Willies and Nickers

A very well known issue almost exclusively seen in horses trained using Positive Reinforcement is the states of over arousal or over relaxation that lead to willy dropping, willy erections and in mares the intensely deep whickering sounds, postural changes and vulva winking.

Many training solutions are available to reduce or try to prevent this, some ideas for this are better than others – but I am more interested here in discussing the cause. Currently there has been no research carried out to take blood samples before and after training when this behaviour typically occurs. Very few research projects and empirical studies have been carried out on this at all (possibly due to a very poor possibility for funding as outcome is unlikely to lead to a produce to market) and they are typically conducted with too few horses and too few variables of breed and locations, and a large proportion of “understanding” about this phenomena is purely anecdotal. Dopamine releases are often cited to be the reason for this behavioural response to the horses experience of Positive Reinforcement training, which I am sure is the case, but there are probably also many other components to this.

Having personally trained 100s of students horses using R+ over the last 20 years, I feel I can see a pattern has emerging in the horses who show this response, but the following written here is purely anecdotal.

The horses I have been being asked to re-train using R+ often have a previous history of being trained using high levels of R- as is commonly the case in the many forms of Natural Horsemanship and Traditional Horsemanshipor and some have had a history of P+. A horse may be 20 years old and have belonged to an experienced and competent R+ trainer since he was 2, but if his or her very early experiences as a naive young foal or impressionable young horse included contacts with humans which made him feel afraid, feel punished or forced to comply, I suspect these will live in the horses memory for ever. It is well documented that fear memories are never erased, they are merely buried. We are all hard wired to have negative bias – that is to say that we remember the bad things that happen to us more readily than we remember the good things – and this is a good survival strategy that has been very effective at causing the individual to avoid taking the risk a second time if the first time was not such a great experience. Of course, many horses have to just “get on with it” and do as they are told.

So, I believe that horses who drop their willies while training, or even worse, have full erections and mares who nicker in an over enthusiastic manner or show other hormonally driven behaviours like winking while training, could be experiencing a huge emotional “high” which I believe could be being caused by the extreme joy of relief felt in stark contrast to their memories of human horse interactions from their previous history. Horses who are dropping while grooming are more likely to be showing true relaxation and this is not what I am discussing here.

Even if the horse has experienced nothing but highly competent R+ for 20 or more years, but previously has experienced too strong R- or even P+ in the first years of their lives. These first years are the horses formative years and they are the most important years in all mammals lives. The first few months are the most important of all of these and foal handling (which should always be kept to an absolute minimum but maybe necessary) is of critical importance. Furthermore, I believe that the more sweet natured, gentle and kind the horse is naturally, the more likely the horse is to experience an extreme comparison response when trained using R+ if they have previously been trained using too much strong R- or P+ as defined by that horse.

It is not about getting the job done


DAID with my risk averse mare who was very afraid of this pedestal. I have a very good relationship with this lovely mare of mine, but she would not go anywhere near it if asked really gently with a rope. Luring did not work, targeting also failed.

The power of choice worked its miracle, together with observational learning and an open minded horse well used to R+

If she had said “no thanks, not now”, to stepping on the pedestal, that would have been a fine answer that I would have accepted. To be given a choice between a rock and a hard place is no choice at all. To not accept “no” for an answer does not create a good trust account.

To have true freedom, no consequences to leaving, no consequences to saying “no thanks” is to have true choice and this builds trust and self confidence.

Self confidence and good relationships build good mental health. Good mental health enhances physical health.

When you focus too hard on the end result , this often becomes a problem. both for you and for the horse. Determination to “get the job done” is at first an acceptable idealistic goal to have, but if the horse says “no thanks, not now” this could become “get the job done as fast as possible and do whatever it takes, even if its at the horses own expense to comply”. It is often necessary to break down the stages towards the end goal behaviour into very, very small steps, shaping the horses behaviour gradually to creep towards the one we want to see, but these shaping steps must be taken at the horses pace, and not ours.

It is better to escalate time rather than pressure if you want to retain or gain a good relationship with your horse. Pressure/Release is another way to describe Negative Reinforcement. We remove the reinforcing pull on the line when the horse turns his head. The “release” that comes after the pulling stops is not a reward. If someone stops pushing or pulling you around this is not a true reward. A true reward would be something which is given to you as a direct result of your efforts.

