Last week, we posted a 45-second video of Karl Cook talking about his 5* Grand Prix winning mount Kalinka van’t Zorgvleit.

Maybe you saw it on TikTok, Facebook or Instagram. Nearly one million people have and hundreds have commented on it. Because that video triggered a lot of feelings and discourse, including emotionally charged response videos from Shelby Dennis of Milestone Equestrian and Karl Cook.

Full disclosure: I ordered the video. I asked the interview questions. I approved the b-roll clips. That video is on me. And in hindsight, it was misguided.

Whenever a post inspires a negative reaction on Horse Network, I ask myself two questions: Are the comments true? As in, is there validity to the claims? And, if so, what can we learn from this moment?

And this moment, I believe, has created an opportunity to have a productive conversation about equine behavior and what we ask of competition horses. To facilitate that, I reached out to equine behavior specialist Renate Larssen. Larssen has a Bachelor of Science degree in Veterinary Medicine from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and a Master of Science degree in Ethology (the study of animal behavior) from Linköping University in Sweden. She’s currently working on her PhD.

In short, she knows a thing or two about why horses do what they do.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for print.)

Carley Sparks: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and weigh in on this topic. I did not anticipate the reaction that video would stir up, which perhaps was naive and also a bit hypocritical. You and I had a discussion just the other week about paying attention to horse behavior that might be passed off as “quirky”, which I want to talk about more. But to start, what is your initial impression of the Kalinka video?

Renate Larssen: Thank you for making space for this conversation. So essentially, what we need to recognize is that behaviors mean things and every behavior has an underlying emotion and that emotion has to be either positive or negative. There’s no neutrality in emotions, they’re either good or bad.

The problem with animal emotions is that we can’t ask them how they feel. So the only way we can approach animal emotions is by looking at their behaviors, which is what ethology does.

Emotions essentially have two components: an arousal level and a valance. So you can have high arousal or low arousal. You can be calm or excited. And then you can also have positive emotions or negative emotions. It’s like an X-Y scale.

The other thing to note is that emotions are not all or nothing. You can experience multiple emotions at the same time. So emotions are quite complicated.

Looking at this video of Kalinka, she is showing very clear, evasive behaviors. She’s balking, she’s rearing, she’s jumping away. She’s lifting her head. These are all behaviors that are categorized as evasive or avoidance behaviors and the underlying emotion there is fear because they are essentially a flight response.

Now, an important thing to remember when it comes to horses—or anything living really because we all work the same way—is a phenomenon known as trigger stacking. There are different words for it, but that’s one I like to use. And that basically means that stressors compound.

So if you think about the horse’s coping ability as a bucket, every single stressor will be a few drops of water and a few drops of water is not going to be a problem. The horse is going to be able to deal with it. But, once these stressors add up, the bucket starts to fill up and eventually you will have that one final little stressor that makes the bucket overflow. And then you get these fairly pronounced behavioral reactions that we can see in the video.

I believe this footage is the prize giving ceremony?

Sparks: Correct.

Larssen: So, you know, Kalinka has already competed. She’s already been in a high stress environment. There’s loud noises. There’s music. It’s not uncommon for horses to react very strongly during prize giving ceremonies. Not uncommon at all.

In fact, in Europe, it is being discussed a bit whether that’s even something we should do on horseback anymore because it is a different environment to competitions.

And so it could just be that there was something in that moment that sent her over that threshold. All these little stressors had added up, she just couldn’t take it anymore. So she had to react.

It’s important to note that these reactions are not voluntary. Horses don’t decide to react with fearful behaviors. They just respond to their own physiological and emotional state.

Sparks: That makes a lot of sense. I think that part of the reason I wasn’t immediately clued into the idea of this horse being fearful in this moment is that I’ve been watching Karl in the warm up ring all year on Kalinka and I’m always impressed by how calm and composed and even tempered he is in the saddle. I haven’t seen him have an emotional reaction to her antics, or try to manufacture control with draw lines or other training aids. And I’ve always admired that, his compassionate approach.

Larssen: Yeah, I definitely want to say for the record given some of the junk that a lot of show jumping horses have in their mouths and the elaborate ways in which their jaws are clamped shut with different nosebands, the bridle on Kalinka was a very sympathetic set up. That was something that stood out to me as well.

This, I think, is a little bit of the problem. When I look at this video and I see that in this moment, this is a horse that is experiencing the emotion of fear and that is behaving in a way consistent with that, it’s a moment. I do not know what happened before or immediately after and Karl did say that in his reaction video and he does have a point. I do not know what it was that set her off—what was that final drop, the final trigger?

The thing about behavior is you can always expect complicated. You can always expect many, many different layers. There’s a reason it’s an entire research field working on this because it is incredibly complicated to interpret horse behavior. It’s very situational. It depends a lot on past history. It depends a lot on current context. And I think we do need to exercise a little bit of caution sometimes when we draw too many and too elaborate conclusions from a short snippet.

With that said, I think we also need to acknowledge that this is not a horse that’s showing off or full of herself or any of these kind of things. We tend to filter horse behavior through our own rose colored glasses. But horses don’t have the cognitive capacity to show off or be full of themselves. They do however have the emotional capacity for fear. If a horse behaves as if it’s afraid, it’s afraid. They’re not tricking us.

Sparks: When Karl said he’s afraid for his life when he gets on Kalinka, it was a response to a question I asked him. I said something along the lines of “It’s really fun to watch you and Kalinka. It doesn’t look fun to ride Kalinka.” A primarily criticism of the video is that it’s normalizing stress-related behavior. And that gave me pause. Like, oh, I think I’m actually contributing to that with the way I phrased that question and, of course, with the video.

Larssen: That’s interesting. I think it’s important that we all recognize that we are part of the system and we’ve all contributed in some ways to normalizing this kind of behavior. And we just need to learn the specifics.

So I know there was a little bit of talk from commenters about pain behavior as well. I’d like to address that because I think that is a sensitive topic. It is a big thing to accuse somebody of riding a horse that’s in pain. So in this we have to acknowledge Karl’s emotional reaction to having these things said about him and the horse that he rides.

I do not doubt for a second that he loves this horse and like you say, the way he talks about Kalinka comes from a place of sympathy and understanding for her. And I don’t think he’s normalizing this for any underhanded reasons, but because he also genuinely believes that this behavior means something else than it does.

The challenge with pain and pain behaviors in horses is number one, they are prey animals, which means that they try to hide pain-related behaviors. It’s a survival strategy and it’s been documented in studies as well. Horses that are at a veterinary hospital will show pain-related behaviors when they’re alone, and then when whenever a human enters the ward, nothing.

So this is a problem with horses, because that means that their pain-related behaviors tend to be very, very subtle. So that’s one problem with pain.

Another problem with pain behaviors is that they depend on where the pain is. There is an equine discomfort ethogram that was published just last year that looks at 64 behaviors indicative of pain. But obviously, they depend on whether the pain is in the locomotory apparatus, if it’s neurological, etc. So that also makes it difficult to assess.

We also know that pain and stress look very similar. And it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg. If you are experiencing pain, you will also have a physiological stress response.

So, again, I keep going back to the fact that with behavior, expect complicated. Professionally, I would not be able to look at this video and say this horse is in pain. I would also not be able to look this video and say this horse is not in pain because there’s just not enough information.

We do know a lot about horse behavior and we know a lot about horses’ emotional state and how they perceive the things we do to them. And this is valuable information. But, it’s very important that we use this knowledge conscientiously in a way that is scientifically reasonable. This is a science. We need to respect the science as well.

Sparks: One of the things that Karl said in his video, and this is a very common mentality in show jumping, is that it’s physically impossible to make a 1.60m horse win at that height consistently through force. The prevailing thought is that the really special horses, the ones with the talent and scope to do it, also have to have the desire to do it. Is that a reasonable deduction?

Larssen: I’m going to flip the question a little bit. I think it’s impossible to make a horse jump 1.60m without force.

Sparks: Wow. Okay, elaborate on that.

Larssen: If you present a horse in a natural state with a fence, they’ll walk around it. This is as far from a natural behavior as we can possibly come. So, I think the question here is we need to redefine force. It’s a little bit like with fear, when we talk about force we picture somebody beating on a horse with a two by four and that’s not necessarily what I mean in this situation.

