have to fit it very loosely when tacking up.

Both upper and lower nosebands are far too tight. The cavesson probably presses the horses cheeks into his teeth, causing pain. The lower one is so tight it prevents the horse from opening his mouth at all and even makes the lips flatten where it crosses the horses mouth.

Pain Is in the Eyes

I’m sorry for posting another disheartening image, but recognising the face of a horse in pain is one of the most important skills for anyone in any contact with horses.


A classic pain face. Ears, eyes, veins, expression around the eye. A horse cannot cover up pain in its expression as well as it can in its behaviour and this is why recognising a pain face is a very good way to notice a horse being in pain. The horse in this picture is at that moment eating the first dose of painkillers. A few days later this horse was no more.

Links to the pain expression studies:

An Equine Pain Face (PDF)

Horse Grimace Scale

If I have understood correctly, a study or two on fear expressions in horses are also on the way.


Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Horses


International response to the Finnish rule change proposition

Well, apparently the national Dutch rules are in many ways similar to the proposed Finnish changes, so perhaps our club wasn’t so very revolutionary after all. Top Iberian, in Spanish. Denmark. The British Horse & Hound magazine have got a quote from the Equestrian Federation. This Dutch magazine compares the rule change proposition to current Dutch rules. Norway. Eurodressage, the biggest dressage website.
The highly regarded German magazine Reiten St. Georg.
The Swedish magazine Hippson.

We’re very pleased that the proposition has generated so much international interest.


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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


Finland: Rule changes to be voted on

Operantit Ratsastajat ry (“Operant Riders” OpeRa) has submitted the following propositions to change the competition rules of the Equestrian Federation of Finland (SRL) on February 23th, 2016.

The propositions will be put to the vote at the SRL General Meeting on April 24th, 2016.

The goals of OpeRa are to improve horse and rider welfare and safety. The proposals below for rule changes concerning use of the noseband, draw reins and spurs stem from these same goals.

We hope that our proposals will encourage a debate on these issues well before the General Meeting and we hope that as many SRL member clubs as possible will choose to vote for as many of the proposed rule changes as they see fit.

We’re happy to receive any comments and will be pleased if this link is shared as extensively as possible.

Please note that this is an approximate and amateur translation of the original Finnish document. Any irregularities are the fault of the translator, Minna Tallberg, who assumes no responsibility whatsoever for anything.


Proposed changes to the competition rules of the Equestrian Federation of Finland


Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes the following changes to the competition rules of SRL:


  1. Use of the noseband to be voluntary in all dressage classes


  1. Determining the greatest allowed tightness of the noseband and measuring noseband tightness at competitions


  1. Allowing the use of bitless bridles in all dressage classes


  1. Allowing the use of snaffle bridles in all dressage classes


  1. Prohibiting the use of draw reins in the warmup at competitions in all disciplines


  1. Use of spurs to be voluntary in all dressage classes


We also propose that the Finnish Equestrian Federation submit the same proposals to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) for the same rule changes to be made to the FEI international competition rules.

  1. Use of the noseband to be voluntary in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that competing without a noseband shall be allowed in dressage.

According to the FEI Code of Conduct the welfare of the horse is paramount. The definition of horse welfare is that the horse may live as naturally as possible, to behave as naturally as possible and live without discomfort or pain, illness or injury and without fear (Hockenhull & Whay 2014). The noseband is an addition to the bridle that is used to balance the bit, keep the horse’s mouth closed (McLean & McGreevy 2010) and to sensitize the horse to the bit (Casey et al 2013 & McGreevy et al 2013).

The noseband is not an essential piece of equipment nor is it used to improve communication between rider and horse. It is possible to ride a horse without a noseband. When additional equipment is used you should always determine why it is used. The reason should not be purely aestethical. If the use of an additional piece of equipment is detrimental to horse welfare, there is no good reason for using it and using it shouldn’t be compulsory.

A tight noseband causes the inside of the horse’s cheeks to be pressed against the edge of the teeth and causes ulceration to the mucous membranes (McLean & McGreevy 2010). Miettinen (2015) found most of the lesions inside the mouth in parts in contact with noseband and bit. The edges of the horse’s molars are supposed to be be sharp to aid in mincing roughage (ie. hay). When a noseband is used it is necessary to prevent injury to the cheeks by using a rasp to make the teeth smooth so as to avoid cheek ulceration, but this interferes with the horse’s ability to chew hay.

