CPD opportunity for equestrians: The APBC Virtual Equine Conference and more!

It’s been an unusual year hasn’t it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned all kinds of new skills: coaching via zoom, how to set up online courses…..

One of the bizarrely unexpected benefits that the pandemic has brought has been the proliferation of webinars, online conferences and so on. I don’t know about you, but I do find it handy being able to keep up my CPD (continuing professional development) requirements from the comfort of my home, through my laptop or phone. I particularly like it when the recordings are available online for a period of time after the event! I don’t miss the traveling, flights, car hire, having to organise horse care while I’m away and so on. But I do miss the opportunity to meet up with my colleagues in the flesh, to chat over coffee or lunch, or pre-conference dinners. But technology has come to the rescue there too! I don’t do Facebook, as you know, but I’ve found whatsapp groups great for keeping in touch with colleagues.

I was delighted when the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, of which I’m a Full member, invited me to speak at their virtual Equine Conference. I get to talk about a subject that is very close to my heart, the lessons that the field of Psychology can share with equestrian coaches, particularly in respect to learning theory, motivation and emotion.

Of course I’m not the only speaker! We have an excellent line-up. Anna Haines, regular magazine contributor, is speaking on the role of the behaviourist in the field of welfare. Loni Loftus will be presenting on her latest academic research looking at how we can measure positive aspects of equine welfare. And Roxane Kirton, RSPCA Senior Equine Clinician will be talking about pain and behaviour.

Each speaker will be available for a Q and A session after their presentation. And of course attendance at the conference is worth valuable CPD points for members of ABTC, IAABC and BHS APC’s.

The booking details can be found at

Act quickly though, book today: the conference takes place tomorrow!

Don’t worry if you’re going to be busy tomorrow, you will have access to the recordings for thirty days afterwards, to watch at your leisure.

There’s an extra bonus for those of you interested in further online education opportunities. I am awarding conference delegates with a coupon for 50% off my online courses, including my newest ‘Bitesize’ course on learning and emotions/ motivation due to launch on 21st December but available for enrollment from now. That’s a discount well worth the cost of the conference ticket!!

Thank you!


Serious horse person alert…. Seriously.

A couple of things today have got me thinking about people’s perceptions of behaviourists in general and what we do, and also of their perceptions of me specifically.

The first thing relates to the announcement that the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) will be hosting an online Equine Conference in the autumn. I heard that a comment had been made that it might be ‘a bit general’ for the proper, serious, horsey folk, given that the APBC membership covers all species.

I can understand how this misperception might occur, but it is purely that, a misperception. All the APBC Full members (registered Clinical Animal Behaviourists) that are approved for horse referrals are definitely what I would call ‘serious horse people’. And the topics that will be covered will definitely be of interest to serious horse people throughout the industry. This is, after all, an equine conference, not an all species conference! I know that anything that relates to pets can sometimes be viewed as a little ‘fluffy’ by horse people. But being an equine member of the APBC doesn’t make us any less serious. If anything it shows that we are more serious! As well as years of practical experience in the industry, we have had to work hard academically as well as practically to demonstrate our knowledge and pass the in depth scrutiny required to reach Clinical Animal Behaviourist standard on the ABTC register. And those that have not yet reached that standard are working hard to get there. So despite having the name ‘pet’ in the title, you can rest assured that the equine members are seriously serious horse people.

Many of us have been working in the horse industry for years and have a vast amount of experience beyond ‘simply’ our behaviour referral work, whether that is teaching riding, working for welfare organisations, stud work, behavioural rehabilitation work, starting young horses or conducting academic research looking at horse behaviour, lecturing in horse behaviour and training, or a combination of all of the above. We may not all be out there competing at a high level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are any less ‘serious’ than the horse people that are. In fact, I’d be inclined to argue that many of us have more practical, applied knowledge and experience of horse training in a variety of situations and with a range of horses than some of those ‘serious’ competitors.

As for perceptions of me, personally. Today I heard that another equine professional, who knows me for my behaviour work (and I thought understood what I did), recommended that someone that knew me went to another (showjumping) trainer to teach their rather tricky horse to lunge. It turns out that not only does this professional not know that I teach classical riding alongside my behaviour work (and have passed a BHS exam to say that I can lunge proficiently!), but also, they said ‘ah, well Helen can help you improve your relationship with your horse, but this particular problem needs a trainer’. I felt a little saddened and frustrated that this particular individual hadn’t realised that the bulk of my work is in fact hands on training, whether that is on the ground or under saddle. I have started numerous youngsters over the years, including teaching them to lunge and loose school. Of course, this particular individual was correct, in that the way I work certainly leads to an improvement in the relationship with the horse. But she was incorrect in thinking that that was all I did. In fact, at times my work revolves around undoing some of the problems unknowingly created by other ‘serious horse people’. And as those of you that follow my blog know, I delivered training to BHS and HSI trainers this year on understanding the psychology of training and how to practically apply this knowledge in their work.

