Thursday, 12 July 2018 09:32

The Sound of Happiness - a Snort!

That sound. The warm rumble we are all so familiar with - our horses' snort. Many horse owners and caretakers have noted an association between snorting and positive environments, but the connection hadn't been scientifically tested until now.

In a study, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers in France determined that the snorting exhale that horses often make may be a sign of a positive emotion. The scientists at the University of Rennes, noticed that horses tend to snort when they’re moved into better living conditions, like large pastures with a lot of food.

"The snort, a non-vocal signal produced by the air expiration through the nostrils, is associated with more positive contexts, in pasture, while feeding, and states, with ears on forward position, in horses," lead researcher Mathilde Stomp, said in a news release. "Moreover, it is less frequent in horses showing an altered welfare. These results provide a potential important tool as snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions which could help identify situations appreciated by horses."

The study recorded 560 snorts among 48 privately owned and riding school horses. All the horses snorted — as little as once or as often as 13 times an hour. The horses mainly snorted during calm and relaxing activities, and those that spent more time out of doors snorted the most. The scientists noticed that horses tend to snort when they’re moved into better living conditions, like large pastures with a lot of food.

Riding horses snorted more often when allowed to pasture than when confined to their stalls. Horses living in pastured groups snorted more than riding horses in all scenarios.

When a horse was snorting, the researchers also recorded the animal’s ear position; forward-pointing ears are a known signal of a positive internal state, Ms. Stomp said. Researchers also developed a composite score of each animal’s stress level when snorting, with measurements including how much time a horse spent facing the wall in its stall, as well as its level of interaction with or aggressive behavior toward the researcher.

Ms. Stomp said her work was motivated by the desire to help people better understand and meet the needs of their animals.

“We think that with this acoustic indicator, maybe they will be able to test when their horses are in good conditions or not,” she said.



Published in Articles

It's official. Our horses can remember emotional expressions that they’ve seen on human faces.

A recent study paper entitled ‘Animals remember previous facial expressions that specific humans have exhibited’ has confirmed that horses can read and then remember people’s emotional expressions, enabling them to use this information to identify people who could pose a potential threat.

Controlled experiments were conducted in which domestic horses were presented with a photograph of an angry or happy human face and several hours later saw the person who had given the expression in a neutral state. Short-term exposure to the facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses to that individual (but not to a different mismatched person), consistent with the past angry expression having been perceived negatively and the happy expression positively. Both humans were blind to the photograph that the horses had seen.

The study found that despite the humans being in a neutral state during the live meeting, the horses’ gaze direction revealed that they perceived the person more negatively if they had previously seen them looking angry in the photograph rather than happy.


• Horses can remember emotional expressions that they’ve seen on human faces
• Responses differ if horses have seen an angry versus happy photo of the person
• This lasting memory for emotion is specific to the person whose face they saw

• Non-human animals monitor human emotions and adjust subsequent behavior accordingly

The paper is authored by a team of psychologists, co-led by Professor Karen McComb from the University of Sussex and Dr Leanne Proops, from the University of Portsmouth – both specialists in animal behaviour.


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Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.

These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.

If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.  

The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.”  What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™  would have added more marketing hype to the product. 

My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of  a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.

I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement  and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?

Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters. 

It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure.  A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull. 

With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.

We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.

If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes?  I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.

The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.

However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.  

For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.

I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.

grey horse wearing blue head collar being touched on the nose by man Ben Hart a horse trainer in a white polo shirt


If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.

It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.

I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”  the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities? 

If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level. 

 “The Dog Whisperer” is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, heavy handed use of whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Behavioural ignorance is no longer a defence. 

I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the harsh use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice! 

I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?

The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.

Ben Hart

hartshorsemanship 150Ben Hart hates injustice and wasted potential, and he has a mission to help people understand the true nature of equines by using the honesty of the science of behaviour to help both animals and their people unlock their true potential. He firmly believes working with equines doesn't have to be complicated, dangerous or stressful and by helping people to understand the true and amazing behaviour of equines, he wants them to better understand each other to make life better for horses, donkeys and Mules. Ben removes the myths and dependence on dominance and forceful training methods and focuses on positive, safe effective solutions that centre on both the animal and the human. Ben's delivery of training is unique, ensuring an outstanding experience that is enjoyable and life changing.
Ben Hart's Online Learning Opportunities - Hart's Horsemanship Courses
Published in Trot On Blogs

If you have ever studied Monty Roberts Join-Up then the following research might not come as a surprise, but it's always good to have these things confirmed by a creditable study! Psychology researchers at The University of Sussex found that horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures in humans and much prefer to approach people who appear submissive. 

