Equine Emotions

discussing neuroscience and equine emotions – and how we can strive for better

Butterfly – A Horse’s Value

Butterfly – A Horse’s Value

Most people value horses by how useful they can be to humans. Can the horse be ridden? Driven? Are they safe on trails or roads? Are they sound for sport or labor? How many working years do they have left? Are they safe for beginners to use? Everything about the horse’s value is determined by what we can get them to do for us…
But what is a horse’s real value? What is anyone’s real value? How do we judge?
I believe all life has value, simply because they are alive. It can’t be measured in dollars and coins, not in gifts or services, and it can’t always be measured in time, but rather, in experiences and love shared. How well the live and thrive in the life they’ve been given, how they’ve bettered or enriched others, and the love that’s been given and felt.
Yesterday some of the volunteers were brushing Butterfly, a job I frequently send kids to do to keep them entertained. I watched as the older girls taught the youngest how to make braids, they each practiced different styles. I remembered back to when I was a kid, learning for the first time how to braid hair, when an older volunteer showed me, on Butterfly. Then I wondered, how many kids has Butterfly taught how to braid? What if we measured a horse’s value by how many braids they’ve had in their hair? A symbol of how loved they’ve been?
Doing that math Butterfly is 22-24y.o. That’s not super old for a mini, we hope she has many more years with us. But as a horse who was born in a hoarding situation, too small to be ridden, who went blind young, limiting her potential for her future. She is a horse who has no traditional value. But she has lived a beautiful and happy life any horse should hope to live. With all the food and care she deserves, with horse, sheep, donkeys, and people friends of all ages, from all around the world. She has enjoyed a rich life of love and has spread her sweet, gentle love to all who take the moment to notice her. She is a most valued member of our farm.
Me and Butterfly as “kids”

When Butterfly first arrived at the rescue I grew up at <3 she was 2, I was 14.
Butterfly and our friends growing up
Butterfly’s time here at EE
Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Ethics
Engaging the CARE system