A tight noseband has been shown to limit the ability of the mouth and tongue to move, to interfere with swallowing saliva (Manfredi et al 2005, McGreevy et al 2011), with opening the mouth (Manfredi et al 2010) and to weaken the circulation in the head (McGreevy et al 2012). A tight noseband has been shown to sensitize the horse to the bit (Casey et al 2013 and Randle & McGreevy et al 2013) as the horse cannot redistribute the pressure from the bit by moving his mouth and tongue nor alleviate excessive pressure to the sensitive areas of the mouth, as in the interdental space of the lower jaw (Manfredi et al 2010).

By using a tight noseband the false impression that the horse accepts the bit may be given and better marks in a dressage test reached at the expense of the horse’s welfare (McGreevy et al 2012). The discomfort and/or pain caused by a tight noseband causes the horse stress. This can be shown using thermography which has been proved to show an increase in the temperature of the eye and by using a heart rate monitor to indicate increased heart rates (McGreevy et al 2012). Increased stress increases behavioural problems during riding.


  1. Determining the greatest allowed tightness of the noseband and measuring noseband tightness at competitions

Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes that the noseband taper gauge developed by the International Society of Equitation Science, ISES, is routinely used in all classes and on all horses that uses a noseband, also on horses ridden in bitless bridles. We propose that the tightest allowed noseband is at the “two finger” mark on the ISES gauge.

The FEI dressage rules (2015) states that the noseband should never be so tight as to cause injury to the horse. The rules do not, however, state how to measure the tightness of the noseband nor what the suitable tightness is.

Traditionally it has been considered acceptable to tighten the noseband so that two fingers can be fitted below it. It has never been defined whose fingers should fit below the noseband, a woman’s or man’s, adult or child and how far and at what point the measurement should be taken (McGreevy et al 2012). The tightness will then differ according to who measures it. McGreevy’s (2012) study found an average size of the middle joint of an adult’s index and middle fingers and based on this ISES developed a noseband taper gauge. There are two lines on the ISES gauge, one indicating the width of one finger, the other one two fingers. The ISES gauge guarantees an objective and accurate result and is not prone to wrong interpretation.

The ISES gauge [using the two finger mark] makes sure the horse has enough space to move his mouth and teeth to a certain extent. The horse still isn’t able to fully express his natural behaviour, for instance yawning, so even a loose fitting noseband interferes with the natural behaviour of the horse. Miettinen (2015) found most of the ulcerations to the mouth at the areas influenced by nosebands and bits. An ulceration to the soft tissues of the mouth causes the horse discomfort.

The tightness of the noseband should be measured at all competitions on all the horses using nosebands. The tightness should be measured on top of the nasal bone (McGreevy et al 2012) as the bone isn’t flexible, as opposed to the soft tissues below the jaw. This assures as accurate a measurement as possible. The maximum noseband tightness allowed should be at the two finger mark of the ISES gauge. Any use of a tighter noseband during warm-up and test should be disallowed. Particular attention should be given to the so-called pullback nosebands, where the lever impact makes it possible to tighten the noseband excessively (McGreevy et al 2012).


  1. Allowing the use of bitless bridles in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat ry proposes that the use of bitless bridles are allowed in all dressage classes and that the dressage rules are changed accordingly, replacing the term “acceptance of the bit” with “acceptance of the bridle”.

To assure horse welfare the rider should be allowed to choose the equipment which is the least detrimental to the health and welfare of the horse. We propose that the following bitless bridles be allowed (images 2 a-g): crossunder, sidepull, cavesson, hackamore/flower hackamore, LG/Star Wheel and Micklem bitless bridle.

The horse doesn’t have an anatomical empty space for the bit, so the bit always takes up the space of some other tissue in the mouth (McLean & McGreevy 2010). The communication using the bit is based on pressure and release of pressure. This uses the very sensitive sense of touch and pain inside the horse’s mouth. The pressure of the bit is distributed in the areas of the corners of the mouth, tongue, the interdental space between premolars and incisors and, through the bridle, to the poll and nose. The bit can also cause pressure to the hard roof of the mouth and it may touch the teeth.

