Andrew McLean on Attachment Theory – The New Dimension


Andrew McLean looks at a new way of understanding the way we relate to our horses…

I’m interested in the area of Attachment Theory, as it applies to the horse/human bond in the hope it may shed light on the elusive (objectively speaking) qualities of trust, rapport and bonding. Applying Attachment Theory to horse training is new ground, but I think it applies well, as the horse is a social animal too. It has been recently extended to describe not only the quality of mother–infant relationships and other caregiver-infant relationships, but also to relationships between human adults and more recently human-pet relationships. There’s a lot of evidence that dogs and humans attach to each other in a very similar way that humans attach to each other and I think that it’s likely that any social animal that’s in our domain, would share at least some of these characteristics.

The horse is a good candidate for that because of two factors – one the one hand he is the most fearful of domestic animals. The horse has the biggest amygdala (the part of the brain that modulates fear) of all domestic animals yet on the other hand his heart rate is significantly lowered when groomed by other horses at the base of the neck. It has also now been shown that the same lowering occurs when humans stroke horses along the neck at the base of the withers (many of you already do that).  Stroking, oxytocin and heart rate lowering are all connected.   So it seems that stroking at the base of the withers is an antidote for stress.

For horses there are important health benefits in being able to allogroom (stroke/scratch each other).  Group-housed horses for example show significantly lower incidences of stereotypies (stress related issues such as cribbing, weaving etc.).   As an antidote for fear and insecurity, it seems this is a really important site of attachment and bonding. These are areas that we haven’t been able to explain scientifically, that enhance or inhibit learning: trust, bonding, rapport, could be explained to some extent by these areas.

operant conditoining 1

Attachment is the big one I’m looking at with horses, because Attachment Theory has provided psychologists with valuable assessment and treatment tools.   I’m particularly interested also because the history of horse training is as much about not touching horses: we lead, we drive, we lunge, we round pen, all of those things are very much at a distance. Even when we ride a horse we have layers between us, it’s not a tactile attachment which has been shown to be important in close relationships. Touch is soothing. The need for touch is a well that empties fast and thus can never be filled, unlike other primary needs.

Touch is really important and when we do we really touch horses apart from grooming? People commonly tend to pat, and patting at worst tends to make horses more reactive, or vigilant and more alert, and at best is a neutral signal that doesn’t enhance learning. Yet we can’t stop patting horses, dogs and elephants it seems. It’s such a waste of time and emotion. In the end animals become habituated to it, but if we didn’t pat for good behaviour but just stroked at the base of the wither and said in a distinct voice, ‘good boy’ as a secondary reinforcement before we stroked, we would be more successful. Especially so if we ensure we never say ‘good boy’ without stroking directly after.

This was the sole positive reinforcer Manuela and Jo Formosa used to train Jo’s Worldwide PB to variations of light whip-tap cues for gait, tempo and stride length changes and to transform these to seat cues.

One French study purported to show that wither stroking as a positive reinforcer is a poor reward, however for some obscure reason the researcher only gave three rubs on the withers – conversely one of my Master’s students at Nottingham-Trent, Emily Hancock, has shown that some horses’ heart rates don’t fall for two minutes in the early stages, probably for the same reasons as isolated children sometimes resent touch. Social animals need it but don’t always seem to want it if they are detached.  For me however, the importance of touch is far more than just reinforcement. It’s about security for an animal that may live in a world with no touch, yet craves it as a social animal. I think the genius of Kell Jeffery’s revolutionary breaking-in method that has since been embraced by myself and others such as Parelli, lies in the bareback bonding effect where the breaker spends a lot of time lying on the horse’s back sideways, longways, stroking and soothing all the time. Bucking is an absolute rarity in these early bareback sessions.

We should use touch, especially wither stroking more, and we should teach this in pony club, and all Federations as rewards. Because when you think about it, even with light aids, what’s rewarding about training from the horse’s point of view?  Social contact via touch is natural and I have seen many horses that don’t initially like wither scratching with other horses (most likely because we rear them in isolation so much), yet when housed with other horses, they may learn to enjoy touch from herd mates. Those horses that I have seen that don’t initially seem to like human touch can learn to do so if you persist, and I think for their health it’s important you should.  Their heart rates soon lower by the standard 10 beats per minute if aroused.