Engaging the CARE system

Due to the advancements in Neuroscience we have been able to better understand the emotions of our equine learners than ever before. With this new knowledge it’s vital we adapt and grow our training and care systems, the more we know the better we can do for our equine partners. We already know that Positive Reinforcement is the way to go when it comes to training. We know this is a forgiving, kind, safe, and effective means of communicating and motivating our equine learners to participate in our training. We have learned that not only is it effective but it works within the brain/body systems (SEEKING and PLAY) to make a happier, more resilient, more engaged learner.
But did you know there is another brain/body system that we should be paying attention to in our animal partnerships? Of the 7 major systems only 4 feel relatively good to the individual (when stimulated appropriately) – SEEKING, PLAY, LUST, and CARE. SEEKING system is what we engage when training, having the horse learn to problem solve their environment to earn reinforcement. When done right, positive reinforcement techniques often frequently engage the PLAY system as well. The LUST system we should leave alone, let the horses take care of that among themselves. It may mildly interfere with your training if your mare is in heat or you’re working with a stallion, but there are many management techniques for both of these situations. Mostly we want our horses to sort that out in a natural way among their herd.
The CARE system, however, is frequently overlooked when discussing training. This system not only feels good, but is vital for the mental health of the animal. If the CARE system is not satiated the PANIC system sets in, the horse develops   anxiety problems, especially around separation from their peers, or it may present as depression, shutting down, or restlessness, hypervigilance (easily spooking), or general feelings of insecurity. The CARE system is vital to social animals like equines, for their feelings of safety and comfort.
Many people struggle with horses who exhibit separation anxiety related behavioral problems – not wanting to leave their peers, their farm, balking on trails, bolting home, or being over-threshold when out of sight of their friends. In these cases what we’re seeing is that the horse’s CARE system is only being fulfilled by their equine peers. They are dependent on their herd to meet their emotional CARE needs. It would be unkind, even cruel to push a horse beyond this threshold, and often include a good deal of fall out behaviorally. We also want to be sure we aren’t using positive reinforcement to coerce a horse beyond their threshold for comfort and safety. By luring a horse with food outside of their comfort zone we not only set ourselves up for failure, but we also poison the food – at some point the need for safety in their peers is going to outweigh the desire for food. Now the food has become something the horses see as a risk, not an opportunity.
So what do we do about all this? The answer is simple, we need to be a source of engagement to their CARE system as well. By stimulating the hormones, by engaging the emotions, by creating the bond that lives within the horse’s individual CARE system we become the source of safety and comfort the horse is seeking. This does not, ever mean reducing, replacing or removing their equine herd. No matter how hard we try we will never be able to replicate or artificially supplement what horses get from one another.
So how do we become a source of CARE for our horses? The first key ingredient is a tough one, TIME! Time is hard for us humans, it’s one of our most valuable resources, but being so valuable it matters a good deal to those who it’s given to. By sharing space and being present with our horses, by spending time with our horses we become a part of their social unit. Not as another horse, but as another being who chooses to share their valuable life with one another. Coexisting creates a beautiful, gentle, force-less connection between beings.
We want more than this though, while it’s a vital first step it isn’t the only step. We also need to make sure the time we spend together is as valuable to the horse as it is to us. Do you ever sit and watch your horses in awe of how magical, perfect, and wonderful they are? They bring us such joy. We need to stimulate a similar feeling in our horses about us. We can do this by ensuring our shared time is wonderful.
A key way that horses develop social bonds is through mutual grooming. If your horse is comfortable with you spending time physically connecting can reach new, deeper levels of connectedness. While we touch, letting our presence bind us together, we also want to make sure it feels good, non-invasive, and is done with full consent. We love our horses and often want to reach out, grab them in ways that feel good to us. We want to stroke their face, hug their neck, and get lost in their mane. Our horses would much prefer we scratch their withers or their bum cheeks. Much less romantic to us, but feels so much more wonderful to our horses. We can explore our individual horses and find what feels good to them. They are all unique. Try rubbing, scratching, or grooming specific areas and watch your horse’s reaction. If you stop, do they seek out more? Do they make groomy faces? Or do they step away and toss their nose at you like a pesky bug? Find what they enjoy and spend time making them feel nice.
Another way horses show their social bonds is in sharing resources. This is one of the biggest things for horses, their resources are their life-line. Most horses in domestication have learned that resources are limited and need to be defended through violence. To see horses sharing resources shows great trust in their peers and their access to resources. This doesn’t mean we need to graze with our horses, but we can take our horses to a sweet, extra special grazing spot. Ever sit in the sun while hand grazing your horse on the nicest part of the lawn? Just magic. But we not only share resources with our horses, we provide them! This makes us extra special, almost maternal. We are a source of comfort and safety emotionally, but also fulfill their physical needs. With no need to assert “dominance”, we are not competition for their resources – we ARE the resource and everything they want.
When being with us is stimulating their CARE system we become a source of comfort and fulfillment for our equine partners. Ensuring they feel safe and engaged with us as their friend, their peer, and their provider, knowing that with us not only are they physically safe, their needs are met, and they are loved.
Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Turning Fear into Curiosity

