The Smiling Horse, The Lazy Horse & The Misbehaving Horse

an·thro·po·mor·phism: the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to an animal or object.

It is important to distinguish between two types of anthropomorphism. One is fairly innocent and may merely be used as a way to relate to animals, that is, the projection of what may be perceived by some as being strictly human emotional states (or actions) onto an animal. While the other has the potential to be quite harmful and involves the projection of reasoned thought and intention to an animal.

Here are some examples.

Do Animals Experience Emotions?

The short answer is, yes. Most mammals share a similar basic brain structure, which implies they can fully experience emotion. However, non-human mammals lack the large frontal lobe that is unique to humans, the area of the brain responsible for critical and analytical thinking, i.e. animals are not capable of reasoned or intentional thought.

Emotional states of contentment, excitement, agitation, fear, anxiety, depression, et cetera, on the other hand, are clearly observable in animals. Where the line of anthropomorphism is crossed is perhaps when alternative language is used. When animals are described with words that may be perceived as being more human-centric, words like mad, happy/joyful, sad instead of agitated, content, depressed.

The Smiling Horse

A very common and harmless example of the projection of human behaviour onto horses is the misinterpretation of the flehmen response as a smile. No, when a horse curls its upper lip and shows its teeth it is not smiling or being silly! As much as we’d like to think that’s the case, what is actually happening is the horse is responding to pheromones produced by another horse or possibly a human, or a novel scent. The vomeronasal (olfactory) organ is located in the upper palate of all animals. When a horse curls its lip, it is taking in more air to direct to the vomeronasal organ to identify the scent.

The Lazy Horse

Examples of potentially dangerous or harmful instances of anthropomorphism abound! The human tendency to attribute horses with more advanced mental abilities than they possess is quite common and potentially dangerous. To illustrate, I’ll begin with an example that occurred with a horse I used to lease.

When I began the lease, the horse’s owner asked me to do some groundwork with him in the round-pen, warm-up exercises to make sure he was calm prior to riding. He wasn’t an overly energetic or excitable horse by any means, but he was kept in a stall that was much too small for him at the time and had limited turnout. As a result, he tended to have a bit of pent-up energy when taken out of the stall.

I was warned that he could be stubborn and lazy and sometimes didn’t want to do his warm-up. I was told to keep at himmake him listen and show him who’s boss. This carried over to riding as well. There were times when I could barely get the horse to walk, never mind trot or canter. At the time, it never occurred to me that the problem was my improper communication and cues, rather than the horse’s perceived stubbornness or laziness.

It wasn’t until I read the book Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean a couple of years ago that I began to properly understand what was actually going on. Both anthropomorphism and equitation science have also been prevalent topics in several of the courses I’ve taken in Equine Studies through the University of Guelph.

This human tendency to place blame on the horse and attribute it with a motivation or reluctance to work is, unfortunately, ingrained in the horse world.

Once I became aware of this, I asked more questions of the horse’s owner, about how she applied her cues, vocalizations, et cetera, and problem-solved with the horse. I also read a lot more about learning theory. It helped to a degree. Part of the issue with this particular horse was simply that he was too big for me. He was a 17h draught-cross and was quite broad across the back. I am far more comfortable on a more slender riding horse, preferably in the 14.5 to 15.5h range. Surely my comfort level also had a negative effect on my riding and ability to apply clear and consistent cues.

The Misbehaving Horse

A horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number of reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse was most likely startled by an unexpected sound or object or was reacting to another averse stimulus, such as conflicting stop and go cues from the rider.

Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with humans and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences.  Such beliefs imply that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way that is expected of them or required at a particular moment, and may be used as justification for punishment. However, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours, making a horse dangerous to handle or ride.

Take-home Message

A horse’s failure to perform is never intentional. More often than not it is the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider.


McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.



(R) Max Pixel



The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths 

The second part of The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship challenges some common beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.

The ‘alpha’ & the dangers of dominance

“Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). If a trainer/handler believes that they need to be in a place of dominance in the relationship that may, in the trainer’s mind, condone the use of force or punishment which inevitably has negative welfare implications (Diehl, 2015; Webster, 2005). With efforts to establish this dynamic at the beginning of the NH training process, horses often experience confusion and negativity as they are forced to adapt to this artificial hierarchy (Birke, 2008).

