• Meg

How do horses learn?

This seems a simple enough question, but can you fully answer it?


How was the horse that you ride regularly trained and how do you teach it too? You may think theya re all trained the same, but this is a broad statement and training varies widely amongst the equine community, and you may also answer that you don't teach the horse you ride, it was already trained before you got it or if you ride it but its not your own you may feel that role is someone else.


I can understand these thoughts, and for many years of my riding, throughout my childhood no-one ever really explained to me how my horses learnt. I was so focused on my learning that I assumed they knew what they were doing, because in the end I wasn't riding youngsters that had never done it before I was riding school ponies.


But this is not the case, everytime we come into contact with our horses we are teaching them, we are letting them know how our relationship is going to be and we are showing them what we would like.


Horses learn like us by repetition, if you repeat something long enough you start to remember it, and this is the same for horses, but they only need something repeated twice for it to start to form a narrative, a story to follow.


Staying with this for a moment, that's why it's easy for horses to unlearn behaviours and learn new ones if we allow things to be repeated, lets take for example a simple behaviour of stopping by the gate. If the horse stops there more than once whilst riding this starts to form a behaviour pattern, now this can be a purpseful stop, part of the schooling or it can be because your friend or instructor is standing by the gate and you're stopping to talk to them. Both in the horses mind are the same even if in your mind they have different intentions.


Repeating the same behaviour whether its consciously or unconsciously will start to form a pattern, a story for your horse. It then is set firmer in the mind if it backs up a preconditioned temptation, for example the gate means closer to home, or other horses so the horse will remember this pattern quicker, or if your horse loves to stand still is "more slow than go" the stopping part is so tempting they remember it quickly.


It's the unconscious repetition that becomes the danger as we can quietly teach our horses new habits, or stories without realising it. This can be through riding or handling and these habits can be positive or negative in your mind. The problem is when we start to confuse our favourite animals by allowing a behaviour to continue unconsciously and then when we are aware reprimanding the horse for doing that behaviour. This causes inconsistency and therefore confusion.


But other than repeatition the next question is how does the horse actually learn? And this is when we delve deeper. There are two forms of training positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, this then expands out into many different versions of training systems but the basic core for the horse is either a reward by giving something or a reward by taking something away.


Most traditional training and even alot of natural horsemanship follows the negative reinforcemt concept, this may sound horrid as it has the word negative in it but it just means minus or taking something away. Positive reinforcemnt is what we use for our smaller pets like dogs, when they are young and they do something we want them to do we often give them a treat, adding something equals positive or plus.


You may use both types in your relationship with your horse, and you may not realise which one you use.


I find the easiest to grasp is positive reinforcement as its also something we use with children and people in genral, praise or treats or hugs, any form of positive attention is a form of reward when someone or an animal does the thing we want. Clicker training in animals is a form or positive reinforcement, as is verbal praise 'good girl/boy'. Reward stickers to a toddler to get a treat or high grades at school are all forms of positive reinforcement.


So when your horse does something you wish and you add a treat to that this is a form of training, you are letting them know if they repeat that action then they get a reward.


But this is not the only way horses learn, and the difficult part sometimes is understanding that they don't ever switch one way off, they are constantly learning through both methods.


The second way they learn, and some may say they learn this way a whole lot quicker is through negative reinforcement, this is where something is taken away. And when it comes to horses it is usually pressure.


Horses are innately wild animals that we have domesticated, they love big wide open spaces without any pressure, pressure doesn't have to be in the form of a push or pull, it can be pressure in the form of noise, or just their space being encroached on, a feeling of not being able to remove themselves from a situation. When we open our minds to how sensitive horses are we open our minds to how much pressure we subject them too.


The first thing to understand is deep down or quite close to the surface horses don't like pressure, so a reward to them is the removal of pressure, negative reinforcement. The second we remove the pressure we are applying we reward the horse, and thats how they learn. If pressure is removed at the same point regularly then they learn to associate the behaviour they are doing at that moment with the removal of the pressure, this causes a pattern.


When we are fully aware of the pressures we are applying, and fully aware of the horses behaviour as we apply them we can choose the perfect moment to release the pressure, and through repetition we can teach them what we are asking of them.


This can be from teaching them to stand still whilst having a hose run on their leg to teaching them that leg means to move forwards.


Lets start with the first, when you place running water on your horses leg you'd like them to stand still, that would make life easier for everyone and less stressful for them. So to do this you must never remove the water (the water in this case is the pressure) whilst the horse is moving. Easier said than done! But the moment you remove the water when the horse is moving you reward the horse not for standing still, but for moving. Do this a couple of times and they learn very quickly that if they move the water is taken away, and if they stand still the water stays.


So often though a horse fidgets or the human isn't really conscious of the water being a pressure and the water is taken away just as the horse moves, if the horse is very nervous about the hose then the pressure may just be them seeing the hose nearby, and so until they stand still with the hose in their eye shot you wouldn't progress any further and the second they stood still and relaxed you'd remove the hose or the horse away from them.


This may seem counter productive as your end goal is to wash the legs not remove the water, but this is where time and awareness come in, you can never rush whatever you do with your horse. So in order to maintain the lesson of standing still whilst the hose is running you only stop hosing the leg when the horse is still, to start with you may remove the hose after only a few seconds if your horse stands still, but over time or with horses that are well versed in hoses the rule is its still a pressure even if its a known pressure so you on;y take it away when the horse is standing still.


This same principle applies to an aid, say for example your leg aids, when you apply your legs to the horses side you may wish for them to move forwards or away from the pressure, so in order to teach them this, the second they respond in the way you wish you must stop applying the pressure. This then rewards the horse for the correct response. If you were to maintain the pressure the horse would look for ways to relieve the unwanted pressure, they may speed up more, shake their head, roach their back, kick or buck, the more the pressure is applied the more the horse will look for ways to releive it, and the second that pressure is relieved the horse learns thats the required response.


I once taught a rider and a pony, they were having problems with the pony bucking, everytime the rider asked the pony to go forwards with their leg the pony would spin and symaltaniously buck. Firstly all the tack was checked, the ponies health was checked and no pain or issues were found, so I sat and watched the process. Rider would ask pony to move forward, pony would move forward but the rider would continue to ask pony to 'keep going' concerned

it was going to stop, within two strides the pony would tighten its back and rider persisted in applying the leg, thinking the tightness was the pony trying to stop, within another stride or two pony started to spin, buck and kick out, the moment the buck came the rider got scared and froze, (understandably) , but this freeze would cause them to stop applying the leg....bingo the pressure was off. This was their routine and as the ride went on in time the bucks came quicker. The pony wasn't ever looking to stop, it was looking for ways to remove the pressure of the riders legs, and once it sussed that this came when it bucked the bucks came every time the forward aid was applied.


Without realising it the rider had trained their pony to buck from a leg aid, not really what you want unless you're part of the circus! This was never an intention and the rider was only doing what they thought was right, as children we are constantly told keep your leg on keep it going, but to a horse if we keep our leg on we are constantly applying the pressure, we are never rewarding adn therefore they are always looking for ways to remove this pressure.


I had another pony that was known as lazy, dead to the leg, stubborn. None of these thngs are ever true, I believe all behaviour like this is from confusion and misunderstanding. This pony would be asked to trot on, and because their rider had the belif that the pony was lazy they kept repeating the leg aid to 'maintain the trot' even if it was a great trot the leg aid would still be on, nudge nudge nudge. The pony would speed up a little, the leg aid continued, it would speed up a bit more, the leg aid continued, it would then start to slow down, to the rider they thought pony was being lazy, so the leg aid would increase, the pony would slow even more, tense up and maybe even kick back, the leg aid would continue, the pony had one last thing to try, STOP, the moment they stopped the rider would stop the leg and look fearful of what was coming next, why had the pony just stopped??? They'd also be exhausted as they'd used so much leg they had nothing left, stopping was a perfect time for their body to rest. But what they didn't realise is they'd just shown the pony that going kept the pressure on (not nice) and stopping removed the pressure (perfect) repeat this a few times and suddenly no longer does the leg aid mean forwards, it now means stop!!!


None of these situations were done on purpose, they stemmed from a lack of knowledge of how the horse learns, they also stemmed from a lack of awareness of what was really happening. Horses minds work 10 times faster than humans, and so we have to be so quick with our reactions as a rewards, if we miss the moment the pony tries in the way we wish them and maintain the pressure we miss the moment to reward, causing confusion and a downward spiral.


But don't be disheartened, just as we can teach the wrog answer, we can also train the right response, we just need patience, time and a bit more awareness of what is really happening. This is where conscious horsemanship comes in, being consciously aware of what we are asking of these amazing creatures and how we are going about it.



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