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Causes and Management of Stress Behaviors in Equine Assisted Therapy Horses

Kelsey Wallach
University of Washington
Junior Paper, Psychology Honors Program
June 7, 2014

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Date: ____________

Approved (Honors Advisor): ___________________________

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Stress behaviors displayed by equine assisted therapy program horses during therapy
sessions pose serious concerns for safety, retention, equine welfare and the quality of therapeutic
relationships. The traditional use of punishment and negative reinforcement in equine training
and to manage stress behaviors during the mounting process often unintentionally leads to an
increase in aversive conditioned emotional responses, avoidance behaviors and learned
helplessness-all of which pose serious welfare concerns and hinder performance. The proposed
study will examine the effectiveness of positive reinforcement-based clicker training in
strengthening desired behaviors and decreasing frequency of stress behaviors exhibited within
the mounting areas and during adaptive riding lessons. The findings of this study could support
meaningful improvements in safety, equine welfare, retention of program horses and quality of
therapeutic relationships.
The therapeutic benefits of horseback riding have been known for thousands of years.
Hippocrates was the first to call attention to ridings healing rhythm and the physical benefits
that came with the synchronization of a horse and humans bodies (Granados & Agis, 2011).
Horseback riding as a form of therapy for those with physical disabilities was first studied by the
French physician Cassaign in 1875. The field began to rapidly expand in the 1950s following the
Olympic success of Liz Hartel, a dressage rider who had been diagnosed with poliomyelitis
(Bertoti, 1988). Since then, therapeutic riding has become a popular and effective form of
physical therapy for those with a wide variety of mental and physical disabilities (Granados et
al., 2011)
Therapeutic riding offers people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve physical,
psychosocial and educational goals (Blinde & McClung, 1997; Norbeck, 2009; Bass, Duchowny
& Llabre, 2009; Granados et al., 2011). These benefits are strongly based in the triangular
relationship between rider, instructor and therapy horse. Creating healthy, communicative and
positive relationships between all parties is essential for maximizing the physical and mentally
therapeutic benefit for the rider (Granados et al., 2011).
The instructor is responsible for managing volunteer teams, assigning tasks and exercises
that pose an appropriate challenge to the horse-rider pair and providing feedback to facilitate
their improvement as a team (PATH Intl., 2012). Many standard and advanced riding skills, such
as two-point position, posting and leg yielding, translate easily into therapeutic exercises for a
wide range of capabilities. By appropriately modifying these skills, the instructor can create an
environment that fosters confidence and self-esteem in riders, who ordinarily are given little
opportunity to excel in other physical activities (Learn About Therapeutic Riding, n.d).
Importantly, the instructor also acts as the horses representative, and is accountable for
monitoring and maintaining the horses physical and mental well-being throughout the therapy
session. In return, the rider must in return have the discipline and willingness to listen and
respond to their horse and their instructor.

The therapy horses conformation, stride and movements provide numerous physical
benefits for riders with disabilities. The sensorimotor experience of sitting on a moving horse
naturally stimulates the riders body to adjust in compliment to the horses velocity, stride and
direction (Lessick, Shinaver, Post, Rivera & Lemon, 2004). Riders show improvements in
balance, muscle strength, gross and fine motor coordination, postural control and range of joint
motion (Blery & Kauffman, 1989; Sterba, Rogers, France & Vokes, 2002). Non-verbal riding
cues, such as steering with reins, squeezing the legs and actively moving the pelvis all act as a
form physical therapy and provide immediate feedback to the rider, thereby increasing body
awareness and coordination. The warmth and motion of the horses body is also effective in
reducing muscle tightness and spasticity in the legs (Bliss, 1997).
In addition, the relationship formed between therapy horse and rider has an impressive
influence over the improvement of mental health and social skills (Bass et al., 2009). Horses
provide obvious and immediate feedback to the actions of their rider and offer a unique social
bond that motivates achievement (Granados et al., 2011). Building this relationship serves as a
form of behavioral and social cognitive therapy, even in combating the challenging symptoms of
behavioral disorders such as ADHD and autism (Bass, Duchowny & Llabre, 2009; Cuypers, De
Ridder & Strandheim, 2011). In order to effectively work with these sensitive animals the riders
must demonstrate focus, emotional-control, self-discipline, leadership and compassion (VanFleet
& Faa-Thompson, 2011). Human-horse relationships built on these qualities promote mutual
trust, respect, unconditional acceptance, empathy, security, love and affection (Granados et al.,
While the beneficial effects of equine therapy for people with physical and mental
disabilities have been widely explored, few studies have investigated the effects of this noble
work on the therapy horses themselves. Unfortunately the nature of therapeutic riding exposes
these working animals to physically and mentally stressful situations on a regular basis; they are
ridden multiple times a day by people with limited motor control, balance and physical
awareness and are handled by hundreds of different people with varying degrees of equine
knowledge. Largely non-vocal, horses express feelings of stress and discomfort through a variety
of behaviors and body language such as tail swishing, ear pinning, refusal to change gait and
biting (McDonnell, 2003). When these behaviors appear during therapy sessions, they can create
disruptive, distressing and potentially dangerous situations.
The frequency and causes of stress behaviors during therapeutic riding sessions has not
been well-studied but new unpublished data reveal that horses exhibit a wide range of stress
behaviors during adaptive riding classes (Kaiser, Heleski, Siegford & Smith, 2006; Foster &
Wallach, unpublished). Adaptive riding classes are a popular form of therapeutic riding in which
riders focus on improving riding and horsemanship skills while passively receiving many of the
physical and psychosocial benefits of horseback riding (Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, This contrasts to hippotherapy, in which an occupational
or physical therapist uses the movement of the horse to directly address the riders physical

