Ethics, should horses have a say?

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

How good do I need to be for my horse? Aren’t horses there for human pleasure? Should horses have a say in their care? Do I have the right to ride a horse?

This is the first part of a series of blogs looking at my personal ethos and methods.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro rolling in the sand

I’m sure as a child, captivated by the aura of a pony, that I wouldn’t have asked myself these questions. I was born in an era where ponies were still at work underground hauling coal and racing horses was considered the sport of kings. In those fifty odd years so much has changed especially on my own ethical radar. Today I think we should ask these questions of ourselves.

The latest buzz is all about giving choice to horses. Asking, rather than demanding, that a horse presents itself for care; cooperation rather than enforcement. Watching for subtle signs of agreement from a horse that it is ready to continue with a task. Engaging willing partners in our training mission; spotting predictors of unease.

Am I alone in resetting my ethical stance? You have to believe I’m not but as I write there are still many more not yet even aware of these new paradigms. It is for them and those yet to come to caring for horses that I write.

Full disclosure

If horses are a mirror to us why do we so often choose not to look too closely at our reflection? Horses are exposers. They tell the truth about us, full disclosure. Horses are heart-breaking in their honesty. Our selves, some say souls, are bared in our interactions with them but we can choose to look away, control what the mirror reflects of us. When we choose to see the truth it is an instant from which we can’t turn back, a moment of time that leads us on the most incredible path. It’s a tough road and one which I have often wished I hadn’t embarked upon. It was so much easier when the reflections were blurred and my moral compass not yet aligned.

Mirror, mirror

The joy of sharing

Being a pragmatist I look for evidence in solutions and right now my solution is to train horses as ethically as I can using the most up to date science of learning. As a teacher of people and their horses I have many levels of approach but the goal is always the same – through clarifying ‘why’ to teach an understanding of ‘how’. Both the why and the how have strong ethical connections. If we choose to ride a horse the answer to ‘why’ might be ‘because it gives us pleasure’ and then the importance of ‘how’ becomes crystal clear. If we refuse to offer the choice of being ridden to the horse are we refusing to look in the mirror?

If training is the ‘how’ then ‘why’ is a moral question for the individual, being no philosopher I’ll leave that for the individual to wrestle with.

Training for the modern day

What is training? In its simplest definition it is the acquisition of a skill or behaviour. If we choose to live close to domestic animals then training gives us a system of communication that enables us to care for them and hang out with them safely. Beyond basic care giving training leads us into the domain of relationship building but only if the training works both ways.

Acquiring behaviour using models that apply to all living organisms, including horses and humans, can at first appear mechanical and soulless. As with all models or methods of training the more you understand them the better you begin to apply them. That’s when the magic starts to happen, digging down to understand what makes a horse tick, why they behave in a certain way and how that behaviour can be encouraged or changed.

Making mistakes

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro keeps a close eye

Is there anyone that looks back at their training progression without at least a hint of ‘I wish I’d known that back then‘? It is a constant shift of knowledge between horse and human that sometimes leaves you feeling (sometimes, who am I kidding?) that your life is way too short to complete your understanding. We owe huge thanks to others in the field that share information to shorten the time spent in this direction.

The incredibly affiliative nature of horses allows us to build relationships that can be harmonious and balanced. Willingness to associate can lead horses to be overpowered and stripped of their true character by us, we look to our reflection to know our true value to a horse.

With so many seemingly different methods of training available to the modern day human how do we choose the best for our horses? In my next post I’ll explore some of these methods and explain how my own methods have grown into what they are today.

Please get in touch, leave a comment or take a look around my web site

Looking for cues

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

Should we teach equine cues?

Where do they come from?

What are cues?

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist -teach equine cues
Moo concentrating on his cues


  • Cues are signals that tell us some ‘thing’ is going to happen.
  • Cues can predict things that are good or bad.
  • Understanding cues is important for carers of horses.
  • Humans might not observe cues that are highly visible to a horse.
  • Cues build a language between us that can be clearly understood by both parties or by one party alone.
  • Signals given to us by horses can easily be misinterpreted.  Confused horses become fearful and will be unable to learn.
  • Teaching and learning mutually understood cues in a calm situation is ideal.

equine behaviourist Trudi Dempsey- teach equine cues
mastermind detective Moo picking up cues!

