How Horses Learn: Understanding Their Minds to Improve How We Train

brown horse being ridden by girl

I remember when I first started to learn about how horses learn. It was in the beginning of my equine behavior specialization, and I had this "zing, aha!" moment that this information was majorly important, and something I'd been missing my whole life.

See, I've been around horses for decades, but never - not in all the years of riding lessons or horse ownership - had I even thought about how horses figure out the world around them. And none of my instructors had even mentioned it. It was all "heels down", but none of the real basics of how the horse was thinking and managing to respond to my cues. And from my observations, this is typical throughout much of the equestrian world. Most seasoned riders don't know the basics of learning theory, and that's a real shame - because once we know how horses process the things we ask of them, we know how to set fair expectations and provide consistent, efficient training. It should really be one of the first things anyone learns - and you shouldn't have to be a behaviorist, veterinarian or horse trainer to have access to this information.

So the whole point of this post is to provide a brief introduction of how horses' minds work, in terms of learning and assimilating information. Some of the terminology can look kind of complicated but I promise that the concepts are really not. Here are a few key points that can help any equestrian along the way, and can help set fair expectations for horses, too.

The real importance of understanding how horses learn is that it helps us level-set our expectations, and it helps us train effectively.

Number one: Horses are NOT capable of processing abstract concepts or using logical reasoning. I can't count the number of times that I've heard people say things like, "Oh, well my horse is just trying to get back at me". Any statement about a horse that reflects a human's ability to plan revenge or plot naughty behavior simply can't be true, because horses are not capable of doing so. Horses are masters of association - so while they can figure out that stepping into your space might make you move over, they definitely are not plotting some grand scheme to step on your foot and break your toes because you fed them late that day.

Number two: equines are fantastic at forming associations between things. Associative learning includes classical conditioning, best exemplified by Pavlov's famous experiments. Examples of this are easy to come by: like when your horse nickers at the sound of the grain bucket, because she knows dinner is coming. She associates the sound of the bucket with being fed.

Associative learning also includes operant conditioning, which is a hallmark of training. Horses learn that responding to our (hopefully consistent) cues in certain ways provides certain results. With negative reinforcement, which is the most common form of training, a correct response results in the release of pressure (a release of bit pressure from the reins when the horse stops, for example). With positive reinforcement, a correct response results in a pleasant appetitive (treat) or other reward. Horses are adept at figuring out how to behave in order to earn either a reprieve from pressure or force, or to earn a tasty tidbit. The key with associative learning is that the release of pressure or the reward must happen immediately after the horse responds correctly, in order for them to form the proper association. And of course, consistency is key - the same cues must be used and the same rewards must be applied for each repetition of the situation in order for the association to "stick".

Above all, understanding equine learning theory places the responsibility for adequate training squarely on the human, which is exactly where the responsibility should be.

Non-associative learning is slightly less well-known from the context of our day-to-day work with our horses, though still important and prevalent in the everyday life of the horse. Habituation, for example, happens every single day. Horses that are exposed to constant repetition of sights and sounds in their environment become habituated to those stimuli, thus no longer having a significant reaction to them. The term desensitization is often used interchangeably with habituation, and looks very similar, except for the fact that it's considered to be more of a systematic process of training. Whereas a horse may become habituated to flies landing on him in his natural environment, for example, we can desensitize a horse to being wet by a hose by offering repeated and gradually increasing interactions until the horse's reaction to the hose diminishes. Sensitization means the exact opposite, where a horse becomes more reactive to a stimulus with increased exposure. Counterconditioning has similar results to desensitization, except that instead of merely diminishing a horse's negative response to stimuli, it actually replaces the negative response with a positive one. For example, if you feed a horse a treat while doing something it normally dislikes (being groomed, picking feet, getting on a trailer, etc.) then over time, the horse may come to associate that particular activity with a treat and no longer demonstrate its previous responses (trying to evade, pinning ears, etc.).

All of the above can seem like a lot of training jargon - but memorizing terms really isn't the point to knowing any of this information. The real importance of understanding how horses learn is that it helps us level-set our expectations, and it helps us train effectively. If we know that horses can associate consistent cues with certain behavioral responses, then we can make sure we're providing consistent cues. We know that we need to provide the negative or positive reinforcement as soon as the horse performs correctly - thus strengthening the association and giving them the chance to succeed. This makes life much less confusing to the horse, and much easier for us! Beyond that, understanding how certain non-associative techniques work can be very helpful when dealing with problematic behaviors. While much of traditional horsemanship relies on simply forcing the horse to "deal with" a stimulus until they're habituated (or broken down and frozen), we can use counter-conditioning, for example, to help the horse overcome their negative association with that stimulus and eradicate the root of the problem. (This is just one strategy I've used to turn bitey, flighty, semi-dangerous horses into kid/family-friendly horses).

Most importantly, understanding equine learning theory places the responsibility for adequate training squarely on the human, which is exactly where the responsibility should be. Far too many horses get blamed for being "naughty" when the reality is, they simply need more effective training.

These are all things I wish I had known when I was younger - and that I wish was more common to learn during typical riding lessons and training. But it's never too late to learn more, and it can only stand to improve our relationships with our horses, in the end.