challenges. Adaptive riding classes typically consist of 3-5 riders, their horses and teams of
volunteers. The horses are often led by volunteers and accompanied by sidewalkers, although
the team make-up depends on the riders ability and level of independence.
In a recent study Foster and Wallach (unpublished) reported high occurrences of stressrelated and avoidance behaviors displayed by some therapy horses during adaptive riding
lessons. Behavioral data was collected during mounting and ten minute focal animal periods
during the lessons to identify common behavioral problems among the therapy horses and to
identify appropriate interventions to reduce their frequency. Behaviors indicative of stress or
discomfort included threatening behaviors such as ear pinning, tail swishing, repetitive mouth
movements, pushing into the leader and biting at the lead rope, reins or air. Avoidance
commonly manifested as refusal to move forward or change gait, ignoring rider cues, arching
back and inattention to tasks. A higher frequency of these behaviors was noted during tack
checks, mounting and trotting portions of the lesson.
In order to maximize the safety and benefits of therapeutic horseback riding it is
necessary that staff manage horse behavior issues that arise in response to stress. Traditional
methods of negative reinforcement and punishment do not lead to chronic behavior problems in
all therapy horses however, when these issues do arise, it is nearly impossible to correct them
with even more aversive control. These methods often unintentionally leads to an increase in
aversive conditioned emotional responses, avoidance behaviors and learned helplessness-all of
which pose serious welfare concerns and hinder performance. Positive reinforcement methods,
such as clicker training, provide tools for staff and handlers to encourage the expression of
desired behaviors, such as standing quietly for mounts.
Stress-related and avoidance behaviors can occur during adaptive riding classes for a
variety of reasons. Horses possess an impressive sensitivity to human body language and require
intentional, specific and consistent presentation of cues, as revealed by the famous case of the
counting horse Clever Hans (Hediger, 1981). However, working with many different handlers
with varying degrees of equine knowledge can lead to the presentation of inconsistent, confusing
or inappropriate signals. Conflicting directions given between the mounted rider and leader may
account for a significant number of conflict behaviors (McGreevy & McLean, 2007). In these
situations the therapy horse is forced to choose and react to whatever signal they best understand,
and consequently is often reprimanded by the person whose command they ignored or
misinterpreted. Unclear directions and reprimands are a significant source of stress for horses,
and they may express this emotion through aggressive or avoidance behaviors (Kaiser, Heleski,
Siegford & Smith, 2006; McGreevy et al., 2007).
Many people handling therapy program horses are volunteers who are unaware of or
misunderstand the reason for the development of these problem behaviors and try to resolve and
suppress them by using punishment (applying an aversive stimulus to reduce the expression of an
unwanted response)(Hothersall & Casey, 2012). The contingent and consistent use of

punishment can be quite effective at suppressing or eliminating undesired behaviors (McCall,
1990; Powell et al., 2008). The success of this technique at immediately stopping undesired
behaviors also reinforces its use by human handlers. It is understandable, therefore, why
volunteers and staff would use punishment to manage potentially dangerous behaviors. However
while punishment may manage the stress behaviors in the moment, even when used correctly it
often leads to the development of additional avoidance and escape behaviors and worsens future
experiences in the same situation. In addition, if punishment is applied when the animal is
already uncomfortable or fearful the added aversive stimuli can intensify the reaction (Hothersall
& Casey, 2012). When punishment is applied incorrectly (non-contingently) by unexperienced
handlers it can trigger frustrated aggression and lead to a chronic state of apathy called learned
Traditional horse training techniques utilize negative reinforcement, in which an aversive
stimulus, usually pressure, is released when the desired behavior is displayed (Dymond et al.,
2011). Negative reinforcement can be extremely effective when used consistently and
appropriately (e.g., pressure from the lead rope removed immediately each time the horse stops)
(McLean, 2005; Sankey, Richard-Yris, Henry, Fureix, Nassur & Hausberger, 2010). The horse
will eventually learn to display the desired behavior (e.g., stopping) at the first indication of the
aversive stimulus (e.g., leaders hand moving backwards), which allows handlers and riders to
fine tune cues by decreasing the amount of pressure required to elicit a response. The
predictability of the signal-response-release results in rapid acquisition of learned responses
(McLean, 2005).
Unfortunately, because so many different people with varied experience handle the
horses at therapeutic riding centers these techniques may often be applied incorrectly and
inconsistently. The incorrect use of negative reinforcement techniques (e.g., continued
application of pressure even after the horse has stopped) can lead to habituation to the aversive
stimuli and a consequent decrease in response to cues. This can be seen during adaptive riding
lessons as sluggish and barging behaviors. In addition, if the handler fails to reliably and
accurately release pressure the horse may develop chronic stress responses and additional
avoidance behaviors, such as head tossing or bolting (McLean, 2005).
Stress behaviors may arise even before the rider is mounted on the horse. Aggressive and
threatening behaviors such as ear pinning, nipping and head tossing are commonly displayed
during pre-mount tack checks (Foster & Wallach, unpublished). In addition, a high number of
avoidance and aggressive behaviors occur near and in the mounting areas of the arena. Therapy
horses frequently resist entering the mounting area and, once in the mounting block or ramp,
display defensive behaviors such as biting, refusal to stand, head tossing, tail swishing and ear
Many of the redirected aggressive (e.g., biting at the leader or lead rope) or avoidance/
escape behaviors (e.g., moving feet and arching back) displayed during mounts may have