Believing that a human can attain an alpha position or establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy at all may have negative implications for training. For example, if a trainer or handler is behaving in a dominant manner, it may trigger a fear response in the horse and condition avoidance behaviours. Furthermore, even if horses do have a hierarchical society, there is considerable debate around whether that hierarchy would involve humans, and to think that it would is most likely a purely anthropomorphic view. Such simplistic notions deny the complexity of horse-horse interactions and the subtleties of equine body language. The latter of which will be discussed a bit further on (International Society for Equitation Science, undated; Hartman, Christensen & McGreevey, 2017). For now, let’s return briefly to the prevalence of anthropomorphism in NH training.

The problem with anthropomorphic language

Traditional horsemanship dictates that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way their owner expects or requires at a particular moment (McGreevy, 2012). This concept of the horse having malicious intent is a clear case of anthropomorphism. In reality, a horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse may have been startled by an unexpected sound or object or, more likely, was reacting to another aversive stimulus, such as an unbalanced rider or unclear signals from the rider.

As McGreevy & McLean (2010) indicate, applying anthropomorphic terms to horses ascribes them with a human thought process and overlooks their inherent cognitive process. Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with a human and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences. There is no evidence that horses aspire to please humans (or other horses) or work toward shared goals. When humans have an expectation or false belief that the horse ‘understands’ what it is ‘supposed’ to do, what is required of it, “they are likely to give inappropriate signals to the [horse], such as delayed, inconsistent or meaningless reinforcements, resulting in deleterious behavioural changes” (p.41).

The ‘honorary herd member’

Many NH trainers believe it is possible to be accepted as a member of the herd and establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy. However, there is no scientific evidence that horses accept humans as a herd member. Recent studies indicate that life in a herd is more complex than simply a hierarchy dominated by one single leader or alpha mare, as was previously believed. Herd dynamics are fluid, relationships tend to be affiliative rather than hierarchical, and movement is often resource motivated and can be initiated by any member in the herd, not only by a stallion or alpha mare (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; McLean, 2013).

In its Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training the International Society of Equitation Science (2017) explains that although older, more experienced horses will often exhibit leadership-type roles in herds of feral horses, and that agonistic interactions i.e. aggressive/submissive interactions between two or more group members may be common, particularly in domestic situations where management styles may result in more competition over food and shelter, this does not indicate that one horse is trying to dominate another.

Amongst humans, leadership is a reflection of shared expectations, with the leader acting intentionally. Do horses have the cognitive ability to understand human intentions and therefore share expectations during a given task? There is insufficient evidence that this is the case. It is more likely that horses approach humans out of curiosity or “because they have been trained to do so”, not because they accept humans as leaders (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017, p.7).

Learning to ‘speak horse’

While horses are capable of complex inter-species interactions, interactions within the equine-equine ethogram are far too complex and subtle for a human to mimic. Tail and ear movements are a prime example of equine communication that can never be replicated by any handler or trainer, no matter how skilled. Nor are the morphological differences between the two species lost on the horse (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017).

While one can reasonably commit to being a keen observer of equine behaviour and develop an understanding of the subtleties of their body language and facial expressions, it is perhaps naive to believe that horses reaction to humans are based on anything other than a combination of instinct, learned, and conditioned responses. “It is beguiling to think that we can learn to ‘speak horse’ and enter their social hierarchy by mimicking their signals and behaviour. However, we are unable to mimic their signals with any subtlety as we do not have the same visual signalling structures” such as tails and ears that move (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7).  

Liberty vs. control

There is an inherent conflict between the aspiration of liberty and the exhibition of control. Even at liberty, the horse is not actually free to behave in a manner of its own accord. Rather, it is exhibiting learned and conditioned actions in response to subtle cues by a human. Thus, it could be argued that even at liberty, a great deal of control is still in play, possibly more so than at other times. “Indeed, for all that owners eulogize liberty, horsemanship of any sort is about control…. While horse owners [strive to ensure] that horses … go softly and without constraint, they [are] also asking horses to do specific tasks required by riding or NH groundwork. Asking horses to go sideways or backward is still asking them to do something on human terms” (Birke, 2008, p.119).

Conclusion: Natural for whom?

The intention of this review is not to discredit NH training entirely. Rather, the intention is to encourage horse owners and trainers to engage in a critical examination of NH, and any other training techniques, prior to adopting them. There are likely as many or more positive aspects of NH than there are negative and results can vary drastically. Much like many other things in our lives and in relation to horses, the outcome will depend on interpretation, implementation, and the specific nature and needs of the individual horse. The methods can be applied with care or in a manner that causes harm.