Breaking it down

  • Cues are not one-sided we can learn from our horses as well as well as them learning from us. A horse will signal to you in very quiet ways before taking stronger action and these are cues to the human that something is about to happen. It is rare for a horse to just bite your arm with no warning but subtle clues before the bite can often be missed by humans who are often confined to complex language as a first means of communication.
  • Cues do not just have a place in riding they are a way to communicate on the ground and in every situation that horses and humans interact.
  • It takes time to teach and learn cues. Some horses may appear to learn more easily than others who might have been shut down by previous human contact and now feel disinclined to interact.
  • Horses understand many more cues than those we teach them. They are mastermind detectives and will pick up incidental information without us noticing. Environmental cues can be obvious- rattling of buckets in the feed room being a cue for dinner. Or subtle- wearing a pair of gloves might signal you’re riding today. Just know that your horse is collecting cues constantly especially when you least expect it.
  • The word aid is often transposed into cue and of course an aid (ridden or from the ground) is a signal that you want something to happen- it’s a cue to the horse to make a certain move.
  • Cues are created and kept strong by the addition of a consequence. Every time the pushy pocket nudge gets a carrot it will reinforce the nudge. The nudge becomes the cue and is kept strong by the consequence of a tasty carrot fed afterwards.

Simply put

In simple terms a cue is a signal that something is going to happen. Our horse interactions are full of cues that are not always understood, or even noticed, by us but are clearly evident to our horses.



Contact me for help with cues!

Equine Groundwork


Why Groundwork

One foot in front of the other and arms, relaxed at your side, naturally swing. You perhaps assumed I’d be talking about horse walking rather than human walking! Walking with your horse (equine groundwork) would appear to be an easy task yet often it is the hardest exercise to perfect. Under scrutiny humans may walk with unnatural tensions which mislead and confuse a horse. Sometimes our intent is unclear and very often we appear not to have our minds on the job; this is an alien concept to a horse. Whether we intend to ride our horses or just hang around with them basic equine groundwork is essential.


Who is equine groundwork for?

Should we walk with our horses and shouldn’t we be riding them? There are those still be to be convinced by the benefits of equine ground work. Within equestrianism there is a gap in education as far as ground handling is concerned and horses will quickly learn to bridge that gap for themselves.

Guesswork or clear direction?

Horses are incredibly good at spotting signals and it’s easy to unknowingly train a horse. Reading body language, words and other predictors of events enables fast learning for horses. Many of us are completely unaware that we are communicating in this way and give off constant information in fairly random sequences. Horses will try to decipher these communications and so it’s hardly surprising that they can be confused. Watching a horse/human team  I can be confused so no wonder the horse might at times indicate they haven’t a clue what you want (often erroneously misread as the horse being ‘slow’ or ‘naughty’).

Dominate or submit?

Word is filtering through that domination, along with force, has no place in training any living being. Language such as ‘showing the horse who is boss or he will not respect you’ and the misguided observations it was based on have been fully refuted. Developing a common language between humans and horses has to be based on proven, evidence based methods and not on fear or prejudice. The aim is to create a partnership where the frailties of the human can be supported by the horse and vice versa; we both bring strengths and it makes sense to be supportive rather than antagonistic. Learning together creates a strong bond and will ultimately lead to harmony through greater clarity and understanding.

The winding path

Simple steps to create a partnership will not be in a straight line- that is guaranteed. Nor will improvement occur in easy increments. There may be some steps that follow a sequence that makes sense from the start but it is more likely that they won’t. When you look back at the winding path once walked it is easy to spot places where fewer steps might have been possible. Experience teaches us not to miss the simple lessons as all else sits upon them- they are the foundations. If you want to save time then spend time in preparation. Riding begins (and continues) with groundwork.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
The winding path


Many of us dither; I’ve dithered. Fear of failing can immobilise us. Feeling isolated can hinder progress- being the only person with a horse that ‘needs’ training when everyone else is out there doing it. Let me share the fact that I have never visited a new student that didn’t need help- we are all on the winding path and none of us has, or will, reach the end (or should feel the need to).

