Friday, 18 January 2013

Do Horses Dream of Electric Sheep?

What horses dream about wasn’t, sadly, covered during the eighth conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), and we didn’t see any electric sheep, but it seemed that nearly every other aspect of horse behaviour was mentioned somewhere and there was plenty of interesting technology being demonstrated and discussed.  

Held in Edinburgh, July 2012, the conference was quite overwhelming – a vast amount of research being presented in a wide variety of formats; too much to take in in 3 days, and certainly far too much to do justice here. The proceedings are available online, at In this article I will simply try to give a small flavour of the conference, as I saw it.

For anyone not already familiar with ISES it is, to quote from their website ‘a not-for-profit organisation that chiefly aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.

So, rather than your favourite horse ‘guru’ essentially saying something like ‘trust me, I’m great with horses, this method is the best way to train your horse’, ISES might look at issues like:
  •      Does the method really work?
  •          What result does it achieve and is it even desirable?
  •          How does it work (how does the horse learn from what we are doing)?
  •          How mentally and physically stressful is it to the horse?
  •          Is there a way of achieving the same result that is better for the welfare of the horse?
  •          And so on…
I felt that the presentations at the conference lived up to the aims of the society. Whether the subject under discussion was coaching riding students or methods of horse training; arena surfacing or visits to the vet; how our emotions affect horses or the use of the whip in racing; the welfare of our horses was always at the forefront of the research presented, and there was a refreshing focus on our responsibility to train our horses as well as possible, rather than blaming the horse for his ‘problem’ behaviour.

‘Science shines light on the grey areas filled with opinions and beliefs’

I don’t think science will ever answer all the questions about how we train and care for our horses. However, there are many ‘grey areas’ in training and management where science can help to improve the lives of our horses, and our relationships with them.

Much of the research presented was still in its early stages, suggesting rather than proving results, but is still of interest. Some brief examples (to encourage you to go and dip into the proceedings!), in no particular order are:

What are we doing up there?
There were lots of presentations about all the inept things we riders do when we’re ridingJ. Legs, arms, heads – you name it, all body parts seem to be doing their own little thing without the rider being aware of it. A few of the results were:

  • An overwhelming majority of riders tested giving ‘forward’ leg aids showed very uneven leg pressures, and a lack of consistency in duration of the cue.
  • Right handed people ride with more tension in the left rein; typically tension on the right side is in the upper arm, on the left side it is in the forearm. In right handed people, the right hand is visually stimulated and ready to move. The left hand is stabilising, relying on proprioception
  • Timing of rein cues is more consistent than timing of leg cues
  • Surprise, surprise – elite riders have much better lower leg stability than non-elite riders when jumping!

Pilates for horses: Dynamic mobilisation exercises (Pilates for horses!) were shown to increase the size in one of the deep spinal stabiliser muscles (the multifidus), which may assist in preventing and/or reducing back pain in horses. Also, a couple of studies suggest that McTimoney Chiropractic treatment does positively influence the movement of horses. It would be very useful to have more objective data on what the bewildering array of back ‘treatments’ offered actually do.

Whip use in Racing: High speed cameras were used to evidence the unacceptable use of whips in Australian Thoroughbred Racing; it would seem that whip rules cannot be policed effectively without huge effort and the use of high quality video.

To bit or not to bit? One study showed that the bitless bridle may have a negative impact on the welfare of ridden horses, as compared to a bitted bridle. It should be noted, however, that the horses studied were all used to being ridded in a bitted bridle, and I am unsure if the riders were familiar with the bitless bridle, so more research needs to be done. But worth pausing for thought before assuming that a bitless bridle is definitely the kinder option.

Horses respect radio cars? A popular round pen training technique, thought by many to be effective through the use ‘natural’ communication with the horse, can, it seems, be done using a remotely controlled radio car in place of the human, so people may be misunderstanding how the training works. Research like this will help to clarify how commonly used techniques actually work, and by clarifying what is really motivating the horse and changing his behaviour, any welfare implications will be more obvious.

