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Principles of learning theory in equitation


2018 ISES Training Principles Poster.pdf
The following 10 training principles are presented as ‘first principles' for all horse training interactions. As first principles, these stand as non-negotiable obligations in order to lower behavioural wastage rates and increase safety of both humans and horses.

First place - from a member competition on a version of the ISES Training Principles aimed for the general public, especially youth and children. Congratulations to the team of W.O.W. - Working on Optimal equine Welfare, Anne Muller, Machteld van Dierendonck, Pascale Nales

Second place - from a member competition on a version of the ISES Training Principles aimed for the general public, especially youth and children. Congratulations to Rudolf Leuthardt

A message from the Dutch W.O.W. team to all ISES members and friends of Equitation Science…

When we developed our interpretation of the ISES 10 training principles, to our surprise, it became not only a poster with the translation of the 10 principles each in 10 separate pictures but much more: while having fun developing several tools for practical use, we had developed a whole concept. This first part of the W.O.W. concept contains several elements and various attractive tools to teach novice riders of all ages and their (pony-club) teachers, trainers, instructors.

In addition to the ISES – W.O.W. poster on the ISES website, the other materials we developed can be found on our website Currently, we are working on additional elements for more experienced riders and equine professionals. Horse welfare while working with horses, we can’t make it easier but we can make it more clear and fun to learn and teach. We do hope we have awakened your curiosity, please visit our website and/or share this link on your social media accounts (for the Dutch, all files are already translated, see 


If you are interested in translating one or several of the Training Principle posters to other languages, please contact the ISES media officer. You will be directed to the original author and the final version will be reviewed by a council member/ISES member who is familiar with the language. Once accepted, the translated version will be uploaded to the website.


Publication year 2018

ISES 10 training principles

Human and horse welfare depend upon training methods and management that demonstrate: 

1. Regard for human and horse safety

  • Acknowledge that horses’ size, power and potential flightiness present a significant risk
  • Avoid provoking aggressive/defensive behaviours (kicking /biting)
  • Ensure recognition of the horse’s dangerous zones (e.g hindquarters)
  • Safe use of tools, equipment and environment
  • Recognise the dangers of being inconsistent or confusing
  • Ensure horses and humans are appropriately matched
  • Avoid using methods or equipment that cause pain, distress or injury to the horse 

“Disregarding safety greatly increases the danger of human-horse interactions”

 2. Regard for the nature of horses

  • Ensure welfare needs: lengthy daily foraging, equine company, freedom to move around
  • Avoid aversive management practices (e.g. whisker-trimming, ear-twitching)
  • Avoid assuming a role for dominance in human/horse interactions
  • Recognise signs of pain
  • Respect the social nature of horses (e.g. importance of touch, effects of separation)
  • Avoid movements horses may perceive as threatening (e.g jerky, rushing movements)

“Isolation, restricted locomotion and limited foraging compromise welfare”

3. Regard for horses’ mental and sensory abilities

  • Avoid overestimating the horse’s mental abilities (e.g. “he knows what he did wrong”)
  • Avoid underestimating the horse’s mental abilities (e.g. “It’s only a horse…”)
  • Acknowledge that horses see and hear differently from humans
  • Avoid long training sessions (keep repetitions to a minimum to avoid overloading)
  • Avoid assuming that the horse thinks as humans do
  •  Avoid implying mental states when describing and interpreting horse behaviour

“Over- or underestimating the horse’s mental capabilities can have significant welfare consequences”

4. Regard for current emotional states

  • Ensure trained responses and reinforcements are consistent
  • Avoid the use of pain/constant discomfort in training
  •  Avoid triggering flight/fight/freeze reactions
  • Maintain minimum arousal for the task during training
  • Help the horse to relax with stroking and voice
  • Encourage the horse to adopt relaxed postures as part of training (e.g. head lowering, free rein)
  •  Avoid high arousal when using tactile or food motivators
  • Don’t underestimate horse’s capacity to suffer
  • Encourage positive emotional states in training

“High arousal and lack of reinforcement may lead to stress and negative affective states”

5. Correct use of habituation/desensitization/calming methods

  • Gradually approach objects that the horse is afraid of or, if possible, gradually bring such aversive objects closer to the horse (systematic desensitization)
  • Gain control of the horse’s limb movements (e.g step the horse back) while aversive objects are maintained at a safe distance and gradually brought closer (over-shadowing)
  • Associate aversive stimuli with pleasant outcomes by giving food treats when the horse perceives the scary object (counter-conditioning)
  • Ignore undesirable behaviours and reinforce desirable alternative responses (differential reinforcement)
  • Avoid flooding techniques (forcing the horse to endure aversive stimuli)

“Desensitization techniques that involve flooding may lead to stress and produce phobias”

