Monthly Archives: December 2013

Horse Watching

Let’s take a look at horses and their facial expressions. Recently there have been a few scientific studies done that show how similar some facial expressions of horses are to those of humans and other mammals. For instance this study, which dealt with horses and their response to sweet and bitter taste:

Pain is also visible in the facial expressions of horses: this study (page 38 of the PDF) took a look at the facial expressions of horses before and after being gelded:

A quote:

Six facial action units were defined (stiffly backwards ears, orbital tightening, tension above the eye area, strained chewing muscles, mouth strained and pronounced chin, strained nostrils and flattening of the profile).”

This study was also very interesting: what are the characteristics of shut down, apathetic horses?

Everyone who has been watching horses knows what a calm and trustful horse looks like. A horse should stay calm and trustful even when working. It can also naturally be very active indeed and do a lot of very spectacular movements – calmness and activity are not mutually exclusive.

Then, some horses to look at:


These are two horses of the same age in the same situation. Which horse shows quite a few of the facial expressions associated with discomfort?


A horse can be tense, like the grey in the above picture, even though it doesn’t have a rider on its back nor even reins attached to the bit. Even a horse with no equipment at all can be tense in the presence of the trainer.

Naturally a horse looks different when it’s focused and working, if compared to a resting horse.


A focused horse may look just that: focused. The horse in the above picture is doing passage. But a horse at work should never look like the work is causing the horse discomfort nor that the horse is shut off. Look at the two above horses and especially their eyes: do you see the difference?


Even though a horse does a canter pirouette, like the horse in the above picture, it should be able to take in the surroundings – and take a look at the photographer who appears

The horse should look awake, normally interested in the environment and responding to it. Of course this doesn’t mean that the horse may react in the same way to the environment when working as he would when at liberty. He should go about his work when asked to. However, if the training system aims at creating an unresponsive horse – or if it does so by mistake – it is not a good system.


When, a few years ago, the so called Rollkur discussion flared up (put short: the way some Dutch dressage riders warmed up their horses caused widespread discussion and critique) some of the pro rollkur people defended themselves saying you couldn’t infer that the horses involved were uncomfortable just from looking at their expressions. This is one reason it’s interesting to hear scientists starting to define what a horse in discomfort or pain looks like.


The horse is made to move and even physically very strenous activities can be rewarding for the horse, if they’re trained and executed correctly. You should never cause the horse pain in the name of riding. The horse should have comfortably fitted equipment and that equipment should never be used so that it causes the horse pain. The training should be done so that the horse’s muscles and mind can keep up. The horse should be able to work without worrying about being punished. There is no reason to use training methods that inflict pain on horses when there are better ones available.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized


Pictures from Equitana in 2009

My second profession is photography, and sometimes I get the time to look through my files. I stumbled across the archive of pictures from Equitana in Germany in 2009 and thought I would share some of them with you.

Honza Blaha:





What do you think?

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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized


Toto commercial

This was done a couple of years ago: I was the head horse trainer. Shot in Finland in October, the first two days of shooting were the rainiest ever!

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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


Training Your Horse for the Vet 1

This video clip was made because of something our vet said after she came to vaccinate our horses. I didn’t see anything strange in what happened, but afterwards the vet said ”This was a refreshing change.” When she then described how many horses react to being vaccinated I agreed: it was indeed a bit different.

Firstly all our horses lined up at the gate when they saw the vet arrive. I let them into a small paddock one at a time, they were vaccinated and I only put a halter on them to lead them back in with the other horses. Catching, vaccinating and putting four horses back in the paddock took about six minutes altogether.

”Positive reinforcement: for people who want an easy life.”

A few weeks later it was time to get the youngest horse’s teeth done and we thought we’d tape the training and tranquilising procedure. The oldest horse then got to demonstrate what the horses turn into after more training (calmer than the young horse who has much less training experience).

How long has it taken to train this? I would estimate that the four-year-old has been trained to understand the concept of ”stand still even though the vet pricks you with a needle” for five or ten minutes as a foal and then reminded of it for less than a minute once or twice a year before being vaccinated of´or tranquilised.

