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Foundation training and equitation science

Foundation training and equitation science

Paul McGreevy and Sierra, 2014
Paul McGreevy and Sierra, 2014. Photo: Kirsten Wehner.

Foundation training

Horses do not naturally understand a person’s directions. To be ridden or driven safely, they must be trained to respond positively to commands, or ‘aids’.

This process begins with a horse’s first encounters with people, and includes learning to accept being caught, led, tied up, groomed and shod, wearing and responding to a bridle and bit, carrying a saddle and rider or pulling a vehicle.

Historically, these early training stages have been known collectively as ‘breaking in’, reflecting the idea that a rider had to subdue, or break, a horse’s spirit or independent will to make it a safe and useful working animal.

Today, trainers increasingly refer to these first stages of work with a horse as ‘foundation training’, suggesting the significance of this process in laying the building blocks and setting the character for a horse’s life-long relationship with people.

Demonstrating foundation training

Professor Paul McGreevy is a veterinarian and professor of animal welfare at the University of Sydney. In this film Paul and his two-year-old filly Sierra demonstrate some of the techniques of foundation training.

Equitation science

Paul McGreevy’s approach to foundation training is based on the principles of equitation science. Equitation science is an emerging discipline that aims to develop a system of training horses that is based on verifiable, scientific information about the behavioural mechanisms that underpin horse-human interaction.

8 training principles published by the International Society for Equitation Science. Full text at:
Equitation science training principles poster, 2014. Courtesy: International Society for Equitation Science.

Equitation scientists aim to develop training techniques that are appropriate and meaningful in terms of the horse’s anatomy, physiology, sensory ability, cognitive capacity and ethology, or set of social behaviours. They argue that this approach will lead to training processes, and horse-human interactions more broadly, that better protect the welfare of horses and increase rider safety.

Practitioners and researchers of equitation science are particularly interested in the application to the training of horses of ‘learning theory’, or how an animal learns by using information from the environment to adapt its responses to stimuli.

They emphasise the importance in training horses of ‘negative reinforcement’, or rewarding the horse’s response to pressure by removing the pressure, such as the pressure of a rein on the bit, and ‘habituation’, or decreasing the horse’s response to a frightening stimuli by gradually building up the horse’s exposure to and acceptance of that stimuli.

Read the training principles on the International Society for Equitation Science website

A developing tradition

Equitation science first emerged as a discipline in 2005, when a group of equine scientists and veterinarians concerned about the lack of scientific knowledge underlying horse training and riding techniques, and the attendant negative impact on horse welfare came together at a conference in Australia. The International Society for Equitation Science was formed in 2007 to develop and promote the discipline.

Equitation science draws on traditions of training horses through building rapport and compliance, rather than forcing horses to give into human domination, that reach back thousands of years, at least to the ancient Greeks, and that have always represented at least a minor note in Australian horse-training practices. In the 1860s, South Australian George Hamilton, an inspector of mounted police, for example, published a series of books criticising cruel ‘training’ practices, suggesting that he was implicitly promoting a more gentle and sympathetic approach to working with horses.

Tom Roberts and Spring Song demonstrate 'feeling for the mouth' to Virginia Batten, Coromandel Valley, South Australia,
Tom Roberts and Spring Song demonstrate 'feeling for the mouth' to Virginia Batten, Coromandel Valley, South Australia, 1972. Photo: Webb McKelvey.

A sympathetic approach

From the 1950s, instructors such as Franz Mairinger and Tom Roberts drew on European schools of classical dressage training to popularise sympathetic training practices in Australia. Roberts, for example, emphasised the need for horsemen and women to focus on the horse’s point of view and to think about training as a process of teaching. In Horse Control – The Young Horse, 1974, Roberts wrote:

Few people who set out to train and educate a horse give any thought to the great difficulties that face the horse. How many of us setting out to teach him have given serious thought or study of HOW to teach him: how to establish a system of signals or aids that most riders grow up with and accept as being natural, but of which the horse has no knowledge whatsoever?

Advocates of ‘natural horsemanship’, including a number of American trainers drawing on riding traditions from the western United States, have also gained a strong Australian following since the 1980s. These trainers emphasise understanding and working with horses’ innate proclivities and modes of behaviour. They are sometimes known as ‘horse whisperers’, in reference to the way they can appear to possess an intrinsic capacity or secret knowledge that enables them to ‘talk’ with a horse.

Equitation science differentiates itself from natural horsemanship by aiming to discover and explain the horse’s behavioural mechanisms and develop appropriate training techniques through scientific research methods rather than experience and practice. It insists that training principles can be universally understood and applied, rather than arising from a trainer’s innate talent or capacity to communicate with horses.


While sympathetic training practices have always attracted proponents among Australian horse owners and riders, the early stages of a horse’s training have been more commonly understood as ‘breaking-in’. Traditional breaking-in techniques emerged in the military and on rangeland stations, where large numbers of semi-feral horses had to quickly be made submissive and compliant, often to the stage where the horse lost all sense of self-preservation.

Breaking-in techniques reflected the belief that a rider had to subdue, break, a horse’s spirit or independent will to make it a useful working animal, and they often involved a specialised ‘breaker’ punishing or simply riding out a horse’s attempts to resist them.

Click on an image below to see horses being thrown and branded at Innamincka station, South Australia in 1919

  • Throwing and branding horses
    Throwing and branding horses
  • Throwing and branding horses
    Throwing and branding horses
  • Throwing and branding horses
    Throwing and branding horses

Spirited lecture series

Equitation science: understanding how horses think and learn

audio_w15 Listen to Professor Paul McGreevy at the Museum on 14 November 2014

International Society for Equitation Science co-founder Paul McGreevy discusses his approach to understanding how horses think and learn, as well as his work as a scientific adviser in the development of the exhibition Spirited: Australia's horse story.


Horses in Australia

George Hamilton horse welfare collection highlight

International Society for Equitation Science website


By Kirsten Wehner, Head Curator, People and the Environment, National Museum of Australia.

People and the Environment

Horses in Australia is part of the National Museum's People and the Environment program. Discover more stories about people's relationships with Australia's natural and built environments on our People and the Environment website.