A submissive body posture is one where we slouch, keeping arms close to our bodies and legs close together with knees softly bent - basically taking up as little space as possible. In a dominant stance on the other hand, we stand up tall, chest out, with arms away from our bodies and legs apart, therefore taking up more space - on the train or bus this is often know as 'Manspreading'!  

The researchers worked with 30 domestic horses and used female handlers dressed in similar clothing including a neck warmer which covered their faces up to their eyes so that their facial expressions couldn't provide any cues. Each handler also gave every horse a food reward whilst standing in a neutral position to begin with. Then during the trial two handlers, one in a dominant stance and the other in a submissive one, stood with their backs against a neutral background, about five-six feet apart.  Each demonstrator also got to act dominant as well as passive in different tests. 

This research revealed that the horses were much more likely to approach the person displaying a submissive posture.

So, it's a reminder to all of us that if we stride up to a nervous horse, looking like one of the Shelby gang from Peaky Blinders then he's likely to want to get away from us as fast as possible! But on the other hand if a horse is pushing you around then do a bit of manspreading and he'll think twice about walking all over you!
Published in Trot On Blogs

hartshorsemanship 150Ben Hart hates injustice and wasted potential, and he has a mission to help people understand the true nature of equines by using the honesty of the science of behaviour to help both animals and their people unlock their true potential. He firmly believes working with equines doesn't have to be complicated, dangerous or stressful and by helping people to understand the true and amazing behaviour of equines, he wants them to better understand each other to make life better for horses, donkeys and Mules. Ben removes the myths and dependence on dominance and forceful training methods and focuses on positive, safe effective solutions that centre on both the animal and the human. Ben's delivery of training is unique, ensuring an outstanding experience that is enjoyable and life changing.


Learn more about how Ben works.

Ben Hart's Online Learning Opportunities - Hart's Horsemanship Courses

Published in Trot On Blogs

I learnt the hard way that you can never be too careful when on the ground around horses. One day when I was at the yard on my own, I crouched down next to Chief, my very cute 2 year old Shetland, scratching his chest. Suddenly, something spooked him, and before I knew it he had cantered right over the top of me, leaving me in a dazed heap. I was incredibly lucky that it wasn’t any worse, especially since I had a hoof shaped bruise right on my head! However, this was a hoof shaped reminder that horses and ponies, however laid back or small and cute, are unpredictable, strong animals and issues such as barging and pushing on the ground can become very dangerous.

So, if we want to stay safe on the ground with our horses, we must first understand why they might do things like pushing, shoving and nudging us. To find out I got in touch with Grahame Frank, also known as ‘The Horse Mind Doctor’. For years he has studied horses and their natural behaviours, working to find solutions to behaviour issues. He stresses that horses are ultimately herd animals, and that so many of their actions result from how they would behave in the wild around each other. He said, “In the herd, each horse is constantly trying to improve its social position, usually by force”, and this suggests that a horse barging a human mirrors this attempt to climb the ‘hierarchy’. It is therefore linked to a lack of respect, and represents the horse trying to have power over you.

I also spoke to Felicity George, a Horse Behaviour Consultant who works to solve problems between horses and their owners. She believes that poor behaviour on the ground can also result from a horse being in pain. She told me, “I once worked with a horse who was very bargey on the ground. He was very dull in his outlook and did not respond to any kind of punishment or reward, making it difficult to teach him that what he was doing was wrong. However, it turned out that he was actually suffering from Cushing’s disease, so his behaviour stemmed from him being ill!” She added that changes in a horse’s management can also be a factor leading to pushing and shoving on the ground. She said, “I worked with a horse who’s owner had recently started at college, meaning his turnout was reduced to just two hours a day which wasn’t enough. As a result, he started to push humans around on the ground, but this was because his needs weren’t being met.” 

So whilst barging and pushing might often be a result of testing boundaries and lack of respect, the possibility of a horse actually being ill or distressed should not be ruled out either. 

How can we manage this behaviour?