Why use positive reinforcement to train this? Isn’t the horse supposed to just stand still while being vaccinated because you tell it to? Traditionally, this is how it’s done. By rewarding the right behaviour, though, you will get a more trustful horse. The horse continuously learns what it’s like to work with people and also what the vet approaching entails. The more experience the horse has with the vet being a nice, safe and profitable visitor, the safer the vet is. And if the horse gets an injury that has to be treated, it already has a lot of experience with the vet being someone good to be around.

Another reason to use positive reinforcement wherever you can is what this study showed: – it tested the stress responses of two groups of horses: those who stood still while being clipped and those who didn’t. Both groups were tense even though one group stood still. Why then not remove the stress and tension as far as possible?

Why does it move so fast? Many reasons: the first is that when teaching something new – and this is continuing to be a new thing because I’m lazy and don’t practise this in between the vet visits – it’s important to keep the rate of reinforcement high enough (the time between the food rewards short enough) so that the horse doesn’t become frustrated. It should be no more than five seconds.

The second reason is that someone sticking a needle into you is unpleasant: so to combat this I like to keep the scales weighed in favour of standing still. This way, I get many repetitions of lightly pinching the horse’s neck in a short time. The third reason is that vets are busy people, but even busy people can stand around for thirty seconds if it makes it likely they’ll have a safer moment because of it.

The video clip has no sound, but I click my tongue to mark the exact action the horse will get the food reward for i.e. the moment I let go after pinching the horse. When the vet is doing the pinching, it’s easier to time the food reward itself, but I still use the secondary reinforcer. My goal is to reward the horse for standing still. When the actual tranquilising procedure starts I then feed the horse continuously during the few moments it takes the vet to get it done.

If it comes to mind that tranquilising or vaccinating a horse without holding it by the halter would be somehow unsafe for the horse, a note: the horse is in a paddock the size of about four by four metres, so it isn’t able to go far. As you can see on the video, it doesn’t want to go anywhere at all. If the horse hasn’t been taught to stand still when it’s being vaccinated (as these horses have), the horse will likely move enough so that the needle feels uncomfortable, even if someone is holding the halter.

When you put a needle into a muscle it makes a great deal of difference if the muscle is relaxed or tense: you can try it yourself next time you get vaccinated. The same goes for the horse: it’s very probably the least uncomfortable if the horse stands as still and relaxed as possible while being vaccinated.

Being vaccinated or tranquilised is only slightly uncomfortable for the horse: the needle causes some pain but I think it can be compared to a horsefly bite or something like that. This is why horses are easy to train to stand still when being vaccinated if the timing of the reward is right. The part every horse naturally tries to avoid is the one where one person holds the halter tight and another grabs the horse by the throat (tranquilising). If untrained, the horse will probably at the very least get tense or even try to leave. This part is the one you should take some time to train.

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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


Trailer Kindergarten 1

This video clip has to do with training a foal to load into the trailer. The foal in the video goes into the trailer for the second time in the video: the first time was a minute earlier and was done the same way. Before this, the foal had never seen a trailer up close.

I first taught the foal to back up when touched lightly on the chest. This was done outside the trailer. At the same time the foal learned what the secondary reinforcer (a whistle) stands for (scratches) and the foal’s dam learned that it is safe to let a strange person work with her foal even though there is an open trailer nearby.

As you can see, the system is fairly simple. You drive the car and trailer into the field, fence off a suitable area and take one mare and foal at a time into the enclosure. This foal’s dam didn’t feel quite comfortable with the trailer so she fetched her foal away from it a few times, which prolonged the training duration a little. As often is the case, the dam didn’t like the trailer because she had been trailered to the vet clinic when seriously ill. It’s quite a common cause of horses learning to avoid the trailer and it’s nobody’s fault, just means you have some counter-conditioning to do later.

How long does it take to teach a foal to self load using a correctly timed scratch reward? Not long. That day, three foals were trained, and depending on the foal (but mostly on the dam and her experience of trailer loading) it took between one and thirty plus minutes.