Hang out with your horse! Non-working time spent with your horse generally leads to fewer behaviour problems

Stereotypic horses are ‘special needs’ horses: several speakers highlighted differences between horses with stereotypies (usually crib biters) and non-stereotypic horses – for example differing sleep patterns, that they may be more persistent in their behaviour (harder to re-train) and that they learn differently as a result of altered neurophysiology

Who’s bothered? Spectators induce an acute stress response in experienced riders but not in experienced horses

Heads up on Hyperflexion: Early studies show that hyperflexion (LDR) may be more stressful for the horse – significantly higher salivary cortisol concentrations were recorded directly after hyperflexion, using horses that were used to being worked in this way.

9 out of 10 horses would really rather not be behind the vertical: One interesting study observed ridden horses during competition without the riders’ knowledge; 30 ridden in front of the vertical, 30 ridden behind the vertical. 27 of the latter group showed signs of discomfort, whilst only 3 of the former group did. The horses ridden behind the vertical showed discomfort 8 times more often than those who showed discomfort in the other group. Disturbingly, scans during warm up for competition showed 92.8% of horses being ridden with the nose behind the vertical, and these results were confirmed by a second independent study.

Bring on the Carrots J: several presentations discussed the benefits of positive reinforcement methods, such as clicker training. Not only will your horse enjoy it, it seems to be more effective and efficient too. Done correctly, its licence to give your horse treats without feeling guilty about it!

More than a bit disturbing… some peripheral comments made by several speakers were quite disturbing to me, for example:
·         Several researchers using rein tension meters (see below) reported difficulties, as the meters only measure up to 5KG of pressure, and riders exceeded this so often is skewed the results! These were experienced riders, typically riding horses trained to between medium and Grand Prix.
·         During one test, experienced riders were asked to ride dressage horses in Hyperflexion, ‘Competition Frame’ and ‘Long Frame’ to examine acute stress responses to the differing head and neck positions. Long frame was not, on the whole, achieved, and the riders reported loss of balance (in themselves not the horses) and loss of steering control.


 The technology presented was, I felt, interesting, if not ready for the mass market yet. Without it, much of the research mentioned above could not have been done.
A few examples are:

·         Rein tension meters: Does what it says on the tin! This technology will enable us to measure the tension applied to the horse by the rider. At present, the actual measurement devices are intrusive enough that I would be concerned that they would interfere significantly with the contact, but if these devices could be made small enough to integrate into the reins, they would be very useful. Even at this stage this was clearly useful technology – more on this below.
·         Remote Eye Tracking System: Basically this monitors where the rider is actually looking whilst riding, by tracking pupil movements. This could be very useful to help riders develop more awareness of where they are looking. I would certainly use a device that beeped at me, or flashed a red light, whenever I looked at the ground, or down the horse’s inside shoulder! Such a system could also clearly be useful as a research tool – monitoring, for example, where the successful riders are looking when they compete, or where people are looking just before they fall off!
·         Surface Electromyography Systems: Such systems can be used to assess muscle activity – this could be very interesting for the working horse in all sorts of ways – identifying asymmetries in muscle use, measuring fitness, maybe getting precise data on muscles used for differing outlines and ridden movements.
·         Pressure Sensors: Similar to looking at the tension in the reins, sensors to measure leg and seat pressures were also demonstrated. Again, this technology still looks rather intrusive, and it was interesting at the practical day that when Richard Davison was asked to demonstrate with his typical leg aid, it was too light to be picked up by the sensor; I am not sure if the sensitivity could have been adjusted, or if this is an area needing further refinement.

I can imagine a future where sensors are built into saddles, reins, maybe even riding boots and jodhpurs, giving instant feedback – not a substitute for a good riding instructor but useful when you are schooling alone, or to help instructors pin down those subtle little movements that can only be guessed at from the reactions of the horse.

It’d probably drive me mad, but I’m sure a little voice giving me advice like ‘sit back on your bum’, ‘why are you looking down the inside shoulder?’, ‘you’re tilting your head to the left again’, and ‘you’ve got an outside rein too you know’ and maybe ‘ouch!’ when too much pressure is applied would have helped me along the way, and in some cases still would J.

Some central themes of the conference (a subjective view!)

The presentations at the conference were grouped into 7 themes –

  1. The sustainable athlete
  2. Psychological aspects
  3. Rider aspects and inputs
  4. Rider coaching
  5. Science and measurement
  6. Objectivity/subjectivity
  7. The road ahead
I’m sure most delegates would have spotted other common themes running through the presentations. Here’s a couple that I noticed and felt summed up a good bit of what ISES is about.