Other reasons that intrigued me to start thinking about Attachment Theory with other social animals such as horses and elephants was that I read a book about Harry Harlow’s famous experiments with Rhesus monkeys that showed what other researchers of children already knew – that if infants were deprived of touch from a caregiver they became lifeless after a few months and never developed physically or in language and after longer periods, they couldn’t be retrieved and many would die.  The second intriguing thing was the new studies on synchronicity between humans and horses. Many studies have shown that when the partnership is good between rider and horse their heart rates tend to be synchronous. Linda Keeling in Sweden did some fascinating experiments (that we are about to replicate) showing that when a person leading a horse or riding a horse expects something bad to happen, both their heart rates increase synchronously. Maybe it’s just as simple as riders stiffen and horses notice it. But it is interesting and it does suggest we have selectively bred into domestic horses other interesting traits as we have with dogs that we don’t quite understand as yet.

To my mind, getting our training right by using the correct Operant Conditioning tools at the time, and having regard for the horse’s arousal, affective states and attachment needs, sums up perfect training. It’s the best we can do. It’s been a great journey for me and I’m happy to be always learning. I think we need to be honest about training too. We should recognise that where the aids that we use in horse training originate from pressure-release, then even the lightest aid is still a shrunken version of Negative Reinforcement. If we do it badly it’s crippling for the horse and leads to problems.

We should not abandon Negative Reinforcement for Positive. To do so suggests a poor understanding of cognitive training processes and worse still denies the fact that horses are dangerous animals if you don’t have control. Control has been facilitated for centuries by Negative Reinforcement and has allowed horses to be controlled in the terror of battle. When done well it can produce calm confident horses that you can rely on for safety – you won’t fear death and catastrophe to put your children on well trained horses in suddenly challenging circumstances. So the important thing for me is not to deny Negative Reinforcement, but to embrace it and be always mindful of doing it to the best of our ability, to shrink pressures to the lightest of aids and to reward with touch.  We should also utilise Positive Reinforcement such as clicker training to facilitate training not only of hard to train movements but also for no good reason other than to teach your horse useless tricks that enhance your bond, like pushing a ball around or picking up your hat.

Andrew and Da Lyla

Andrew and Da Lyla

To really make good ground in our relationships with horses we should replace the shallow and simplistic notions of respect, dominance and submission (I’d like to wipe that one out of the dressage test) and just use Learning Theory correctly.  The more you know about it, the more it explains the things that entrap your mind to thinking of submission and respect. Even when a horse invades your space he’s just learning by Negative Reinforcement to displace you. When he displaces you in the saddle, he’s doing the same.  When he doesn’t load in the float, it’s a failure of the Negative Reinforcement of leading pressures. When he’s head shy, aggressive, lazy, go-ey, strong or heavy: same thing.

I know some people hate science, because their brains just don’t seem to see the world in a systematic way. But there is a saying: ‘what we can’t measure we can’t manage’, and the comforts we enjoy post hunter-gatherer are largely a result of categorising and measuring. It helps us understand the world so long as were not blinkered to assume that that’s all that’s important and we are open to our own arrogance.  I’m always amused though, that the people who distrust the veracity of a scientific approach seem happy enough to jump on a plane.  But when it comes to animals sometimes what seems soft and kind (ie allowing random acts of acceleration or line or displacing you on the ground or under saddle) are not healthy because they make horses insecure, and Learning Theory explains this well. But even in the absence of any deep understanding of learning processes, we need to remember that our job is to simply teach the horse what we want him to learn as effectively and thoroughly as we can and make him feel as secure as possible.

27 thoughts on “Andrew McLean on Attachment Theory – The New Dimension

  1. Attachment theory is a multifaceted subject. There is more that one type of attachment and they are not all positive. The type of attachment between horses and their owners will also depend on the horses and the owners previous attachment history and the way that an owner interacts with their horse. Negative and positive interactions will have an impact on this attachment.

  2. A great article. I have to wonder however, if the author is using Negative Reinforcement as it is intended. NR is NOT punishment. It is a technique for increasing desired behavior, not for suppresing undesirable behavior
    I wish he would have elaborated more on his perception of Negative Reinforcement.

  3. I enjoyed this article; mostly because it includes negative reinforcement and explains why. Also; I believe that the most neglected of the horses sense is the olfactory sense; which receives information from pheromones and hormones which immediately inform the brain to respond to the required situation. I own an aromatic which is very old. It was produced & sold by the veterinary suppliers “Day Son& Hewitt” for 40 yrs. I used to wonder why it made horses so sociable even when a horse was really wound up or even dangerous. I have come to believe that it acts on the senses in the same manner as does oxytocin. Thank you for an informative article.

  4. Great article Andrew.

    But I don’t think you need to worry about the words “submission” and “respect”. Respect is something we hold for each other – it goes hand in hand with honour and it is something we should offer ALL our horses – they deserve it.

    Submission is not so bad a word either, because truthfully someone does have to have the first word in a conversation and a horse that allows the rider / handler to do that is the one who has learned to trust their human partner. So don’t worry about the words respect and submission remaining in the vocabulary – rather continue to offer education on how these words can build a positive partnership with a horse by using Learning Theory.