I’d say that every foal goes through a phase where it loves scratches, and this period shouldn’t be lost. A horse trailer is inherently a difficult place for a horse: all horses naturally tend to avoid dark, enclosed spaces and odd surfaces. This is why it’s a good idea to teach a foal at a very young age that the trailer is a nice and profitable place to go into.

One of my Finnish readers pointed out that the foal gets rewarded when it’s standing still and was worried the foal would learn to stand still outside the trailer or on the ramp. Even though I use the secondary reinforcer (the whistle) to mark the step towards the trailer itself, yes, the behaviour the foal shows when it gets the primary reinforcer (the scratches) will become stronger too, but only slowly.

The reason this is not a problem is that the phase where the foal gets rewarded for every step towards the trailer will very soon be over and the foal will get the reward when he walks into the trailer and stands there. Another reason why teaching the foal how to load and travel using scratches is a good idea: the reward itself does influence the final “product” and your goal should be a horse that loads and calmly keeps standing inside the trailer. Hence the scratches works in your favour. Using food rewards you get a slightly different kind of loading. For many adult horses (I’d say of the horses I’ve trained, most) scratches are either indifferent or actually unpleasant, so you have to use food rewards instead if you want to train quickly, which I do.

Of course this isn’t enough: the foal should be trained to respond calmly to all the few dozen aspects of loading into the trailer and travelling, and it should be carefully generalised, but this initial training should be the first thing you do, before you go on to the more specialised trailer training.

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Yes, it did cross my mind I should have looked in the mirror before stepping in front of the camera. Afterwards.

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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


The Man Who Talks About Horses

I went to see the Monty Roberts show in Helsinki. It took three and a half hours in all, of which I suppose about half an hour was spent on a break, enabling the audience to buy Roberts’ books and Dually halters and have their picture taken with Roberts. In effect Roberts spent three hours with five different horses, of which the Finnhorse was brought there so that a complete layman could demonstrate the join-up with it. One horse was a youngster to be saddled and ridden for the first time, one horse was afraid of the clippers, one of plastic bags and odd surfaces and one of loading into the trailer.

Because I’ve had a recurrent feeling of having spent the show night in a parallel universe of some sort, I’m going to try to analyze why. As I said earlier on Facebook, I went to the show fully expecting to see good horse training. I’ve read Monty Roberts books, too. If it had been a radio show I would have left believing that the training had been good. As I’ve read in a couple of other blogs: Roberts speaks so nicely of horses.

I’ve never in my life heard anyone talk as beautifully and emotionally of both horses and the fact that violence is no solution when you work with horses. Roberts has a way with words and speaks with a gentle, even, almost hypnotic tone. The show has been carefully scripted from beginning to end and Roberts has his audience in his hand within minutes. He talks about how the most important thing is that the horse has fun and the second most important that you have fun. He talks about how his own father broke 72 bones in his son’s body before he was twelve. He speaks of how violence is never the solution and how no horse will be beaten with a whip tonight.

I find myself nodding. I agree with almost everything.

Violence free training?

But wait a minute. How much of the words are matched by what I see tonight? The introduction of saddle and rider to a young horse is done using a visibly well tried formula and as I don’t know how people in general do that (I only know how I and a couple of colleagues like to do it) it may be that everyone else in the audience thinks it great. My eyes tell me that the young horse looks more and more sour as the training goes on, but nothing radical happens. When Mr. Roberts shows the young horse the saddle he narrates an imaginary conversation between the horse and himself, something like this:

”Is that a saddle, Mr. Roberts? If you put that saddle on my back, I will buck it off. My uncle has told me about saddles, Mr. Roberts. He said they tickle.”

And so on. The audience laughs and enjoy themselves. The horse didn’t buck.

Then the young horse is done, having trotted a few laps with the rider on his back, and the next horse is brought in. This horse is afraid of the clippers. At this point the difference between what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing becomes so big that even a seasoned horse person might be forgiven for getting confused. (I think this has a scientific term, when what you hear and what you see are in conflict and what your brain does then. Edited to add: it’s called cognitive dissonance and Wikipedia has something to say about it.) Roberts talks about how he is going to train the horse to stand still first and then gradually habituate him to the the clippers using three different electric toothbrushes with similar noise to the clippers.

The way Roberts goes about teaching the horse how to stand still, however, looks anything but natural, gentle and nonviolent. It basically consists of punishing the horse every time it moves by yanking hard on the line connected to the Dually halter. The halter has two lengths of thinnish rope going over the nose, which tighten when the halter is tightened, so it’s not such a gentle piece of equipment.

This is using punishment as a training method: if the horse does the ”wrong” thing according to the human holding the rope, it gets yanked at. If you want to get an idea of how this may feel to the horse you can put two similar lengths of rope across your own wrist and after watching the video clip to see what kind of movement to make, ask a friend to give a yank. One time, or ten, or a hundred.

Because the huge arena is in itself a stressful environment for the horse, this horse too felt the need to move its feet. This is actually a good way for a trainer to diagnose when the horse is a bit tense: if the horse feels the need to walk when being habituated to something, it may be that the horse is tense. The more stressful the situation, the harder it gets for the horse to keep on standing still.

And yes, I too think that horses should learn to stand still. But this too is easiest learned at home, when the horse is calm, and doesn’t need great force. It is enough to just ask the horse repeatedly to stand still if it moves. You can ask as nicely as anything, and the horse will still learn. Generalising, so that the horse does the same thing reliably anywhere (starting in easier places and gradually moving on to the more difficult ones, perhaps one day ending up in this very arena) does take a bit more time.

In Roberts’ case what happened was that because the clipper shy horse was too stressed, it wasn’t able to keep from moving. Not until it had been punished dozens, or even a hundred times. In addition to the pictures I also took a minute-long video clip where you can see Monty Roberts yanking the Dually halter at least eleven times. This is at the end of the part where he was teaching the horse to stand, and he used the audience (a couple of thousand people present, he said) to provoke the horse to move. First he asked the audience to all clap their hands together once: the horse spooked and was punished. Mr. Roberts used the words ”scold” and ”school” to refer to the punishment, but seen from a purely training point of view they’re punishments. Look at the minute long video and ask yourself: is this really violence free training?

Before we go on (and yes, the video clip is coming) let me repeat that I agree with almost everything Mr. Roberts said. Violence is no solution and it is perfectly possible to train horses without violence. You need to train horses to know what they are to do and if they are afraid, they should be gradually habituated. Horses are still sometimes treated with appalling cruelty and everyone should learn how to treat them better. Horses use mainly body language and expressions to communicate between themselves and some of those can be used in training them.

I’d also shortly like to talk about what a reasonable amount of force is, because it depends on the situation. If the horse has a bad colic and needs to be treated at a veterinary clinic, I can completely understand if it is loaded any way that is successful. Then you fix the loading problem. Or if a horse has a gaping wound: even I absolutely agree with making the horse stand still for treatment.

But this horse was afraid of the clippers: a small machine that takes off the horse’s winter coat. Not a life or death kind of problem, just one that makes the horse dry a bit quicker after riding. Then using force instead of systematic desensitization is in my opinion at the very least unneccessary – and you would have a hard time arguing that there is no use of force in the video clip. I wait with great interest to see if anyone does argue that.

Yes, the video clip is only one minute and ten seconds long. I’m primarily an animal trainer and photographer and only at that point did I remember that my camera also has a video button. That same horse was trained for perhaps twenty-five minutes in all. First Mr. Roberts demonstrated that the horse really was afraid of the clippers, then there was the Join-up ritual, taking a few minutes, and then the horse was taught to stand still after which the toothbrushes were brought in. You may however believe me when I say that the horse didn’t stand still all the time for those, because the training was done far too fast for the horse to be able to.

I know that the organisers, Mr. Roberts or someone who was in the audience has the whole sequence of the ”clipper horse” on video. If you find it online, watch it carefully, without the sound turned on. Look at what happens, not at what someone tells you happens.