While NH strives to approach horsemanship and training with a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, there are inherent conflicts in a number of the practices employed. Such as the use of fear and dominance in training, and the tendency to ascribe higher cognitive abilities to the horse.

More research is needed to separate the species-appropriate concepts and techniques from the strictly human-serving and potentially damaging ones. One suggestion is to replace the word ‘natural’ in natural horsemanship with ‘distress-free’. In doing so, would a filter or bias be removed, enabling practitioners to properly assess the impact of their training methods on horses? When viewed through a lens of ‘distress-free’ training, how would NH practices rank in terms of welfare?


Birke, L. (2008). “Talking about Horses: Control and Freedom in the World of ‘Natural Horsemanship’.” Society and Animals 16 (2008) 107-126.

Diehl, N. (2015). “Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions.” The Horse. Retrieved from

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hartman, E., J.W. Christensen & P.D. McGreevy. (2017). “Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human-Horse Interactions?” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9.

International Society of Equitation Science. (undated). “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” Retrieved from

McLean, A.N. (2013). “Training the ridden animal: An ancient hall of mirrors.” The Veterinary Journal 196 (2013) 133-136.

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

Webster, J. (2005). “The assessment and implementation of animal welfare: theory into practice.” Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 24 (2), p. 723-734

The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 1: Round-pen training


With advances in welfare science and equitation science, great strides have been made in horsemanship, training, and veterinary practices. We now have a much richer understanding of equine cognition, learning abilities, social needs and behaviour, which all play an important role in the evolution of species appropriate training and handling techniques.

Natural horsemanship (NH) is an approach to training that has evolved in recent decades. NH trainers are adept interpreters of equine behaviour. They develop keen observation skills that enable them to respond quickly and appropriately to subtle cues demonstrated by the horse during training. They strive to establish a higher level of communication between human and horse, with a focus on respect, liberty, and learning to ‘speak horse’.  Touted by many as a kinder, gentler, more appropriate way of training horses informed by observations of their innate behaviours and intraspecies social interactions, contrary to what the name implies, it isn’t without controversy. While on the surface it appears to be a very intuitive practice, there are some welfare concerns inherent in the methodologies employed.

While more ethologically appropriate techniques and a shifting culture around horse training is largely beneficial, not all is right in the world of NH. “The premise is that NH works with the basic nature of horses. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a horse’s basic nature is, much of it based on outdated perceptions” (Merkies, 2017). As McGreevy & McLean write, NH is “a relatively modern system of horse-training that originated in Western training. It is based on an interpretation of the natural ethogram of the horse. NH focuses on concepts of dominance/submission, respect and leadership, which are currently controversial and may be at odds with learning theory” (2010, p.282).

This is not to discount NH as a whole, rather, the intention is to take a closer look at some of the training techniques and beliefs inherent in NH, and to challenge some of the more controversial aspects of the practice, with a primary focus on round-pen training. A secondary focus will be on some of the common ‘myths’ such as the concept of establishing oneself as an ‘alpha’ or ‘honorary herd member’, and learning to ‘speak horse’. The potentially negative welfare implications of anthropomorphic language and views, along with the conflict between concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘control’ will also be presented.  

Of course ‘natural’ is better! Isn’t it?

Oxford dictionary defines ‘natural’ as being “of or in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something”. In this case, ‘natural’ is synonymous with characteristics that are innate, instinctive, natural-born, ingrained, inherited, or inbred in the horse. However, it can be argued that the lives of domestic horses are not natural, therefore, nor are the ways in which humans interact with them. So is this really natural for the horse? This question will be revisited after taking a closer look at some of the controversial aspects of NH, beginning with round-pen training.

The round-pen experience

Round-pen training is a prime example of where things can go wrong with NH. When examined more closely, it becomes apparent that what is perceived as a higher degree of communication is actually a series of “adaptive flight responses and learned responses to stimuli” (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7). An integral part of NH training, the round-pen is often where the journey to establish the human-horse ‘partnership’ begins. It sounds idyllic! The horse is often at liberty, free from the constraints of a harness or lead rope. Although there are varying approaches and whips may be used by the handler,  it is common to use only postural and vocal cues that ‘mimic’ natural horse behaviours (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014).

If the trainer is successful in their imitation of the behaviours characteristically exhibited by a dominant horse, then the horse will respond appropriately and assume a lower ranking social position in the human-horse dyad, accepting the leadership of the human (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012). Or so the story goes. In other words, the round-pen is where the handler gains control of the horse, asserting dominance and establishing the position of herd leader/alpha, allegedly based on observations of feral and domestic horses (McLean, 2013).

It begins with a trainer initiating a flight response by using aggressive postural and vocal cues to frighten the horse. The aversive cues are then removed, as an invitation for the horse to approach. Sometimes, before the cessation of the aversive cues, the trainer will step into the path of the horse to force it to change direction and continue to flee, to reinforce a position of control or dominance. Alternatively, the chasing may continue until the horse demonstrates what is perceived as submissive body language, as a plea to ‘join-up’ with the trainer, which is supposed to be representative of returning to the safety of the herd. This entire process may be repeated to test whether the horse does in fact accept the trainer as a leader and satisfactorily performs a following response. If not, the horse may be deemed to be disrespectful or challenging the dominance of the trainer (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012; Merkies, 2017).

Misinterpretations of horse behaviours/responses can result in conflict and reduced welfare, for horse and human alike. For example, the notion that the horse is signalling to the trainer as it would to a higher-ranking horse, or that it ‘wants to be with’ the human because of a feeling of ‘respect’ is more likely a behaviour shaped through negative reinforcement or, possibly, an affiliative signal, though it is believed unlikely that the horse is exhibiting innate social strategies toward the human (McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. 2009). The emotional tactics involved to gain control of the horse result in the animal being pressured to choose between a state of fear (being chased) or safety (remaining with the trainer/not being chased) and represents a significant welfare concern (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012; McGreevy & McLean, 2010; McGreevy, Oddie, Burton & McLean, 2009).

It should also be noted that round-pen training does not always produce transferable results. In other words, even though a horse displays following behaviour in the round-pen, there is no guarantee that it will display this behaviour in the pasture or other settings (Fureix et al., 2009).

How does round-pen training align with learning theory?

Round-pen training works in opposition to two of the Principles of Learning Theory set forth by the International Society of Equitation Science (McLean, McGreevy & Christensen, undated).

Principle 9: Avoid and dissociate flight responses

Training processes that involve systematic/deliberate triggering of fear responses should be avoided because fear inhibits learning and reduces equine welfare.

Horse training should not result in flight responses. Stress results in problem behaviours (including escape and aggression). Both acute and chronic stress have a negative impact on horse welfare.

Principle 10: Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training  

Trainers should be able to show that the horse is as relaxed as possible during training. Whilst it is widely agreed that certain levels of physical and mental arousal (e.g. muscle tone and attentiveness) are necessary for learning to take place, it is important these levels are not exceeded resulting in a negative impact on learning, training and horse welfare.

Whilst insufficient arousal may lead to lack of motivation for learning, excessive arousal may compromise welfare and be related to stress (acute and/or chronic) with associated behaviours such as aggression, flight or learned helplessness).

Fear responses (flight, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying) in horses are difficult to erase and should not be intentionally provoked as they can represent a significant welfare issue leading to learned helplessness and chronic stress. Any fear responses should be addressed immediately when they arise through calm, consistent training that reinforces a desired behaviour without allowing the horse to demonstrate the unwanted behaviour. Unless it can be proven that the potential benefits outweigh the negative behavioural and welfare implications, in instances of round-pen training where fear is induced to elicit a flight response, it should be altogether eliminated (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).


The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths takes a look at some of the common, and sometimes problematic, beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.



Fureix, C., Pagès, M., Bon, R., Lassalle, J.M., Kuntz, P. & Gonzalez, G. (2009). “A preliminary study of the effects of handling type on horses’ emotional reactivity and the human-horse relationship.” Behavioural Processes 82 (2009) 202-210.

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hartman, E., J.W. Christensen & P.D. McGreevy. (2017). “Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human-Horse Interactions?” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9.

Henshall, C. & P. McGreevy. (2014). “The role of ethology in round pen horse training – A review.” Appl. Animn. Behav. Sci. (2014), (2012). “Rethink urged of Monty Roberts’ training methods.” Retrieved from

McLean, A.N. (2013). “Training the ridden animal: An ancient hall of mirrors.” The Veterinary Journal 196 (2013) 133-136.

McLean, A.N., McGreevy, P.D. & J.W. Christensen. “Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation.” Retrieved from

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. (2009). “The horse-human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram?” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 12-18.