6. Correct use of Operant Conditioning

  • Understand how operant conditioning works: i.e. performance of behaviours become more or less likely as a result of their consequences.
  • Tactile pressures (e.g. from the bit, leg, spur or whip) must be removed at the onset of the correct response
  • Minimise delays in reinforcement because they are ineffective and unethical
  • Use combined reinforcement (amplify pressure-release rewards with tactile or food rewards where appropriate)
  • Avoid active punishment

“The incorrect use of operant conditioning can lead to serious behaviour problems that manifest as aggression, escape, apathy and compromise welfare”


6. Correct use of Classical Conditioning

  • Train the uptake of light signals by placing them BEFORE a pressure-release sequence
  • Precede all desirable responses with light signals
  • Avoid unwanted stimuli overshadowing desired responses (e.g. the horse may associate an undesirable response with an unintended signal from the environment)

“The absence of benign (light) signals can lead to stress and compromised welfare”

 8. Correct use of Shaping

  • Break down training tasks into the smallest achievable steps and progressively reinforce each step toward the desired behaviour
  • Plan training to make the correct response as obvious and easy as possible
  • Maintain a consistent environment to train a new task and give the horse the time to learn safely and calmly
  • Only change one contextual aspect at a time (e.g trainer, place, signal)

“Poor shaping leads to confusion”

9. Correct use of Signals/Cues

  • Ensure signals are easy for the horse to discriminate from one another
  • Ensure each signals has only one meaning
  • Ensure signals for different responses are never applied concurrently
  • Ensure locomotory signals are applied in timing with limb biomechanics

“Unclear, ambiguous or simultaneous signals lead to confusion”

10. Regard for Self-carriage

  • Aim for self-carriage in all methods and at all levels of training
  • Train the horse to maintain:
    • gait
    • tempo
    • stride length
    • direction
    • head and neck carriage
    • body posture  
  • Avoid forcing any posture
  • Avoid nagging with legs, spurs or reins i.e. avoid trying to maintain responses with relentless signaling.

”Lack of self-carriage can promote hyper-reactive responses and compromise welfare”

