Horse Behavior: How do horses learn?
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Training, teaching, instructing, whatever you want to call it, is so hard to do with horses and any animal for that matter! Many times you wish they would just understand you or tell you what the hell is going on! Well I am here to tell you that you can totally get your horse to understand you more! Maybe not 100% but a little bit more so that your sessions get better!
One way to get your horse to understand you better is to understand how they learn! Let's dive in!
Horse Learning Requirements
A horse needs certain things for them to be able to learn efficiently and effectively from you! Make sure these points are present when you start to work with them or get them to these points!
Are calm and feel safe with you and your environment
Are attentive to you
Are physically able to do whatever you ask of them
Can identify your cue clearly
Can figure out the meaning of the cue
Alright so now you know the requirements needed for a horse to learn effectively! But now it is time to dive into the different types of learning a horse does! And you will be surprised to learn that from research so far, horses learn in 6 distinctive ways! I know crazy!
Horses learn through...
Humans learn in the exact same way except we have planning, judgement, reasoning, etc. BUT unlike horses, we also have certain emotions or thoughts that can hinder our learning process like shame, embarrassment, and arrogance. Since horses, as far as we know, do not have emotions like this they learn very fast!
In my post update on the mustang I am working with, I talked exclusively on how this way of learning has opened her up to me! Horses are constantly observing their surroundings and their herd mates! When a foal is born, they immediately learn what is safe, what to eat and when to run by watching their mother. This does not go away once they are older, they continually watch everything. Maybe you have even seen this with a horse that is new to the barn. They slowly learn from the other horses who their feeder is and when it is getting close to feeding time!
Now the way to use learning through observation with a horse is to have an older higher ranking buddy that they like do the task that they are uncomfortable with and to have them watch their buddy. For example maybe you are trying to get your horse to walk over a tarp, puddle or log. Have one of their higher ranking buddies do the task while they watch. Then ask them to walk over or through the object. It may take a few times of them watching their buddy do the task but it is so effective in general in getting them calmer and more confident with the task you are asking them to do!
Learning through emotion is like flipping a coin, it can be great or awful! If training or an event causes fear in a horse, their brain will release stress hormones that will immediately flip their body into fight/flight mode. This event will then be pressed into their memory of being an awful experience. It stays as a memory because they need to remember scary events that are dangerous to them! If you do have a horse with a stressful event stamped in their mind, please do reach out to me for help!
Instead you want the horse to learn with positive emotions like trust and curiosity. You want your horse to look at you as the safe leader who is guiding them! Also when they see you as a safe leader it strengthens your bond and makes your sessions beautiful!
So this type of learning does also encompass observation and testing but either way they are trying to figure out something! I am sure you have seen videos or know of a horse who can unlatch a gate! It probably took them a few times with their nose and mouth to figure it out, but they were determined!
Horses use problem-solving when you are asking them a new task! It takes them a few times to get it and understand what you are asking, but during it all they are using their brains to figure it out!
Learning through association is pretty simple! For example, say you have a cart that holds all the grain buckets and you roll it out every time you need to feed your horses. Well after a few times, your horses will connect the dots and immediately associate the cart with feeding time!
Oh I am so sure you have been on/played with a new horse that has tested you! You know that horse that decides to stop mid trot and grab some grass or that horse that decides he is just going to skip those poles or that jump! Yup those guys are probably testing to see how much you know and what they can get away with! But it is NOT necessarily a misbehavior! Testing is actually is so effective for learning in all mammals! It is a way to remember the correct answer! Yup your horse is actually trying to find the right answer for you the new/inexperienced rider!
And always remember horses constantly test things out since they are always learning! It is up to you to make sure you reward when they give you the correct answer! Sometimes you may have to remind him of what is correct but nonetheless he is not doing it to be mean but to learn!
Alright let's go back to the horse learning through association that the the feed cart gives grain! Well now as soon as you roll out the cart, the horses go crazy and start kicking their doors and you rush to feed them so they wont break down the whole place! Well now by accident you have rewarded the kicking of the stall! Ooops!
It is amazing all the different ways that a horse learns! I hope that you learned a little bit from this post and it helps you with your own horse!
P.S. If you need help understanding how your horse is learning, join our Free Monthly Let's Talk Horse Group or contact me to talk one on one!
Jones, Janet L. (2020). Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship. Trafalgar Square.