The bitless bridle also uses pressure and release of pressure for communication but the pressure is situated in a less sensitive area of the head. A study has shown that horses halt better when using a crossunder bitless bridle than when using a snaffle bit and even halt as well as when a curb bit is used (Randle & Wright 2013). A bitless bridle is as safe or even safer as a bit for communication and control of the horse.

The bit is a foreign object in the horse’s mouth. A horse not used to the bit will try to get rid of this foreign object by opening his mouth and pushing the bit with his teeth. The bit is suspected of activating the digestive system of the horse and activating saliva production as well as the swallowing reflex (Cook 1999). When the horse becomes habituated to the bit he keeps it still in his mouth unless pressure is applied (Manfredi et al 2010). By moving his tongue the horse can influence which part of the mouth the pressure of the bit is applied to. On the other hand the pressure of the bit influences the ability of the tongue to move and may interfere with swallowing saliva (Cook 1999). It is still not known which amount of pressure causes the horse discomfort. The border between pressure and pain is unclear (McGreevy 2011).

Incorrect use of the bit, including severe long or short term tension of the reins or using a bit which is not completely smooth, can cause ulcerations to the horse’s mouth. Studies have shown that the bit and the noseband are one of the most common cause of ulceration in the mouth (Tell et al 2008, Miettinen 2015). Tell (2008) showed that horses who were ridden with a bit had significantly more ulceration in the cheek and corner of mouth areas than horses not being ridden.

Miettinen (2015) showed in her study that 78% of horses ridden with a bit had changes in pigmentation in the corners of the mouth, caused by the bit, and 78% also had one or more lesions in the areas under the noseband or bit. Björnsdottir et al (2014) found that the use of a curb bit significantly increased risk of injury to the bony interdental space of the lower jaw. When a curb bit was used, 67% of the injuries to the interdental space were severe. The interdental space doesn’t have the ability to distribute pressure as the soft and elastic tongue does.

Miettinen (2015) found that 59% of horses ridden with a bit showed wear of the front and upper sides of the first premolars. The first premolars are damaged when the horse takes the bit between the teeth to avoid the pain from the bit pressure. The wear to the tooth may cause the revelation of the sensitive core of the tooth and may cause the need for a root canal to the tooth. When the horse is ridden in a bitless bridle there is no bit in the mouth that would cause wear to the teeth or pressure to the soft tissue or bony interdental space inside the mouth.

Pressure caused by the bit in the mouth has been suspected to cause many of the problem behaviours seen during riding (Cook 2002). Problem behaviour always indicates a welfare problem. Miettinen (2015) found several common behavioural problems which points to the bit as a cause, including opening the mouth, being heavy on the reins and the tongue hanging out of the horse’s mouth. None of the horses ridden bitless had signs of blood in the mouth nor were they pushing the tongue out of the mouth.

Cook (2002) found that over 50 behavioural problems were solved when the snaffle bit was exchanged for a crossunder bridle. Cook described some of these problems as being heavy in the reins, putting the tongue over the bit, the tongue hanging outside the mouth and head shaking.

It is easier to cause the horse discomfort using a bit than when using a bitless bridle. The bit has been suspected to cause the displacement of the soft palate (DDSPE) (Cook 2002). The displacement of the soft palate causes interference with the airways, a distinctive sound during physical stress and can also interfere with performance.

Some horses get so called wolf teeth in the interdental space in front of the premolars. The bit may hit the wolf teeth and cause discomfort to the horse. It is still recommended to have the wolf teeth removed if they interfere with the use of the bit. If bitless bridles are allowed in competition, the normal anatomy of the mouth can be left intact.

  1. Allowing the use of snaffle bridles in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat propose that the snaffle bridle is allowed in all dressage classes.

In dressage, the horse’s acceptance of the bit, harmony and lightness are assessed (FEI 2015). The goal of riding is to have the horse trained to obey as small a pressure as possible. On the surface it may seem that the horse accepts the curb bit better than the snaffle bit but in reality the curb bit, because of the lever effect involved, can cause a greater pressure to the horse’s mouth using less tension of the rein (McLean & McGreevy 2010).

A greater pressure increases the risk of pressure injuries and ulceration in the mouth.