‘Deconstruct a problem then reconstruct the horse’
I don’t remember which speaker said this but it stuck in my mind. With a little generalisation (as we often reconstruct the rider also) this concept was evident in many different forms throughout the conference. For example:
·         Using learning theory to train or retrain horses in small simple steps – for example, teaching very clear ‘stop’ and ‘go’ responses, starting with single steps of walk and building on this. This may sound very basic, but a great many horses out there have inconsistent responses to simple requests such as stop and go even in walk, and this weak foundation gives them little chance of responding as the rider would like when the rider’s requirements become more complex.
·         Similarly, many of us riders have rather shaky foundations that hold us back from progressing with our riding. The many presentations looking at details of the rider’s position, aids and so on are all deconstructing the problem then reconstructing the rider.  

This approach is, I feel, one of the most valuable things that ISES, and others like them who take an objective approach, have to offer.

If riders and horse owners understood the basics of how horses learn, how their aids actually influence the horse, and how to present ‘lessons’ to their horses that were small and simple enough for them to learn, always building more complex work on solid foundations, then a great many of the behaviour problems I see would not arise in the first place, or would be fixed before they became a serious issue.

‘Inside leg to outside rein is ‘codswallop’’:

I couldn’t resist this quote, and it illustrates my second ‘theme’ well. There are hundreds of phrases like this, used by riding instructors and in books all over the world, that do not reflect what the ‘elite’ riders actually do, only apply in certain situations, are too imprecise to really be of use to many riders, or are just plain wrong! It isn’t a great conspiracy to mislead and confuse riders, although many novice riders may come to feel that it is.

Several presenters including Mary Wanless and Wayne Channon talked about the gaps between:

  •  what the elite riders actually do 
  •  what they are aware of doing and how they explain it
  •  how the rest of us are commonly told to do it, and how we interpret what we are told
  •  how the rest of us actually do it!

There is clearly lots of scope for miscommunication and misunderstanding here, and a lot of it goes on.

So, as mentioned in the previous section, much research is being done to begin to uncover what the elite (or at least more experienced) riders really do, and how this can be taught effectively to others.

As an aside, bearing in mind the goal of ISES - to encourage riding and training techniques which ‘enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship’, I would hope there would not be an assumption that the ‘elite’ rider is the ideal model for this. The elite rider is, by definition, most competent at winning competitions, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that their style of riding is best for the horse’s welfare or makes for the best horse-rider relationship. In an ideal world, ISES would first be identifying those riders and trainers whose techniques are most compatible with ISES’s goals, and examine what they are doing.

And it is not just riding that is afflicted in this way. In all areas of the horsey world, from the most novice owner to the elite riders and trainers, received wisdom directs many management and training practices without any objective evaluation of these practices. Many of these practices may indeed by well founded, but others may compromise welfare or are simply not very effective.

‘Being right isn’t enough’

And now for the serious bit…

Members of ISES are clearly well aware of that being right isn’t enough – this quote came from one of the speakers, and similar sentiments were expressed several times. This, I think, could be the biggest challenge for ISES - they will have their work cut out to actually get their results out to the public in a format which is persuasive enough to get people to change.

A proposal that ISES recently put forward for monitoring the tightness of nosebands at competitions was, in my opinion, very well presented. It explained the issues and the proposed solution in a way that was clear and easy to understand, scientifically credible and non-confrontational.

But however well they present their findings and suggestions for change, in their pursuit of a happier, healthier life for our horses, ISES will inevitably step on quite a few toes. Looking back to the first section of this article, offended parties could include:
·         Proponents of a ‘popular round pen technique’
·         The racing industry and its fans
·         Many of those involved in the dressage world
·         Manufacturers and supporters of bitless bridles

That’s quite a large proportion of the equine world just for starters!

Whether it is for financial reasons, emotional attachment to certain ideas, embarrassment at having their methods put under the microscope, or any of the many other reasons that cause people to be resistant to change, there will be a lot of people who will be less than thrilled and will be looking hard for ways to discredit the research, and possibly ISES as a whole.

