Force-Free For All

Let me just say first that I don’t know anything about horses or the riding of them. I may have spent most of my life in ranching country, but I have been on a horse a mere three times in my life. All three of those times were during expensive trail rides in which I didn’t actually do any work. I just kind of sat there while the horse below me plodded along.

Poor animals. They didn’t deserve my oafish ways.

But I digress. Yesterday, a friend of mine on Facebook – the brilliant trainer behind Poodles to Pit Bulls Clicker Training – posted a video of a horse performing at a Dressage event without a bridle. I had no idea there was a movement toward force-free training in the equestrian world. Admittedly, I’d never thought much about it. If asked, I probably would have said something dumb about it being impossible.

The video impressed me so much, I spent an hour yesterday looking up more on Youtube. The skills these trainers have are beyond impressive. I’ve always known how intelligent horses were, but I guess I just never questioned the traditional methods before. Shame on me. These videos prove coercion is completely unnecessary. Not just for dogs, but for all animals we work with and love. I hope with time, these more positive methods will become more popular in the sporting world.

You can find the video I that originally caught my eye on the Poodles to Pit Bulls Facebook page. I thought I would share one of the others I found last night. It’s definitely one of my favourites. The horse seems to respond to every subtle move the rider makes. It is simply beautiful to see.

40 thoughts on “Force-Free For All

  1. Kristine I saw the most amazing video of kids clicker training their ponies probably a year ago… actually brought tears to my eyes since i know how horses are often treated… (spends a few minutes searching youtube)

    you should watch more of their pony pro movies… these are KIDS doing GREAT work with their ponies! I am 100% impressed with the control these kids have of their ponies when their ponies are “at liberty” or off the lead line. They have some cute clicker training videos as well!


    • Thanks for sharing the link! The video is so fantastic and really helps showcase what I was hoping was true. I think when we work with animals in this way it not only is better for the animals themselves, but it also improves our own skills. It takes a lot more work and time and patience to use a clicker, and we are all better off as a result. These kids are just awesome! And so are their ponies!


  2. Force free methods (specifically clicker training) are also used in zoos (huge cats and bears, etc) and with farm animals!

    I didn’t expect the rider to have no hands on the horse whatsoever! HOW COOL. I spent my entire evening last night watching Kelpies work sheep and agility courses… I really want a Kelpie, lol, whether I could handle one or not is still up for debate.


    • I hope she enjoys it as much as I did. I did some more reading about them and apparently the Foxfield Drill Team is quite world famous. Who knew?


  3. Cool! It never even occurred to me that I could clicker train my horses! What a neat idea. We try NOT to bully them into training, but Kash has a stubborn streak in him about a mile long and Penny is a spoiled BRAT! Kash & Penny say “thank you very much”. They can’t wait to try this.


    • I am sure training horses is a lot different than training dogs – they are such different animals. But I do believe the clicker is a universal tool that will work for all animals.

      By the way, I had no idea you owned and trained horses! That is so cool. Is there anything you don’t do?


      • I can’t knit to save my life and I am a train wreck when it comes to yard work ;0)

        To the other “horse folks” that protest: Force free doesn’t necessarily mean equipment free. The use of equipment doesn’t have to be forceful. No one is suggesting you take a yearling out into the field and try to click him into submission. Rather that perhaps a kinder, gentler way could work as well. I know that I was able to leash train my dog without using force and I feel quite confident that I can train my horses to respond to the method as well. I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t use a lunge whip. We originally trained lunging with a two person team using luring. It worked like a charm.

        Clicker training doesn’t have to be “unsafe” in fact, in the research I did today, every single Clicker Training for horses guide I read recommended starting clicker training in a stall, with the stall guard between you. Once the training moved out doors, it was with a bridle and a lead shank.

        Too often at our stable I see people try to “break” their horse and bend these magnificent animals to their will. I would love to see us get to a place where we can build the same type of relationship we have with our dogs. One of companionship and fulfillment.


    • Yeah, I have always admired the Parelli method. I started a bit of it with the horse I rode but didn’t finish with it. The lady I used to work for did a lot of it though with her young horses and really saw a difference. The thing to remember with horses is they are prey animals and have a lot of different behaviors in response to things compared to dogs who are predators. Pretty amazing what people can do.


  4. Amazing, I had no idea they were using this method on horses.

    It just shows that the ‘traditional’ methods can be discarded, I imagine the bond is greater too!

    Thanks for sharing! And Happy New Year!