A plan is essential but more important is the will to get out and do things. In trying we work towards success even if we sometimes stumble along the way. The process of writing a plan is, in itself, a way to focus on the outcome before working backwards to fill in the gaps. Impossibly big steps won’t help and will probably cause more dithering; think small steps and then make them smaller still!

Do it for me!

It’s easy to give non-specific training advice and this is a marketing tool used extensively. Relax, Breathe, Harmonise, Trust, Connect, Communication, Confidence.  All good words (and there are many more) that are part of any solution but with no path to pin them to what help are they? You read them and associate with them but what do they mean in practical terms? Your plan needs your input to guide you along your winding path.

Frame it!

Do you have a vision for future time spent with your equine partner? This is the only time to think big as later you will begin to unpick every element of the dream until a simple set of steps appears. It might be to walk miles browsing the hedgerows or a ride on the beach. Some simple dressage moves or popping a log in the forest. It’s your dream- you frame it.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behavioursist can help with equine groundwork
Chilling together

Still looking for clues

I can see you still dithering or worse still rushing out of the door to start without laying the foundations. Write your plan! What was your dream? What are the first 100 steps and what are the underpinning behaviours you will need to build a strong foundation? Write them, say them, imagine them happening and absorb them until they feel part of you. If they don’t feel as if they are yours there will be more dithering or stumbling on the path. Consider the ‘simple’ example above of being able to sit in a field with your horse unattached via a rope or rein yet focussed on you. This is a great groundwork exercise that will lead to a similar  valuable one when ridden.

What are the steps to take?

Once clearly framed you, the trainer,  can begin to put the steps in place.

Some of the BIG steps might be:

  • Walk together
  • Stop together
  • Sit and chill when together

These might break down into:

  • Touch/scratch acceptability
  • Clean and safe hand feeding
  • Understanding acceptable distance (for both of you)
  • Soft acceptance of a head piece

and clear cues for:

  • movement
  •  stopping movement
  •  ‘it’s OK we’re chilling’
  •  ‘is there something you’d like to do?’
  •  ‘session’s over’

It’s possible to pare down these steps further. If we take the soft acceptance of a headpiece, perhaps a headcollar, as an example then this will break down further still:

Trudi Dempsey behaviourist, help with equine groundwork
Chapiro pushed his nose into the headcollar

  • Soft and tension free when headcollar is produced in many different environments (in itself a lot of steps)
  • Interest in the headcollar when it is held towards them, sniff or touch behaviours need to be previously on cue!
  • Shape the touch behaviour gradually into inserting nose into headcollar
  • Shape the nose  remaining softly in whilst the rest of the headcollar is fastened.
  • All of these steps in different settings, tension free with soft face and body language.

Yet more steps can be  created depending on the point at which you started. I hope that you are beginning to see just how complex simple behaviours are and that if you don’t communicate  specifically  then your horse will pick up your unintended cues and build their own equine/human language and ways of acting around you.

If you would like help in buidling a clear communication system with equine groundwork do get in touch via  www.equinetrainingand or find me on Facebook



Losing Confidence

equine behaviourist Trudi dempsey

The path to my door

Many clients find their way to me when they have lost their confidence. I’d like to think that’s because I am perceived as someone who is reliable in offering calm support. A sane and sensitive advisor who has been there and smelled the roses. Of course often one of my clients will recommend me as someone able to nurture nervous riders and handlers. Sometimes I’m approached by riders for whom ‘Classical Dressage’ is a last resort. Perhaps it’s  ‘you’ve tried the rest, now try the best’. But often just that I’m last (or close to) on a long list of approaches that searchers might try.