This video clip has no sound as I deliberately removed it. Mr. Roberts was talking in a very gentle voice about how ”it doesn’t matter that the horse moved, he is testing everything now.” He sounds infinitely understanding and calm. But because people have a tendency to believe what they’re told, I turned the sound off. Look at the horse and the man and at what happens.

I’d like to add that I too think that a horse should never be allowed to run into a person even if it spooks. If it does, you can ask it to move away using enough force to make sure it does. But the ”clipper horse” was never anywhere near doing that.

I can understand that if you were in the audience, you feel upset. It’s very difficult to admit to having been taken in by something. Having believed what you were told even if you saw something else. It’s always easier to shoot the messenger and say they are wrong. Even I think it’s damn embarrassing that I was caught up in the feeling during the show, even if only now and then. And of course it’s still possible that I am completely wrong and Mr. Roberts was completely right. (I don’t think so, but I’m keeping the possibility in mind.)

You’re allowed to comment: I’ve had just about 100% positive response on Facebook and in this blog but I have no illusions that everyone agrees with me. I promise to approve critical comments too, as long as they’re even a tiny bit on the polite side. I’m also interested in what people who have seen Roberts before and this time have to say: was this a different show? Or has he always been like this?

Because according to Facebook wisdom any criticism without a solution is only temper (or however that saying goes in English) I’ll try to write the next post about how you should go about systematically desensitizing a horse to whatever it fears.

And to add a note about the Helsinki arena and horses: a few days later I watched the international show jumping there and it was a really nice experience. The horses knew their jobs, they have been started at home, then taken next door to a small show, then a bigger show – they all looked okay. They weren’t taken straight from their home to the huge arena to learn new things or to see things they’re afraid of. The difference was huge.

Edited to add my original post about Roberts with link to the FB images:

I had feedback from a couple of people that my Monty Roberts status update was so diplomatically worded that it gave the impression I liked Roberts. This is a clarifying status update: I didn’t. Here are 180 pictures I took during the show:

Even though (having intermittently worked as an animal trainer and photographer in the movie and advertising industry) I can appreciate a well organised show and even though the horses in Tuesday’s show apparently learned the things they should in a very short time: no, I didn’t like the way Roberts trained horses. I haven’t seen that hard-handed horse handling in decades nor such ugly yanking on a harsh equipment, i.e. a halter that tightens around the nose. Nor have I seen so many horses forced into a state of frozen watchfulness nor have I ever in my life seen such a nasty case of flooding as was used on the horse that was afraid of the clippers.

Our Finnish animal protection law states that an animal should not be unneccessarily frightened. If it is possible to quickly and efficiently desensitize an animal to a frightening stimulus below the fear treshold, so the animal isn’t frightened, why wouldn’t you do it that way? Sure, it doesn’t look as dramatic. It doesn’t make for as good a show.

I can fully understand that people are carried along in a kind of group frenzy during the show. Even I thought at times, that ”this wasn’t so bad after all”. But when you strip away the pretty phrases about non-violence and the adage that both horse and human has fun when training this way, this is what happened:

A horse was brought to a frightening environment (a huge arena with thousands of people) and led around the round pen a little. Then the horse was let loose and a line thrown at it, until the horse ran around the round pen. Then the horse was taught that only when you walk behind the human, you get left alone.

Then the horse was caught and taught that no matter what you do, you get punished by the trainer yanking at the lead rope, the halter tightening around your nose, and only when you walk with your head behind the trainer – or when you stand still – you are left in peace. Anyone who has watched horses kept in adequate conditions know, that this has nothing at all to do with the natural behaviour of the horse.

A seasoned horse person who was present said, that it’s great that Mr. Roberts doesn’t hit the horses with a whip. But what is the yanking on the Dually halter about? As you know, training a young horse to accept equipment and a rider is a subject close to my heart. Done so that the horse associates a calm, relaxed and positive state of mind with it.

The pictures show the two first horses: the first was introduced to a saddle and rider, the second was afraid of the clippers.

As a final clarifying note: I also am of the opinion that a horse must do what it is told, once it has learned to do it. But the way something is taught to the horse matters.


Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Uncategorized