How Does Your Horse Learn

Posted by Gilly 29/12/2019 0 Comment(s)

How Does Your Horse LearnHow Does Your Horse Learn - Equine Learning Theory And The Use Of Operant Conditioning

Have you ever stopped to think about how your horse learns? 

Take a minute
Think back to that last schooling session
How were you trying to teach him?

Here Holly Teape covers the underlying theory of how your horse knows what you want of him and learns to then achieve it.  No mean feat when you think about it!! but something we seem to take for granted.


How to utilise your horses natural way of learning


The horse starts to learn the moment it is born. The mother of the foal uses operant conditioning to help teach the foal how to suck.


Operant Conditioning is when the animal, in this case a horse learns from a positive or negative reinforcement when a behaviour occurs. This is therefore called a conditioned response. For example, the mother applies pressure using her muzzle to apply pressure for the foal to move, once the mother has got the foal to where she wants, she releases the pressure and conditions the foal. This is a form of negative reinforcement.


A use of positive reinforcement would be the mother rewarding her foal with a gentle nicker and rub when it has produced a behaviour the mare wants. Operant conditioning is used to reinforce or punish the foal to reward or reduce a behaviour, (McLean and Christensen, 2017).


Within training we want to utilize the natural behaviour of the horse and teach in a way the horse can learn. Therefore, when training a horse we often use operant conditioning to gain a desired response (McGreevy, 2012). For example in classical training, if we want the horse to move forward when ridden we apply pressure from our legs onto the horses’ side and then when the horse moves forward we release that pressure. This is a form of negative reinforcement as we have rewarded the horse by removing the pressure and have therefore increased the likelihood of the particular behaviour occurring again. Negative reinforcement is the main form of reinforcement used in horse riding to gain a desired response from the horse according to McGreevy (2007).

Horses Learn Through Repetition


When training a horse we want to continue to use the same aids each time to get the desired response again. Equines adapt their behaviours as a result of experiences. When an undesirable response is given by the horse, many results in an unpleasant punishment. Unlike, negative reinforcement, positive punishment makes it harder for the equine to associate its actions with the consequence.



Is Positive Punishment Effective?

Positive punishment is the use of an aversive stimulus after an undesired behaviour is performed (Hockenhull and Creighton, 2013).

It has been argued that positive punishment is inefficient because the horse is not learning what the desired response should be (Mills, 2010). The horse therefore cannot avoid punishment and has little control of the situation which may cause confusion to the horse and limit learning and training (McGreevy and McLean, 2009).

It is said that it is difficult for the horse to associate punishment with a specific part of its behaviour and within certain situations punishment can be exaggerated and applied inconsistently or overenthusiastically (Cooper, 2010).

For example, if the horse refuses a jump and then is hit with a whip, the horse may not know whether it was associated with the refusal or other things.

Be Quick If Using Positive Punishment

Many riders are not immediate with the use of positive punishment and as the response is usually delayed the horse can become even more confused by what the rider is asking. Therefore, to be effective the punishment must be applied immediately after every unwanted behaviour for the horse to associate the behaviour and the outcome (Hockenhull and Creighton, 2013).

So next time you are trying to teach your hose something,  think about how you are asking him, he might not understand what you want

Thank you Holly something to get us all thinking

Training Aids For Horse Riding


  • Cooper, J. (2010). Comparative learning theory and its application in the training of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 30(S27), pp.39-43.
  • Hockenhull, J. and Creighton, E. (2013). Training horses: Positive reinforcement, positive punishment, and ridden behavior problems. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8(4), pp.245-252.
  • McGreevy, P. (2007). The advent of equitation science. The Veterinary Journal, 174(3), pp.492-500.
  • McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. London: Elsevier Health Sciences UK, p.283.
  • McGreevy, P. and McLean, A. (2009). Punishment in horse-training and the concept of ethical equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4(5), pp.193-197.
  • McLean, A. and Christensen, J. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 190, pp.18-27.
  • Mills, D. (2010). Applying learning theory to the management of the horse: the difference between getting it right and getting it wrong. Equine Veterinary Journal, 30(S27), pp.44-48.


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