Is your horse spooky? Are they pessimistic, assuming everything is out to get them? Do they freak out about every little change? Does it seem like they’re just making stuff up to lose their mind over?
These comments are all too common. This can happen for hundreds of reasons. Often horses who live in a punishment-based environment learn quickly not to explore or try new things, because it will likely go bad. Horses living on fancy farms often lives very sheltered lives, in small stalls, small paddocks, separate from other horses, working in quiet indoor arenas. Horses are often under-exposed in an attempt to keep them safe (we all know how easily our horses hurt themselves!) But often this lack of exposure and lack of engagement can cause more health and behavioral issues than they prevent. By taking away everything that may harm them we also take away everything that satisfies their emotional and behavioral needs. This creates outbursts of unnatural and undesirable    behaviors that can include hurting themselves.
Instead of sheltering your horse, turn their fear and pessimism into confidence and curiosity. The first step to this is enrichment. Enrich their lives as much as possible, in as many different ways you can. You can supplement them socially introducing new peers or other species. Visually, with funny looking items, pool noodles look solid but are flimsy, mirrors show strange reflections, light up toys, large stuffed animals, etc… You can enrich them audibly with music, noise makers, recordings of sirens or different animal vocalizations. Tactile options can include brushes, hanging rugs on walls or fences for rubbing against, itching boards, or various different substrate flooring. Scent can be very enriching with the use of essential oils or natural smells from around the farm, like letting them smell another animal’s poop. Novel food can be engaging and fun to explore, including melons and pumpkins to crush and munch. Food can also provide mental enrichment as they problem solve new ways to engage with their environment to work out food puzzles.
The enrichment is mentally stimulating and interesting, but it’s important that the enrichment also include some positive outcome for the horse a good amount of the time. While we often present the new stimuli without any added food (we don’t want to pressure them to approach or handle the stimuli faster than they are ready) once they are comfortable around the new item we often add food to it. Some enrichment is self-sufficient, exploring smelly items, or interacting socially would be good examples. But if engaging with the stimuli isn’t very interesting, adding food can help push the stimuli from being benign to being a good thing in your horse’s mind. The more often these new experiences have a good outcome the more optimistic your horse will become. Soon “new” will become a source of curiosity, something worth trying. Changing their entire outlook on life and the world around them.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting
How to Change Behavior

How to Change Behavior

It’s important to remember that when we are dealing with training horses, or trying to solve behavioral problems with our animals, it isn’t limited just to training. Training increases or decreases the likelihood of a behavior happening in a chosen scenarios. It allows us to put behaviors on cue and recall them when we may like them performed. Training also allows us to train an appropriate behavior to reduce the chances of the learner choosing an unwanted behavior. Just reinforcing the incompatible behavior makes the unwanted behavior less likely to happen.

But adding and subtracting behavior isn’t the only way we can progress and support our horses’ behavioral improvement. Management is an important tool, it can be as easy as switching which stall the horse goes in, rearranging some fences, reorganizing your turn out groups, putting up some temporary fencing or partitions. We can also use food placement and different feeder styles to reduce issues with resource guarding or food anxiety. Using the support of their peers can help a horse overcome difficult or stressful situations. Visual barriers can help reduce social anxiety or stress related to certain environments. With various management techniques we can help reduce the likelihood of unwanted behaviors occurring, reducing aggression, anxiety, and promoting a healthy lifestyle. Even if we address unwanted behaviors through training, using management can help reduce how often the learner practices the unwanted behavior, reducing the strength of the behavior.
Enrichment is another under-utilized and under-valued training tool. So many people think of enrichment as an optional, fun thing to do for your horse. In reality, it’s an indispensable tool for fulfilling your horses’ emotional needs and expressions of natural behavior. There aren’t many times a horse is engaged in natural behaviors when placed in a barren paddock, using enrichment can simulate a wide variety of natural stimuli.

Enrichment can be used as a great way to prepare your horses for all that life may throw at them. We can engage them with a wide variety of novel food, puzzles, toys, and whatever silly sensation we can entertain them with! We can use enrichment to help them meet their own needs, such as scratching posts to rub against, pools to splash in, toys to play with, and friends to find comfort in. We can help them keep up with their exercise, meet their dietary needs, expose them to new things, and offer a mentally stimulating life.
Enrichment is a great and healthy outlet for unwanted behaviors that horses want to express, such as rough play and mouthing objects. We may not want them to do that with us, but if they have an appropriate place to meet those desires, they’re less likely to do them where they’re unwanted. Enrichment can also help teach our horses about new behaviors we may want to capture on cue. It can also make new, difficult scenarios seem easy and fun, the vet’s tools are just another fun enrichment, nothing to be scared of.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting
Fear Causes Punishment