    • Actually, I think it shows how valid traditional methods are. These horses were not trained force free. They were trained traditionally to a level that force is no longer needed.

      Same as my dog.


    • I really hope so. It takes time, but hopefully the more success people have training with positive-based methods, and the more knowledge we gain as a result, the less coercive styles will be used.

      Thanks for your comments. Happy New Year to you and your family!


  5. I know very little about horses but a good friend of mine has been studying dressage with some of the masters in Europe. That’s an amazing video–it is very beautiful to see what’s possible.


    • I used to be so bored when watching dressage. I just didn’t get it. Now that I know a lot more about the technical side of working with animals – though still barely scratching the surface – I am much more impressed!


  6. They were not trained without a bridle, they are just being ridden without one. I can guarantee you that they did not take those horses out of the field when they were 3 years old and hop on them with no equipment. What you are seeing is a finished product. Same with Rugby. He never wears a leash anymore, and hardly wears a collar but it wasn’t always that way, and it was not “force free.”

    Training horses is not like training dogs, because they are a herd animal with very strong ‘flight’ instinct. They also have not been bred for hundreds of years to be a companion like dogs have – they were considered ‘transportation’ for a long time. They also are a lot more dangerous than dogs. They can kill you a lot easier than a dog can. They can paralyze you a lot easier too. My guess is that if someone tried to completely train a horse force free, from the beginning, the horse would be turned out permanently in a pasture and/or the person would wind up dead or severely injured.

    Thanks for posting this video, because it reminded me of a lovely video I watched of a western rider (I ride dressage) a while ago. It was nice to see it again!


    • How funny you say that sine my friend did train her horse force-free. I guess not everyone in the horse world agrees. I’m not saying your are wrong for believing as you do, but just pointing out that it has been done.


    • We’ll probably have to agree to disagree as far as method goes. I would rather keep my dog on a leash her entire life than train her using coercive methods. While I can’t say I have never forced my dog to do anything, I do hope I will be able to say this with my future dogs.

      Horses aren’t dogs, I would never say otherwise. They are completely different animals with completely different motivations and behaviours. But it is my belief that all animals can be trained in purely positive ways with great success. There is still a lot we humans don’t understand about animal behaviour. I think the more we give them a chance to show us, the more we will learn and the better our relationships with our animals – dogs or horses or cockatiels – will be. Training doesn’t have to be antagonistic and I don’t believe it should be. While I haven’t done research specifically on horses, though I am going to start, I would imagine if one starts training a horse from the very beginning, when just young, with purely positive, force-free methods, that person’s relationship with the horse as it grows older will be far more trusting than a horse trained using force.

      Perhaps it’s still just an ideal and maybe no successful compeition horse has been trained entirely force-free. But I do have hope that will change.

      Thanks for sharing the video! I just watched another one of that same rider, linked to in the comment above. Her skills, and the skills of the horse, are breathtaking.


  7. Training and riding horses always starts with the rider. At the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, newly accepted riders, already “good” at riding, re – learn: they sit on their horse sans rains or stirrups on a lounge line for 6 months to a year, developing the very communicative seat they will use. They learn their horses, they learn their own bodies. I second Sam.
    Never before heard the term “force free.” Interesting.
    BTW, I had the privilege of seeing a troupe from the Spanish School in St. Louis several years ago (no, they are NOT the same as the frequent troupe from Florida; this was the real deal). We all went home extremely humbled and awed. Colonel Alois Podahsky is one of my heros.


    • “Force-free” isn’t a term used by everyone. And I can’t say I have trained Shiva completely without use of force, especially back when we first brought her home. But I think this should be the goal. I personally think a dog learns better this way as they are learning how to think and how to offer behaviours. When you force a dog into a position, they aren’t making the decision to do it themselves. Whereas “force-free” methods encourage a dog to choose the right action on his own. Shaping is an example of this. It takes time and a ton of work for the human and the dog, but I think it’s ultimately the best way for both.

      But I didn’t mean to yammer on about training. I’m still a newbie myself in so many ways. 😛 Sorry about that.

      I’ll have to look up Colonel Alois Podahsky and see what I can find out! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  8. So cool! My mom competed in dressage and jumping before she got married, and she said the real work is in the knees and thighs – because you use the pressure to tell the horse what to do. Guiding their head is important, but they also rely heavily on other subtle signals. Very cool to see riders so in touch with their horses.


    • I think it’s cool too! There is so much I don’t know. I have a friend who has been involved with horse jumping for quite some time and I love reading about it through her. It sounds like so much fun!