Examples of desensitisation techniques

TechniqueDescription and example
Systematic desensitisation The term refers to a gradual habituation to an arousing stimulus. Systematic desensitisation is a commonly used behaviour modification technique for the alleviation of behaviour problems caused by inappropriate arousal. In a controlled situation, the animal is exposed to low levels of the arousing stimulus according to an increasing gradient, and rewarded when it remains relaxed or shows an appropriate response. An increase in the level of the stimulus is not made until the animal reliably fails to react to the previous level. In this way the technique aims to raise the threshold for a response.
  Example: The horse is fearful of aerosols. As a first step a handler brings an aerosol close to the horse and strokes it on the body with the bottle (no spraying). This is to habituate the horse to the visual characteristics of the aversive stimulus. When the horse shows no avoidance responses, a next step is to stand some meters from the horse and spray in the opposite direction, preferably with water, i.e. a fluid with no smell. This is to gradually habituate the horse to the aural characteristics of the aversive stimulus. The handler gradually steps closer to the horse, and when the horse shows no responses to the handler standing next to it and spraying in the other direction, the handler can gradually spray closer to the horse. Before spraying directly on the horse’s coat, the handler should stroke the horse with a hand and spray gently on the hand. At all stages, it is important to ensure that the horse is only rewarded for appropriate responses, i.e. the aerosol should be removed or spraying terminated when the horse stands still. Positive reinforcement (e.g. food, wither scratching) can be used as an additional reinforcer for appropriate behaviour.
Counter-conditioning To ‘condition’ means to train, and ‘counter’ means opposite. Counter-conditioning refers to training an animal to show a behaviour (e.g. eating) which is counter to the one that the trainer wishes to eliminate (e.g. flight), i.e. producing an incompatible response to a stimulus that is expressed in preference to the undesired response. This can be done by forming an association between the feared stimulus and a pleasant stimulus so that the fear-eliciting stimulus comes to predict something good to the horse. As soon as the horse observes or encounters the fear-eliciting stimulus, we introduce something that produces a pleasant emotional reaction (e.g. food). Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever the fear-eliciting stimulus appears, something pleasant happens. Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked event, person, place or object. This technique is widely used in combination with systematic desensitisation. By ensuring that the preferred behaviour is more rewarding, the animal learns to perform the new behaviour when exposed to the problematic stimulus.
  Example: A horse becomes anxious when it hears the bell before the competition, which compromises good performance. Through counter-conditioning, positive outcomes such as a food reward or termination of work are associated with the sound of the bell so that it becomes a predictor of a positive event. Once the horse shows a neutral or positive emotional state at the sound of the bell, it will no longer be tense before a competition.
Overshadowing Overshadowing describes the phenomenon whereby habituation to the least salient stimulus takes place when two or more competing stimuli are presented concurrently. In the practical setting of horse training, overshadowing provides an effective method of desensitising horses to aversive stimuli such as clippers, needles or other invasive procedures. These aversive and invasive procedures frequently elicit a withdrawal response in the horse. Similarly, when a horse learns to respond to lead rein signals of forward or reverse, they are initially acquired because they too produce a withdrawal response, which through the refinement of further training, diminish to light lead rein cues. Therefore outcompeting the withdrawal response elicited by the clippers through the use of the lead rein cues of forward and reverse can be a useful overshadowing protocol. The horse must therefore be reliably trained to step forward and back from lead rein cues via operant conditioning. Overshadowing differs from systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning principally because of the use of the lead rein mobility responses.
  Example: The horse is needle–shy and when it sees the person approaching with the syringe it becomes hyper-reactive and pulls against the handler’s lead rein pressures in its attempts to escape. The needle pricking the horse’s skin also induces a severe flight response. The solution in terms of overshadowing involves the horse being trained to step back and forward from lead rein pressure so that the horse’s reaction is elicited from the lightest of lead rein cues. Next the person with the syringe approaches the horse with the syringe and as soon as the horse displays even the smallest of fear responses, the person with the syringe stops and remains immobile so that the distance between the horse and the syringe stays constant. The horse is then signalled to step back one step and perhaps then forward a step. Initially the horse is delayed and its reaction to light pressure is ignored because his attentional mechanisms are overshadowed by the syringe so the handler then increases the motivational pressure of the lead rein so that in a few repetitions the horse is now responding to light signals of the lead rein. The horse’s fear reaction to the syringe has, at this distance, decreased. The syringe is now brought closer to the horse and as soon as the horse shows the slightest fear reaction, the process is repeated. This process continues until the horse’s response to the syringe has diminished. Positive reinforcement at each increment enhances the acquisition of the lowered arousal. These lead rein signals and their associated mobility responses soon achieve stimulus control of the horse’s locomotion and thus overtake the syringe or clippers for salience. The less salient stimulus either no longer elicits or greatly diminishes withdrawal from the original, more salient stimulus. The procedure however is most successful if the process is begun at the lowest levels of arousal.
Approach conditioning This method exploits the natural tendency of horses to explore and approach unknown objects, in combination with systematic desensitisation. The horse is stimulated by the rider or handler to approach the object of its fear, which is retreating as the horse approaches. The horse may then be signaled to stop before it reaches its fear threshold, so that the object retreats even further. The horse is then signaled to catch up. As soon as the horse slows its approach it is deliberately stopped and this is repeated until the horse becomes as close as possible to the object. The method has been successfully applied to horses that are afraid of tractors and diggers, motorbikes and trams.
  Example: the horse is fearful of tractors, motor bikes or trams and attempts to escape, in order to lower its fear. However if the process is reversed whereby the horse approaches the retreating machine, this can have the opposite effect: its fear is lowered because the machine itself escapes. This technique has been used in training police horses. In best practice, when the horse closes in on the machine it is stopped, thus allowing the machine to increase its distance from the horse. The horse is then stimulated to approach again and each time it draws closer to the machine before it is stopped. Stopping the horse apparently increases its motivation to approach. This is continued until the horse actually makes contact with and investigates the machine.
Stimulus blending The method uses a stimulus to which the horse has already habituated to systematically desensitise the horse to the original fear-inducing stimulus. The fear-inducing stimulus is applied gradually at the lowest threshold of fear simultaneously as the known, non-fear-inducing stimulus is applied, and then systematically increased in intensity. For example a horse may be afraid of aerosol sprays but unafraid of being hosed. The aural and tactile characteristics of the aversive stimulus (e.g. aerosol) are gradually mixed with the habituated one (e.g. the hose) making identification of the formerly aversive one difficult and perceptually different. The old benign stimulus can then be diminished and finally terminated after which the horse will show habituation also to the new stimulus.
  Example: the horse is fearful of aerosols. In this technique, a stimulus to which the horse has already habituated is used to blend with the problem stimulus. If the horse is used to hosing on its body, the aerosol is introduced during hosing and on the hosed patches of skin. The sound and feeling of the usual water on the horse’s body will blend with the novel sound and tactile feeling of the aerosol, making it less distinct. The hosing can then be terminated while the spraying continues. Adopted from From McLean & Christensen, 2016. The application of learning theory in horse training. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (in press)

The quadrant of reinforcement and punishment

  Reinforcement Punishment
  Increasing the likelihood or intensity of a behaviour Decreasing the likelihood or intensity of a behaviour
Negative (Subtraction)
The removal of an aversive stimulus to reward a desired response.
The removal of a desired stimulus to punish an undesired response.
  Example: Rein tension is applied until the horse stops and the removal of the tension rewards the correct response.
Example: The horse paws and so food is withheld.
Positive (Addition)
The addition of a pleasant stimulus to reward a desired response.
The addition of an aversive stimulus to punish an undesired response.
  Example: The horse approaches when called for and receives a carrot to reward the response. Example: The horse bites and receives a slap on the muzzle.


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