Fear Causes Punishment

Aggression is frequently, I dare say, almost always caused by not being able to resolve fear. Fear of harm, something bad happening to you, or fear of losing something of value. Hmm… those sound familiar, something bad being added or something good being taken away… wait, I know, PUNISHMENT! Aggression is caused by fear of punishment (whether a natural consequence or intentional by another being). So why do we often resort to punishment when things go bad? Funny enough, our circle is complete, FEAR!! When we humans are afraid, afraid of being harmed by our horse, shamed by our peers, or our horse being harmed (losing something valuable), we often resort to, you guessed it, aggression! Because we are afraid we feel the need for more physical control (control and fear are contradictory). We give ourselves a strong illusion of control by using forceful methods to manipulate our horse. This is reinforcing to us, the punisher, because it often works, at least in the immediate short term, to reduce our fear. Even though it almost always creates more problems in the long run.
When you see someone become aggressive with their horse, don’t get mad, get sad, because they are afraid and they don’t have the tools to handle their emotions and respond appropriately to the situation. My only two horses who have an ounce of aggression in them are my most frightened horses. One is a violent resource guarder, the other a history of abuse. Both only aggress when they are afraid for their safety or losing something they value. So before you raise your hand to the horse who is aggressing, stop and think, will punishment, the thing they are afraid of, reduce their fear? Not likely!
Instead we should aspire to bring comfort and a sense of safety to those who are afraid. Provide them with tools to feel in control, to feel their safety and their resources are not at risk. Allow them dignity as they overcome this difficult emotion, give them tools to express their fear without aggression, and give them comfort when they are afraid.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Overcoming Trauma

So your horse has trauma…

Sometimes we bring our wonderful new horse home, only to discover that their emotional damage runs deeper than we imagined. They don’t always believe us when we say “your life is different now”. We may not always know the cause of their trauma, and to be honest, it’s not always important to know exactly what happened. Many people get hung up on what might have happened in their past to make them feel and behave the way they do. In honesty, it doesn’t matter so much where it came from, just where they are now. Understanding their current triggers and responses (behavioral and emotional) really is the important part. A horse with trauma tends to express this one of two ways, by shutting down or by becoming reactive. But again, the solutions will be similar regardless of which direction they swing. Regardless of how they express their trauma, the problem has the same root – fear, conflict, confusion, or lack of healthy connections.

We have a few points to create – security, connection, control, and clarity.

A sense of security in their home and their resources is vital. When discussing security we are talking about their physical sense of safety, this involves their environment and their resources. This comes down to ensuring their environment is what suits them best. Whether they need the security of protected contact from other horses/humans or space to measure their own comfortable distance. Our sweet rescue, Taina, had no confidence to meet other horses loose in a field, she would hide as far from them as possible. But being able to meet the horses over a fence and through stall doors gave her the confidence to greet them and assure she could escape if needed. We also need to consider access to resources. Feeling secure that their needs will be met is vital to an emotionally balanced horse. This can be difficult with “easy keepers”, but providing slow feed options to ensure they never run out can go a long way to helping a horse feel secure in their resources. Knowing their physical needs for safety and access to resources are met can go a long way to soothe their anxiety.

Connection is another vital ingredient to an emotionally healthy horse. Horses are social beings, a huge part of their sense of safety comes from living in groups. Even if they feel safer separated from the other horses, knowing they are nearby is very important. Especially for horses who have anxiety over access to resources, they may prefer division from other horses, at least at first. Usually horses will find at least one or two other horses they bond with, adjusting their turn out or living environment so they can be with a horse they feel safely connected with. A huge key to telling if a horse feels safely connected with another horse is if they mutually groom. While other animals like sheep, goats, or donkeys may make good companions for a horse, unless previously bonded with them, they are not the ideal single companion. Our blind mini, Butterfly, struggles with relationships with other horses because she is not able to read their visual language. She enjoys her relationship with other horses when divided by a barrier, but in full contact the lack of clear communication is frightening for her and she becomes aggressive. However she lives very comfortably with her sheep, they are noisy so she always knows where they are and soft, should she bump into them. They also don’t bite or kick at her. But she is able to express mutual grooming and healthy equine-specific relationships with horses over a partition.

