top of page

Horse welfare - what we know matters

Written by Shirley Ferber - equine nutritionist, founder of the Equida organization


In August, the annual international conference of the Society for Equitation Science ISES 2020 - International Society for Equitation Science took place, due to the global pandemic the conference was held online. When equitation or equitation is a concept derived from the Latin word 'equida' (Equidae), in English 'equine' (Equine), which means members of the equine family. This concept refers to all the activities of training, taming and riding horses and donkeys, or any activity related to work and interaction between a person and a member of the equine family.

During the conference there was also a fascinating lecture by Lisa Ashton who is a riding coach and an expert in the field of equitation science and horse welfare in riding and training, a consultant to the International Equestrian Federation FEI, and many other international organizations in the field.

In the lecture, Lisa dealt with various topics in horse welfare under the title 'what we know matters' (What we know matters), and talked about how what we know directly affects the welfare of horses.

Here is a brief summary of the main points presented in the lecture.


Curiosity is the key to improving the welfare of horses and animals in general, but curiosity also encourages vulnerability. Planting curiosity in the minds of people is like planting seeds in the ground, we can choose whether to let the seeds of curiosity see sunlight, sprout and grow in us or we may leave them to dry and wither in the dark. When we recognize a gap between what we know and what we do or a gap in our knowledge, this is actually the opening to curiosity. But this gap may cause us discomfort because in the very act of recognizing the gap we recognize a state of uncertainty and a kind of illusion of helplessness.When we know more, or better, as in 'fact-based equity' Evidence Based Equitation, riding and training based on facts and research, we can do things better for the horses. So what do we actually know?Below is the summary of the examples that Lisa presented. When we know much more than that, and we also always have more to learn.

  • The training of all animals places the trainer as a stimulus for all behaviors, whether intentionally or not, the environment is not the stimulus, but the person. And in a way, stimulation means control.

  • Dominance in horse training is a man-made method and concept. When flight, fight and apathy are all reactions that express fear.

  • Removing an aversive stimulus, or 'negative reinforcement', including the use of pressure and relaxation.

  • Adding an attraction stimulus, or 'positive reinforcement', is used to reinforce the responses we do want.

  • A combined reward method, which combines positive and negative reinforcement, is more effective than either of them separately.

Concepts from the horse training toolbox

  • Getting used to things - the habituation process, or Habituation to stimuli.

  • Rewards and consequences - use of operant conditioning (Operant Conditioning), to strengthen a behavior that occurs randomly under certain conditions and the frequency of its appearance is controlled by its consequences.

  • Clues and signals - use of classical conditioning (Classical Conditioning), to strengthen the context between a response to an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus.

  • Building behaviors step by step - Behavior design (Shaping), a process that enables the refinement of simple reactions into a complex reaction.

"As long as we keep our eyes closed to how horses really feel, the truth about horses will never come out to the world". Lisa Ashton (2019)

Lisa mentioned the movie Matrix as a metaphor for horse training methods. New (the character played by Keanu Reeves) suspected that there was some kind of malfunction in his world, and his curiosity made him look for the source of the malfunction. And Morpheus promised Neo that if he took the red capsule he would get the truth, but if he took the blue capsule he could go back to his previous life and nothing would change. So the red capsule actually represents the truth, the information based on facts and how horses really feel in relation to different training methods. Recognize curiosity and gain more knowledge. Whereas by choosing the blue capsule, we actually miss the truth and return to our virtual reality. Which is fine, but we are actually missing the true reality of how our horse feels and how the actions we choose to perform really affect him.And so, who we are matters more than what we know.For, we are all responsible for what becomes acceptable in training and riding horses, what is considered fashionable or legitimate, and seek social approval. But if we change the perception of what is considered legitimate, according to what really supports the welfare of the horse, this will be the key to creating the real change for the horses.



Summary of a lecture by Lisa Ashton ( presented at the ISES 2020 conference, August 2020

Lisa Ashton, ISES 2020. What we know matters

2 views0 comments


bottom of page