Do you understand how horses learn?

Do you understand how horses learn?

Submitted by: Jan Snodgrass
Phone: 540/364-7673
Email Address: excellenthorse(at)
Date Added: 12/31/2012

Have you ever struggled to teach your horse something and not understood why your horse failed to learn? I talk to people all the time who are frustrated and confused about the training process. There are many high profile trainers making a lot of money promoting various training methods today. Some horses are better for the training and some horses aren't. Eager horse owners spend gobs of money to hear someone tell them that a particular training method is the best way, even the only way a horse will learn. These trainers throw around buzz words like alpha horse, natural training, dominance, submission and others. They give people a detailed set of exercises to practice with their horses often without ever teaching the people exactly why the exercises are necessary to the horse's training. And, these trainers almost never go into detail about how horses actually learn.

Without understanding how learning occurs, training is haphazard at best. Horses can learn in a variety of ways and they can learn very easily under a good trainer who makes things very clear to them. Once you peel away all the unnecessary buzz words, you are left with an animal who learns like many animals learn--even humans. Horses are very good associative learners. That is, they are very good at making connections between two things. But unlike humans, horses are also "flight" animals. Fear rules their lives and when they are afraid they want to run away from whatever they are frightened of. Fear also inhibits learning. It doesn't always stop it completely, but it can make the learning process much harder.

It is no wonder people are frustrated and confused if they attempt to train their horses without understanding these principles. Taking an effective look at how horses learn without the well-marketed spin and all the buzz words, can ease some of the confusion.

Operant Conditioning is a good place to start. It is a type of learning where the horse's behavior is modified by certain consequences. It is just one way that horses learn. It is very basic and if you receive a pay check for work that you do, you are already familiar with one of its tools. This type of learning forms an association between the animal's response (behavior) and the stimulus that follows (consequence). There are four possible consequences to any behavior:
1. Something good can happen or begin-Positive Reinforcement.
2. Something bad can be taken away-Negative Reinforcement.
3. Something bad can happen or begin-Positive Punishment.
4. Something good can be taken away-Negative Punishment.

1. Positive Reinforcement increases a behavior. For example; a dog is given food for doing a trick, a child gets attention for whining, a horse gets a carrot for nudging its person. So, the dog learns the trick, the child keeps whining and the horse keeps nudging.

2. Negative Reinforcement increases a behavior. A choke collar is loosened when a dog moves closer to the handler, a car buzzer turns off when you buckle your seat belt, a leg aid is released as the horse walks forward. So, the dog moves closer, you buckle your seat belt and the horse walks forward.

3. Positive Punishment decreases a behavior. For example; a driver's speeding results in a speeding ticket, a child's hand is burned when she touches a hot stove, a horse gets pulled in the mouth when jumping. So the driver slows down, the child avoids touching a hot stove and the horse stops jumping.

4. Negative Punishment decreases a behavior. For example; a child has his crayons taken away for fighting with his sister. A dolphin trainer walks away from the fish bucket when a dolphin gets aggressive, a teenager is grounded for misbehavior. So the child stops fighting, the dolphin stops being aggressive and the teenager behaves (or avoids getting caught!)

These definitions are based on their actual affect on the behavior in question. They must reduce or strengthen a behavior to be defined as a punishment or a reinforcement. Pleasures meant as rewards that do not strengthen a behavior are indulgences, not rewards. Punishers meant as behavior weakeners, that do not weaken a behavior are abuse, not punishment. These reinforcers and punishers only work if they are timed quickly enough that the horse can make an association between his behavior and their application.

There is much more to this of course. I am beginning a series of articles on my facebook page that looks at how horses learn. This is a public facebook page and you are welcome to read them.

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