Merkies, K. (2017, February). Group 3, Question 2: Equitation Science vs. Natural Horsemanship. [Online discussion]. Message posted to

Examining Xenophon’s ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ through the Lens of Modern Equine Welfare

A Greek philosopher and cavalry officer in the 4th century BC, Xenophon is highly regarded for his writings on horsemanship, which advocate for the humane handling of horses. He produced one of the earliest written accounts on horse conformation, care, riding, and training. In examining Xenophon’s teachings in The Art of Horsemanship (1893 translation), a number of shortcomings have become evident. Although much of what he writes is reasonable from an equine welfare perspective, his philosophy lacks the scientific knowledge and learning theory that has markedly improved modern equine welfare and exhibits a tendency to anthropomorphize the horse, which can be problematic. Regardless of the contradictions and anthropomorphization, however, Xenophon does place a great deal of emphasis on a positive horse-human relationship.

Caring for & handling the horse

Sandra Olsen (1996) writes, the “most important aspect of Xenophon’s writings was his emphasis on humane treatment” ( p.107), which is a fair interpretation, for Xenophon states many times and in many ways that the horse should be treated with kindness. He advocates for a watchful eye from the master to monitor for changes in behaviour and symptoms of ill health, exhibiting a high level of regard for the welfare and comfort of the horse, and recognizes the importance of a clean, dry stable and regular turnout (Xenophon, 1893).

In terms of meeting the social needs of the horse, Xenophon (1893) writes “the horse should be stroked in the places which he most likes to have handled; that is, where the hair is thickest and where he is least able to help himself if anything hurts him” (p.21). Although, there is no specific mention of the physiological benefits of mutual grooming and how “anatomically and ethologically appropriate” grooming by a human may partially fulfill this social need, it is fair to say that Xenophon was aware of how such actions may strengthen the horse-human bond (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).

However, as indicated by Boot & McGreevy (2013), there are clear contradictions in some of the practices put forth by Xenophon, such as his view that if managed properly during its breaking period, the colt will learn to associate hunger, thirst, and horse flies with solitude, and relief from hunger, thirst, and pests with humans. Xenophon goes on to say that such conditioning will result in the colt loving and longing for humans.

While this indicates an appreciation for the benefits to be gained from conditioning the horse to associate food and physical comfort with humans, it does not appear as though Xenophon had an appropriate understanding of the health implications that could arise from the restriction of food and water, and how such practices could compromise the health and welfare of the horse. He also falsely attributes horses with the ability to feel the emotions of love and longing for humans.

Training & riding

Further illustrating how Xenophon’s approach to horse training appears to be well aligned with modern methods, Olsen (1996) writes, Xenophon believed “that a rider could achieve far more from a horse by rewarding it periodically and by encouraging it to do what it naturally wanted it to do”( p.107). That is, one should work within the horse’s natural physical capacity of self-carriage because forcing the horse to do something, or inflicting pain upon it would not achieve the desired results in a graceful manner. Upon first reading the text, one may understandably view Xenophon’s methods as being ideal and summarize them as follows. “The horse should be broken gently, and accustomed to noise and to crowds. Food and exercise are not a matter of rigid formula, but must be adjusted to the needs of the individual. Look after your horse’s feet, and make the stable floor of well drained cobblestones. Train your staff to groom, bridle and lead. School your horse to turn fluently both ways, and in all training use patience and kindness” (J.K. Anderson in D.F. McMiken, 1990, p.77).

But when one looks closer and examines a couple of specific examples of Xenophon’s training methods through the lenses of equine welfare and learning theory, it is evident that there are some contradictions and errors in his ways, such as his aforementioned tendency toward anthropomorphization, the use of conflicting signals, and in some cases, forcefully hitting the horse.

The dangers of anthropomorphization & improper cues

Xenophon’s anthropomorphization of the actions and reactions of horses attributes them with more advanced mental abilities than they possess (Boot & McGreevy, 2013) like the ability to reason, the desire to please or to act in a mischievous or malevolent way. Such an approach to training is fraught with potentially negative implications, not only for the welfare of the horse but also for the safety of riders and handlers. As McGreevy writes “[i]f you believe that a horse complying with your commands is showing a willingness to please you, then you may also believe that when the same horse fails to comply he is actively seeking to displease, defy, undermine and even embarrass you. This belief system explains why so many riders feel justified in physically punishing a horse for failure to perform” (2012, p.286). When in reality, the horse’s failure to perform is more often than not the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider. Furthermore, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours (McGreevy, 2012).

Throughout most of his text, Xenophon (1893) advocates for gentle handling of the horse and cautions against punishment, “for when horses are at all hurt … they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt” (p.38). He also advises against the use of whips and spurs, which will scare the horse into a dangerous, disorderly, ungraceful state. “What the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign” (p.62).