Horses and Art

When you draw with a pencil on paper, the paper you chose can either be soft and very easily dented, or it can be hard with a smooth resilient surface. The pencil you use can be a very soft 6B pencil or it can be a very hard 6H fine pencil.
If you press down on the pencil hard, or use the pencil softly it will make a difference to the quality of mark you make and the indentations made on the paper. Experienced, highly skilled artists can create bold, competent and assured marks and have less fear of mistakes.
Once you make an indentation on the paper it is very hard to work over it and hide the marks with deeper the indentation. some marks may never be possible to completely obscure. If you rub out a strongly mistakenly made line, it will never completely disappear and will always spoil the final artwork.

So it is with horses. Your horse is the paper, your training tools are the 6B or 6H pencil and your choice of how softly or hard to press is your training approach.

Once mistakes are made, the deeper the marks, the harder they will be to work over them and create beautiful Art.

Stay Positive

Using Positive Reinforcement to train your horse.

Each horse has their own limitations mentally and physically and each brings different history of past training to the mix. This MUST be taken into account.
E.G. A supple horse who is naive to the use of any (except the very mildest) aversives will show a very different response to the same stimuli in comparison to a stiff horse who has become irritated by too much pressure being used historically. A nervous but naive horse may show different again behavioural responses to the same stimuli.
Remember – all behaviours are born from emotions.

R+ is Positive Reinforcement – which means a “reinforcer” is added to change behaviour.
R- is Negative Reinforcement – which means a “reinforcer” is removed. (All NH Pressure/Release approaches are based on R- )
P+ is Positive Punishment – which means a “punisher” is added to change behaviour.
P- is Negative Punishment – which means “good thing” is taken away to punish.

The term “Clicker Training” does not mean you are demanded to use of a mechanical hand held clicking device, it can be still be termed as Clicker Training when a verbal bridging sound is used – but a mechanical clicker, whist initially cumbersome for you to hold, helps a lot with clarity and this is especially helpful (to both you and the horse)/when training a new or more complex behaviour.

If you are already experienced in using R+ this will make your horse more likely to be open minded to problem solving and less apprehensive about giving a “wrong” answer. If your horse has had a history of Pressure and Release/Negative Reinforcement Training, the horse will have a different view of what “Training” may be all about in comparison to a horse trained for many years using R+ and L.I.M.A. Principles. (Least Intrusive, Minimal Aversive).

I will assume that the horse has already understood the food fed from the hand protocol and so is not muggy, grabby or overstimulated by food rewards. Food is not the cause of muggy behaviour; it is caused by poor trainer discipline, but some horses have a history of mugging or food deprivation and this established pattern of behaviour needs specialist tailored approaches to change. Muggy or overstimulated horses may need some counter conditioning work or perhaps a few will need a slightly different approach with no food rewards used, using scratches, stroking, kind words and training breaks in the session instead – but these rewards are usually lower value reinforcers and will slow down learning response rates for most horses.

However, the speed of training is definitely NOT the most important thing.

The “Aversive” used should only ever be minimal – in my view – with no consequences for non compliance and all training should closely follow the L.I.M.A. Principles. An aversive is anything the horse works to avoid or move away from if they can. It does not have to be a physical touch. Smells, sights, sounds and some types of spaces can be aversives or distractors. If the horses behaviour shows you that your efforts at L.I.M.A. Principle application is still too aversive (or there is a perceived aversive or distractor present) and this is causing calming signals or escalating towards stress behaviours, then you must remember that it is the animal who defines the level of aversive.
Not all aversives are equal and not all aversives are obvious. A familiar stable could be considered a safe comfortable space for resting for one horse, but a terrifyingly aversive space to avoid at all costs for another. A long peacock feather could be used as a tickly and visual aversive stimulus which is unlikely to cause physical harm – but is still an aversive nevertheless.

If you want to learn more about the recognition of calming signals, stress behaviours and displacement activities, then I recommend that you read a book first published in 2018 by Rachaël Draaisma called “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”.

If a negative reinforcer (pressure and release) has been defined by the animal as being too strong, then the addition of a food reward after the release could risk creating a “poisoned cue”. The release of pressure is not a reward in itself. If someone even gently pushes or pulls you around just stopping doing that may be a relief, but stopping doing an action is not a reward in itself.

Use Shaping and shaping plans to get behaviours, as these break down complex tasks into easy doable stages, step by step – but don’t just aim to get behaviour at the expense of animals good emotional state. The movements must always be linked with good, calm and positive emotions too. Start with the big picture, then work on the details, one by one.

