Horse training techniques range from positive and negative reinforcement to clicker training, food or scratching rewards, vocal commands, and more. But if you can’t get your horse to respond to any of these methods, you might not be taking into consideration how the horse feels.

According to two leading equitation scientists, the success or failure of training has a lot to do with the horse’s state of “arousal” as well as his level of “attachment”—as in, attachment to you, his person.

Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed, owner and director of the Australian Equine Behaviour Center, and Paul McGreevy, BVSc, MRCVS, PhD, MACVSc, professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, lectured on the new concepts of equine arousal, affective state, and attachment during their joint plenary session at the 9th International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held July 17-19 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

By “arousal,” McLean and McGreevy mean how excited a horse is at a given moment. This isn’t about the horse’s temperament or how excitable he is generally, they said, but how alert the horse is. Take the moment you’re trying to train him to stand still while you fly spray him, for instance: If he’s excited, jumpy, and looking every which way, your training methods might seem to just blow away in the wind—not unlike the fly spray you’re trying to apply.

But this arousal likely isn’t all bad: The researchers said learning theory can’t work effectively if the horse’s arousal state doesn’t allow him to learn. McLean, McGreevy, and colleagues have discovered a strong link between arousal and the success of what is called “operant conditioning,” which is a fancy way of describing all learning that happens through consequences. I stand still for grooming; I get a carrot. I step to the side; my rider’s leg stops pushing. I try to steal the gray gelding’s morning feed; I get a swift kick in the chest.

McLean and McGreevy said operant conditioning can be hampered by a less-than-ideal arousal state: Horses that are too aroused (i.e., too excited or jumpy) or not aroused enough (i.e., falling asleep) are not going to be as receptive to operant conditioning as horses that are moderately aroused.

The pair has also conceptualized the role of affective state—the horse’s mood—in training. This approach opens doors to useful new training concepts, they said.

And that’s where attachment comes in. There’s been a lot of hype in recent years about “attachment parenting.” So guess what? “Attachment horse handling” might just become the new rage. McLean said horses that feel a closer “attachment” to their trainers will have a stronger sense of security compared to those that feel less attachment. As a prey animal, an insecure horse is a fearful horse, and a fearful horse is a looking-around-and-not-paying-attention-to-his-trainer horse. So a lot of what might seem like “horse whispering” as well as all sorts of touch therapies might really be “horse attachment.” If your horse is attached to you, he’s going to be more likely to have a lower state of arousal—meaning, he’ll be calmer and more focused on his learning session—and hence, he’ll be more likely to learn: "Tactile contact is an antidote for insecurity," McLean said.

Horses have the largest amygdala—a group of gray matter in the central part of the brain that plays a primary role in our memory and especially in our emotions—of all domestic animals. And something as simple as touching a certain spot on the body can activate the horse’s amygdala. In horses, researchers have discovered a particular point on the spine close to the withers that seems to have a connection with the horse’s anxiety level. When that area is gently rubbed, the horse’s heart rate drops, and he seems to be less fearful and more secure.

“We need to keep in mind the horse’s need for touch,” said McLean. “Heart rate can be lowered by allogrooming (mutual grooming) and even when humans groom horses. Recent work shows that grooming on the face reduces heart rate. But the history of equitation is not one of really touching the horse. We train by driving horses and by longeing them or using a round pen. Even when we ride horses, there is material between the horse and us. We are not really touching the horse in the true sense of the word.”

Paying greater attention to our horses’ fundamental affective need for touch, then, might help facilitate a stronger attachment between horse and human. One way to achieve this, McLean said, is to replace patting with stroking when we want to reward the horse for a job well done. “Patting … tends to cause vigilant behavior and high levels of arousal,” he said. “But stroking causes more affiliative (bond-forming) behavior.”

"Being in the presence of an attachment figure may help to reduce arousal and bring about a positive affective state," McLean summarized. Paying attention to affective state and arousal will not only make training more effective, but it will also improve equine welfare, he added.

The research group, which also includes Cathrynne Henshall, MSc candidate, professional trainer, and researcher at the University of Sydney, is continuing its work in this area.