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Horse Whispering, LIMA and Humane Hierarchy

Horse Whispering was so fascinating to me.

I remember first learning about horse whispering. There was a book written about Monty Roberts on my book shelf when I was a kid. I was just mesmerized reading about how he observed wild horses, and learned their language. I remember day dreaming, and just imagining how magical that must have been. Then reading about his work in the round pen, and being just fascinated. Then came the first time I worked my horse in a round pen, it felt so amazing to have the horse bond with me and follow me everywhere. I felt like if I tried hard enough I could learn to speak to them in their language too. I had so many fictional books and series about horses as a child, my favourites were the Thoroughbreds, Heartland, and the Unicorns Of Balinor. All involving a girl with an incredible affinity for horses, and a beautiful bond. I wanted that so badly. I didn’t want to be a famous horse whisperer like Monty Roberts. All I wanted was to have a good relationship, and be able to communicate with my horse… and any other horse I encountered…  

I became disillusioned with the whole concept of Horse Whispering.

When I later learned the learning mechanics behind the round pen work that I was doing, I stopped using it. Feeling disillusioned about horse whispering in general. Often when working with horses, ignorance is bliss. When we don’t know what we do, we don’t feel bad about doing it. In reality knowledge is painful, but there is power in it too. It gives us the power to do better, to have an incredible working relationship with our horses, and the power to give our horses the best species appropriate life we can give them. 

At first I thought I would change my ideal from a horse whisperer to a horse listener… but what does that even mean? Riding bridleless and bareback, was I really listening any more to my horse than I was before? Not really. What I said was law. I was still very much of the mentality that the horse can never have a choice. I was sure that the horse would choose to avoid stressful situations and become dangerous to both of us.

Riding tackless meant I was listening to my horse and she was happy in her work right?

All I really was doing here was exploring fine tuned pressure and release training. I did use food here as well, but it was often after an R- sequence. Taking the tack off and leaving more option for a loss of control. I was absolutely fascinated that Jade would still follow my cues without tack. I thought it meant she was willing and happy to work with me. She could just buck me off and leave if she wanted to right…? In reality it had a LOT to do with reinforcement history, but I didn’t know that then. It just felt like magic. More on why this wasn’t her necessarily being happy with the situation in a later post.   

The goal should be to hear the horse whisper, and whisper back.

In my opinion… I doubt it’s a popular opinion, but just hear me out… Horse whispering ties into LIMA and Humane Hierarchy because the goal should be to hear the horse whisper, and whisper back. In the recent past Horse Whispering relied on the idea that we could understanding equine body language, and they could understand ours, which isn’t a terrible idea in itself. The problem was that the interpretation of the body language, and what it actually meant was off. The idea that if we were the best leaders, they would accept us, trust us, and follow unquestioningly was flawed.

Just because the method seemed to work for a lot of horses, didn’t make it right, and didn’t make our interpretations of what was going on between the horse and trainer true. In reality pushing the horse around the round pen until he followed me, was an example of a human shouting what they wanted and calling it a whisper. The horses would shout their response back and I would ignore them until they gave the body language I was looking for. It is an example of negative reinforcement, and depending on the trainer sometimes positive punishment, with no real whispering occurring. 

There are many roads to Rome in horse training. Our job is to find the best road for our horses. Through science we can all speak in whispers, and hear whispers.

Instead Horse Whispering should involve relying on science, understanding how horses actually learn, and how we learn, and how we can work together as individual species for a mutually beneficial, enjoyable relationship. When my horse needs something he need only whisper, and my goal is to catch the whisper. When I cue my horse I only whisper, and watch his reaction, if he says no, I stop and find out why. This is where trust and harmony is actually built.    

LIMA – Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive.