So it seems to me that there is work to do on the perception of Clinical Equine Behaviourists in general, and my work specifically. How do we best explain what it is that we actually do, and the fact that we are serious horse people, seriously. Perhaps signing up for the APBC equine conference is a good place to start?

Now I must just go and clean up my wax jacket and head scarf……

Riding in Bad Weather

This seems somewhat topical given the wet windy weather we’ve had the last few days. I have a whatsapp group chat for my weekly lesson clients and today we were chatting about whether it is ever necessary to ride when the weather is bad. I was reminded of this post I wrote for my old blog in 2014. It may be six years old but it’s as relevant now as ever!

“I’ve just cancelled one of my classical riding lessons because the client in question has just bought a young horse and it is an exceptionally wet and windy morning. I was always taught that you should ride whatever the weather, particularly if you compete, because the horse has to know that they should knuckle down and do what they are told no matter what is going on. However, that viewpoint, for me, belongs to the old training paradigm. The one based on aversive stimuli, in which conformity and obedience is everything. This old paradigm is the ‘No’ paradigm. The one in which we say don’t do this,  don’t do that, and our attention and focus is always on the ‘wrong’ behaviour so that we can spot it and correct it, whilst we are quiet and ignore all that goes well.

The new training paradigm is the one based on appetitive stimuli. The one in which we look for willing partnership, free choice and enthusiasm. This is the ‘yes’ paradigm. We ask ‘ would you like to do this?’, we say thank you when it is freely given, we are focused on all the tiny tries and are quick to say yes, that’s it!  Thank you!  Well done!

Obviously to say that there is only one or the other is a bit of a false dichotomy, there are of course many shades of grey in between. But I know that my horse training life now (compared to twenty years ago) is very much focused on the ‘yes’ paradigm.

More importantly, I believe that we want to focus on building a relationship with the horses we train that they enjoy, so that they seek out our company, they do not do what we ask through compulsion, but because they find it pleasurable. I want any horse I train to feel good when they see me coming with my riding hat and tack, not avoidant. I learned this lesson best of all from my old mare Geri, who used to refuse to be caught if she thought riding was in the pipeline. Thankfully I was able to turn things around for her, but it was a long, slow, delicate process.

So back to the cancelled lesson. Did I make a heinous mistake, refusing to let my client ride her youngster on a wet and very windy day? Or did I make a decision that was in the best interests of their long term relationship?

Let’s take a moment and think about what aversive stimuli the mare might have encountered, had we brought her to the rather exposed arena to ride.

1. Horses in the field will naturally take shelter from the wind and driving rain by standing by hedges or anything that provides a natural windbreak. They will not normally choose to move head on into the wind (would any of us?!).

2. Gusty wind can make horses very spooky. This is because it effects their ability to hear potential predators, and to identify exactly where they might be. So a horse is much more vulnerable to predation in the wind, and therefore becomes hypervigilent and very reactive.

3. Getting cold and wet is just plain unpleasant. Being in the field is different, you can keep eating to stay warm and you get to choose where you stand.

4. If you are feeling spooky and uptight, chances are your rider will be too. So your herd of two will feel even more vulnerable. To add to that, if you do jump at something that particularly worries you,  you might get a jab in the mouth, or have heels grip your sensitive ribs as your rider fights to stay on.

Ok, so the best of riders will be able to stay calm and relaxed, no matter what,  so point four may not be an issue for them. Beyond that,  we would need to really ladle on the appetitive stimuli in order to find some balance to these aversives.

When a relationship is new, you don’t have much in the way of good credit or ‘money in the bank’. You haven’t had the opportunity to build up trust. The emphasis needs to be on filling that bank with positive experiences. I don’t believe, in the early days, that there is any such thing as ‘chickening out’, or ‘letting the horse get the better of you ‘. You should only be attempting to do things that you are both happy with.

Your focus should be on relaxation, willing cooperation, and thanks (in the form of verbal praise, scratches and food) for good effort. That way you build up the credits, the bank balance.

If you throw an unpleasant experience in to that too soon, for example, attempting to hack out on your own before the horse is ready, or over facing them with a training session that is too physically demanding for their level of fitness, you will not just reduce the amount of credit, you could send yourself into debt. The relationship will have been knocked back before it had had a chance to properly establish itself.

Remember that first impressions last. It is much much harder to rebuild credit after a bad experience in the early days.
However, down the line, when you have built a strong positive relationship, a strong credit history, you will find you can (accidentally!) knock that back and it is far far easier to remedy, there is more willingness to ‘forgive and forget’. In fact, aversive stimuli like bad weather etc may actually appear less aversive, or perhaps not even be noticed at all, because the trust is so strong and the relationship is so positive.