For a man who advocates for kindness, gentleness, and a great deal of caution with the use of a  bit, there is a glaring contradiction to his philosophies on punishment in his method for training a horse to leap over a ditch. In the case of a horse that has no experience with leaping, Xenophon’s advice is to “take him with the leading rein loose and leap across the ditch before him; then draw the rein tight to make him jump over. If he refuses, let somebody with a whip or stick lay it on pretty hard; he will then jump over not merely the proper distance but a great deal more than is required. He will never need a blow after that, but will jump the minute he sees anybody coming up behind him” (Xenophon, 1893, p.46).

While leading the horse with pressure from the reins is an acceptable use of negative reinforcement to condition a “go” response, punishing it with a whip or stick to achieve the desired leap is not appropriate. Not only will it condition a fear response to the whip and possibly to the mere approach of a person from behind because of the association with pain, but it may also “make the desired response dependent on a human approaching from behind as the discriminative stimulus” (Boot & McGreevy, 2013, p.368). Any person approaching a horse from behind is already putting themself in harm’s way and within striking distance of a well-aimed kick or buck should the horse be fearful or startled. Hitting the horse while back there is making the risk of injury all the more likely.

Another clear contradiction in Xenophon’s training arises when he instructs the rider who wants the horse to carry himself in a “proud and stately style” to “rouse him up” by simultaneously applying pressure to the reins and with the legs. The horse “will then throw out his chest and raise his legs rather high, and furiously though not flexibly; for horses do not use their legs very flexibly when they are being hurt”. Once this posture is achieved, Xenophon (1893) instructs the rider to slacken the reins and let the horse have the bit, which “makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with proud gait and prancing legs” appearing to onlookers to be a “free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant [horse] at once beautiful and fiery in appearance” (p.59-60).

As Goodwin et al. (2009) write, this hyper-reactive state is frequently induced in modern dressage and show horses to make them appear proud and fiery, yet what is actually achieved through the practice of applying conflicting signals through simultaneous rein pressure (stop) and leg pressure (go) is a state of confusion which can lead to dulled responses from the horse. Conflict behaviours and learned helplessness may also result from the improper release of pressure, the timing of which is critical in preventing problem behaviours in the ridden and led horse (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).

Avoiding & dissociating flight responses

Although he lacked knowledge of learning theory, Xenophon did exhibit some training that aligned with modern equitation science, even if still somewhat flawed. He advised that the horse should be habituated to crowds and desensitized to an array of sights and sounds through a gentle handling process that demonstrates there is nothing to be afraid of. Likewise, if the horse shies at an object, Xenophon suggests that touching the object oneself and gently leading the horse to it will teach the horse that, again, there is nothing to fear.  While he is correct in understanding that a fear of crowds and initially fearful objects can be overcome through familiarization (habituation), Xenophon is incorrect in believing that the act of the human touching the object reassures the horse. Rather, the horse habituates to the object through exposure (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).


While some may place Xenophon on a pedestal and believe the The Art of Horsemanship to be akin to a bible on managing and training horses, it should be interpreted and followed with a critical eye. While it serves as a fascinating historical document and undoubtedly offers some sound advice, it lacks the breadth of knowledge and understanding of horse behaviour, intelligence, learning theory, biomechanics, welfare, et cetera  that have been gained over the past decades, and Xenophon’s sometimes cruel training methods have no place in modern horse training.


One sound bit of wisdom that stood out to me is this:

“The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this, – never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion. A fit of passion is a thing that has no foresight in it, and we so often have to rue the day when we gave way to it” (Xenophon, 1893, p.37).

Wise words, for horses can detect and will respond to subtle behaviour changes in each other (McGreevy, 2012) and, it is believed, humans. Recent research from the University of Sussex (2016) indicates that horses are able to perceive the difference between angry and happy facial expressions in humans. When presented with photographs of “angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli.” The horses also demonstrated increased heart rates and stress-related behaviours. The horse’s ability to recognize an angry face or perceive a subtle change in behaviour aside, for the safety of all involved, a calm, clear, fully-present state of mind is best for all involved when handling a 1,000+ pound animal that may startle at a bird flitting in a tree.

See “Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation” for a comparison of Xenophon’s guidelines to those set out in Equine Research’s 2004 publication Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance.


Boot, M. & McGreevy, P.D. (2013). “The X files: Xenophon re-examined through the lens of equitation science.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 8, p.367-375.