The curb bit requires greater skill, lighter contact and quicker reactions than the snaffle bit. This makes the rule prohibiting the use of the double bridle in lower dressage classes well founded. In the upper classes the rider should have the option of choosing whether to use a snaffle or double bridle. The only reason for using a curb bit and double bridle shouldn’t just be aesthetic.

It is contradictory that harsher equipment is favoured at a higher level. The skill of the rider shouldn’t be judged on whether he or she can use harsher equipment correctly but on whether he or she has learned to communicate with as little pressure as possible. The rider should have the option to choose the equipment that is the best for the horse’s welfare.

Fitting a double bridle can be difficult on some horses because of the anatomic conformation of their mouths. Miettinen (2015) measured the space between upper and lower jaw at the level of the bit. This measurement indicates how thick a bit can be used without it causing unneccessarily strong pressure to the tongue or preventing the horse from closing his mouth. The measurements were 24-49 mm (Miettinen 2015).

Normally the tongue fills the whole mouth cavity and the bit always takes up space from the tongue and causes pressure to the tongue (Clayton & Lee 1984, Engelke & Gasse 2003). The thickness of the tongue varies. In reality a horse with a distance of 24 mm between the lower and upper jaw with a legal snaffle bit of 12 mm in his mouth has only 12 mm left for the tongue itself.

Too thick a bit causes compression of the tongue, constant discomfort to the horse and forces the horse to open its mouth or stick the tongue out. A horse who has a small space between the upper and lower jaw may be impossible to fit with a double bridle conforming to current rules without causing discomfort to the horse simply by putting two bits in its mouth. This would make using a thin snaffle bit the better option for a horse like this.

Dressage should reward and aim to use equipment that have the least possible impact on the health of the horse’s mouth and the horse’s welfare. Equipment should not be used to hide communication problems between rider and horse, to prevent the horse from showing discomfort caused by equipment or the rider’s aids. This makes it possible for the judges to accurately assess the level of training and the horse has a possibility to perform in the best way possible.

  1. Prohibiting the use of draw reins in the warmup at competitions in all disciplines

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that the use of draw reins is prohibited during the warm-up and on the show grounds in all disciplines. Draw reins are additional equipment used to guide the horse into holding a static position. Draw reins use a lever effect which makes a lesser rein pressure cause greater pressure in the horse’s mouth. Draw reins may be used to force the horse into a frame where the horse’s neck shortens, but the highest point of the neck is different to when the horse goes “on the bit” voluntarily and the nose may be behind the vertical (McLean & McGreevy 2010).

When the horse is forced into a position by severe pressure to the mouth, the neck muscles are tense and the normal movement of the head inherent to the gaits are prevented (McLean & McGreevy 2010). Draw reins may be used to induce hyperflexion of the neck during warmup. Hyperflexion is suspected to cause stiffness of neck and back muscles and muscle tension, to cause stress to the intervertebral discs and neck ligament and predispose the horse to lameness.


  1. Use of spurs to be voluntary in all dressage classes

Operantit Ratsastajat proposes that the use of spurs should be voluntary in all dressage classes. Spurs are additional metal equipment which is attached to the boot of the rider and are used to intensify the rider’s leg aids. At the moment the rules of SRL say that spurs made of metal are part of the dressage test dress code. Pony riders may use spurs in pony classes if they wish. All riders shall use spurs in open classes. Fake spurs without knobs are allowed.

In dressage equipment that is the most beneficial for horse welfare should be used and it shouldn’t be compulsory to use equipment which may harm horse welfare. The use of metal spurs cause severe pressure to the side of the horse, as the squeezing action of the leg is concentrated in a very small area. The use of spurs may cause pressure injuries, ulceration and pain to the skin and muscle tissue of the horse. The goal in riding is to train the horse to respond to the lightest possible pressure.

The use of spurs gives the incorrect impression that the horse is responsive to small aids when in reality a small leg aid may cause a great pressure to the horse’s flanks. The correct use of spurs calls for great skill as they may easily be used incorrectly and cause the horse discomfort. The goal of dressage is, however, that the horse should respond to the smallest aid of the rider.