originated as reactions to pain or discomfort (Casey, 1999; Budras, Scheibe, Patan, Streich &
Kim 2001;Ashley, Waterman-Pearson & Whay, 2005; Fureix, Menguy & Hausberger, 2010).
Even if the source of pain is removed, the horse has made a learned association between the
mounting process and experiencing that discomfort that is resistant to extinction. As a result, it
will exhibit defensive behaviors in attempts to avoid the anticipated pain associated with
mounting. However, the crowded mounting space means that most avoidance behaviors pose
serious safety concerns to volunteers, riders, staff and the therapy horses. As a result, additional
staff are often called in to help manage horse behavior during mounts, which requires them to
abandon their usual work and decreases workplace efficiency.
The combination of high demands and frequent corrections creates an aversive
experience for the horse during the mounting process, which can lead to even more immediate
and future behavior problems. In attempts to mitigate safety risks and keep the horse in position
for the mount, any behaviors displayed to express anticipated discomfort (e.g., head tossing,
moving away, nipping) are frequently met with punishers (e.g., yanking on lead rope, verbal
corrections, backing). The addition of stress and discomfort as the result of punishment produces
emotional changes that interfere with the animals normal behavior and learning (Bolles, 1970;
McCall, 1990; McGreevy & McLean, 2007). These emotion-driven responses quickly become
tied to any stimuli that predict the aversive situation through higher-order conditioning. Initially
the punisher (pain or discomfort) itself elicits the negative emotion and consequent defensive
behavior, but very quickly the animal will learn to anticipate the pain and respond to the human,
object, setting etc. that are predictive of the punisher. For example, a horse may frequently have
its lead rope yanked downwards when it tosses its head while at the mounting block. Yanking the
lead rope in the mounting block is not only a punisher to be avoided, but also acts as a stimulus
that elicits a negative emotional response (e.g., fear, anxiety, anger). Eventually, in anticipation
of the unpleasant experience, the horse will exhibit the associated emotional response (become
fearful) whenever it nears the mounting area, and attempt to avoid or escape to reduce the fear.
These conditioned emotional responses easily transfer to humans, and the horse could begin to
show naughty avoidance behaviors as soon as it see its rider approaching with helmet in hand.
Using punishment to decrease avoidance behaviors formed through conditioned
emotional responses (e.g. forcing the horse to approach or enter the mounting area by hitting it
with the lead rope) only increases the negative valence of the mounting event (McGreevy et al.,
2007). Eventually, the entire mounting process and all stimuli related to it can become associated
with the conditioned negative emotion and, as a result, the horse displays persistent or
increasingly problematic avoidance behaviors.
Because mounting is the first horse-rider activity, an unpleasant mounting experience
may contribute to stress behaviors observed during the rest of the adaptive riding lesson (Bolles,
1970; McCall, 1990; McGreevy et al., 2007). People and features of the environment associated
with the emotionally-charged experience are still present even if the original stimulus that was
being avoided (discomfort during the mount) has been removed (Mills, 1998). Anxiety may be

induced just by nearing the mounting area, resulting in avoidance behaviors such as
sluggishness, nipping or ignoring rider cues. This poses obvious problems for performance
during the therapy sessions as well as the development of a successful learning environment and
healthy riding partnership.
Chronic stress as a result of frequent conflicting cues or non-contingent use of aversive
behavior control (i.e., pressure or pain) can manifest as a general inhibition of behavior or
learned helplessness (Hall, Heleski, Randle & Waran, 2008). Research examining how the
brain reacts to stress has revealed that repeated exposure to stressful experiences induces changes
in the dopamine systems of the brain, which are largely responsible for motivational and learning
processes. When an animal is unable to exhibit behavioral responses to escape a stressor there is
a significant inhibition in dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. This deficiency leads to
significant psychological dysfunction such as behavioral despair, loss of motivation and
adhedonia. Seligman and Maier (1967), and Overmier and Seligman (1967) demonstrated that
when exposed to unescapable electrical shock, dogs had significant motivational, cognitive and
emotional behavior deficits. The animals ceased trying to escape from the shock and were unable
to learn how to escape even when it later became possible.
Foster and Wallachs (unpublished) observations revealed evidence of learned
helplessness (e.g., delayed response to cues, sluggishness and apparent lack of mental
engagement) affecting the performance of some therapy horses during both mounting and
adaptive riding lessons. A potential risk of the improper use of negative reinforcement to control
behavior is the frequent application of non-contingent aversive stimuli; the horse learns that
escaping the source of anxiety and discomfort is impossible, and so they cease to respond. These
behavioral inhibitions interfere with performance, and make training new, desirable behaviors
more difficult. The deleterious effects of this psychological condition can also generalize to other
areas of the animals normal behavioral repertoire as well as negatively affect physical health
(e.g. weight loss, stomach ulcers) posing serious ethical concerns (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Hall
et al., 2008; Fureix, Jego, Henry, Lansade & Hausberger, 2012).
Positive reinforcement has been widely recognized by the animal-training community as
an effective method to enhance the management, behavior and welfare of domesticated and
captive animals (Laule, Bloomsmith & Schapiro, 2003; Powell et al., 2008). In general, positive
reinforcement is the addition of an appetitive stimulus following the expression of a desired
behavior. In contrast to negative reinforcement and punishment, positive reinforcement training
methods do not force, coerce, or pressure the animal into exhibiting a desired behavior. By
reliably following a desired behavior with an appetitive stimulus, such as a palatable treat, the
animal learns that the voluntarily expression of the desired behavior is beneficial, thereby
increasing the behavior and motivating engagement and cooperation(Kurland, 2003; Innes &
McBride, 2008). Training through positive reinforcement also acts as an effective enrichment
activity (Pomerantz & Terkel, 2009; Westlund, 2013). Enrichment interventions, which increase
the animals control and ability to cope with challenges, greatly reduces the occurrence of