As my experience with Chief showed me, we need to teach our horses to respect us on the ground to prevent things from becoming dangerous and to ensure that everyone is kept happy. Renowned horseman and foundation trainer Jason Webb refers to the idea of ‘personal space’ between horse and human. He labels this so-called personal space as “an area in which the horse can’t influence you”, and suggests that we should always maintain a distance of an arm’s length between us and the horse. Jason believes that seemingly harmless behaviours like sniffing and nudging can actually lead to far more serious issues, and in order to prevent them, the horse must learn to act independently.  To create this independence and respect for personal space, we must maintain a kind of ‘bubble’ around us, never allowing the horse to enter this bubble unless it is on our terms. Jason says that a simple way to do this is to create energy by moving the horse around you – this will teach the horse to focus on you, and to realise the appropriate distance to maintain between them and you. 

Felicity George also stresses the importance of personal space, although for her it isn’t necessarily about maintaining a certain distance. She said, “I was once told that I should keep a space of about 3 feet between my horse and I, but for me this didn’t work. I personally see having personal space as just not allowing my horse to push me, but really it comes down to each individual.” However, for Felicity one of the most important training principles is to be consistent in what you ask for. She said, “Horses are like children, so in the same way that a parent might teach a toddler the difference between right and wrong, we must be consistent with our instructions and really mean what we say.” She pointed out that if for half the time we allow our horse to gently nudge us and then suddenly tell them off for doing so, they won’t understand what you want from them. She said, “Make it clear how you want the horse to behave around you, and then stick to it.” If you don’t want your horse to push you around, then make sure that you never let him – this is the only way they will learn.

The Horse Mind Doctor also warns against giving horses too many treats, “People tend to spoil horses in behaviour and treats – don’t, because the horse will simply take advantage. A low, calm but firm voice and posture will soon teach the horse which one of you is in charge (you) and this goes for all movements around the horse”. He suggests that the over-use of treats can also be a cause of pushing and bargey behaviour, and that other reinforcement methods should instead be opted for. You as the human must assert yourself as leader of the ‘herd’, and giving treats isn’t always the best way to do this.

Staying safe in the stable

One of the areas in which bargey horses can really become a problem is in the stable. The last thing anyone wants is a horse who tries to shove past you out of the stable, or even a horse who behaves threateningly by pinning you against the stable wall. In order to prevent such behaviours from developing, Felicity suggests that you should avoid doing jobs like mucking out when your horse is in the stable too, and instead recommends turning them out or moving them to another stable. Felicity explains, “When we are doing jobs like mucking out, we aren’t giving the horse our full attention. As a result, the horse might nudge you without getting any kind of response, leading them to think that it is okay to do so. Keep the stable as a place for training, and make sure that when you are in there with your horse, you make it clear how you want them to behave.” 

It is often suggested that we should tie our horses up at all times when we are in the stable with them, but is this really the solution to our problems? The Horse Mind Doctor suggests that actually, it is not always necessary for your horse to be tied up in the stable. He says that it can be beneficial to leave your horse loose, explaining that “It might lead to a better relationship if your horse could walk around you and feel more relaxed in your company.” Similarly, Felicity suggests that in the long term, it is better if your horse stands in the stable without being tied up. She says that when a horse is tied up, they aren’t free to show something is worrying them by moving away which can consequently lead to behaviours such as kicking out. By leaving them loose they are able to move around and relax more easily, preventing them from becoming panicked and lashing out.

Leading our horses

Another potentially problematic area is leading horses – we do it every single day, but are we really doing it safely? What if your horse suddenly shies into you or decides to gallop off? 

Felicity advises that we always lead a horse at the shoulder to avoid such disasters. She says, “The shoulder is definitely the safest place to be. Never pull the horse along from the front, since here you are at far greater risk of being run over. Also, think back to the horse in the herd: they herd others from behind, so if you are walking in front of your horse he might actually think he’s herding you which would put him in charge!”  The Horse Mind Doctor also suggests leading with as slack a rope as possible can be a good idea, since this encourages the horse to relax and follow you willingly.

Both Felicity and The Horse Mind Doctor stress the importance of leading with a hat and gloves on – although it might seem over the top, your horse could kick out at any time, so it is far better to be safe than sorry. 

Felicity also adds that leading our horses should be treated with exactly the same importance as riding them. When we ride our horses, we wouldn’t let them get away with not listening to us, so why shouldn’t the same apply for leading? She recommends doing exercises like transitions, and bending and neck flexions with our horses when we lead them – this way, we can ensure that we have their full attention and that they’re actually concentrating on where they’re putting their feet!  “Heavier horses in particular will often barge into you simply because they are unbalanced. They’re on the forehand and are paying you no attention, meaning that when you ask them to stop they find it really tricky. Lead them out to the field as if you are riding an advanced dressage test – keep everything engaged and balanced, and lead your transitions as if you would ride them."