These proposals were drafted by Mirjami Miettinen Lic. Vet. Med. (Licentiate of Veterinary Medicine)


Contact info: Milla Lind, email:


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Posted by on March 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


Horses: Surviving New Year’s Eve

I thought I’d write and talk a bit more about what kind of an animal the horse really is in 2016. So what kind of an animal is the horse really?

A herd animal

Contrary to many other animals, the horse is truly a herd animal. It feels safer when there are other horses around. Being alone is completely alien to a horse and is one of the things you have to put the most effort into training. You’ve probably seen horses in separate paddocks resting together, even though there are fences in between them? If a horse is kept in a box, it will often hold its head high enough to have visual contact with other horses even when resting.

A prey animal

Horses, unlike people, would never run into a cave and hide in a frightening situation. A horse feels safer in an open space where it can see far. The horse’s instincts tells it to flee if it is frightened and even though you can keep a horse from running by putting walls around it this won’t remove the need to flee.


These two facts about the horse as an animal goes quite far to explain why there are so many trailer loading problems. It also explains why I didn’t lock my horses inside on New Year’s Eve.

The Finnish Hevostietokeskus (Horse Information Center) has an excellent video clip that shows a horse reacting to fireworks:

I’ve heard of several horses who have injured themselves inside during New Year’s Eve. I’ve also heard of several horses who’ve ran through a fence and injured themselves when they were out. Both ways have their risks. Why do I choose to leave my horses out? Apart from the two reasons listed above, it’s also because I trust the horse to be a horse.

Give the horse a chance to learn and habituate

Horses learn surprisingly quickly. If a horse is badly frightened, it may learn from just one repetition. If it isn’t greatly scared, it will still learn from just twenty or so repetitions. Horses are different: some are braver than others, some move more expressively than others. But they have one thing in common: they are remarkably quick learners. I have two, now older (17 and 20) mares that are both fairly brave horses and also luckily the horses that other horses tend to look to.

The first year these mares and the other horses were outside on New Year’s Eve they ran a bit when the first fireworks went off. This was probably a week or two before the last day of the year, as I then lived near a big city and New Year was on the whole a bit like WWIII. But then what happened? Because the rockets didn’t cause fear or pain, the horses habituated. The essential part is this: the new thing (firework) wasn’t followed by punishment.

In a way it was good luck that I wasn’t riding one of the horses when the first bang went off. No matter how good a rider you are – and I’m not – it’s quite impossible not to punish a horse who spooks and runs off. Even an involuntary punishment still works as a punishment learning-wise: it’s completely the same to the horse if the reins are pulled on purpose or by accident. It may still learn that firework = pain.

But if a new, even a slightly frightening stimulus (=firework) is repeated without any bad consequences, the horse usually habituates to it. And this happened to my horses one by one. When New Year’s Eve rolls around again and the world explodes, our horses still behaves more or less like this:


My apologies for the crappy video quality. You do see a lot of interesting things in the clip: even though the horses don’t run around, of course neither are they relaxed. At the most intense point in the evening, even the most greedy horse doesn’t eat. The horses are gathered in an unusually tight group. But even though the group has one draft horse, where there has been systematic selection for less dramatic expression of tension or fear, the group also has an Arab, two PRE Andalusians and a Lusitano, all breeds that are famous for their ability to move.

It has been interesting to see how this behaviour has been passed on to new horses. Yes, new horses, and these older ones too, do run a little when the bombardments begins, but they settle down fairly quickly to eat and gather around in an open area to watch.

Ways to calm

I do the same things every year: I spread a full round bale of good hay all around the paddock, so the horses have some species-specific stuff to do during the night. When we have two kinds of hay, as this year, I give them the better tasting one. If there’s snow, I throw some concentrate feed around for them to sniff out as well. Grazing calms a horse down. I also make sure the horses have room to move if they have the need to, so some years I’ve sacrificed one of the hay fields even though it got muddy.

The horses are also used to being housed in a group and used to each other. I have never seen them go inside when the fireworks go off. I also make sure our fences are sturdy. But it seems like the most essential thing is habituation: giving the horse a chance to learn, that not even fireworks cause punishment. This goes for anything you want your horse to develop a calm attitude towards: walking over a tarp, loading into a trailer or jumping fences. Horses habituate to the most surprising things if you give them a chance to.

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Uncategorized