learned helplessness and stress-based stereotypies and are considered to result in a general
improvement in psychological well-being (Tresz, 2006; Gillis, Janes & Kaufman, 2012;
Westlund, 2013).
Perhaps the most notable aspect of positive reinforcement training is the lack of aversive
stimuli. Even in the absence of corrections, it is likely that the therapy horses will still display
some problem behaviors. Many of these behaviors have become habitual response and are
exhibited in anticipation of previously experienced discomfort in the context in which it
previously occurred (Mills, 1998). Incorrect or undesirable behaviors are completely ignored
while the trainer offers and reinforces an alternative, desirable behavior (McCall, 1990).
Reinforcement models maintain that non-reinforced behaviors will eventually decrease in
frequency via extinction, while the reinforced desirable behaviors increase in frequency to
replace the incorrect responses (Powell et al., 2008). This process can be accelerated if there is
differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI); that is the alternative behavior that
is reinforced is physiologically, emotionally and behaviorally discordant with the undesired
behavior. Asking a horse to stand calmly with its nose on a target for example, is incompatible
with aggressively biting the lead rope because the horse cannot do both at the same time. Desired
behaviors can therefore be increased and undesired behaviors reduced without the need to
directly respond to the problem behavior (Dymond & Slater, 2011).
Some stress behaviors exhibited by therapy horses are reactions to present physical pain
(Casey, 1999; Budras et al., 2001;Ashley et al., 2005; Fureix et al., 2010). In these cases,
positive reinforcement training will not fully eliminate the expression of avoidance and defensive
behaviors. However removing the additional stressors introduced by aversive controlwhich
can lead to hypersensitivity, tension and bracingcould prevent exacerbation of the pain or
related injury.
Some horses may be displaying problem behaviors as a means to gain attention (Cooper
& McGreevy, 2007). Attention-seeking behaviors, such as nipping, biting the mounting ramp or
nudging the leader, are commonly seen during the mounting process. In these cases,
extinguishing the response by withholding a reaction to the behaviors (and so denying the horse
of its goal) and concurrently reinforcing an alternative, desirable behavior as an appropriate
means of gaining attention is necessary to decrease the frequency of inappropriate attentionseeking behaviors (Mills, 1998).
Through the process of counter-conditioning, the combined effect of ignoring undesirable
behaviors (extinction) and applying positive reinforcement of desired behavior may mitigate the
occurrence of negative emotional responses typically caused by the discomfort of punishers. The
positive valence encouraged by the continual reinforcement of desired behaviors inhibits the
formation of conditioned emotional fear responses and consequent avoidance behaviors. (Laule,
Bloomsmith & Schapiro, 2003; Powell et al., 2008). Reduced levels of stress and arousal as a
result of an absence of aversive stimuli (punishers) create a much safer and pleasant mounting

experience for the therapy horse, rider, volunteers and staff; the horses are less likely to display
avoidance and defensive problem behaviors, even within the confining space of the mounting
area (Mills, 1998; Powell et al., 2008). Anticipating reinforcement, the horse may gain a positive
association with mounting, decreasing avoidance and increasing the likelihood of approach
behaviors (Sankey, Richard-Yris, Henry, Fureix, Nassur & Hausberger, 2010). This positive
valence may also become associated with interactions with the handler and, through
generalization, to interactions with humans in general.
The methods by which handlers, staff and riders respond to behavior issues is a critical
component to the nature and quality of the three-way therapeutic relationship mentioned
previously. This relationship is built upon series of interactions that build expectations for future
interactions (Hausberger, Roche, Henry & Visser, 2008). Instead of being based on experiences
of fear and avoidance, the positive valence and enrichment that accompany positive
reinforcement training enhances expectations of cooperation, communication and trust between
the therapy horse, rider and instructor.
Clicker training is a positive reinforcement technique that has effectively been used to
teach animals to cooperate voluntarily in demanding tasks such as receiving injections, having
blood drawn and leaving home cages (Gillis, Janes & Kaufman, 2012)(Reinhardt, 2003)(Scott,
Pearce, Fairhall, Muggleton & Smith, 2003). The noise made by a hand-held box clicker acts as
marker signal that is sounded when a desired behavior is displayed (Kurland, 2003). This noise is
initially meaningless but, when repeatedly paired with a primary reinforcer such as food,
eventually becomes a conditioned reinforcer. Via shaping a new desired behavior can be created
through the gradual creation of through positive reinforcement of successive approximations of
that behavior, Clicker training can be used to teach horses a variety of complex behaviors such
as ground tying, lateral movement under saddle and following at liberty (Kurland, 2003; Powell
et al., 2008). By shaping target-touch responses through clicker training, Dymond and Slater
(2011) completely extinguished avoidance behaviors (standing, turning, head-tossing, backing
up) in horses that were fearful of loading into transport trucks. Following training, all
experimental horses were able to successfully load into the trucks without exhibiting any
avoidance behaviors and 3 out of 4 had responses that generalized to novel handlers. In a second
study, the researchers examined the effectiveness of clicker training in teaching a sensitive horse
to stand quietly while its feet were held for the farrier. Their results demonstrated that
conditioned positive reinforcement was extremely effective in increasing the duration that the
horse feet could be handled and decreasing the frequency problem behaviors (e.g., leaning,
stamping, straightening leg, pawing, lifting other feet).
Dymond and Slaters (2011) work provides an excellent framework for examining the
effectiveness of positive reinforcement-based training techniques in reducing the frequency of
stress behaviors displayed by therapy horses during the mounting process. The natural behavioral
repertoire, or ethology, of these animals helps explain the behaviors exhibited by the horses
while in the transport trucks or mounting areas (Goodwin, 1999; McGreevy & McLean, 2009).

