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How Horses Learn

Horses And How They Learn


If we can have an understanding of how a horse's mind works and understand his body language, instincts and reactions we are far better equipped to train and school our horses in ways that are logical to them thereby making the whole process much more enjoyable and indeed easier for all concerned.

There are many books, videos and teachers on the subject of equine body language and the body language we should reciprocate with so this article is going to concentrate on a horse's thought processes whereby he learns (or not, as the case may be), learns quickly or more slowly and how the learning process brings about changes in behaviour allowing us to train and educate them.

A horse's brain is a wonderfully evolved tool or "piece of equipment" giving him a photographic memory of the world in which he lives and his responses to it, such as for example, in the wild running away from a predator; these are known as rapid-fire habits or automatic responses.  A horse can rapidly access all that he has accumulated in his storage unit thus keeping his reactions sharp and his body ready to ct to given situations – remember he has to be ready to run for his life if need be!.  Horses do not have the power of reason so as each situation arises there is an instant, programmed reaction i.e. either his instinct kicks in or the results of him learning by example from other members of the herd.

So, when we set about training our horses to accept situations, objects, etc. without being frightened or whatever we have to lock into how their mind is working so that the horse can learn and "be conditioned" to cope with things that once would have set up the flight instinct for example. In effect, training a horse consists of establishing habits – i.e. programming his responses - to given stimuli.

It is by repetition that the new habits become established in the mind and are thus reinforced.  How long it takes for each horse to learn something depends upon the individual and very much on the skill of the trainer in rewarding the required response.  By reward I do not mean the giving of a "tit-bit" but by instant removal of the "directing pressure" (here at Equine Training we call the aids/applied pressures “directional cues”) e.g the softening of the hands when the head is held in the desired position; the rewards given can be extremely subtle and you may well question how a horse can feel and so react, say to the slightest easing of the rider's inside leg or whatever, but given that a horse's skin is sensitive enough to feel little insect feet tramping about on it, rest assured he can feel/not feel your release.  Obviously in the case of young horses and the spoiled horse the instructions/directions – aids – cues - have to applied with much greater precision and clarity than for an older or more well-schooled horse.

At no time should a horse ever be put in a position whereby his fear/flight response kicks in as this is a very deep-set instinctive reaction so anything associated with this quickly establishes itself and it is then a very hard reaction to dissolve; indeed you may never be able to remove it entirely from the memory so there is always the danger that such flight response could be easily triggered.    Once any "bad" habit has formed it takes the extra effort of both horse and rider to eradicate it, even though the cause of the bad habit may be readily recognisable.

"Reinforcement" is the word that is used in equine training and is effectively the repetition of a certain exercise i.e. all new learning exercises need to be repeated in order that the required response becomes “second nature”.

There are 4 types of reinforcement – primary, secondary, positive and negative recognised in the training of horses.

A Primary Reinforcement:

This acts directly on the horse's natural instincts and are such things as food, pain, touch, pressure, mating urges.

A Secondary Reinforcement:

These are forms of reinforcement such as patting, the voice, and have no effect or power in themselves on a horse until it has learnt to associate them with primary reinforcements.  A horse does learn that a pat is praise, but the act of physically patting comes well after the releasing of the pressure (directional cue) that caused the horse to respond in the desired way in the first place.  For example, when a horse jumps a jump, he has been directed to do so via aids (cues) which have created a pressure (via legs and seat); he lands and gets a pat but the leg and seat pressure has already been released before you get patting; the patting (touch) is secondary to the (primary) release of the pressure (directional cue).   It maybe a minute fraction of time that we are talking about but as I have said, it is all very subtle.  Another example - the change in the tone of your voice is something that a horse learns to distinguish - he has been good or done something naughty - but he learns the difference that the change in tones means; he does well, the pressure (directional cue) is released, he gets a pat and you speak in soothing tones; you probably also give a food treat if the horse has done particularly well.

Positive Reinforcement

This is just as the phrase implies – you are giving a "form of praise" or something the horse likes immediately after he has done something right.  This is not the same as the giving of a "reward", which usually implies a tit-bit.  It is all about timing; the praise has to be given absolutely immediately the desired response is given by the horse; a polo mint 20 minutes after a training session is no good, apart from helping the horse to learn that you are a nice person and so helps the building of a better bond. 

The best positive reinforcement action you can take is a quick rein release by the hand coupled with a stroke of from the hand as you release the rein or a scratch of the mane.  All positive reinforcement actions must be done instantly; it's not a case of stopping, reaching for a sweetie in your pocket and interrupting proceedings to give it - that all takes too long, the horse will have forgotten exactly what it did to get the sweetie in the first place.