Don’t forget about your own connection with your horse. This will be important in helping overcome human-related trauma, but also giving them a safe relationship to depend on when other aspects of their life are imperfect (like travelling, moving homes, or medical issues). To develop a strong emotional connection with your horse, not just a good working relationship behaviorally, you’ll need to spend TIME. Horses connect with one another through touch, shared space, and shared resources. So we can mimic this to develop our interspecies relationship. Grooming in a way that is satisfying to our horse, not with the intent to make them clean, but to feel good. This is especially easy in the buggy season when our horses are itchy and appreciate a good rub down. I like to spend this grooming time out in their space, rather than bringing them in and putting them on a tie or in a closed stall (if we can). This way our relationship becomes a part of their life, not divided or separated from their day. Sharing space and sharing resources is easy, but requires time from us, which we often dismiss as “not constructive” because we aren’t doing anything. But this further integrates us into their life, rather than being a separate or interruptive part of their day. No, you don’t actually have to graze grass with them, but spending time sitting with them while they graze or doing positive training can go a long way to building positive associations.


Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Riding Extinction Bursts

Once a behavior has been learned to be a source of reinforcement and the reinforcement ends extinction will begin. So if a behavior was reinforced but now is not, the behavior will begin to fade. A behavior that is not maintained with reinforcement won’t maintain itself, it will begin to be less reliable, accurate, and consistent. The behavior won’t just fade away, it will actually burst like a bubble. Starting at the narrow point of the accurate, correct, and consistent display of the behavior. As the behavior goes un-backed up the learner will begin to vary the behavior (maybe I really need to do it a little different?) often making the behavior bigger and more dramatic to try to get the reinforcement response they were looking for (if you don’t want it like this, how about I do it twice as big?!)

We might recognize this in the form of a temper tantrum with a child. If last time you were at the store, your child asked you nicely for a candy bar at the counter and you got it for them, but this time they ask and you say “no”, the child may not understand why and become frustrated. They will try asking many more times in various different ways, getting more emotional and frantic while they try to earn this reinforcer they are getting all the more desperate for. Until eventually they are in a full blown temper tantrum screaming and shouting for that candy bar. Now if you give in and reinforce this tantrum, you’re speeding up the process in which the child goes from asking nicely to complete hysterics, because it worked. If you don’t reinforce this behavior it may happen a few more times, until eventually the child gives up trying to get the candy bar (but you’ve also lost the asking politely behavior). The child may also try various other methods that may be inappropriate – like stealing the candy, or trying to sneak it into the basket without you noticing. All the typical ways of avoiding punishment may be attempted that can become dangerous or inappropriate. Because there has been no appropriate alternative way to earn this reinforcement or understanding of why the behavior is no longer working.

If we can remember to a moment where something has worked for us in the past, but is no longer, and how upsetting and frustrating this is for us, we might recognize how easily this tantrum is to trigger. Of course, as adults our tantrums may look different, getting angry might be quieter and more subtle, than screaming and trashing around in a public setting. Remember the last time you put money in a vending machine and your snack got stuck? How mad did that make you? The last time you sought out attention from a special person in your life and it wasn’t given? How heart broken were you? What other attempts did you make? How many ways did you try to fix your behavior to try to earn that social reinforcement you were missing?

This phenomenon of behavior bursting before extinguishing happens with all species and carries with it the same feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and desperation. So when we’re training our horses and reinforce a behavior we like, then decide later we no longer want that behavior, be aware of extinction bursts. Even if you didn’t originally intend to reinforce that specific behavior. For example, often when people start hand feeding their horses the horse learns to invade the human’s space and take treats out of the human’s pockets directly (why not it’s easier than waiting?) We decide we don’t like this new “mugging” behavior, and find it rather rude, so we stop hand-feeding, but the horse gets worse and worse, eventually even biting! Now we are resorting to punishment to defend ourselves, our horse is frustrated and we think “hand feeding was such a terrible mistake!” But what really happened was a misunderstood extinction burst. The lack of clear behavioral criteria with the food in the beginning, plus the sudden removal of reinforcement for a behavior that had previously worked is the combination that lead to the inappropriate expression. Just like the child at the store counter.

Understanding this pattern can help us recognize it and avoid it. However there are some trainers who try to use this to their advantage in training, we call this “riding the extinction burst”. Where they train a behavior, reinforcing it lightly and unpredictably. This helps the horse understand what behavior is wanted, but then when it’s not reinforced they exaggerate and vary the behavior making it bigger and better. Then the behavior is reinforced again to stop it from growing beyond this exaggerated point. As the behavior settles back into it’s normal lower expression, reinforcement with be withheld again, causing it to begin bursting again. This is extremely upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and enraging for the learner. It becomes just like gambling, even addictive. It’s an inappropriate and dangerous approach to training. It can easily lead to an outburst of behavior that’s misplaced, it creates negative emotions that could easily be turned into aggressive behaviors. This is the most inappropriate use of R+ training I’ve seen out there. Extremely dangerous for human and extremely upsetting for the horse.