Equine Research. (2004). Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance. Guilford CT: The Lyons Press.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & McLean, A. (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal, 181, p.5-11.

Hood, D.M. and C.K. Larson. 2013. Building the Equine Hoof. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Zinpro Corporation.

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P. & McLean, A. (2010). Equitation Science. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. (chapter 8: Training & 14: Ethical Equitation)

McMiken, D.F. (1990). “Ancient origins of horsemanship.” Equine Veterinary Journal, 22(2), p.73-79.

Olsen, S.L. (1996). “In the Winner’s Circle: The History of Equestrian Sports.” In Olsen, S.L., Horses through Time. p.103 – 128. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart.

University of Sussex. (2016). “Horses can read human emotions, Sussex research shows.” Retrieved from:

Xenophon. (1893). The Art of Horsemanship. Translated by M.H. Morgan. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company.

On Blanketing Horses

Blanketing horses has become a fairly common practice, no matter what the season. Sheets in the summer sun, sheets in the rain, heavier blankets fall through till early spring. One can’t help but wonder, is this based on a real or perceived need for the horse’s well-being or is it a manifestation of the human tendency to anthropomorphize animals? Horses evolved and thrived in a range of climates over hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of years without well-intentioned humans covering them with blankets to protect them from the elements.

Natural adaptations to the cold

This isn’t to say that all horses should immediately have the rugs pulled out from under… er off of them. Blankets can serve a practical purpose, however, they can also have negative welfare implications, interfering with natural behaviours and thermoregulation. Horses have an excellent capacity to tolerate cold temperatures and acclimatize to seasonal conditions (Autio et al., 2006; Cymbaluk, 1994). For example, feral horses can comfortably withstand temperatures as low as -30 to -40°C without experiencing a drop in core body temperature (Ladewidg, 2016; Mejdell & Bøe, 2005). While the ability to withstand sub-zero temperatures will vary amongst breeds and individual animals, most domestic horses are well-equipped for winter.

The most obvious adaptation is the thick winter coat that begins growing in the summer. This is an innate response that correlates to changes in the photoperiod, i.e. the decrease in daylight hours following the summer solstice. The coat keeps the horse warm and dry in wind, sleet, and snow. Additional thermal insulation properties are found in the skin and the highly insulative subcutaneous fat layer. Under normal conditions, horses will gain weight and develop a substantially thicker layer of subcutaneous fat for the winter. Vasoconstriction of superficial blood vessels further reduces heat loss in cold temperatures by redirecting blood flow away from the extremities to the organs (Autio et al., 2006).

Other strategies used by horses to maintain their core body temperature throughout the winter include orienting their bodies to maximize the surface area exposed to the sun to absorb solar radiation, and huddling together to shield themselves from cold wind, with heads facing away from the wind and tails held low and close to the body. Given regular access to food, water, and shelter during winter months, domestic horses generally have no trouble maintaining healthy body conditions and keeping warm, even when temperatures drop well below 0°C (Cymbaluk, 1994; Mejdell & Bøe, 2005; Foster, 2017).

Pros & cons of blankets

The regular use of blankets inhibits hair growth, interferes with the natural insulating properties of the coat (Foster, 2017) and other functions of the thermoregulatory system, and may cause the horse to overheat (Briggs, 2009), so you may actually be doing a disservice to your horse with your well-intentioned actions. When uninhibited by a blanket, the haircoat has increased insulative properties due to the effects of piloerection (bristling of hairs in response to cold), which increases the amount of insulative air in the coat. Piloerection can increase the depth of the haircoat by 16 to 32% (Autio et al., 2006; Cymbaluk, 1994).  Horse hair is also naturally greasy and repels snow, ice, and sleet, providing “a weather shield so complete that horses can stand in a storm until ice forms on their backs without the skin becoming chilled” (Briggs, 2009).

That’s not to say that all horses are better off without blankets. They do serve a purpose and your decision to blanket should take into account a number of factors. Do you live in a wet or dry climate and how cold are your winters? Is your horse at a healthy weight with a good body condition and a healthy haircoat? Is shelter available in the field or paddock? Is your equine pal clipped?

If your horse is clipped, a sheet or lightweight blanket should be used when the temperature falls below 10°C because the natural thermoregulation properties of the coat will be ineffective (Vanden Elzen, 2017a; Becksett, 2016). In exceptionally rainy climates, the use of a waterproof sheet on both clipped and unclipped horses may be advisable if your horse can’t readily access shelter in the rain because rain has more of a chilling effect than does snow. When the coat gets wet, its insulating capacity is greatly reduced, which can be exacerbated by wind and cold temperatures, whereas snow does not tend to penetrate a dense winter haircoat due to its drier, granular properties (Autio et al., 2006; Cymbaluk, 1994).