The Modern Principles of Shaping are as follows:
1. Be prepared before you start (notice and reward first try)
2. Ensure success at each step (make steps easy)
3. Train one criterion at a time
4. Relax criteria if something changes (environment etc)
5. If one door closes, find another (be flexible)
6. Keep training sessions continuous, (and short) continually working with animal
7. Go back to kindergarten if necessary
8. Keep your attention on the learner
9. Stay ahead of the learner. Skip forwards if learner can
10. Quit while you are ahead

Training should be fun for the animal. Sometimes it’s fun for the trainer for longer than it is for animal.

The animal does what you train – or whatever the animal finds most rewarding.
There is no need to repeat a behaviour 8000 times before it is learned.

Latency is the term used for the time delay between the request/cue/aid being applied and when the response is given. Latency that is longer than 2 seconds means animal doesn’t understand, or cannot respond either physically or mentally. So you may need to explain what you mean in another way. Accepting a long latency for too many sessions is a mistake.

Previously learned responses can block new ones

Give the animal more control. Control empowers the animal. Empowerment builds confidence. Confidence builds stability.

Build a good trust account.

Keep all aversives to barely perceptible levels

Do remember that so called quick fixes and use of force will have future or immediate consequences that will impact badly on both the horse and the trainer.


General advice

Click and reward generously for every try and very especially notice and reward well for the first tentative try.

Look for 1 criterion at first – (train for the “big picture” – the overall concept initially, then work on the details, one by one).

End sessions before horse gets bored, mentally tired or frustrated by too many repeats. Better to do 3 x 10 minute sessions than 1 x 30 minute session.

If the horse cannot seem to understand, relax the horse in the best way you know, change your location perhaps, then retry. If this fails, then another method can be chosen to best fit the particular horses mental or physical blocks, or it may be a good idea to go back to kindergarten and work on something your horse already feels confident about and understands well.

The horse chooses the rate of progression during learning. Too fast or too slow can both cause problems in training. Every horse is intrinsically different, but the same horse may vary depending on which movement you are trying to teach, or due to hormones, the weather patterns or some unknown newly acquired stiffness.

Never punish mistakes. To “mark” mistakes (a non-reward marker) you can say “almost” or “ not now” or “whoopsie” or “ uh oh” or “nearly” to mark the mistakes rather than using the word “NO” which can tend to be said too strongly.

Do not use ever stronger and stronger aversives to try to educate your horse, as this is akin to shouting louder and louder in English at a non English speaking human student. Using stronger aversives when your horse doesn’t understand you will only frighten the horse and they will not understand you better. Find another way to explain what you want to teach. You need to learn ten different ways to teach every 1 action you want the horse to make.

Video yourself; you may not be doing what you think you are doing! (It might look better than it felt, or it might look different to how you remember).

Positively Reinforce any behaviour you want to see again.
Ignore behaviour you would not like to see any more.

Reinforcers are not working if the behaviour does not change.

Punishment doesn’t work to stop behaviour. It is even more useless when used by a human on an animal and causes many more problems than it tries to solve. Horse on horse punishment timing is better timed and usually (but not always) is delivered at the right level and has a suitable and understandable species appropriate style. Human on horse timing is rarely perfect and is often delivered using an unsuitable and confusing style.

Intrinsic motivation will arise from using extrinsic motivators initially (extrinsic motivators will be the rewards that you add) but over time, as the horses skill and understanding improves, confidence and proficiency with the movement itself will become intrinsically reinforcing. Competence breeds confidence. The horse will like to show his or her amazing skills off just for their own sakes and will not need to be positively reinforced so much by adding the food reward, but this may take weeks, months or years, depending on how difficult the horse finds the movement. It is still a very good idea to add an intermittent reward even for a well rehearsed and well understood behaviour from time to time.

Look for a sense of pride growing in the horse while working with you. Dull, compliant obedience is not what I personally want to see, I want my horses to feel proud and empowered and not just obedient, and definitely never defeated or conflicted. A horse who whickers softly to you while maintaining calmness of attitude during a movement is a horse who is recognising their own great achievements. (N.B. Some horses may whicker excitedly due to over arousal, which is not what I mean here). Look closely for the horses facial expressions and body language – look especially in their eyes and faces. Horses have 17 facial expressions.

Do the training. Wishing won’t get you anywhere. It is very good to study theory, but the study of theory without gaining the skill during practice – ideally with a variety of different horses – creates an empty shell.

Walk the talk. Be open to changing what you think and do, as if you think and do the same you will get the same.
Don’t expect it to be easy or that quick fixes will work to train your horse.

It is not usually the horse who is the limiting factor during training.

Always choose a trainer who can demonstrate with horses they have trained from an early age themselves or rehabbed older horses that they are indeed walking the talk that you want to learn.


Search google for the Bent Branderup website for details about books and streamable video tuition which you can buy with beautifully photographed and filmed high quality information, coming direct from a modern master and his accredited trainers on a number of training topics. It is just not possible to learn everything about this subtle and physical skill from books or videos and not all approaches to working horses from the ground are the same. Even the similar off shoots of AAoR have very significant differences. The Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup is unique in the quality of the experience and knowledge delivered by all of the accredited trainers. They are all utterly non scripted and each trainer offers their own view point rather than the cloned, corporate response approach.

Search Google for Shawna Karrasch website as this will provide some very helpful resources for learning more about R+ Training. She is a really wonderful inspirational teacher.

Search Google for Ben Harts website and tap into his gentle, self searching wisdom. He also can help you with creating shaping plans too, which are wonderfully helpful

In this time of lock down and limited opportunities to learn or teach directly, I also offer video tuition too, either live streaming via Skype or by pre recorded video analysis. I find it works very well.

Fire and Ice

Simply put, some horses are naturally generally more inclined to be fiery and confident than others and some learn to become fiery to protect themselves from perceived forcefulness. Other horses are naturally more timid, shy and reserved generally with strong flight instincts. Fighting fire with fire will cause a raging inferno, but if you decide instead to quell the fire by being cool, calm and even more gentle, this will put out the angry flames and reassure the timid shy horse equally and there will gradually be nothing left that the horse feels they need to fight against or fear. Fighting and becoming stronger and more determined with a horse will only destroy your relationship and reduce trust, whether the horse is naturally timid or a fiery. Never try to completely pigeon hole your horse though, as different circumstances will bring out different aspects of natural or acquired behaviour traits.

Helping a horse feel safe and comfortable to be working with you is the most important basic to establish first, above all others. Once the horse does trust you, they will then be willing to allow you to teach them how to make the little corrections necessary to improve their balance, co-ordination, suppleness, tempo and rhythm without becoming irritated, angry or afraid. If you try to teach the horse the aids to understand how to make the corrections before trust is well established, it will require you to use force, which will destroy trust further, and the amount of force you need to use is likely to escalate.

Spend time well with your horse.

If you would like lessons please contact me by email, phone or fb messages

Christmas Hampers and NOT Toolboxes!

Three Christmas Hampers. All with different quantities of high quality, classy products.

Each item is selected with care and chosen for its special flavours or textures. One of the hampers is fabulously richly stocked with a glorious selection.

I prefer to think of the skills for training my horses like a putting together a sumptuous rich Christmas hamper. I far prefer this to the “toolbox” analogy. Tools are for mechanics, hampers are gifts.

Relatively few horses have to genuinely work for their living. Most people want their domesticated horses to be wonderful soulmates, loyal companions and fun partners. It makes sense to give them a gift and fill up the Christmas Hamper with as many skills as we can afford to acquire.

Fill up your Christmas Hamper by acquiring skills to give as gifts to your horse such as:

*Beneficial lunging with no need for gadgets

*Long reining

*Work in hand with softness and understanding

*Riding with gentleness and tact

*Understanding bio mechanics of the horse and rider

*Reward based training methods

*Body work techniques

*Fun and games and variety

*Sympathy and empathy

*Ethology and behaviour in training

*Togetherness times

*Appropriate animal husbandry

And remember a hamper like this is not just for Christmas – it lasts a lifetime, and the more skills in your hamper the more choices of gifts you can give to your horse – but a word of warning – it must be continuously topped up and refreshed with new tuition, new skills, new ideas and new views, or the ingredients in the hamper will go stale.

If you would like some help acquiring some more skills for your Christmas Hamper, please get in touch to discuss what gift you would like to acquire to give to your horse.

Tonal Variation

I was recently having a lesson with Kathrin Branderup-Tannous and she was explaining about tonal variation.