 This is where LIMA comes in. LIMA stands for Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive. With LIMA we aren’t just looking to achieve a behavioural goal at all costs. We are looking from the horse’s perspective for the gentlest, most affective, least stressful, most enjoyable, way possible for them to spend time with, and learn from us. Just because something works, doesn’t make it right, and most definitely doesn’t mean it’s the only way. There are many roads to Rome, some are just nicer and more enjoyable than others. So with LIMA in mind, the Humane Hierarchy is the next logical step for spending time with, caring for, and developing a training plan for our horses.   

“There are many roads to Rome” Photo Credit To: Trina Cary Photography

The Humane Hierarchy.

The Humane Hierarchy was proposed by Dr. Susan Friedman in her paper “What’s Wrong with this Picture – Effectiveness is Not Enough”. The Humane Hierarchy is a 6 step blue print for developing training plans for animals. Step one is the start, and step six is the last resort. Each step should be thoroughly explored before moving to the next step. The idea is to be so effective in our work with animals that we stay between steps 1-4, moving to 5 when absolutely necessary, and avoiding 6. I am going to list the steps below, as well as share a helpful visual. Then I will explain them further. Most of these will need their own detailed blog post, but I will include a brief summary, to begin with. So to start, here are the steps:

  1. Wellness: This is species specific. 
  2. Antecedent Arrangement
  3. Positive Reinforcement
  4. Differential Reinforcement or Alternative Behaviours
  5. Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Punishment (No Particular order)
  6. Positive Punishment     

(Dr. Susan Friedman, Behaviour Works 2018) 

(Dr. Susan Friedman, Behaviour Works 2018)

Now we have to decide what this list means, and figure out how it works. Below I’m going to give an example of how these steps work in hypothetical situation. The situation is a horse swinging his head around, biting the air, and actually biting the human whenever the human attempts to tighten the girth. This behaviour is potentially harmful to humans. This hypothetical horse has escalated to the point where he will bite as soon as the human reaches under the horse for the girth. There are many options to solve this, but for now here is a potential example.

Step 1 Wellness:

Before we even address the behaviour we must address the physical, emotional reasons for why this horse may feel discomfort around the girth. Has he had a vet check? Has any underlying pain around the girth been ruled out? There are many physical stressors that can cause behavioural issues around the girth. Ulcers, poor girth fit, injuries, girth tightening that is too fast, or too rough, pinched nerves, general anxiety etc. How is the horse kept? Is he in a stall 24/7, or out in a pasture? Does he have friends? Or does he live alone? What is his diet like? What is his past history with girths? When did this behaviour begin to show up? All of these things can contribute to the wellbeing of the horse and lead to different behavioural reactions. So once everything has been addressed, and resolved we can move on to step 2. For some horses step 1 is as far as we need to go to get the behaviour that we are looking for.

Step 2 Antecedent Arrangement:

Here we look at setting the horse up for success. Right now we know that the human reaching under the horse for the girth is the cue for the horse to swing and bite. We have addressed the underlying issues. So we now need to set up the environment to encourage the behaviour that we do want, and reduce the behaviour that we don’t want. There are a lot of options here. We can work in protected contact which would make it harder for the horse to swing his head, we could place food on the ground so that the horse is in a head lowered position when we start, we could work with the girth in a different part of the barn than our normal place, the options are endless. This is where we as trainers have the opportunity to exercise our creativity. The idea is to use the environment and our props to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour that we don’t want, and increase the behaviour that we do want.       

A horse’s living arrangements can hugely impact behaviour.

Step three: Positive Reinforcement.

Step 3 Positive Reinforcement:

Here we use positive reinforcement (giving the horse something that he likes to increase the behaviour that we want). So we have addressed any underlying issues, we have a good antecedent arrangement, now we reinforce the horse for good behaviour. Meaning we follow wanted behaviour with something the horse likes, typically food. It is important to pay close attention to the horse here and stop before they do the unwanted behaviour. Typically there will be signs of tension and discomfort long before the behaviour appears. For example: the human acts like they are going to reach for the girth -> they don’t go far enough to cue the old unwanted biting behaviour -> the horse gets a reinforcer -> Repeat -> Through repetition and small steps the human works up to and passed the place where the horse used to react -> Eventually the human reaches their goal of doing up the girth without any swinging and biting. If the horse becomes anxious at any step the owner listens to the whisper, and goes back to a step that was easier, and works up from there. If the behaviour persists the human should re-asses the first two steps to ensure they are resolved to the best of their ability, then move on to Step 4.