For example, a study of Icelandic horses in Norway found that even with shelter available, the horses spent the majority of their time outdoors in all types of weather. Within the herd of 40 horses studied over the winter period with temperatures reaching a low of -31°C, shivering was only observed on one occasion by a single horse. This was on a rainy day in late autumn when the temperature was +5°C (Mejdell & Bøe, 2005).

Assess your individual horse’s needs

Between now and next fall I encourage you, dear reader, to do some research of your own and re-evaluate what is best for your horse and maybe refrain from dusting off the blankets. Instead, carefully assess your horse’s nutritional requirements and increase access to high quality forage to fulfill its needs for increased caloric intake throughout the winter, along with a steady supply of salt and fresh water. It is also advisable to learn what the lower critical temperature is for the region you live in. Below this temperature, a horse will require an extra two percent of feed for every additional degree the temperature decreases (Cybaluk, 1994; Vanden Elzen, 2017a).

For example, in Ontario, the lower critical temperature is -15°C. A 1,000 lb horse requires approximately 20 lbs of forage a day throughout the winter when temperatures are -15°C and above. If the temperature falls to -20°C, the horse must receive an additional 2 lbs of forage. This would be calculated as follows: (2% increase x 5 degrees = 10% increase on 20 lbs, or 2 additional lbs) (Vanden Elzen, 2017a).

Rest assured, if your horse is healthy and well-fed, the combined insulative properties of the skin, the subcutaneous fat layer, and the haircoat will keep him adequately warm when the mercury drops.

If you do decide to use a blanket, ensuring a proper fit is important to maximize comfort for your equine friend. The blanket should be removed daily to check for any signs of rubbing which could result in painful lesions from ill-fitting or shifting blankets (Ladewig, 2016). Also, keep in mind that being covered is not a natural state for horses. So your horse may appreciate some blanket-free time every day and the freedom to roll and engage in mutual grooming with a friend. These are natural behaviours that are inhibited when a blanket is worn. But that’s a topic for another day.

If you do decide to use a blanket…

I’ll leave you with this blanketing cheat sheet (Beckstett, 2016) as a general guideline of when and how to blanket your horse. Of note, for an unclipped horse, avoid using a blanket if the temperature is above -6.5°C, otherwise, the horse may overheat and could suffer from heat exhaustion (Vanden Elzen, 2017b).




Above 50°F (10°C)

No blanket

No blanket or just a light sheet

40 to 50°F (4.5 to 10°C)

No blanket

Sheet or lightweight

30 to 40°F (-1 to 4.5°C)

No blanket, or only a lightweight

Mid to heavyweight

20 to 30°F (-6.5 to -1°C)

No blanket or a light to mid-weight


10 to 20°F (-12 to -6.5°C)

Mid to heavyweight

Heavyweight plus a sheet or liner

Below 10°F (-12°C)


Heavyweight plus a sheet or liner or neck cover


Autio, E., Neste, R., Airaksinen, S., & Heiskanen, M.L. (2006). “Measuring the Heat Loss in Horses in Different Seasons by Infrared Thermography.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 9(3), 211-221.

Beckstett, A. (2016, October 18). “Horse Blanketing FAQs.” The Horse. Retrieved from

Briggs, K. (2009). “SKIN Deep Your horse’s skin is a huge and complex organ that serves as a barometer for his inner health.” Retrieved from

Cymbaluk, N.F. (1994). “Thermoregulation of horses in cold, winter weather: a review.” Livestock Production Science. 40, 65-71.

Foster, R. (2017, January 26). “Cold Weather and Fresh Horses.” The Horse. Retrieved from

Ladewig, J. (2016, April 7). “Vancouver 2016 The other 23 hours of the day” [Video file]. Retrieved from

Mejdell, C.M. & Bøe, K.E. (2005). “Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions.” Canadian Journal of Animal Science. 85, 301-308.

Vanden Elzen, L.M. (2017a). “Cold Comfort: Domestic Horses and the Long, Cold, Canadian Winter.” Canada’s Equine Guide 2017. p.28-34.

Vanden Elzen, L.M. (2017b). “How to Blanket Based on Need.” Canada’s Equine Guide 2017. p.88-89.


By digicla (originally posted to Flickr as Snowy Horses) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons