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By Melanie Watson


Emotions are behaviours and behaviours are emotion driven.

In order to get positive outcomes, we want to influence the emotional state of the horse. Associations are made by experiences so therefore trying to guild horses with good experiences will start to produce the behaviours we would like repeating.

In my capacity as a behaviour consultant, I speak to horses owners from all across the globe, who always have issues with horses because of bad experiences. These bad experiences work both ways. Both the horse as well as the owner suffer trauma, feel scared and worry about what happens next.

Can horses worry about situations repeating? Yes they can. That means that horses will worry in situations where bad things have happened in the past. The environment they find themselves in will trigger memories associated with likely unpleasant outcomes. If they find themselves with no means of control then their worry gets worse. Where they can find some control, they will likely try to escape, avoid or defend themselves. 


I have a 13 year old rescue pony in just now who fears being stabled up. He frets inside the stable and tries to escape over or through the door. As such we enrich the stable environment as much as possible and only stable up for short periods of time. We make sure the yard is peaceful when he is in and that there are other (calm) horses around he can see and gain confidence from being near. We will not challenge him by forcing him to stay inside while he watches other horses leave so we bring him out and tie him up with a hay net and then pop him back inside again once the horse has gone and he is showing relaxed interest.

By repeating this scenario, he will start to feel so much safer over time until he no longer feels trapped or feels the need to try to escape. Immediate outcomes are everything. As lead trainer, I can control my yard environment so all the movements on my yard at that time are controlled and are always with a view to his emotional state. Give me 2 weeks with this pony and he will be a totally different pony. He will be relaxed and calm all the time. He will be in a brilliant place for learning in his training programme for foot handling, leg and body touching/desensitisation/leg washing/leading out and about etc.

Not the pony in question but creating a positive experience surrounding various stimuli in the environment helps a horse to feel comfortable when they encounter them in future.  

We will never know why he feels the way he does. Being a rescue pony, his history will be dubious and mostly unknown. With certainty, it has never been good for this chap because his behaviours all tell a story of deep seated trauma. They are predictable in that environmental set up and can be seen and described. At 13 years old, I am dealing with a lifetime of reinforced experiences, reactions, protections, fears, escape behaviours etc. Not an easy job and certainly a challenge I am embracing. Out in the field he is calm and relaxed. He interacts with other horses in a normal way, showing relaxed, happy, playful, inquisitive and confident behaviours. His problems are with humans, not other horses. His owner is a lovely lady who has taken him on in ownership and just wants him to feel safe. She adores him and they have a wonderful bond. My job is to help him and her have a beautiful future together.

Worryingly, ponies like him are often labelled as rude, awkward, dangerous, a nutter, wild and more and always because these observable behaviours are inconvenient to humans. As such there is no basic understanding nor empathy shown towards their stress. All there is (sadly) are predictable, forceful behaviours from humans in order to force the horse to learn to conform. Putting bars up in the gap, closing the top door to trap them inside, nailing up planks of wood across the opening - 2 things will likely happen as a result of forcing traumatised horses to stay inside stables.

The horse/pony will have a complete mental breakdown. First, they will go berserk inside the stable but on finding that they cannot escape, they will fall into a terrible emotional place called learned helplessness. They will then accept their imprisonment because they have no choice and will shut down emotionally. This shut down state causes a supressed or depressed state. Shut down horses show no enthusiasm for life and will be very quiet to deal with in general. Unfortunately this reaction is what is wanted which is why this practice continues.


Interestingly, Natural horsemanship/cowboy training relies on this outcome. I know first-hand because I used to train using NH many years ago, before I studied science based animal behaviour, applied behavioural science and the modern, high welfare LIMA (least invasive, minimally aversive) protocols I use now. We are all only as good at what we do given where we are in learning. Surgeons used to perform open heart surgery, now it is mostly key hole surgery. Science moves on and techniques and understanding improves as such.

The other likely outcome is  that the horse/pony becomes completely unmanageable and extremely dangerous. Its escape and flight behaviours will increase and it will become a nightmare for humans to handle. If it gets the opportunity to escape it absolutely will and as such will then become an uncatchable horse/pony.

I have a pony called Toby. I’ve owned him for years and years now. Toby was abjectly terrified of everything (especially humans) when I took him on. It broke my heart seeing him in the situation I found him in and could never have left without him.


The journey I started with him changed me forever. Toby IS the reason I am where I am today.  To look at him now, you would never know. He is simply the sweetest, calmest and most adorable pony ever. He has adopted the role of nurturing the traumatised horses who come to me. He provides solid companionship and is a safe place for them to be. Everything is possible when you understand that emotions are behaviours and the way forward is to train horses on the emotional level instead of the physical. The physical behaviours change when you address the emotional side.


Having a game of basketball with Toby


Melanie runs her yard in Skidby, Yorkshire, UK, where she helps horses with an array of emotional difficulties which have led to behavioural 'problems'.  She works exclusively with positive reinforcement and all her work is completely horse-led.  Melanie is available to visit you for a behaviour or training consultation, and also offers web-based calls.

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