If we compare training a horse to playing a musical instrument or a using good quality audio system, we can control the bass and the treble and there will be a good range of mid tones.

Make sure when you are training that the bass does not become too booming, that the treble is not too shrill and that the mid tones are not lost. The subtle details really do matter.

Academic Art of Riding is enough

The longer I study within the Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup the more diverse and interesting it becomes. I see other ideas and my curiosity means I experiment with ideas outside of the AAoR, but I find repeatedly that what I see within the various AAoR trainers who are all selected with great care by Bent Branderup have more than enough information and variety.

What many people do not immediately seem to realise is that the AAoR by Bent Branderup is not a method, it is not a system, it is not a cult and it is not full of absolutes and strict rules.

Precise but Delicate

We need to be precise but delicate to train a horse and we need explicit clarity, exactness of timing and touches and absolute precision on both left and right sides. It isnt easy to get this right all of the time, but luckily horses are forgiving creatures. The aids should aim to be fine, discrete and gentle and I think that whilst we are allowed to slightly irritate with a tickly or vibrating touch, we must not take this too far and anger the horse, or become too insistent and demanding.

If our horses can be helped to first understand that a small response to a little gentle ask (and not a command) that their response will gain them a valuable (to that horse) reward, the horse will begin to offer more than is asked for. This has a snowball effect and can be taken to any part of equine training and behaviour.

The first rule is, that you cannot train pain, but once you have taken reasonable steps to rule out pain, you can work on improving anything from the style of your horses knee lift and bascule over a jump to loading, lunging or improving piaffe steps – or whatever floats your boat.

The second rule for me is, you must never diminish the horse and ask him to make a movement which is demeaning, pointless and trained movements definitely must never be physically harmful to the horse. The horse must feel emotionally empowered when he works with you and he must feel genuine physical muscular benefit from the gymnastic effort too. Otherwise it is worse than worthless.

Bent says, “Our goal is not to impress an audience. Our goal is to spend time well with our horses and refine what they already have from nature, both physically and mentally. ”

Past, Present and Future

I have 3 sculptures to talk about – one has been cast already, one is on the table right now and one is planned but not yet begun.

The sculpture I have just had cast is based on a beautiful Hispano Arabe who belonged to a good friend of mine, and his joyous party piece was a most incredible and flamboyant Spanish Walk. This beautiful horse has now sadly passed away, but when I saw him make his Spanish Walk it had a rare quality because his back did not become hollow and his hind legs were stepping underneath him while his forelegs were being raised so rhythmically and so high that it looked effortless, yet fabulously impressive. This sculpture has now been cast in affordable Resin and can be finished in any colour, including bronze. It can be pained to represent a particular colour of horse, or it can be painted in a decorative and non realistic manor, or it can be left simply pure white for a beautiful statement piece for your home. The starting price for this sculpture in the pure white form is £250 plus P&P. It is also possible for this sculpture to be cast in bronze to order.


***** there is also a table light being created, based on this sculpture*****

The sculpture on the table right now is the FABULOUS Lusitano Stallion “Uranio”, belonging to Sue Whitmore. He is an ethereal creature who is delicate yet powerful, strong yet elegant. I first met him when he was a young horse and having visited him again more recently as a mature stallion I can tell you that he has become a truly magnificent adult horse. He has a dynamism and balance in his movement that is rarely seen in any horse –  and to see him move makes onlookers gasp at the sheer beauty and grace. He also happens to be a truly wonderful and kind character too. This sculpture will be cast in Bronze and will have a simple, elegant base.


The Sculpture that is next on the list  is a full sized head and neck of a PRE stallion. How beautiful it could be to have such a sculpture in your living room! I already have a horse in mind to use as the model as he has such an expressive face and such beautiful bone structure that he is an obvious choice. He also happens to be here in training with me too! This is the horse I plan to use as a model for base the life sized head sculpture. He arrived here with a lot of defensive anger and fear, but he is becoming happier and softer every day – and he is so wonderfully expressive.

So on some of the wildest, wettest and windiest days I choose to sculpt indoors and on the slightly better days I work outdoors training my horses. It works for us – but to be honest, this winter I have had rather too many indoor sculpting days!

If you are interested in a sculpture, or if you are interested in my training approaches using Positive Reinforcement and Academic Art of riding by Bent Branderup, or Enlightened Equitation Teaching Level 3 Teachings, do get in touch.

Here is a link to my website


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