Step 4 Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behaviour:

Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviours is basically removing what is reinforcing the unwanted behaviour, while simultaneously reinforcing an alternative behaviour. An alternative behaviour is one that is different from the unwanted behaviour, but isn’t necessarily incompatible.

If the human gets stuck at a point in step 3 where the swinging and biting is still triggered. Say the moment the girth touches the spot where the horse used to be sore triggers the biting. Assuming that the original issue has been resolved, the human does not release the girth from the spot if the horse swings and bites (assuming the swinging and biting is being reinforced by the removal of the aversive girth (negative reinforcement)), and at the same time they reinforce the horse for standing with his head in the middle of his chest. This is on the edge of the yellow zone, and only appropriate if the human is sure that the original source of the behaviour (likely pain) has been addressed and resolved, and they have re-assed the previous steps. Being sure about equine pain is difficult. Otherwise the horse will likely find a new unwanted behaviour to defend himself from the pain (rightfully so), an example could be something as small as a tail swish, or something dangerous like kicking.

If it ever got to the point where the horse tried a new unwanted behaviour then it would be wise to assume that something is still very physically wrong, and go back. Next on the list is Step 5.

Step 5 Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment (No Particular Order):

Extinction is removing the thing that is reinforcing the behaviour so that the behaviour goes extinct. So say for example the horse in the past associated the girth with pain, he would feel the girth being tightened, swing and bite, the human would jump back and drop the girth, the horse is negatively reinforced through avoidance conditioning because he avoided the pain that he was anticipating.

An example of using extinction could be the human holding the girth on the horse while the horse swings and bites. The horse would eventually realize that the behaviour wasn’t making the girth and human go away. With the underlying issues dealt with the behaviour should disappear thus go extinct. A word of caution around extinction is that the behaviour will typically escalate before it resolves, and extinction can cause a lot of frustration, and frustration based behaviours in the learner. This is why positively reinforcing an alternative behaviour is helpful.

Negative Reinforcement would involve the human placing the girth, waiting for the horse to stand without biting, and removing the girth when the horse isn’t biting. This way the human reinforces standing calmly by removing the girth, (which the horse is finding aversive). This is negative reinforcement because the human applied the aversive (the girth in this case), the horse did the behaviour of standing calmly, and the aversive (the girth) was removed. A word of caution here, if the pain around the girth has not been resolved and the horse has just learned to endure their could be further injury to the horse, or he could develop another pain based behaviour later.

Finally we have Negative Punishment. Negative Punishment involves removing something the horse wants to reduce behaviour. So the human gives the horse a flake of hay before attempting to do up the girth, if the horse bites the human removes the hay. The three biggest drawbacks to punishment are that it can be very difficult to get the timing right and punish the unwanted behaviour. Punishment doesn’t tell the horse the correct behaviour, so he could just develop another unwanted behaviour. Finally Punishment can cause strong emotions, one common one being rage…  

Step 6 Positive Punishment the least recommended:

Positive Punishment involves adding something the horse doesn’t like (an aversive) in order to reduce a behaviour. So when the horse swings to bite, the human hits the horse. This in theory will reduce the behaviour. Positive Punishment doesn’t tell the horse what he should be doing, just what he shouldn’t. So the swing and bite could easily change to a kick instead. 

Sticking to this outline provides many options for working with behaviour in a horse and human friendly way, which reduces frustration for both. Since learning to follow this I have been able to work with horses more efficiently, effectively, and respectfully. This really takes the anthropomorphism out of horse training, and makes room for logical species appropriate training plans.

Have A Lovely Day,



Dr. Susan Friedman, Behaviour Works, 2018, accessed 21 July 2021,  http://www.behaviorworks.org  

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