Just because we don’t do something, now, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever do it. But the focus should always be ‘everything in good time’.

Foundations are best built slowly with good attention to detail. After all, without them, even the best built walls will struggle to stand the test of time.

Dr Helen Spence 6th November 2014.”

The Learning Theory Revolution. The 2020 Edit.

On 18th February 2015 I wrote this and published it on my old blog ( I thought it was just as relevant today and probably of interest to quite a few of you. Better still, I now have an online course available that covers the points that I make here. The link is at the end of this post 😁.

Over the last fifteen to twenty years my views on the application of learning theory to horse training have evolved considerably. I first formally studied learning theory in the first year of my Psychology degree nearly twenty (!) years ago. Prior to that, having an interest in dog and horse training, I had been reading about it in an informal way for years, and applying it to the animals in my care. For example, teaching my pet dog to sit, lie down and recall for a food reward or praise. Or, when I was 16, I had a mare (the kind, gentle Sammy) who had had a bad accident jumping and had developed a tendency to rush her fences. Using a very gentle, quiet approach, I taught her firstly to walk over poles on the ground in hand, with plenty of praise, then built up in gradual stages to jumping on the lunge and then to me being able to calmly ride her over poles and small fences. In explicit, formal terms at that stage I knew nothing about learning theory, but informally, implicitly, I understood it pretty well. In fact, when I first studied it in my degree, it was taught in such a dry, theoretical manner, that I didn’t immediately make the jump to recognising how it applied to animals. When I did, which was when I was working full time with horses, having just graduated, I’d say I still understood how to apply it to what I was already doing at a pretty shallow level. And it wasn’t until I began teaching it as part of the undergraduate lab classes that I taught when I was starting my PhD a few years later that I would say I really began to understand it at a deeper level.

To me, this is a journey that all trainers go on. Most begin training before they are taught about learning theory. They learn, on the job, an implicit understanding of how to motivate their chosen species. There’s a great deal of trial and error involved for both animal and trainer. Good trainers are those that are good at learning from their errors. In fact, they may not even be particularly consciously aware of what they do and don’t do, they quickly reach the stage of ‘unconscious competence’- they know how to do it, but couldn’t necessarily easily teach someone else to do what they do, because it is so ‘natural’ to them. I guess to a degree this is the stage I was at as a teenager. I could get good results from horses and dogs, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate what needed doing, or why, I just ‘knew’.

Then, as an enthusiastic new graduate, I began to understand the mechanics of both operant and classical conditioning, but I was still missing the key factor, which was the emotional state of the animal. So, even though I was a proponent of the use of appetitives in training, I failed to fully appreciate the impact of aversive stimuli. I guess at the time I was probably experiencing a reasonable degree of cognitive dissonance, given that I was working full time on a conventional yard, teaching, schooling and working my way through my BHS exams. The framework for horse training that I was used to and had been brought up with was based primarily on the use of aversive stimuli, with minimal appetitives. I knew I wasn’t comfortable with it, and my newly acquired theoretical understanding was helping to explain the reasons behind that discomfort. But I was still struggling to work out the alternative possibilities- with no clear route mapped out for me, I felt like I didn’t really fit in. I was still reconciling my practical experience with the theory. It took the arrival, a year later, of my highly sensitive and neurotic mare, Geri, to really drive that point home.

Over the following years, I felt like I really began to understand learning theory in an applied way. I could see the relationship between emotional state and behaviour, and understand how that motivated and shaped behaviour. I also could see how easily associations could form. Most importantly, I could articulate and explain what I was doing in practical and theoretical terms, so I could help others to understand their horses behaviour. However I think the most significant thing I realised at that time was the practical importance of classical conditioning, and how, although our conscious focus might be on operant conditioning, the nature of classical conditioning meant that it was an intrinsic part of each training interaction.

As I said, this is a journey that so many trainers who have studied learning theory in an academic way will recognise. For me, the more I taught learning theory, on all levels, from horse owners to postgraduate students, the more I could see how it applied to everyday life. Not in a reductionist, simplistic way, but as an interactive part of the bigger picture.

It seems to me that the biggest mistake that any one can make is to focus on how we can use an understanding of learning theory to help us manipulate behaviour, particularly when that focus is on operant conditioning and neglects classical conditioning. All that seems to happen at that level is that people get hung up about ‘which quadrant’ of operant conditioning they are training with. They argue about reinforcement versus punishment, and the pros and cons of each, without recognising that the bigger picture is about the emotional balance of the individual. Yes, training can be manipulative. I guess by definition training is manipulation of behaviour. But it doesn’t have to be manipulative in a ‘using’, ‘devious’ kind of way. It could, and should, be communication, a two way thing. But the point I want to make is that we should be using our understanding of learning theory to help us be better observers, to help us better understand why we do what we do. The thing is, whether we understand the theory or not, we are all doing it! We are all, always, creating and changing behaviour through our own behaviour. Because, just like gravity, learning is always there.