W a l l a c h | 10
Horses do not display problem behaviors to be naughty or difficult, but because they are
responding in species-typical reactions to situations which raise levels of arousal and stress
(Hothersall & Casey, 2011). As prey animals, small and confined spaces like transport trucks)
are naturally stressful environments for horses. Similarly, while in the mounting block or ramp
the horse is closely surrounded by obstacles. A leader stands directly in front of the horses face
while an offside volunteer stands on right side and an instructor and rider on the mounting
block/ramp to its left. In addition, when confronted with a threatening stimulus (e.g., discomfort
from the mount or from a punishment) the horses species specific defense reaction is to avoid or
escape and, if unable to escape, fight for their survival (Bolles, 1970). However during the
therapy sessions, and even while in the naturally stressful mounting areas, the human handlers
expect the horse to remain calm and still. Doing so restricts the response repertoire of horses
which impedes their ability to reduce levels of arousal and can lead to conflict or coping
behaviors (e.g., biting or rubbing on the mounting ramp, dissociation, shifting feet) (McGreevy
et al., 2007)
The occurrence of stress behaviors during the mounting process is concerning for several
reasons. Some mounts can be long and difficult because of rider disabilities that impair motor
control and balance, creating high mental and physical demands for the horse. The horse moving
during the mount as a result of stress behaviors or the handlers attempts to manage them can put
the disabled rider in an unstable and vulnerable position. Instructors often have to simultaneously
manage horse behavior while they are mounting riders, which creates safety risks and can take
time away from the rest of the adaptive riding lesson. Defensive behaviors exhibited in the tight
confines of the mounting area also pose a significant safety risk to the volunteer leader. As the
first rider-horse interaction of the therapy session, frequent behavior problems during mounting
could also set a negative tone to the riding experience and impede the formation of a positive
riding partnership.
The purpose of this study is to use positive reinforcement target training with horses that
consistently show high levels of stress behaviors during mounting. Based on reinforcement and
punishment theories as well as studies confirming the effectiveness of reinforcement in training
voluntary behavior, we hypothesize that the use of positive reinforcement, and in particular DRI
(differential reinforcement of incompatible responses) will increase desired behaviors such as
walking willingly into the mounting area and standing calmly during mounts. In addition, we
predict that refraining from the use of aversive control will decrease the frequency of
problematic stress behaviors displayed during mounting. We also expect that the positive valence
created by clicker training in the mounting area will carry over to the remainder of the riding
lesson and decrease the overall frequency of stress behaviors. Fewer behavior issues during the
mounting process and adaptive riding lessons could result in significant improvements in safety,
rider experience and equine welfare.

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Prior to the start of this study, IRB approved consent and assent forms approving use of
collected data will be provided to all riders and/or guardians of riders who will be participating in
the observation periods. In addition, a proposal of this experiment will be submitted for IACUC
approval. IRB approval to observe riders and IACUC approval to observe horse behavior during
preliminary observations have already been approved to researchers through the University of
Puget Sound.
The experimental horses will be selected from the therapy herd at Little Bit Therapeutic
Riding Center in Woodinville, WA. The herd includes 20-25 horses of a variety of breeds, sex
and age. Horses are primarily housed in individual gravel paddocks during the day and moved
into individual box stalls each night. The horses participate in adaptive riding classes and
hippotherapy sessions 4-6 days a week. They are schooled in groundwork and basic dressage 2-4
times each week by staff.
Preliminary Data Collection:
Horses will be selected for the target training group based on preliminary behavior
observations during adaptive riding classes. Researchers will observe and record the behavior of
the therapy horses as they approach the mounting block/ramp, during the riders mount as well as
walking out of the block/ramp once the rider is mounted (See Appendix A-C). Two horses that
demonstrate a high frequency and severity of behavior issues during the mounting process will
be selected for the intervention. To rule out the complicating issue of pain as a source of
behavior problems, palpation soreness tests will be administered. Behavioral, muscular and
emotional responses to manual palpation of 98 pressure points on the horses body will be
recorded and quantified on a 5 point scale (See Appendix E) Horses that have high levels of pain
(high frequency of level 3 and 4 pain scores) will not be used in this study.
Target Training
To ensure validity and reliability of the clicker training methods across researchers and in
the mounting context, the following procedure will be completed first with two non-program
horses before the training is implemented with the therapy program horses. The selected horses
will be trained using clicker based positive reinforcement to a) follow a target into the mounting
block/ramp, b) stand quietly with their nose on the target for the duration of the mount, and c)
follow the target out of the mounting area. Before implementing this new technique in therapy
sessions, researchers will train the selected horses to complete all three components outside of
therapy sessions and without a rider. To maximize efficient learning, training sessions will not
exceed 15 minutes and will be conducted 4-6 times a week. (McCall, 1990). The training method
has been broken down into 8 separate, sequential modules (See Appendix F). Modules 1-7 will

W a l l a c h | 12
be taught in an environment that is low stress, distraction-free and familiar to the horse such as a
stall, paddock or enclosed arena. The completion criteria for each module must be met before
progressing onto the next module. An additional researcher will record response latency for each
horse during each trial of every module.
Module 1 is designed to charge the hand-held box clicker as a conditioned positive
reinforcer by pairing the sound with a food reward. The researcher will present a target object
close to the horses nose and, when the horse touches the object, click the clicker and feed the
horse a treat. After a few repetitions, the horse will associate the desired behavior (touching the
target) with the conditioned reinforcer (the click) and a primary reinforcer (food reward) and
begin to touch the target as soon as it is offered.
Module 2 is designed to help teach the horse to move towards the target, regardless of its
position. It also will strengthen the word touch as a discriminative stimulus to reach for the
target, by stating it before the behavior. The researcher will say touch at the same time as
offering the target in front of the horses nose, then click and offer a treat when the horse touches
the target. Then the researcher will begin, in small increments, to change the location of where
the target is offered so that the horse has to stretch its neck out, but not move its feet, to reach it.
If the horse does not respond to the target being offered in a new location, the researchers will
move the target back up to a level where the horse touches the target within 2 seconds of it first
being offered and then move the target in smaller intervals to a new location (encouraging
Module 3 is designed to teach the horse to walk forward to reach the target. The
researcher will begin this module by offering the target 1 foot in front of the horses nose. When
the horse stretches its nose out and touches the target the researcher will click and reinforce the
touch with a food reward. The researcher will then begin to slowly increase the distance between
where the target is offered and the horse, so that the horse must step forward in order to touch the
target. Like in Module 2, it is important to encourage success during this training portion. If the
horse does not respond to the target being offered in a new, farther away location, the researchers
will move the target back to a distance where the horse is willing to walk/stretch to touch the
target and then move the target away in smaller intervals to a new, farther away location.
Module 4 is designed to train the horse to follow the moving target at a set distance. The
researcher will offer the target about 1 foot from the horses nose and begin to walk forward. If
the horse moves to follow the target, the researcher will immediately stop walking, click and give
a food reward. If the horse rushes forward to touch the target, the researcher will stop walking,
place the target down to the side and repeat the first step. The researcher will slowly increase the
number of steps the horse takes following the target before clicking and giving a treat.
Module 5 is designed to use a technique called shaping to train the horse to stand with its
nose resting on the target for an increasing period of time. The procedures are similar to those