  5. As a psychologist specialising in psychotherapeutic interventions and utilising aspects of attachment theory to formulate an understanding of an individuals response to their world it seems natural that bonding, early experience and the development of trust would be a positive reinforcer in human equine relationships. Humans starved of human warmth and touch tend to struggle in relationships. They can fail to thrive, become overly demanding or withdrawn and skittish. Working therapeutically needs the development of a trusting relationship and when people have not experienced the loving touch of a parent, the hair stroke or stroking of the bridge of the nose to stabilise breathing, heart rate and lull into sleep this can be a demanding process. Patting in humans is rarely received as a warm and loving feeling. It tends to be associated with the bestowing of patronage or in extremis it is chastisement which raises the heart rate and is not comforting. It would seem natural that horse whispering techniques, bare back riding and close physical contact, given consistently and without artifice will produce a good outcome, develop a strong positive relationship, promote good attachment and a healthy horse. Good article

  6. Enjoyed your article. I followed up almost the same interest in an article I wrote in 1994 when studying to be a psychotherapist with a particular interest in equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP). Winnicot at conference I attended in 1970s drew similar parallels! AT has been contributing to understanding the process and relational dynamic in EAP since folk in field started sharing in 1990s with emergence of the internet.

  7. As a dressage rider, I totally agree with your article and feel we should work more on subtle communication with our horses.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences!
    Silvia Benzan

  8. Kim, Negative Reinforcement is basically the removal of something unpleasant. B.F. Skinner used it in training rats to pull a lever – they were placed in a box with an electrified floor and only when they pulled the lever was the electricity turned off. It is therefore the relief that is the reward and makes it more likely for the behaviour to occur again. As you say, it isn’t punishment, although many people can confuse it with punishment. So, when the writer is talking about horses that won’t load and horses that invade our space, it can be linked to Negative Reinforcement in that they are not responding to pressure; much of Parelli is based on Negative Reinforcement – horses learning to release to pressure and in so doing makes it more likely for that behaviour to occur again. Hope that has helped 🙂

  9. Excellent article. Although understanding of the applications of learning theory is extremely helpful in animal training. It can somewhat limit us and keep us too confined “in the training box”. Animals are clearly sophisticated cognitive and emotional beings who are more like us than we ever thought. It is therefore behooves us to learn as much as we can about all aspects of their lives whether it is social, or biological, or psychological.Clinical solutions are often generated by the ability to assimilate new ways of looking at old problems.
    Thanks for sharing.

  10. I, and perhaps others, need examples to help understanding that graphic as it relates to horse training and your conclusions in this article. Where does bonding fit in?

  11. Hi Peggy, What the history of the ideas and research behind Attachment theory show is that touch is massively underrated in social animals. Touch facilitates and strengthens bonding. The science behind the mechanism is not known because the role of the actual cells involved in touch reception (nocioceptors and others are not fully understood as they also have roles in pain an other sensations). But what we do know is that the absence of touch is crippling for social beings. If you look up Spitz and his work on children deprived of touch on YouTube you will see some of the awful effects of the so called ‘hospitalisation effect’. These films show the downhill slide of the security and mental health of children in hospitals deprived of touch 50 or so years ago when raising children was advocated to be totally behaviourist and all about no-nonsense training but not at all about the priority of love, security and attachment. A very good and readable book is Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum (a science journalist) and it descirbes the life of Harry Harlow and his experiments that, although pretty ghastly for the monkeys, showed the importance of touch and other familial elments in bonding in young rhesus monkeys. I think one of the great side-effects for horses of grooming and massage is touch. To me some individuals need much more touch than others. For insecure animals, their need for touch is a leaky glass, you can never fill it so you have to be giving that horse much more than others. One thing I have learned from observing people who have insecure horses is that problems tend not to get better if they are cold toward their horses and avoid touching in the lavish way that you should. On the other hand, the best horse people, Guy McLean, Monty Roberts, Steve Jeffries, Steve Brady regardless of training styles are all exceptional in the amount and the way they touch horses. I realise body language is also important, but touch is massively underrated. One you start a culture of touching and stroking, you will see changes and you wont want to stop!

  12. Very informative. Pointers on negative reinforcement well stated. I am so glad of how we are finally re-assessing our relationships with horses & trying to truly understand instead of dominating.

  13. Another great article from Dr McLean that should encourage all horse people to do some research of their own into learning theory and it’s application for the betterment of themselves and their animals.

  14. I really have enjoyed reading the article and comments. I particularly like Andrews latter comment on insecure horses and how touch is important to them.
    The more I read and work with equitation science and learning theory the more I wonder why more people don’t embrace the theories behind the practice….it puts the horse at the centre but gives the handler/owner/trainer the right tools for them to give clear, confusion free signals….I absolutely love it and I see that through my horses. Thank you

  15. Thank you Andrew for such a well written article. Attachment Theory is an area of great interest to me. Having studied what might be considered Traditional Training methods and ‘New Age’ Training methods I can see clearly where problems can arise from either neglecting this subject altogether and or by making it more esoteric to the point that it blurs into a morass of fanciful notions. Your explanation and understanding helps keep us on track and searching!

  16. My husband and I have had a horse (Arab) for 4.5 years who suffers from PTSD. We would not be considered skilled trainers, but the horse has benefited (and us) from lots of cuddles, strokes and kind words. He “forgives” our lack of horsemanship because he knows he his deeply loved. A series of experts had given up on him, dangerous and unstoppable. Excellent trail horse for my novice husband.

  17. Synchrony is a better term than synchronicity which suggests something all together. Stoking the horse is of little reinforcement value compared to fingertip scratching. If they dont make a boxy shape with their upper lip and start flipping their lower lip, you are not really doing your best. All and all, though, it is good to see you are promoting appetitive reinforcement.

  18. Very interesting reading. Having had horses for more than 50 years I am still learning from them every day! I’ve had lots of lovely horses but only a few with which I have had a real connection chosen by the horse as much as myself. All horses were either bred by us or bought quite young. My current horse is one and he is always eager to be with me. He is a very alpha horse who has been like this from the time I met him as an unbroken 2 year old when he gave me a huge sniffing over and followed me about. I realise I feed him but some of his behaviours are different to other horses I have had. For example he looks to me, not other horses for security when we go out somewhere. He will follow my movements when I leave him in a yard and I move away to go about the business of readying for the activity I’m going to do. I can be 200 + metres away and he can pick me out from a crowd and keep an eye on my comings and goings and greet me with a soft nicker when I approach. We have another mare who comes with us and she is besotted by him, but he basically ignores her except for mutual wither scratching which they both enjoy. He likes to just put his head in my arms and stand still breathing for a few minutes at a time. He will close his eyes or just go all soft in the eye during this cuddle. He is very lively and excited when it’s time to come in at night and gallops and leaps, caprioles, bucks, piaffes and generally gets highly excited because it’s going to be dinner time. But no matter how excited and ridiculous his behaviour is if I just speak to him quietly as I slip his head collar on he will lead calmly to the stable in a companionable manner, rarely needing any reminders to wait for me and to be respectful whatever the weather.
    When he was confined with an injury I tried to provide company for him as he was forever calling out to me from the stable. We got a companion Shetland but he ignored it completely. We then got mirrors… waste of money! I just has to visit him regularly through the day for 4 months , not always with food, a touch and some companion time seemed to calm him down as well as food.
    I have had other horses who seem to be complete units all on their own with no need for humans in their lives. They make your relationship with them all about the training but you always seem to be kept at a distance.
    I had another big WB mare that had the reputation of being very dominant as a foal but I bought her just broken in and she seemed to connect with me too and in many situations where she was beside herself with anxiety. Eg Just after foaling when we had to do things with her foal. I could just point my finger at her and speak assertively and she would calm down she would go from 16.3 hh of fury into a respectful mare and be relaxed again in seconds.
    So I guess I’m really interested in connection as I call it!

  19. Many thanks Dr McLean! I’ve taken a horse to one of your clinics (Auckland); devoured your books and your research. Such a lot I have learned! And sometimes your research (and that of Prof. Paul McGreevy) seems to’ve pursued a line that validates stuff I do. A ‘natural’ trainer (a good one actually) chastised me for treating my horses as ‘friends’ not horses! Bullshit! Those of us who have horses/animals as friends don’t take them into the house and give them cups of tea! I’ve struggled a little encouraging a new horse to give me lateral flexion on the ground (a’ Steve Brady). I finally stood on her left side, with my hands in all the right places and my right hip pocket full of apple slices: Tada! Intermittent schedule of reinforcement and she’s SWEET! My ‘natural’ trainer says I shouldn’t ‘hand feed’ my horses. Bah!

    Fun, affection, play, creativity attracts kindred spirits in horses! Mine all do a few tricks to delight small children; they are Horses!; but as horses: kind, trusting and trustworthy. Above all: FUN!
    Again! Many thanks.

  20. Hello Andrew – interesting article. I am wondering to what extent rugging prevents this wither grroming between horses, and what alternatives horses come up with to satisfy this need. I notice that as soon as rugs are off on a nice sunny day, horses will immediately turn to rolling and mutual grooming, as if to make up for lost time. Do you have any comments on this? When we rug horses, are we preventing this social need?

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