Horses don’t instinctively know how to live in a human world. It’s something we need to teach them through compassionate and consistent training. It’s important to remember that horses learn all the time, not just during training sessions. This means that every interaction we have with them matters.
Horses learn through the consequences of their actions, just like us. If something they do leads to a desired outcome – for example, a slice of carrot or the removal of uncomfortable pressure from the bit – they are more likely to do it again. And conversely, if something they do leads to an undesired outcome – for example, it results in pain such as touching an electric fence or losing access to food – they are less likely to do it again.
Horses don’t have the cognitive capacity to draw conclusions about what we expect from them. It is our responsibility to give them clues by arranging the environment in a way that helps them figure out what we want, by breaking down training into easy, logical steps, and by rewarding them when they perform the action we are asking for.
When deciding on which training method to use, we need to consider not just its effectiveness, but the horse’s experience, too. Methods that risk causing injury or physical and emotional harm should not be used. Such methods also risk damaging our relationship with our horses, as horses may learn to associate these unpleasant experiences with us.
In addition, methods that cause fear or stress impede learning, making the training less effective. Horses’ three basic responses to a potential threat include flight, fight and freeze. ‘Flight’ is the process of moving away from the threat, ‘fight’ is reacting through aggressive behaviours such as biting and kicking, and ‘freeze’ is when the horse is rigidly still whilst assessing their situation based on past experiences and deciding whether fight or flight is the best response. Horses can’t learn when they are in a heightened emotional state or in any of the three responses described above.
When training horses, it is important to understand how horses learn; this is called learning theory.
There are various key terms which can be confusing and some sound quite similar, so we have produced a glossary for you to use.
|Non-associative learning||Comprised of habituation and sensitisation, non-associative learning describes the horse’s response to an object, person or situation.|
|Habituation||If a horse becomes habituated to an object, person or situation, their reaction decreases through repeated exposure. Simply put, the horse gets used to it (e.g., your horse gets used to seeing a new bench placed next to the arena and their reaction to it decreases over time).|
|Sensitisation||If a horse becomes sensitised to an object, person or situation, their reaction increases through repeated exposure (e.g., your horse starts responding to lighter leg aids).|
|Desensitisation||Desensitisation describes the process of reducing the horse’s reaction to an object, person or situation over time (e.g., training your horse not to be scared of clippers).|
|Associative learning||Comprised of classical and operant conditioning; these training methods are both based on the association between a cue and an outcome.|
|Classical conditioning||Classical conditioning occurs when the horse makes an association between two events in which one predicts the other (e.g., when you enter the feed room, your horse may display certain behaviours in anticipation of being fed, as they have linked you entering the feed room with them receiving food).|
|Over-shadowing||Over-shadowing describes the situation where two actions are applied to the horse at the same time, with one reducing the response to the other (e.g., scratching the horse’s head whilst the vet injects the horse’s neck).|
Note: this strategy is often unhelpful and always ethically questionable.
|Flooding describes the situation where a horse is exposed to something they don’t like until they stop reacting, without accounting for the horse’s emotional state. In flooding, the horse is pushed beyond the level of exposure they can cope with (e.g. holding on to a horse’s foot when they don’t want you to, and when they are clearly fearful).|
|Operant conditioning||Operant conditioning describes a set of training methods in which the horse makes an association between their behaviour and an outcome. There are 4 ‘quadrants’ of operant conditioning: positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. In this context, the word ‘reinforcement’ describes a training method that aims to increase the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated, and ‘’punishment’ describes a method that aims to make a behaviour less likely. The words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ describe training methods in which something is added to the situation (addition=positive) or taken away from the situation (subtraction=negative), respectively.|
|Positive reinforcement||Positive reinforcement describes a training method in which the horse receives something that they like when they perform a desired behaviour (e.g., a treat when they stand still at the mounting block. The aim is to make the behaviour more likely to happen in future.)|
|Negative reinforcement||Negative reinforcement describes a training method in which something the horse doesn’t like is removed from the situation when they perform a desired behaviour (e.g., removing the leg aid when the horse responds correctly). The aim is to make the behaviour more likely to happen in future.|
|Positive punishment |
Note: this strategy is often unhelpful and always ethically questionable.
|Positive punishment describes a training method in which something the horse doesn’t like is added to the situation when they perform an undesired behaviour (e.g., you smack your horse on the nose if they try to bite you). The aim is to make the behaviour less likely to happen in future. Note that biting can be a sign of pain or discomfort; if you are concerned about your horse’s behaviour, consult your vet or a qualified equine behaviour professional.|
|Negative punishment||Negative punishment describes a training method in which something the horse likes is removed from the situation when they perform an undesired behaviour (e.g., your horse tries to bite you as you enter their stable to put their feed bowl down, so you remove the food). The aim is to make the behaviour less likely to happen in future. Note that removing valuable resources such as food can lead to frustration and an escalation of aggressive behaviour and is not recommended.|
Positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment can be tricky concepts to get your head around, particularly as they sound similar. The diagram shows they key differences between them. Where possible, positive reinforcement (R+) should underpin training and positive punishment (P+) should be avoided as it is an ethically questionable practice that is unlikely to get you the results you want. Horses have been shown to respond to patience and reward when training and building trusting relationships with our equine partners.
Training: how do horses learn?
Download our training guidance which outlines:
- Key terms related to how horses learn
- Examples of how each method can be used
For further guidance on common training and behavioural issues, please see the following pages: