Basic Equine Handling, Restraint and Training

Original Editor - Ansi van der Walt Top Contributors - Jess Bell, Tarina van der Stockt and Kim Jackson

Handling[edit | edit source]

Halters are also known as head collars for horses. They are the piece of handling equipment a physiotherapist will most frequently require and use on horses. It is advisable to always have a halter on the horse’s head for the safety of the therapist and / or handler.[1]

Types of halter include:[1]

  • Standard halter
    • Usually made from leather or webbing
    • Loose-fitting, no pressure
    • Basic means of restraint
  • Rope halter
    • Exerts slightly more pressure on sensitive areas of the head than a standard halter
    • May be used where slightly more control is required
  • Pressure halter
    • Made from rope
    • Has a sliding mechanism that tightens the halter around the horse's head when pressure is exerted by the horse or the handler
  • Chain halter
    • Usually used for stallions
    • Enables the handler to exert strong pressure on the horse's nose when strong control is needed
  • Chifney
    • A metal mouthpiece that can be attached to a standard halter
    • Provides the handler with additional control when needed as it allows the handler to exert pressure on the sensitive bars of the mouth
    • Used especially to discourage horses from pulling back and rearing

NB: One of the basic tenets of equine handling is that horses experience pressure as punishment and the release of this pressure as a reward. Whenever pressure is applied by any equipment, there must always be a release of pressure as soon as the horse performs the desired behaviour. Continuous or excessive pressure is abusive and may cause a self-defence response from the horse (e.g. rearing or pulling back).[1]

Safety Considerations[edit | edit source]

  • Footwear[1][2]
    • Always wear safety shoes / boots
  • Control[1]
    • Always have a halter or other means of restraint in case the horse becomes agitated
    • Ideally, the horse should always be held by a second person (e.g. a groom)
  • Beware of enclosed spaces[1]
    • You should always be able to get away from the horse if necessary
    • Preferably, you will not work in a stable, especially with unfamiliar horses
    • If you do have to work in the stable, you should leave the door open where possible

Restraint[edit | edit source]

It is important to note that animal handling and restraint may cause stress to an animal. When working with horses, you should always use as little restraint as is necessary for everyone to remain safe. Additional restraint will sometimes be required for urgent procedures that a horse would not tolerate willingly. Restraint techniques should be used sparsely and empathetically.[1]

Forms of restraint include:

  • Lifting a leg[1]
    • This is considered one of the easier ways of restraining a horse
    • Horses carry two-thirds of their weight on their front legs, so lifting a forelimb means that the horse has to focus on standing evenly on its other three legs
    • If the handler stands close to the horse and places one hand on its shoulder, the handler is more able to tell if the horse is tensing to move
  • Twitching:[1][3]
    • Neck twitching
      • Grab a fold of the horse's skin at the base of its neck and twist
    • Ear twitching
      • Grab the horse's ear at its base, squeeze and twist
    • Nose / lip twitching[3]
      • Use with care for as short a time as possible and only if necessary
      • There are different types of nose twitches, including wood with rope. Grasp the horse's muzzle with your fingers through the loop. Place the loop over the horse's nose and then twist the stick. The loop can be tightened or loosened as required
      • You must be careful not to let go of the twitch as it can swing, potentially injuring you, other handlers and the horse
      • If the twitch is left on too long, it can cause damage to the horse or become ineffective
      • You must never put this sort of device on the horse's ear. If further restraint is necessary, it is better to consider chemical restraint


  • Using a crush:[1]
    • Crushes are small enclosures made of metal bars or wooden planks, with gates at the front and back that are used to restrict a horse's movements
    • You should never get into a crush with a horse or stand behind the horse as you open / close the gate
    • It is important to note that horses can get out of a crush and could, potentially, injure themselves

Special Considerations for Foals[edit | edit source]

It is very different working with foals compared to adults due to their lack of experience. Commands, techniques, and devices used for adult horses may be ineffective or dangerous when used on foals.[3] The most effective way of restraining a foal is to place one arm in front of its chest and one arm behind its rump while holding its tail. You should never tie a foal or pull on its head.[3]

Lungeing[edit | edit source]

Physiotherapists may use lungeing to:[1]

  • Aid in the assessment of movement dysfunction
  • Assess aspects of a rider's position and motor control when riding
  • For rehabilitation exercises

It is important to always discuss lungeing with the owner first. Not all horses will lunge obediently and if a horse misbehaves on the lunge, both the horse and person doing the lungeing can be injured. Where possible, it is best to ask the owner, rider or groom to do the lunge for you, so that you can concentrate on the horse and rider's movement.[1]

Learning[edit | edit source]

Horses are able to adapt to environmental challenges.[5] They are required (and able) to learn a variety of different tasks, many of which are not typical equine behaviours.[6] For example:[6]

  • Polo ponies must perceive / follow fast-moving balls and avoid mallets. While the horse uses its natural physiological responses to respond to these actions, it would not normally need to rely on these responses for as long and at the same intensity as is required for a polo game
  • Jumping - horses would naturally go around obstacles, rather than jump them as required in cross-country or stadium jumps
  • Horseboxes (trailers) - most horses would not choose to enter a trailer as they are naturally claustrophobic[2]