W a l l a c h | 13
outlined for Module 2, however the researchers will begin to slowly increase the amount of time
between the horse touching the target and clicking. Eventually the horse will be able to stand
with its nose resting on the target until the researcher clicks and gives it a reward.
Module 6 uses chaining to teach the horse to exhibit each of the target-trained behaviors
(touching target, following target, holding nose to target) in a sequence that can be used during
the mounting process. The researcher will first ask the horse to follow the target for a short
distance and then stand with it nose held to the target for 5 seconds. Once the horse successfully
completes both of these behaviors in 3 consecutive trials the researcher will add an additional
behavior to the sequence. Once again the horse will be asked to follow the target for a short
distance, stand with it nose held to the target for 5 seconds and then asked to follow the target
again for a short distance. The researcher will gradually increase distance/duration of each
element. When the horse can demonstrate all three elements in an unbroken sequence,
reinforcement will be given only after the completion of the sequence, with a marker to bridge
the elements. After several trials, the researcher will install an intermittent reinforcement
schedule by clicking and giving the horse a treat for only half of the successfully completed
sequences during each training sessions.
Module 7 is designed to install an intermittent reinforcement schedule and thereby
increase the persistence of the target trained behaviors (Powell et al., 2008). Researchers will
begin by only clicking and giving the horse a treat following the final element of the target
trained sequence. Eventually the researchers will provide reinforcement following only some of
the completed sequences.
Module 8 is designed to train generalization and ensure that the learned behaviors can be
exhibited in multiple settings. The researchers will ask the horse to touch, follow and hold to the
target in at least three new settings, including the mounting block/ramp areas. Training in the
mounting areas will mimic the mounting procedures used in therapy sessions, but with an
additional researcher and associates acting as the rider, volunteers and instructor. Using the
target (and appropriate reinforcement from the clicker and treats) the researcher will lead the
horse towards the mounting area and into the mounting block/ramp. When the horse is aligned
properly, the researcher will halt and ask the horse to stand with its nose held to the target before
asking the horse to follow the target out of the mounting area.
Application in Therapy Sessions using a Multiple Baseline Design
Observations of the selected horses behavior during standard procedure mounts will be
taken during 4 adaptive riding lessons to establish baseline data prior to the implementation of
target-led mounts during therapy session. One of the focal horses will begin target-led mounts
during the fifth adaptive riding lesson. The second animal will not be used in target led mounts
until two weeks later.

W a l l a c h | 14
Following the completion of Training Modules 1-8 these methods will be introduced
during adaptive riding lessons. Before the lesson has begun, a researcher or trained staffer will
lead the horse in a mock-mount with an instructor and representative rider (a volunteer or
additional researcher) to ensure that the horse is able to successfully respond to the target even in
the presence of distractions. If the horse is successful the researcher/trained staffer will repeat the
procedure, asking the horse to hold to the target while a rider mounts. No additional corrections
or cues in response to behaviors will be given during the mounting process. A researcher will
observe and record the behavior of the horse as it approaches the mounting block/ramp, during
the riders mount as well as walking out of the block/ramp (see Table 3-Behavior observation
Because the researchers or trained staff cannot be present for every therapy session the
selected horses participate in, the horses will still largely be led into mounts by volunteers using
standard mounting procedures. To control for this inconsistency in training and mounting
procedures, researchers will observe and record behavior of selected therapy horses for 3 targetled mounts as well as 3 standard-procedure mounts each week.
Following each of the observed mounts researchers will also record frequency of horse
behavior issues displayed during the mounted portion of the adaptive riding lesson. Each horses
behavior will also be observed for a 10 minute period. The severity of observed behaviors will be
recorded (on a scale of 1 to 3) as well as any hypothesized triggers will be noted along with
pertinent information about the riders abilities (See Appendix A-D).

This multiple baseline design of this study will provide strong experimental evidence for
the effectiveness of the treatment. A similar pattern of change in stress-related behaviors that
coincides with the use of positive reinforcement across both focal horses would indicate that the
target-training methods are successful at reducing stress behaviors.
The frequency of stress behaviors exhibited by the focal horses will be compared before
and after the implementation of target training during mounts in adaptive riding classes. We
expect that the number of stress behaviors displayed will decrease following the implementation
and continued use of target-training in the mounting areas. Because of the continued application
of aversive stimuli (through traditional negative reinforcement and punishment techniques) it is
unlikely that there will be any change in frequency of stress behaviors displayed during standard
procedure mounts (See Fig. 1). It is possible however, that the positive valence created by the
target training may become associated with the mounting process in general, and so result in an
overall decrease in stress behaviors during all mounts.

W a l l a c h | 15

Frequency of
stress behaviors


Post Target





Observed Mount #

Figure 1: The frequency of stress behaviors displayed during mounting will

decrease following the implementation of target training.
We hypothesize that the positive emotional valence created by the initial target-led
mounting experience will carry over to result in a decrease in stress behaviors displayed during
the adaptive riding lesson due to counter-conditioning of stimuli associated with mounting (See
Fig. 2). It is also possible that the mounting experience is independent from and does not have an
effect on behavior during the lesson, in which case the frequency of behaviors will not differ
from baseline data.

Frequency of
adaptive riding


Post Target Training




Class Observation #

Figure 2: The frequency of stress behaviors displayed during adaptive riding

lessons will decrease following the implementation of target-led mounts.