So, behaviours such as pushing and shoving are ones we shouldn't ignore and should work hard to prevent for not only our safety but the horses as well. 

Have you had problems with your horse or been injured whilst on the ground. What was the solution that worked for you? 


Published in Trot On Blogs

There's a common training myth that we need to act like the Alpha Mare and dominate our horses.

In this one minute video Ben Hart argues against this approach and promotes a better form of leadership that means training with clarity, consistency and direction.

Published in Trot On Blogs
Wednesday, 14 September 2016 12:10

Are we being unfair to our “moody mares”?

Even in this modern age, certain cultural and societal stereotypes surrounding gender still haunt us all. One of the most popular notions is that men are rational, unemotional, straight forward beings that cannot understand the depth of feeling women experience. Women on the other hand are highly emotional and prone to more irrational behaviour. Does this sound familiar? Now girls, how many of you recoil in horror at being seen as less rational and capable of logical thought than your boyfriend, husband or brother?

Unfortunately, the equestrian world is not unscathed by this stereotype that still floats around despite it being 2016, it seems we have extended our ideas about gender in the human world and transferred them onto our horses, which ultimately perpetuates the myth of the ‘touchy’ female whose far too emotional to be as chilled out as the more relaxed man. Mares are considered moody and temperamental, whereas geldings are generally considered much more laid back and a bit of a breeze compared to their ill-tempered, unpredictable or “evil” counterparts. We are all guilty of buying into this idea and we ignore the possibility that “moodiness” in mares is possibly just a form of communication as opposed to an aggressive attitude problem.

Simone De Beauvoir, a well-known French feminist examined how women are “imprisoned within the limits of their own nature”, as they are described within a set structure of ideas that originated hundreds of thousands of years ago. Mares are being similarly imprisoned within an idea of “moodiness” that won’t seem to shake. Horses embody features that can be aligned with the societal and cultural perceptions of a human woman. In art, literature and theory women have been linked closely with the earth and the elements, due to the cyclical natures of their bodies which alludes to movements of time and season changes. Horses are also tied to the natural world, living off and within the land originally and then helping us to build and shape our world through their loyal servitude. All horses are sensitive creatures, exquisitely adjusted with their intuition and gut instinct, dually in touch with their physical body and emotions.

From this perspective, to limit your mare, labelling her as simply “moody” is an extension of the human belief that the female species is emotionally unpredictable, unable to keep feelings and actions in check, therefore perpetuating the myth that to be emotional is a negative. And the male attribute of being rational is positive in comparison. But what if we remove this idea and see mares for what they are, instead of assuming that they are just being disobedient?

We should take a fresh approach to our mares, instead of hanging on to these preconceived ideas, let’s try and understand the flat ears or the little kick when we tighten the girth, the frustrated buck when we ask for a movement or change of pace. Like stallions, mares are entire and the hormonal changes that occur throughout the year makes a difference to their overall temperament. Now Ladies, I’m sure we can understand the monthly sore back and short fuse, so when your mare displays signs of irritation, we should question whether she’s just showing signs of being in season. Often mares experience back pain during this time, which makes the simplest of tasks, such as tacking up, a bit more challenging. Surely we should have thought of this? We should try and treat our mares with sympathy rather that labelling them “moody”. Perhaps we can start to deconstruct or at least think about different ways to approach fixated ideas about gendered stereotypes in the future, and empathise with our mares instead of perpetuate the idea of the “moody” female.

Have you had positive or negative experiences with mares? Do you agree with the idea that mares are viewed in a certain way and this may have something to do with our human stereotypes? Or do you think it’s all a load of tripe? Whatever your opinion, I’d love to know!

Megan McCusker

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Published in Trot On Blogs
Tuesday, 18 August 2015 09:50

Emma Massingale's Island Project

Back in June, Free riding trainer and equine behavourist, Emma Massingale spent 4 weeks on an uninhabited Irish island off the coast of the Connemara National Park with four ponies from her Liberty team and two new unhandled Connemaras. #theislandproject

Her challenge was to be able to work with, and ultimately start/back the two unhandled Connemaras completely at liberty (without the use of any tack/enclosures or help). Emma acknowledged that this would be a huge undertaking - to understand how horses feel and think, and in turn create a relationship in just 4 weeks, to ultimately be able to ride these horses completely free.

Emma has this quote pinned to her wall -

"Imagine with all your mind, believe with all your heart, achieve with all your might!"

Grab a cuppa! Sit back and enjoy! Watch Emma's truly inspiring video - a taster to the full documentary which will be out later this year :)


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