In order to perform these sorts of tasks, horses must learn to:[6]

  • Suppress natural instincts
  • Discriminate and respond to various stimuli

Stimulus Response Reinforcement Training[edit | edit source]

The two basic approaches to horse training are coercion and cooperation.[5] And it is generally assumed that horses learn through stimulus-response-reinforcement chains (i e. trial and error):[6]

  • The horse perceives a stimulus / cue
  • The horse responds randomly to the stimulus
    • The horse receives positive reinforcement for the correct response (i.e. a reward)
    • For an incorrect response, the response is ignored and the stimulus repeated, or negative reinforcement is applied until the horse makes the correct response

Learning theory is discussed in more detail here in relation to dogs.

Stimulus[edit | edit source]

Horses are typically able to discern stimuli well. This is an essential skill if an animal is going to be able to respond to a cue or stimulus.[6]

When providing stimuli, cues must be:[6]

  • Specific
  • Consistent

If a cue is presented differently each time (i.e. through a different method or with different timing) a stronger, more obvious cue will be needed.[6]

Stimuli must also be presented when the horse is able to respond. Ask yourself is the horse:[6]

  • Physically able to respond?
  • Calm and focussing on the trainer?

When teaching a horse to respond to a new stimulus, it can be helpful to pair the new cue with an old cue. There are different ways of doing this:[6]

  • Delayed conditioning: a new stimulus is given and continued until the old stimulus is presented
  • Trace conditioning: a new stimulus is presented and then stopped before the old stimulus is given
  • Simultaneous presentation: a new and old stimulus are presented at the same time

While delayed and trace conditioning has been found to be effective methods of learning in horses, simultaneous presentation tends to be ineffective.[6]

Responses to stimuli:[6]

  • A behaviour or movement is made up of many small coordinated responses, such as lifting a leg
  • Horses initially have a random response to a stimulus:
    • Incorrect responses are ignored or punished in order to achieve ‘extinction’
    • Correct responses are rewarded, so the behaviour is ‘reinforced’


Reinforcement[edit | edit source]

Reinforcements are either positive (adding something that the horse likes) or negative (removing something the horse does not like).[6]

  • The reinforcer is the reward.  The horse enjoys the reward, so wants to repeat the behaviour to get another reward:[6]
    • Primary reinforcers = something the horse wants (carrot, pressure release)
      • NB: a survey of equestrian coaches found that release of pressure was considered the most effective reward for horses[8]
    • Secondary reinforcer = something the horse has learnt to associate with something it wants (verbal praise, use of a clicker)
  • Self-reinforcing behaviour
    • Non-trainer guided behaviour that has a positive outcome for the horse such as breaking out of the stable or other behaviours that result in the release of endorphins

While these approaches are widely used in equestrian training, it has been found that many coaches do not have a good understanding of positive and negative reinforcement for horses.[8] Trainers tend to use secondary reinforcement and negative reinforcement in horse training. Because of the tendency to use negative reinforcement, horses may be exposed to unintended punishment.[9] They also often use multiple learning processes at once.[10]

In contrast to the trainers’ approach, most equine learning tests use primarily positive reinforcement. Because of this difference, it is hard to apply equine learning research into horse training or to use learning research as predictors for training success.[6]

Training Duration and Frequency[edit | edit source]

In general, it is believed that long training sessions impact the effectiveness of a horse’s learning. This raises the question of whether it is more effective to have:[6]

  • Less training sessions spread out over a longer period of time
  • Or to have more short training sessions

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Van der Walt A. Ethology for Physiotherapists - Patient Communication and Safety Course. Physioplus, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Scoggins RD. Safe Horse-Handling Techniques [Internet]. Illinois Livestock Trail 2003 [cited 11 April 2021]. Available from:
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 New Bolton Center Field Service Department. Equine restraint [Internet]. 1999-2001 [cited 11 April 2021]. Available from:
  4. Horse Side Vet Guide - Equine Health Website & Mobile App for Horse Owners & Equine Professionals. How to Apply & Use a Rope Twitch on a Horse. Available from: [last accessed 12/4/2021]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Goodwin D. Horse behaviour: evolution, domestication and feralisation. In: Waran N editor. The Welfare of Horses. Animal Welfare, vol 1. Springer: Dordrecht. 2007. p1-18.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 McCall CA. A review of learning behavior in horses and its application in horse training. J. Anim. Sci. 1990;68:75-81.
  7. SmartPak. Ask the Vet - Positive vs negative reinforcement for horses. Available from: [accessed 11/4/2021]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Warren-Smith AK, McGreevy PD. Equestrian coaches' understanding and application of learning theory in horse training. Anthrozoös. 2008;21(2);153-62.
  9. PD McGreevy, McLean AN. Punishment in horse training and the concept of ethical equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2009;4(5):193-7.
  10. McLean AN, Christensen JW. The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2017;190:18-27.