W a l l a c h | 16

If DRI increases the frequency of desired behavior, we expect to see a decrease in stress
behaviors displayed during mounting following the implementation of target-led mounts. If
refraining from aversive control through extinction decreases the frequency of desirable
behavior, then we would expect to see a decrease in stress behaviors during target-led mounts
and no change in frequency during standard procedure mounts.
These results would add to the wealth of studies supporting positive reinforcement
techniques as an effective training method for reducing problem behaviors (Scott et al., 2003;
Reinhardt, 2003; Williams et al., 2004; Innes et al., 2008; Pomerantz et al., 2009; Dymond et al.,
2011; Gillis et al., 2012). Importantly, this decrease in problem behaviors would indicate that
punishment and negative reinforcement methods are not as effective at managing behavior of
horses vulnerable to stress during mounts, and should be replaced with positive reinforcement
techniques. A decrease in avoidance behavior displayed while approaching the mounting area
could also indicate a positive change in valence associated with the mounting process.
If the stress behaviors displayed during mounts are the result of conditioned avoidance,
then it is possible that this change in valence would carry over to the entire riding experience.
This positive change in emotional association could facilitate a decrease in avoidance behaviors
displayed throughout the entire lesson. This general decrease in problem behaviors would
indicate that the initial mounting experience has a persistent influence on the horses emotional
state. However, if behavior issues exhibited during the riding lesson are largely not the result of
conditioning (and instead originate from pain, confusion or frustration while the rider is
mounted) then a change in valence associated with mounting may be independent of the class
No change in the frequency of stress behaviors displayed between baseline and target-led
mounts would suggest that clicker training was not effective at reducing avoidance and negative
emotional valence associated with mounting. However, the large wealth of data supporting the
effectiveness of clicker training and positive reinforcement techniques suggests that there may be
additional factors preventing the extinction of these stress behaviors (Scott et. al, 2003;
Reinhardt, 2003; Williams, Friend, Nevill & Archer, 2004; Pomerantz et. al; Gillis et. al, 2012).
It is possible that the behavior issues were the result of long-ingrained learned avoidance
behaviors, which require more time and training than provided by the study to completely
extinguish (Powell et al., 2008). The inconsistent use of the target (and therefore potential use of
punishment during standard procedure mounts) could impede the extinction of avoidance
behaviors and maintain any negative valence associated with the mounting process. It is also
possible that, despite attempting to minimize the horses discomfort, these behavior issues are
simply a natural and normal (unlearned) reaction to the horses elicited in stressful and

W a l l a c h | 17
uncomfortable situations (Casey, 1999; Budras et. Al, 2001; Ashley et. Al, 2005). While the
degree of back soreness and pain were screened prior to the selection of the experimental horses,
it will not be monitored throughout the course of the study. Pain and soreness levels could
potentially increase as the sessions continue, and so influence behaviors even after the
implementation of target-led mounts.
A reduction in behavior issues exhibited during mounts and adaptive riding classes holds
many potential benefits for staff, volunteers, riders and the therapy horses. If target-led mounts
are successful at reducing stress behaviors, then the mounting experience would become much
more safe and enjoyable for all parties. Fewer defensive behaviors while in the mounting area,
such as nipping, walking off uncued and head tossing, creates a much safer environment for the
volunteer leader. In addition, training the horse to stand still with its nose held to the target while
at the mounting block/ramp allows the instructor to focus on assisting the rider in safely
mounting the horse (without having to manage horse behavior at the same time). This would
allow instructors to complete their mounts much faster, increasing the amount of time riders
could be receiving therapy each session. In addition, a still horse and focused instructor could
help make riders feel more secure while mounting their horse, which could translate into greater
confidence and improvements during the overall therapy session.
The use of positive reinforcement training and reduction of stress behaviors holds
promise for improvements in equine welfare. If we are to be using horses as our partners in this
therapy then we have an ethical obligation to ensure their physical and mental well-being
(McLearn & McGreevy, 2010). It is our responsibility therefore to attempt to understand,
manage and prevent avoidance and defensive behaviors displayed by therapy horses. Managing
these behaviors via positive reinforcement combats their negative effects and the development of
further problem behaviors, without the need to apply further aversive stimuli.
In addition, this intervention has potential long-term benefits of increasing retention and
reducing equine wastage (McGreevy et al., 2007). Horses are regularly released from
therapeutic riding programs as a consequence of the development of frequent problem behaviors.
The implementation of target-led mounts and a subsequent decrease in behavior problems would
allow horses to remain in therapy programs for longer periods of time. This prevents unnecessary
travel and re-homing, which can be physically and mentally stressful for the horses, as well as
consumes the time and financial resources of the therapy center (Cregier, 1982; Smith, Jones,
Hornof, Miles, Longworth & Willits, 1996).
This study also provides the opportunity to enrich and develop the human-horse
relationship within a therapeutic setting. Clicker training gives the therapy horses
communicated clear ways that they can gain rewards and thus a greater sense of control over
their environment, directly combating the development of learned helplessness (Dymond et al.,

W a l l a c h | 18
2011). Training via positive reinforcement creates a positive valence that can facilitate overall
mental well-being and prevent the development of stress-related syndromes. The valence
associated with positive reinforcement training has been shown to translate to human
interactions. Horses trained to move backwards using positive reinforcement techniques
displayed an increased interest in human contact, even outside of the training context (Sankey et
al., 2010). It is our hope that the proposed training methods will produce a therapy horse that is
motivated and content to fulfill its unique and meaningful role in the therapeutic relationship.
The results of this study hold meaningful implications for research on equine behavior as
well as the care and management of therapy horses. A decrease in problem behaviors would
provide further support for the effective and practical use of positive reinforcement techniques in
equine training. Clicker training is a relatively simple technique and, if effective, could easily be
installed for use in all therapeutic riding centers.