So our choice is: Be aware of learning theory and use that awareness to help us understand how and why we act as we do, and also at times knowingly use that to deliberately change behaviour OR be ignorant of learning theory, but still carry on learning and influencing learning. Either way, behaviour gets influenced and changed, but in the case of ignorance, particularly if it is combined with an inability to recognise the emotional state of the animal, there is potential for ‘accidental’ damage or stress. Ignorance also means it is harder to understand why things might be happening and most importantly makes it difficult to predict what might happen next.

We cannot afford to be too simplistic when we talk about learning. Just like gravity, it is always there whether we like it or not. This makes it impossible to be completely in control or manipulative…. There are too many factors at play.

In summary, I believe it is important for horse trainers to understand operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
I believe it is important to recognise the significance of classical conditioning.

I believe it is essential to be able to recognise the emotional state of the animal we are working with.

Finally I believe we should focus more on observing and predicting behaviour and less on manipulating behaviour.

Training needs to be a two way conversation, not a lecture.

We need to understand that learning is much more complex than just talking about how behaviour is reinforced or punished by stimuli that we control.

We need to realise that there are many factors beyond our control that shape the individual. If we get too hung up on the simple, mechanical, view, then the complex, living, breathing, organic being that is the horse will leave us for dust.

Edit on Wednesday 20th May 2020: If you enjoyed reading this post, you may be interested in my online course, very affordable and highly informative. For more information go to 

To follow my more up to date blog and for further detail on me and my work, go to 



May the Horse be With You- horse centred learning with Spence Horse Sense

So it’s May the 4th, Star Wars day, a significant day for Star Wars fans all over the world, particularly this year as lockdown fever will be alleviated with the release of ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ on Disney+. Much excitement in the Spence household over that one.

However there’s another reason for excitement in the Spence household today, also related to the lockdown, and that is the launch of my online courses.

For years I’ve been delivering webinars and lectures online for universities, also for CPD for organisations such as the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) and BVBA (British Veterinary Behaviour Association), but that’s been the limit of my online teaching. I’ve always resisted doing online coaching and consultations, preferring to actually see my clients in the real world. However the coronavirus lockdown has changed all that.

Thankfully now we are blessed with such fantastic technology that I’ve been able to carry on coaching my regular clients via video calling. For me, this has been a revelation, and is nearly as good as seeing them. I’ve also been able to conduct behaviour consultations this way, alongside getting my clients to film footage of their day to day interactions with their horse and various aspects of the problem. It’s been a real eye opener for me, and looks like it will revolutionise my business in the future.

But perhaps the most exciting discovery has been the (very steep learning curve!) discovery that I’ve made, which is how to set up online courses. All brought about because of the lockdown leading to cancellation of my BHS (British Horse Society) CPD days planned for this year. The plan was to deliver my ‘How Horses Learn Best: Learning Theory in Context’ day at various venues around the UK and Ireland. But coronavirus has put paid to that. So we had to find a way to get the material online. Thankfully BHS Ireland had filmed the first day, so hooray, I’ve been able to convert the footage into an online course, available not just for coaches but for all with an interest.

In addition, I’ve some clicker courses complete and more useful courses in the pipeline. If you’d like to be kept notified of new courses, pop along to the site and sign up to the mailing list.

You might ask what’s different about my clicker courses to other ones out there. Not only do I have over twenty years experience of training horses with the clicker, which puts me in pretty much the first wave of horse trainers training that way in the UK and Ireland (in fact when I began I don’t think anyone else in Ireland was doing it!). I also have highly relevant qualifications, having a Psychology degree, a PhD in horse behaviour, and being an ABTC (Aninal Behaviour and Training Council) registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist specialising in horses. I have worked in the horse industry for over twenty years, including in riding schools, stud yards and rescue centres and have extensive practical horse handling and training experience. And I’ve been teaching this stuff at all levels from happy hacker to post graduate degree since 2003.

I’ve been developing my techniques over that time, always evolving and innovating. I’ve shared so much of what I do with other trainers, at conferences and online, but I still find there’s a bit of a chinese whispers effect. So if you really want to know about calmness in training, the foundation behaviours I consider important, straight from the horse’s mouth, then these are the courses for you.

For the How Horses Learn Best: Learning Theory in Context course, go to

For the Getting Started with the Clicker course, go to

And for the store front listing all the courses go to and scroll down the page.


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