I  work with horse behaviour change applying science to enable humans to live with and share better the company of their horses. This begins with helping humans to understand why horses behave in the way they do and how to improve their daily lives so that they can lead happier more contented lives.

Recovering your confidence

Grow in confidence around your horse.
Trudi and Moralejo sharing air!

A big part of recovery from diminished confidence appears to hinge on identifying how the confidence was lost in the first place. Reasons can be diverse! Traumatic falls, feeling vulnerable due to decreased mobility, having children, lack of skill the list goes on. Maybe there is no incident that we can put our finger on, no culprit to blame. But it doesn’t make the lack of confidence any less debilitating, it looms each time we think of sitting on a horse or maybe even just standing by a horse.

Our brains are incredibly complex but in simple terms we need to rewrite history, change the paths that are laid down within it and that cause us to panic. We do this in the same way that we work with a horse that has lost confidence; in small steps. No actually not small but minute steps that take us gradually to confidence, calm and relaxation around previously traumatic triggers. It doesn’t matter what trauma, how obvious or seemingly invisible, led us to lose our confidence- what matters is taking tiny steps to recover it.

The first step to recovering confidence is to understand why horses do what they do. What triggers behaviour and how we can help avoid those triggers and build resilience to them. It’s often said that we should dream big. I recommend you dream small. Dream of being with your horse, dream of breathing together, share air together and let your dreams grow as you learn more about each other and what it means to be a human in a horse’s world and more importantly a horse in a human’s world! Did I say small- heck I meant huge because it truly is!

Get in touch

If you’d like help better understanding your horse and building your confidence around them please get in touch for a chat. I offer person to person coaching, small group interactive talks, clinics and workshops where we can work on a more confident future together. I also offer remote consultations and training. Visit my web site here. Or my Facebook page here.

Herd Watching

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour

Mare group on ExmoorMy ‘Introduction to Behaviour’ talk begins with a look at equine evolution, an ever growing catalogue of what came before and what behaviour it has resulted in. Whilst the old saying ‘behaviour leaves no fossils’ is true, behaviour has certainly left its mark on both equids and hominids (horse and human families) such that studying their history can shed light on much present day behaviour.

Herd watching- gazing close
Grazing close

What we know about horses from their past helps us provide the best living and handling conditions for them today. If you’re looking for proof that innate behaviour has its roots millions of years ago then look no further than the semi-feral equines close to where you live. Today there are only a handful of wild equid populations in the world most being zebras or asses and, whilst there remain some feral herds in the world, here in the UK we have a few well-known semi-feral herds. These herds, whilst managed, still display many of the innate behaviours that we might expect to see in a wild herd.

Whilst behaviour is interesting to watch at all times of the year this wonderful spring season makes the job of amateur ethologist easier. Light early mornings and a more moderate temperature give the opportunity to sit for longer without being disturbed with the added bonus that my husband (photographer) can accompany me to record things in permanence. Living on Exmoor can bring its challenges but (along with Dartmoor and The New Forest) it is a rich ground for pony watching.

Herd watching- space within the herd
Space within the herd

It is most important is that we remain at a distance from the herd and well below the threshold of the ponies becoming startled; we should be observing behaviour rather than creating it. What do we look for with our pen poised above notepad?

  • The nature of the herd; members get on (affiliative)and there is generally very little aggression
  • Movement; how far do they travel, who instigates movement and how do the herd follow
  • Space; how much does an individual maintain, how is it maintained
  • Eating/drinking; how, what, when, who goes first?
  • Contact; closeness between pair bonds or smaller groups within the herd, mutual grooming, resting close to each other.
  • Sleep; standing up, lying down, anyone on guard?
  • Reaction and response to potentially fearful stimuli; who sees things first, who moves first, could you see the trigger?

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it will get you started (and get you hooked) on herd watching, find a herd local to you or get in touch for guided herd watching sessions.Herd watching- Personal space within the herd

Places to check out:  Wild Equus register wild, feral and semi-feral herds Lucy Rees feral herd in Spain