W a l l a c h | 19
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Appendix A: Horse Behavior Checklist and Codes

W a l l a c h | 25
Appendix B: Mounting and Tack Check Observation Log

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Appendix C: Class Behavior Observation Log

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Appendix D: Rider Information Log

W a l l a c h | 28
Appendix E: Palpation Soreness Test Scale
Pain score

Softening expressions and tone; changed to a
relaxed stated
No change in expression or muscle tone
Tense expressions (pinned ears, tight lips),
small isolated movements or attention change
(head up, turn head toward) AND/OR
localized, minor muscle or fascia condition
responses (tension or contraction).
Low intensity behavior reactions (e.g., head
bob, weight shift, small multiple movements
forward and/or sideways) AND/OR strong and
widespread muscle contractions or spasms.
Large or threatening behavioral reactions, e.g.,
abrupt movements (large back and forth or
side-ways movements) or aggressive threats
(head toss; bite at or bite lead; paw, stomp, or

W a l l a c h | 29
Appendix F: Target Training Procedures
#1: Touch target

Procedure Elements
1. Hold target up in front of horses nose
2. The horse will likely reach out to sniff
the target, the instant the horse touches
the target say the word touch and click
the clicker
3. Immediately place the target down out
of sight and give the horse a treat
4. Hold the target up again within easy
reach of the horses nose (encouraging
5. Continue to hold the target up until the
horse touches it with its nose. When the
horse touches the target, say touch and
click the clicker. Immediately place the
target down to the side and give the
horse a treat

Completion Criteria
When the horse reliably
touches the target within 2
seconds of it first being
offered for 9 out of 10 trials
during 2 consecutive training
sessions Module #1 can be
considered complete

#2: Stretch to target

1. Hold the target in front of the horses

nose and say touch.
2. When the horse touches the target,
click, place the target down to the side
and treat.
3. Offer the target 3 inches lower than
previously and say touch. When the
horse touches the target, click, place the
target down to the side and give the
horse a treat.
1. Hold the target 1 foot in front of the
horses face.
2. When the horse reaches and touches
the target, click, hold the target down to
the side and give the horse a treat.
3. Begin to slightly increase the distance
between the target and the horse so that
the horse must take a step in order to
reach the target
4. When the horse reaches and touches
the target click, hold the target down to
the side and treat.
5. Continue increasing the distance
between the horse and where the target is

When the horse reliably

reaches for and touches the
target within 2 seconds of it
being offered, regardless of its
location for 9 out 10 trials
during 2 consecutive training
sessions Module #2 can be
considered complete

#3: Walk to target

When the horse reliably walks

towards and touches the target
regardless of its location for 4
out of 5 trials during 2
consecutive training sessions
Module #4 can be considered

W a l l a c h | 30

#4: Follow moving


1. Hold the target about 1 foot in front of

the horses face and begin to walk
2. If the horse moves to follow the target,
click, place the target down, stop walking
and give the horse a treat. If the horse
rushes forward to touch the target stop
walking, place the target down to the
side and repeat the first step.
3. Once again hold the target about 1
foot from the horses face and begin to
walk. When the horse begins to walk and
keeps a steady distance behind the target
for 2 steps click, place the target down,
stop walking and give the horse a treat.
4. Slowly increase the number of steps
the horse takes following the target
before clicking and giving a treat to the

#5: Hold to target

1. Repeat the procedure listed in Module

2 but begin to gradually increase the
amount of time between the horse
touching the target and clicking.

#6: Chaining

When the horse can

successfully follow the target
at a steady distance for 15
steps for 4 out of 5 trials
during 2 consecutive training
sessions Module #3 can be
considered completed.

When the horse can stand with

their nose on the target for a
consecutive 45 seconds in 4
out of 5 trials during 2
consecutive training sessions
Module #5 can be considered
1. Ask the horse to follow the target for 5 When the horse can
steps by holding the target in front of the successfully complete all three
horses face and walking forward.
behavioral elements in an
2. After 5 steps click, stop walking and
unbroken sequence in 4 out of
give the horse a treat.
5 trials during 2 consecutive
3. Immediately after reinforcing success training sessions Module #6
of step 2, hold the target up in front of
can be considered complete.
the horses face. The horse should touch
and hold its nose to the target. Wait to
click and reinforce until after the horse
has held its nose to the target for 10
seconds. When the horse can
successfully complete steps 1-3 in 3
consecutive trials continue on to step 4.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 and immediately
after reinforcing success of step 3 ask the
horse to follow the target for another 5
5. After 5 steps click, stop walking and

W a l l a c h | 31
give the horse a treat
6. Repeat steps 4-5 and gradually
increase the distance/duration of each
#7: Intermittent

1. Ask the horse to complete the

sequence trained in Module #6, but do
not click and treat until after the
completion of the final element.
(If the horse has difficulty completing
the entire sequence without
reinforcement following each element,
add reinforcement following the second
element (holding nose to target). When
the horse can reliably complete the
sequence this way for 2 consecutive
trials, once again withhold reinforcement
until the completion of the
sequence.(Repeat as necessary)
2. When the horse can complete the
sequence with reinforcement supplied
only following the final element, begin
to withhold reinforcement from every
other completed sequence.

When the horse can reliably

complete the sequence without
reinforcement in 3 out of 5
trials for 3 consecutive
training sessions Module #7
can be considered complete.

#8: Application in
new settings

Using the procedures from the previous

Modules, ask the horse to touch, follow
and hold to the target in at least three
new settings, including the mounting
block/ramp areas
Mounting areas:
1. Lead the horse towards the mounting
area using the target.
2. 5 feet before the entrance to the
mounting block/ramp halt the horse and
turn to face its head.
3. Walk backwards into the mounting
block/ramp, leading the horse with the
target. When the horse is aligned
properly with the mounting block/ramp,
halt and have the horse stand with its
nose held to the target for 45 seconds.
4. Turn to face forward and lead the
horse out of the mounting area using the

When the horse successfully

completes each of the steps in
Module #6s procedures in 4
out of 5 trials during 4
consecutive training sessions
Module #6 can be considered

W a l l a c h | 32
5. Repeat steps 1-4 and complete the
mount with associates standing in as a
rider, volunteers and instructor