So let’s make sure we work well to prevent this dangerous cycle. As we’ve seen removing the reinforcement isn’t the ideal option, avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem. So we need to use reinforcement appropriately:

  1. Rate of reinforcement – make sure your RoR is high enough to match the effort of the behavior, in early learning this will begin very rapid and can settle into a more relaxed rate as the horse becomes comfortable with which behavior earns which reinforcement.
  2. Food value – using a lower food value can help reduce the learner’s desperation for the reinforcement and reduce the amount of over the top effort they will put towards that behavior. So make sure to match the value of the food with the difficulty of the behavior (for your individual, a high spirited horse may need more satiating and low value food compared to a mild-mannered, quiet horse, who may need slightly higher value, more interesting food to be a strong motivator)
  3. Food quantity – using larger quantities of lower value food is more appropriate, like getting a bag of rice rather than a candy bar, it’s satiating and satisfying, but not exhilarating.
  4. Alternate source – making sure there are other options available to the learner, so their only source of reinforcement isn’t just through working with you. This will reduce their desperation and frustration levels. Using hay or a treat toy while you’re training can help this.
  5. Focus on calm – reinforce soft, mild expressions of behavior if the horse gets worked up while training…
  6. Dial it down – provide a moment of satiation, using an easy behavior you can reinforce heavily and frequently, then break down the criteria of the behavior you’re having trouble with, into smaller and easier reinforceable steps.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Ethics

What do horses feel?

Did you know that modern neuroscience has learned an awful lot about how animals feel emotions? We now have knowledge of which emotions animals feel, to what degree, and how these influence their behavior. There is so much more to learn and understand, but I thought it might help to give a brief overview. One particular neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has done research on the core emotional systems. These systems are expressed in different ways and triggered by different things among varying species and individuals, but they feel the same within the body. With combining this information with behavioral science, ethology, biology, genealogy, and so on, we are learning much more about these emotions, how they are expressed specifically in horses, and how this information affects our training.

A basic overview is here:

More details in our book Equine Empowerment: A Guide to Positive Reinforcement Training


Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Ethics

What is Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility? Is it necessary?

Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility are a big topic on the internet right now. Seems education is spreading around, I’m so glad for this. For the well-being of horses everywhere, understanding these commonly used and exploited coping mechanisms are not only dangerous, but also cruel. If you’ve studied psychology or seen videos of animals “hypnotized” or doing “yoga” or maybe the awful shark flipping techniques, you may have heard of these topics, it’s been shown to be something present in all species of animals. To start, there is a lot of misconception about what these terms really mean, so let’s clear that up. We’ll let science define the terms to keep us all on the same page. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Equine Emotions, Ethics

Learned Helplessness

There is a “funny” image of a horse who fell down and got her foot stuck on an electric fence, the horse goes dull and unresponsive. Everyone thinks this is a big act of drama by the horse, “haha what a silly horse, she’s only caught a little, doesn’t she know she’s fine?”

Obviously not…

Have you never been so scared in your life that you are frozen with terror? That you disconnect with reality? You imagine its happening to someone else, not you? You just go limp and pray for it to be over quickly? This is tonic immobility, this is such extreme fear the horse feels they have already lost, the monsters are there to eat them, they disconnect with reality. Nothing, nothing, nothing about this emotion is funny.


Often animals who experience this a few times in their life fall into this state more and more quickly. So while running (possibly in fear not play) then falling, a serious sliding fall, and then feeling trapped by the leg is actually a horrifying experience for anyone, it may not have been the horse’s first time feeling this way and fell into this state of shock quickly. Perhaps they were “laid down” by humans, or sacked out, or twitched regularly… who knows. But still. Not. Funny.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Equine Emotions, Ethics