Horseman's Calling event - Anna Saillet

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On the 5th and 6th April 2014 the UK's first colt starting event, known as Horseman's Calling, was held in Buckinghamshire. Colt starting events have historically taken place in the USA and Canada but this is the first event of this kind within the UK. This event has raised concern and controversy amongst equine owners and behaviour professionals.

The colt starting competition saw equine trainers competing within a given timeframe to prepare the horses for being ridden by introducing them to the tack, and having a rider mount them and ride them for the first time. Competitors were judged on their horse's ability to remain calm and relaxed whilst mounted, walked, trotted and cantered on each rein, standing still and backing up. The judges were asked to base the marks given on the horse's demeanour during training, the trainer's connection with the horse, flexion and control of the horse. Alongside the colt starting competition trainers were also required to deal with horses with loading problems within a limited timeframe.

A number of videos of this event have been released into the public domain, and these have created a cause for concern amongst equine behaviour professionals. Although the organisers claim that the event is 'all for the good of the horse' (Horseman's Calling website) this environment is not a welfare friendly way of starting horses.

The demonstrations were carried out within a roundpen. This confined environment is immediately stressful for a horse, whose innate response to a frightening stimulus is to flee. Naive horses are typically nervous about being handled by humans and most often they will choose to avoid contact, rather than becoming aggressive (McGreevy, 2004), which is a behavioural trait that is commonly taken advantage of by equine trainers. Horses are highly social herd animals for whom social isolation is extremely stressful (McBride & Hemmings, 2009; McDonnell et. al., 2012; Strand et. al., 2002). High levels of stress are known to seriously impair the learning of many species (Zinbarg et. al, 1998) including horses, which leads us to question whether a situation of isolation from conspecifics, in a small confined space with a large and noisy audience of spectators, is indeed the appropriate environment to begin training young horses.

The footage currently circulating from the event shows extremely stressed horses displaying numerous conflict behaviours, in stressful situations. Conflict behaviours including rearing, bucking, bolting, shying, leaping, rushing backwards may occur when a horse feels unable to resolve a stressful situation (Mills, 2010). The audience were told that a horse was being desensitised to a tarpaulin by being chased around the roundpen by a man waving a tarpaulin around. This is an example of 'flooding' in action (not desensitisation) - repeated exposure to a highly distressing stimuli with no option of escape. This method is not advised with animals because it initially enhances the fear response and to be successful must not be stopped until all signs of fear are entirely eliminated, both physiological and behavioural. When improperly carried out flooding carries a great risk of increasing behaviour problems rather than solving them (Merck Veterinary Manual, 2013). It may appear that these techniques were 'successful' during the event, because when an animal has no opportunity to escape and is repeatedly exposed to fear inducing stimuli there is a high chance that the animal will become suppressed and eventually reach a state of learned helplessness. To the untrained eye this results in a horse that may look calm or even sleepy, but the animal is far from relaxed.

Ethical animal training is not, and should never be, a timed 'sport'. By creating a competition the focus is on what the trainer can achieve in a given time frame, rather than the welfare of the animals involved. It creates an environment in which the needs of the animal come second and makes it far more likely that the subtle behavioural signals of anxiety and fear will be overlooked. Each animal is an individual and should be allowed to progress through training at their own speed in a calm, quiet and relaxed environment.

Although the event had veterinary presence it was noted that there were no equine behaviour consultants on the judging panel, thus making it unlikely that the judges would have noticed any subtle behavioural signs of stress and anxiety in the horses. Unfortunately this resulted in the horses displaying more extreme behavioural signs (bolting, shying, bucking, leaping, kicking, rearing), indicating a great level of stress and anxiety.

It is important to objectively evaluate training demonstrations by observing the behaviour of the horses involved, and noting whether they are showing approach, avoidance or affiliative behaviours (McGreevy et al, 2009). The presence of conflict behaviours indicates that the level of pressure exerted on the horse has exceeded tolerable levels and is causing discomfort and/or pain. Animal welfare is both the physical and psychological welfare of animals, and with the recent advances in behavioural knowledge it is our responsibility to ensure the welfare of the animals in our care, during both management and training.

Horse training at its best is not a spectator sport, because done correctly it should be as boring as watching paint dry. Mills (2010) clearly explains "It is the responsibility of animal custodians and trainers to understand learning theory well enough to establish learned responses in animals, without causing conflict behaviours". There should be no behavioural explosions, no fearful or panicked horses and no people falling off, because when shaped slowly using small, successive approximations and building a horse's confidence gradually these things simply don't happen.

We would like to urge any horse owners who want to learn more about their horse's behaviour to always consult a qualified behaviour consultant, with both academic qualifications and practical experience.


McBride, S. and Hemmings, A. (2009) A Neurologic Perspective of Equine Stereotypy. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Vol 29, Iss 1, p10-16.

McDonnell, S., Miller, J. and Vaava, W. (2012) Calming Benefit of Short-term Alpha-Casozepine Supplementation during Acclimation to Domestic Environment and Basic Ground

Training of Adult Semi-Feral Ponies. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 1 - 6.

McGreevy, P.D. (2004) Equine Behaviour - A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. W.B. Saunders, Edinburgh.

McGreevy, P. D., Oddie, C., Burtonc, F. L., and McLean, A. N. (2009) The horse-human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? The Veterinary Journal 181, p12-18.

Mills, D. (2010) The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour, 1st Edition. CABI Publishing.

Strand, S.C., Tiefenbacher, S., Haskell, M., Hosmer, T., McDonnell, S. M., and Freeman, D.A. (2002) Behaviour and physiologic responses of mares to short term isolation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Vol 78, p145 - 157.

Zinbarg, R. E. & Mohlman, J. (1998). Individual differences in the acquisition of affectivity valenced associations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychiatry, 74: 1024-1040

Reprinted with kind permission from Anna Saillet