How Horses Learn And Think

Every horse is different in how it learns and reacts to outside stimuli. Just because training can be accomplished using certain methods for some horses, this doesn’t mean that those techniques will work just as well on every horse. We don’t teach all children the same way, and all horses don’t learn exactly the same way either. In each case, there are issues past and present that we need to bear in mind, as they may impact the effectiveness of our training.

The first thing that we must take into account is that no animal or human learns well when they are stressed. Take a test, or try to meet the deadline at work while your teacher/boss stands over you with a whip, yelling and screaming, and occasionally prodding you with a sharp spur to get his point across, and I think you will see the challenge. Your horse is different, you say. No, he isn’t.&nbs! p; The only difference between horses and humans is the reaction we get when the teaching method breaks down.

Both human and horse will shut down under stress, both sometimes leave the area to reduce the stress, both resist against stress, and still others will fight if the stress is great enough. Humans may yell at each other, but horses can’t talk and, therefore, often resort to a more physical response. Sometimes they run away hard and fast, dragging their owner with them, or just leaving their owner behind. They may also whirl, kick, strike, pull back, buck, dance sideways, rear and a host of other “fun” and “exciting” reactions.

I have taught numerous clinics and given countless hours of private lessons. And in every instance, when I purposefully begin to push someone into that area known as the “stress zone,” they begin to shut-down and become less effective. And invariably, every time I bring out this response in a student, everyone begins to laugh at the absurdity of trying to teach anyone under those circumstances. If it seems so foreign and non-productive to us as learners and teachers of our own kind, then why do we think that it is the correct method for an animal? And most particularly, why would we believe that it might be effective with a horse, who is by nature designed to escape anything that is stressful, dangerous, or scary by quickly fleeing the situation with concerted energy and speed.

We need to change how we think horses learn and open our minds to understand that we need to teach more and do less “training”. And we need to provide an environment in which the horse can learn on its own. By doing this, we will progress farther and faster and enjoy the trip more. And so will the horse. Enjoying ourselves is what owning and riding a horse is supposed to be about. None of us enjoys being bucked off or having our horses run away with us.

Working with our horses shouldn’t be a struggle on a regular basis, and it should never involve trying to force our will upon our horses. It SHOULD involve teaching ourselves to understand our horses, and allowing them to understand us. It should involve teaching them that we can be a trusted and effective leader in our relationship with them. Horses are a herd animal and learn very well by imitating the leaders of the herd.

Can you be a leader for your horse instead of a follower?

You certainly can. Here are a few things to consider to help you get there:

Horses are learning all the time. As their human partners, we are teaching them good things as well as bad things. It isn't that we WANT to teach them something bad, but since the horse has no concept of good or bad, he assumes anything we teach him must be the right thing. We don’t mean to teach those bad lessons, but we sometimes do it out of not understanding how the horse learns. There is no difference between a good lesson and a bad lesson to the horse. As we work with our horses, they can’t discern between the two. Only we know if it was wrong or right, the horse only knows that he did something in response to what we asked of him. If we discourage a particular behavior, the horse simply learns to do something else. We as owners need to learn how to make that “something else” the RIGHT thing - the RIGHT answer. We must make the right thing ! easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Every horse knows more about being a horse than most people know about being human. Unlike humans the horse has no motivation to get ahead, think badly of another horse, gossip, or hold grudges because of words said or deeds done. Many behavioral scientists believe that all babies babble and cry in the same language at birth. Their language and behaviors are altered later by their cultural surroundings and the manner in which they are nurtured. But all horses talk in the same language regardless of what country they are from, and no amount of our training ever changes that. They are horses and still speak horse -- they do not learn to speak or believe differently than their cousins in Mexico, Europe, South Africa or Brazil. And no matter how we influence them, they will still speak “horse”.

When we learn how to “speak” to our horses in a way that the horse comprehends, less with words and more with body language, we get better results. Most important, understand that you are always “speaking” to your horse. The messages you have conveyed, however, may not have been what you intended, resulting in confusion and perhaps negative behaviors in the horse and frustration for you.

Taking the time to learn a better way to “speak” to your horse will make your horse/human relationship a more rewarding one.

CopyRight Scot Hansen 2003

Scot Hansen

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Updated: October 2005.