It is a stunning spring day, your outdoor ring is freshly harrowed, and you are thrilled to be outside after a long Canadian winter of riding indoors (should you be so lucky). The day is warm, the trees have a bright haze of budding new growth…everything seems possible. Everything, that is, except getting your horse down to the far end of the ring without an outrageous display of shying, leaping sideways and assorted hysteria. Are horses who refuse to comply with certain requests being stubborn or “muleheaded”?

If we are considering a personality trait along which horses can vary from highly compliant to stubborn, it is possible that horses may have individual differences on this personality dimension, although, to date, no equine researchers have identified such a trait. Even if researchers were able to discover that a horse might be non-compliant, or stubborn, due to a perverse personality, it does not advance us down the road toward resolving compliance behaviour problems. More productive questions are, “Does my horse understand the question?” and “Is he capable (cognitively, physically, or psychologically) of complying?”

Does My Horse Understand?

The majority of non-compliance behaviours originate and can be remedied by exploring whether the question was clearly stated initially. Miscommunication due to the incorrect application of aids, or conflicting aids, resulting in desensitized or “misbehaving” horses, lie at the source of much purportedly stubborn behaviour.

Training and de-training
The primary tool we use to train horses under saddle is that of “negative reinforcement.” Reinforcement occurs when a response is strengthened because it leads to rewarding consequences. With negative reinforcement, we achieve the desired behaviour by taking away something unpleasant, making it more likely that we will see this behaviour occur in the future. We apply a mildly unpleasant stimulus (e.g. rein pressure) until we see the behaviour we want (the horse slows down), we immediately reward that desired behaviour by removing the aversive stimulus (we relax the reins), and we make it more likely that we will see that behaviour reoccur. Not to be confused with punishment (the addition of an unpleasant stimulus, or the removal of something pleasant, which serve to weaken a response), negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, thereby strengthening a response.

The catch is that this pressure/release formula works well only with impeccable timing. Poorly executed negative reinforcement punishes the horse by not releasing pressure immediately upon receiving the desired response. Remember that punishment makes a response less likely to reoccur because it is followed by an aversive event.

Well-meaning amateurs may inadvertently punish their horses because their coordination, timing, or inexperience jeopardizes their ability to release and reward appropriately. Consider the scenario in which a terrified horse eventually lowers his head to approach a clearly malicious boulder, while his fearful rider, who just barely survived the prior violent exit episode, clutches the reins in a death grip, providing no release when the horse offers this desired response. Through several such reoccurrences, the rider effectively trains the horse, through punishment, that he was right about boulders all along.

Ponies are often reputed to march to their own drummer and are noted for being notoriously willful and disobedient. Given that ponies are generally trained by children, who are also in training, and unlikely to provide consistent, clear signals, a pony’s lack of compliance is not surprising.

Even professionals, whose timing is undoubtedly more adept, may punish horses when competitive goals override the good sense of knowing when to stop. The release of pressure is the reward alerting the horse that he has offered the correct response. With no release, we teach the horse, through positive punishment rather than negative reinforcement, precisely the opposite response to that intended – i.e. to not offer this behaviour in the future.

In these situations, horses often become unresponsive to the rider’s aids – what Andrew MacLean, a leading equine researcher, refers to as “de-training,” where we need an increasingly stronger aid to get a response (spur rubs tell the story here). Alternatively, horses may resort to more drastic measures such as rearing, bolting, balking and so on. Both responses often label the horse as willful, stubborn or malevolent. The horse, however, is simply attempting to tolerate or eliminate an unpleasant event – either blocking his ears and singing LaLaLaLaLa, or more actively trying to rid himself of the source of his discomfort.

Learned Helplessness
Researchers have also discovered that animals who appear compliant may well be in a state of “learned helplessness,” a term coined by social psychologist Martin Seligman (1991) to describe an animal’s (or human’s) lack of escape response to chronic, uncontrollable and painful events. Seligman trained dogs to escape an electrically charged floor by jumping a barrier to safety. When Seligman then strapped these dogs into a harness where they were unable to escape the shocks, they eventually stopped trying, lay down on the charged floor and whined. Even when the harness was removed and an escape route was again available, the dogs simply gave up. People too, when faced with chronic traumatic events over which they have no control, may experience learned helplessness.

Andrew MacLean and Paul McGreevy have proposed that horses who are subjected to relentless pressure and pain (e.g. dressage horses who are ridden continually in a deep overflexed position by unrelenting pressure on the curb rein) where no response will alleviate their suffering, simply give up trying. Their compliance may be better understood by learned helplessness rather than a conditioned response to a training cue.

Is he smart enough?
MacLean suggests that we can do as much harm by overestimating horses’ capabilities as by underestimating them. Trainers and owners often speak about horses they admire as animals that are willing and eager to please. MacLean challenges us to reconsider the “willingness to please” fallacy, and to think what this would require of a horse’s cognitive capacity. First, the horse would have to be clear about what would please us – a stretch from the get-go, as our goals are often murky even to us. The horse would need a grasp of abstract concepts such as personal sacrifice, delayed gratification and the personal fulfillment of winning, or a job well done. It is not clear that horses know what pleases other horses, let alone humans. Secondly, the horse would have to want to please us, and there is no clear reason why this would be so. Many of the behaviours that please us run completely counter to the horse’s instinctual and evolutionary nature.