Negative Reinforcement

This is the way most training is achieved but do not confuse it with punishment of any sort because of the "N" word.  Negative reinforcement is the removal of the stimuli which brought about the desired response in the first place i.e. you wish your horse to perform shoulder-in so you flex his neck and ask him to work on 3 tracks via a pressure (directional cue) to the inside rein and from your legs; the moment the horse does as he is asked you release your aids – the pressure (the cue).  Another example of NR is say, the use of a schooling whip to tap a hind leg to encourage a particular step; when the horse does as is required or attempts to, the tap ceases.  Thus the horse learns that when he performs in the required way (by the imposition of a pressure (a cue) he is rewarded.  The “reward” needs to be given precisely after the achievement of the desired result.

It must be remembered that horses, although having wonderful memories, cannot “connect” or relate things in the way we do so therefore their behaviour is triggered by learned responses which means that it takes time for new responses to be learned in the place of older ones – the ones that are directly representative of the natural instincts.

The 3 learning categories 


This must not be confused with reinforcement; it is literally the becoming “accustomed to something”, to become de-sensitised to certain stimuli e.g. not being concerned about rustling trees. 

If as a rider you become sloppy/incorrect with your aids (cues), the horse can actually switch off or shut down because he has become so used to (for example) your leg constantly tapping at his side when it should be still that when you actually want it to mean something, the horse does not respond because it does not actually feel any different to 5 minutes ago.   You have deadened him to the extent that he no longer responds to the cues you give him.  He had habituated your leg.  So next time you think that your horse is being lazy – take a look at your riding technique!  The same is applicable to pain or discomfort. By not using the rein aids (cues) correctly and releasing when you should, by using an unnecessary harsh or inappropriate bit or by using a lip strap or something which is not necessary, the horse becomes uncomfortable to such a degree that, again, he switches off - this is what is known as a hard mouth.

Trial and Error or Conditioning

This is the way the youngster finds his way in the wild – he experiments and finds things out for himself, and possibly the hard way!  This is how the horse learns to understand what we want him to do i.e. if an aid (cue) is applied (a pressure – negative reinforcement) and the horse reacts to that pressure by performing the correct movement or whatever, the pressure is instantly released – the reward.  If you repeat the exercise a few times the horse may not always react in quite the right or same way to begin with, but he soon realises (by trial and error) that doing it the right way brings the desired result for the trainer and for himself (release of pressure).  As the horse becomes more physically capable of performing a certain move the trainer can ask for more perfection by way of an improved response.

Classical Conditioning

In other words how the secondary reinforcements are learned – learning by association.  Stimuli that in themselves are meaningless become associated with some happening or event.  See how the learning processes are linked - primary/secondary reinforcement - but this is a stage further along the training ladder.

Anything that is linked to a reinforced behavioural response quickly becomes a stored item within the memory bank.  This means that when this type of response mechanism is incorporated into a horse’s training he already needs to have the basics in place.  For example, when teaching a horse to respond to a voice-only command he already needs to be obedient to the touch/stimuli that means the same as the voice command you are introducing.  Let’s say you wish to teach your horse to “stop” on your voice:

First - speak your voice command “whoa”, “easy-up” or whatever word you choose to be your braking system.

Second – immediately apply the aids to stop – and your horse should stop!!

Third – immediately release the aid pressure as you get the physical response from your horse

Fourth – praise your horse

The teaching process falls into the latter two categories whatever the exercise; habituating is a little different as you are accustoming him to something, not asking him to perform a task.  You start with “trial and error” learning and as the response becomes a correct one,  you develop the exercise into classical conditioning. 

Remember your cues have to be correct and positive and your responses have to be as lightning quick as those you require of your horse.  As training advances everything blends together but when starting the ground work with a young horse or re-training an older horse, each exercise is kept very simplistic and identifiable.

This is only a very elementary insight into the way a horse learns.  Further in-depth studying of how horses work things out and understanding why they do what they do and when all help a trainer in his work, making equine training a little easier provided, of course, he is skilled enough in the first place.

Remember -

Different trainers and training philosophies use varying terminology but we are all heading in the same direction - to make equine training an enjoyable experience based around working in a language that a horse can relate to and be comfortable with.

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The articles contained HORSETALK cover all aspects of equine management and training but are only intended to provide a guideline and are not to be construed as a substitute to seeking professional advice for individual situations.


Please do not hesitate to contact us for assistance.

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