Author Archives: Minna Tallberg

About Minna Tallberg

Hevostenkouluttaja ja valokuvaaja. Horse trainer and photographer.

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