When we believe that horses understand what pleases us and are capable of fulfilling this wish, we feel justified in punishing them when they fail to do so. When we label them as stubborn, mulish or willful, we stop looking for more reasonable explanations for their uncooperative behaviour – reasons that could well be causing them physiological or psychological harm.

Is He Capable of Complying?

Is he physiologically capable?
In a previous article in the 2015 Canadian Horse Annual, I outlined how often a physiological reason underlies many behaviour problems. These physiological sources, however, are not always easy to find, and may go unnoticed in a traditional veterinarian work-up. Equine Gastric Ulcer

Syndrome (EGUS), for example, which is surprisingly prevalent in both pleasure and performance horses (rates range from 50 per cent of pleasure horses to as much as 90 per cent of dressage horses), may manifest in various so-called “behaviour problems” such as balkiness, shying, bucking, rearing and overall performance deterioration.

Is he psychologically capable?
Current equine management practices of confinement, isolation and diets high in quality, but limited in quantity, compromise the psychological well-being of an animal designed for almost continual grazing on mid-quality forage, moving across vast open ranges, in cohesive social groups, with occasional and intense gallops to flee real or perceived predators. With their psychological well-being thus threatened, it is a testimony to horses’ amazingly generous natures that they accommodate us as well as they do.

Our horse in this introduction whose dangerous antics seem purposefully perverse, could well be suffering the effects of too much winter confinement, putting his built-in alarm system on overdrive. Thus “alarmed,” even a moving branch becomes a potential threat. We exacerbate the horse’s fear response by asking him to work in this new situation on his own, without the reassurance of a less volatile veteran.

Stubborn or Steadfast?

Although stubbornness is generally used in a pejorative sense, suggesting a perverse or unreasonable unyielding, the term also describes an unyielding quality that is justifiable and even admirable. Consider a person’s stubborn persistence in solving a problem, or stubbornly seeing a task through to its conclusion. If future equine research uncovers a personality trait of stubbornness, we may need to consider this positive flip side. As a scientist, I am wary of anthropomorphism (the bestowing of human traits, motivations and emotions onto non-humans) because scientists try to avoid making untested and potentially untrue assumptions based on our own human-centred experience. So, I may be treading on dangerous anthropomorphic turf to say so, but perhaps it is this very trait that gives horses that elusive quality we call “heart” – the try to dig deep when there are few extrinsic rewards for doing so.


As I discussed in my last article (March/April 2015), personality researchers have begun to explore animal personality, using questionnaires originally designed as self-report measures for human subjects, modified to be applicable to animals and completed by the animal’s care taker. The current model dominating personality research is the Five Factor Model (FFM; Costa & McCrea, 2009). In a self-report questionnaire, participants rate the degree to which statements about personality describe them from “not at all like me” to “very much like me.” Most personality traits have been found to cluster together around five broader personality dimensions along which people can vary between two polar opposites. These are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. To date, those studying human or animal personality have not uncovered a personality trait of stubbornness, though it may be a component of one of these broader dimensions. Elements of stubbornness do seem to be captured in some questionnaire items used in FFM research: “I am hard-headed and tough-minded,” or “I stick to established habits.”

The precursor to the FFM, Raymond Catell’s 16 Personality Factor Model (16 PF), considers stubbornness under the broader dimension of “Dominance.” Those that are high on dominance are forceful, assertive, aggressive, competitive, stubborn and bossy, whereas those low on this dimension portray stellar equine virtues: deferential, cooperative, conflict avoidant, submissive, obedient, easily led and accommodating.

Recently, Ijichi and colleagues (2014) tested horses on both subjective personality measures (modified human personality questionnaires designed to be appropriate for horses and completed by caretakers) and objective personality measures (in-hand tests such as crossing a blue tarpaulin, measuring startle response to the opening of an umbrella, recovery time to approach the feared object, etc.) which sheds some light on a trait for stubbornness.

Horses’ taking longer than 60 seconds to cross the tarpaulin were deemed to have refused, and refusal duration – the total time not moving forward – was recorded as either passive (remaining stationary) or proactive (pulling back, turning away, raising the head, or pushing the handler). As predicted, horses who were scored by their caretakers as more Extraverted on the subjective questionnaire spent more of their refusal time in proactive refusal. What was not predicted was that the level of activity a horse showed during their refusal time was not related to whether or not they eventually crossed the tarpaulin. Whereas we might presume that horses demonstrating more frantic behaviour are more fearful than those who passively refuse, this was not born out. Despite appearances, proactive or passive horses were equally unwilling to or fearful of crossing the tarpaulin.

The authors note that whereas proactive horses may respond to this fear with an active resistance to the trainer, passive horses seemed to withdraw and so become insensitive to their handlers and the surrounding environment. The authors also note that knowing where horses fall on this proactive or passive spectrum is useful knowledge as the former are potentially more dangerous and thus not ideal candidates for less experienced handlers and owners.

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