I think force could be defined as not giving the horse any other option. Show jumping is definitely 100% a trained behavior. No horse is going in a natural state to say, I’m going to jump 1.60 meter fence and I’m going to jump ten of them in a row. That doesn’t happen. Which means that is a trained behavior. It’s something that we need to train them to do.

We use pressure and release in traditional horse training and pressure is by definition, some sort of mental or physical force. It doesn’t have to be violence, but definitely it has to be enough to make the horse say, okay, I’d rather not have this in my life right now, so I’m going to go and jump instead. This is a part of a hopefully a very consistent foundation of training.

But in most horses, there’s going to come a moment where you smack them with the whip because they refuse or they try to run out. These are evasive or avoidance behaviors. So, the underlying emotion is fear. When we then smack them with the whip, what we’re essentially doing is we’re making them more afraid of what’s going to be the consequences of stopping than the consequences of jumping.

So I do think that we use force to get horses to jump. Do horses hate it? Are all horses traumatized when they’re jumping? Do some horses enjoy it? I don’t know. There’s no catch all answer to that.

But I definitely think that we need to start acknowledging to a greater extent that this is something we ask them to do because we want to do it and because it’s for our entertainment and it’s for our pleasure. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I think we need to acknowledge that it’s for us and not for them.

Sparks: Many riders will say that they have horses that they feel want to do it. Like, “he wants to jump clear for me” or “he wants to win.” If I think about playing fetch with a dog, for example, dogs are so invested in pleasing you. Is that maybe one way that we transfer that feeling over? We assume horses feel the same way, that they want to please us.

Larssen: I think so. And I think especially with dogs that becomes very problematic because dogs have a very different evolutionary history to horses and a very different domestication history as well. With dogs, there’s genetic evidence that we domesticated them about 40,000 years ago, whereas horses were domesticated about 5,000 years ago. We’ve co-evolved with dogs to an extent where they form attachment bonds to their owners similar to those children form to their parents.

Dogs do not need other dogs. They can enjoy other dogs, but they don’t need other dogs to have to live full, fulfilled social lives. They need humans. Whereas with horses, the opposite is true. A horse can enjoy a human. But they need other horses for their social interactions.

So I think we need to acknowledge that horses are a very, very different species. And even though a lot of us keep our horses as pets, and even though the riders who compete their horses still have this emotional attachment, we owe it to the horses to take a step back and acknowledge that okay, they’re not dogs. Human company is not intrinsically rewarding to a horse. It can be if they’ve learned to associate our presence with good things, but not in and of itself.

Sparks: They’re never going to pick a person over another horse.

Larssen: No, never going to pick a person over another horse. Never going to pick a person over food. There was actually a study published just two years ago that looked at whether horses would choose human company over a food reward. They tried it with both familiar and unfamiliar persons,  and the horses were like, thank you, but I will go have the food now.

It’s heartbreaking for us! But, what are we going to do? That’s what it is.

It also gives us important information. Horses like to eat, that’s what they evolved to do. Using food rewards could be a nice way to make them like us. I’m a big proponent of giving a carrot for a good jump, especially when loose jumping. Instead of running with the horse, put a bucket at the other end, watch them go!

Sparks: These are such interesting things to consider. So, a lot of the comments chalked Kalinka’s behavior to that of an opinionated mare, which I know is an idea you take issue with. Talk about that.

Larssen: Horses are not opinionated. They don’t have the cognitive capacity to plan, to scheme, to have opinions that way. They react. They respond to their environment and they respond to how they feel. And then they behave that way.

They’re not unintelligent. Their intelligence is just different.

I think we need to stop seeing this kind of behavior that Kalinka was exhibiting in the video as some sort of character flaw because it’s not. She’s just responding. She’s just doing the best she can with the information that we have provided for her and the environment that we are putting her in. What I’m seeing is a horse that is trying to cope and to an extent failing to cope, which is why we’re seeing these strong, fear-related behaviors.

Sparks: So if you were presented with Kalinka as a client, what would your strategy be for helping her cope? The obvious solution to me is don’t ride her in the prize giving ceremony.

Larssen: That was my first, too. Sometimes we think that we have to do things with our horses that we maybe don’t really do need to do. If Karl were to call me and ask, what should I do? I’d say, well, if she performs fine for you in the arena, can you just not do the prize giving ceremony?

And it’s a nice way to kind of thank her for it. If we acknowledge that these are fear-related behaviors, that she’s afraid and she’s struggling to cope with the situation, the compassionate thing, I think, would be to say, okay, well, I’m not going to ask you to cope anymore.

I think on a bigger industry level, we do need to look a little bit at these prize giving ceremonies and whether we can design them more from a horse welfare perspective. But that’s my first advice. If this is the only issue, I’d say solve it that way.

You could also practice the prize giving at home and just build up gradually to help her understand what she’s supposed to do. So start by having your extended family as ‘the audience,’ and then have somebody clap and then have people cheer and jump and then maybe bring in some other horses, loud speakers with music. You can be creative about this.

Sparks: That’s actually something Olympic dressage medalist Steffen Peters has talked about doing in the past to prepare for a major championship. He recorded the audience to acclimatize his horse to the sound at home.

Larssen: That’s genius.

Another really good thing to do is to think about the stress bucket, the trigger stacking. There’s so many factors that can affect reactivity like this. One, for example, is hunger and thirst. So has Kalinka been allowed to eat forage between the end of the competition and the prize giving? Had she been allowed to drink?

If not, then that’s something that you could do. Food and chewing is in and of itself relaxing. Eating helps create positive associations and counter condition potentially stressful situations. I’m a big fan of using food rewards to change the emotions around the situation.

Think about things such as does she have a buddy? Horses, especially mares, tend to form very strong bonds with other horses. I do not know how Karl keeps his horses, if he keeps them two together or in separate fields. But if Kalinka has one horse that she really likes, is it feasible to bring this horse along to a competition as like an emotional support horse? My horse has an emotional support pony who goes everywhere with him. He cannot cope without him. It’s a nice, easy way to meet that need. That social group is really important because it offers a sense of safety to the horse.

And also, separation is a huge trigger. So being separated from a horse they really like can be a problem. So if you do have the option, for example, to bring a pair-bonded friend along, then it’s like two birds with one stone. You don’t have the separation anxiety. And on top of that, you add a layer of safety and stability.

It’s like with the Black Stallion and Napoleon, his emotional support horse. Every horse should have a Napoleon.

Sparks: I love that.

Larssen: You can think about maybe loosening the noseband a little bit because noseband tightness is both a physical discomfort and an emotional discomfort. Loosening the girth a hole or two if you can.

Just think about all these little things where you can remove any type of physical or psychological/emotional discomfort, however small. Once you start taking them away, you’ll start emptying that little stress bucket.

So these are very actionable things to think about for anyone struggling with horses that react strongly.

Sparks: This has been enlightening. We spend a lot of time thinking about a horse’s soundness and physical comfort, but not as much time thinking about their emotional comfort.

Larssen: I think that’s taking your horsemanship to the next level, starting to incorporate more awareness about their emotionality because they are incredibly emotional beings. They experience a lot of emotions, both positive and negative ones, and they suffer the same way we do when they’re afraid. It’s not a nice feeling to have. And they deserve to not be afraid. That’s on us.

And it’s not going to be 100%. That’s the thing. There’s always something, a plastic bag is going to fly by, somebody is going to clap too loudly or a car is going to backfire. There’s always going to be these situations. But the better prepared we are and the more aware we are of these things, the better we can help support them through it.

Sparks: Thank you for sharing your insights, Renate! You’ve given us a lot to think about.

Editor’s Note: We discussed at length in house whether or not to take the video down. We haven’t and here’s why: Horse Network does not cull content as a matter of policy. We don’t delete stories. We don’t delete comments (hate speech aside). Doing so risks rewriting history and undermining the social discourse fundamental to free speech. As anyone with horses will tell you, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes—we’ll do our best to apply the lessons from this one going forward.

Learn more about Renate Larssen at