Playing devil’s advocate here, for ISES to maintain its credibility and therefore its potential to bring about positive change, they need to be careful that they are ‘right’! I don’t mean that all the research they publish must be 100% provable and solid, but that great care should be taken to state exactly what the research does show, with what level of certainty, what assumptions were made, and so on.  Overall I felt there wasn’t much at the conference that critics could credibly attack; however there were a few weak spots.

To take a few examples (with apologies to the presenters, but I think real examples are necessary to illustrate my point convincingly):

·         What does the research really show : The proceedings write-up of one presentation states that ‘the risk associated with horses appears to be increased with calm humans, thus horses interacting with nervous humans, particularly in equine-assisted therapies where participants may not be comfortable around horses, should not pose a risk provided normal safety precautions are employed’. However, in the experiment the people were passive, making no move to initiate interactions with the horses. I think that the conclusions of this research are overstated – it only provides evidence for the specific case tested, the non-interacting human, and extrapolations cannot be made – horses may well (and do, in my experience) react very differently when a nervous person actually starts trying to interact with them.

·         Just another training technique? On occasion techniques were discussed and recommended without, I felt, sufficient objective evidence as to the compatibility of the methods with the aims of ISES. For example, ‘approach conditioning’ was discussed as a way of dealing with fear issues. Video was shown of the technique being used, with some explanation of how it worked and reasons for its effectiveness put forwards, but I did not hear or see any reference to research into this technique – for example, examining its welfare implications. If ISES does appear to recommend any training methods in literature or presentations without clear reference to the research that verifies them as compatible with the society’s aims they will leave themselves open to criticism. The lay person may see little that distinguishes the presentation from that of any number of ‘horse guru’s’ putting forward their favoured methods. Those who support ISES and value its objective approach may become disenchanted.

·         Welfare first: At one stage, a presenter seemed to justify the use of flooding (fully exposing the subject - be it human, horse or any other animal - to the source of their fear, with no option to get away from it), backing this up with the assertion that clinical psychologists use this technique on people. Flooding can certainly be effective and fast, but there are serious welfare and safety concerns, subjecting the horse to unnecessary levels of stress, and risking extreme reactions which endanger horse and human.  I don’t know to what extent this technique is used on humans, but I would think if it was used, it would be accompanied with thorough explanation of what was going to happen, and careful assessment that the person was well enough prepared to deal with it. One psychologist I spoke to says she has offered flooding as an option to patients, as an alternative to the slower, gentler process of systematic desensitisation, and not one patient has ever chosen flooding.

I think there are cases where flooding must be used (e.g. a medical emergency, where the horse is scared of needles – you may have to force the injection for the sake of his physical wellbeing), but I would not support its use in non-urgent situations. To be fair, the same presenter has written work which warns against the use of flooding, so I may have somehow got the wrong impression but I feel there needs to be much more clarity about the use of such techniques, and ISES should err on the side of caution when considering the welfare implications.

 ‘If ants were to study the vision of humans, they would probably conclude that we are blind!’

A parting thought. This quote actually came from a member of the audience, not one of the speakers at the conference – she said that ants’ vision is so vastly different from ours that they wouldn’t even think to test the wavelength we pick up information from. I’ve no idea if this is true, but I like the point it makes!

In some ways we are so different from horses that we may not even begin to imagine some of the subtle sensations that influence their feelings and behaviour.

So those of you who are worrying that horse training will become some horrible mechanistic process this no art or emotion involved can probably relax, we may build our foundations from science, but there will be plenty of room for creativity and that utterly irrational love of horses most of us suffer from too!

Copyright ©2012 by Felicity George


  1. Super write up Felicity. I was sadly unable to attend the conference but have heard several people's thought on it. Excellent blog and very diplomatic!!

  2. A thorough, insightful and well-judged report Felicity. Very helpful and deserves to be shared widely. Re. the presenter who said flooding is used by clinical psychologists - not for about 30 years! As a recent Psychology graduate and British Psychological Society member, flooding would definitely not get past the ethics committee in any recommendations of good practice! I also thought that the point about the ants, whether accurate or not, really does make clear the point that even what we decide to examine in horses may only be the tip of their sensory iceberg! A very interesting, well written read.