  9. Wow. That’s thoroughly impressive. I actually did a piece on this issue a while ago after speaking to a friend who also does not use a bridle on her horse, but uses something similar to a gentle leader. She was telling me how she has had people look down on her i the horse world for using a non-traditional halter because it is kinder to the horse. Personally, I thought it odd that the horse world would feel so differently about treating a horse gently.
    This is a great example proving that force is not necessary, whether in the horse world or dog world. Thanks for sharing!


    • I find it odd as well. But I supposed if these more positive methods are still controversial in the dog world, they would be in the horse world too. People are reluctant to change. Susan Garrett gets a ton of crap from other agility trainers for using purely positive methods. People seem to be waiting for a chance to jump down her throat. If one of her dogs makes even a minor mistake, other trainers start pointing fingers, viewing it as proof that her methods don’t work.

      But I am rambling again. 😛 Thanks for sharing your friend’s story. I am so glad to hear there is a group of gentler trainers out there in the horse world, even if it’s still small.


  10. For about 6 years, when I was in my 20’s and actually had some disposable income, I rode hunter jumper. My skills were “okay” and I could jump a 2 foot course in a decent manner. First of all, that girl in the video has legs of steel and her skills are top notch!! No saddle and no bridle, that is impressive!

    When horse & rider are truly skilled, simple shifts in your seat are what steers the horse left to right, forwards and backwards. In theory it is easy, in reality, it is very hard to do.

    If you want to see a very insightful documentary about horses & training, I highly recommend Buck. It’s about Buck Brennan, the guy who inspired the Horse Whisperer film. It’s on Netflix right now and it’s totally worth a look!


    • I am sure it is ridiculously hard. I mean, the three times I rode, I couldn’t even figure out how to sit in a saddle properly. There is nothing about the sport that is simple! I think it’s awesome you used to ride and jump. It must have been a blast!

      Thanks for the link to the film! I have heard about Buck Brennan before but only casually. I’ll have to check this out.


  11. Oh, you found a great one! The rider in this video really is amazing. I spent two hours looking at videos too. =-)

    They’re using clicker training all over the place now, most notably with zoo animals to teach them stress free husbandry behaviors.


  12. Watching horsey videos like that show me how very little my riding instructor taught me, way back when (I only had a few lessons per summer, for a few years in a row). Of course, the horses used at that place were, thinking back, likely trained in dubious conditions, and now that I would necessarily call “bomb proof”, though they were pretty solid.

    The force free debate is an interesting one. Given the choice, perhaps horses wouldn’t want riders at all, so is that “force”? I do believe that horses can be trained in that manner, though. Clicker training (and marker training) is not species specific. It works on horses, dogs, dolphins, tigers, and even people (though we tend to call it Tag Teach, and since we speak the same language, we can communicate what the criteria are rather than using guesswork, so it’s a little easier).

    Thank you for sharing!


  13. Great topic! Horses have been treated very poorly throughout history, and just like all animals, they deserve to be treated humanely. I am not a horse person. I have never owned a horse, and I don’t know a lot about them. I still love and respect them, though, and someday I would love to own one.

    I am very much a dog person, and while I believe all animals should be treated with kindness and respect, I don’t use strictly positive reinforcement. I have absolutely no problem telling my dog “no” for example. I also use a choke collar to control him on walks where he might be extra excited, and I can guarantee you that this collar causes him no fear or pain. The majority of the time, he can walk nicely with a regular buckle collar or even no leash and remain at my side at all times. We did not get to this point by using only positive reinforcement training.

    I think one problem is people probably have different ideas of what “force free” means. To me, it means to be humane and treat the animal with kindness. But that doesn’t have to mean avoiding training tools such as a slip collar on a dog.

    Thanks for making us think about this issue!


  14. Wow – I think it is amazing! I hope that we can start to find kinder ways to train all animals and I am a HUGE fan of clicker training 🙂 Thanks for sharing Kristine – Happy New Year!


  15. Clicker training works AWESOME with horses! 🙂

    I work with a local horse rescue (on their board and help head up their training program). I use clicker training with all of our horses and they love it.

    Clicker training for horses is slowly catching on. Unfortunately, most of the horse world is very resistant to clicker training and training horses with food.
    I’ve even met positive dog trainers who have told me that horses are “different” and that clicker training doesn’t work with horses. 😦

    I’d be happy to write a short guest post for your blog and your readers about clicker training horses, if you’re interested. Or, you’re welcome to check out my own blog. I blog about clicker training horses, dogs, rats, and other critters. 🙂




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