Think we’re getting close to finally figuring horses out completely? Well, we’re not. But the good news is that by working entirely objectively, equitation scientists are beginning to enter into a new dimension of understanding equine behavior. And that, according to a leading equitation scientist, will lead us into a "Golden Age" of horse training.

"Behaviorism has been reborn," said Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed, owner and manager of the Australian Equine Behavior Center and co-author of Equitation Science. He spoke during the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He explained that "behaviorism"–which started in North America with Harvard University’s B.F. Skinner, PhD, in the 1950s but was lost in the 1960s–has been revised and improved and is now evolved into "learning theory." In learning theory, scientists attempt to comprehend the way individual animals acquire information and react to stimuli. It’s a theory that seeks to leave behind all our current notions of dominance, respect, and "pecking order," McLean said.

"We’ve been left with these new-age horse descriptors, like ‘this horse is an alpha mare,’ or ‘this one is dominant’ or ‘submissive,’ ‘respectful’ or ‘disrespectful,’" he explained. "But the trouble with all of these is that the spotlight is firmly on the horse’s character and not on the trainer."

He continued, "What learning theory does is give us the ability to turn the mirror towards ourselves and say, ‘The problem lies at my feet; I can change this behavior.’ (It) may be difficult because all horses are different. Nonetheless, it’s possible.’ "

Other horse descriptors are not so new-age, and McLean challenges modern-day equine behavior and learning theory scientists to test these as well. Words like "think" and "understand" might not actually apply to horses at all, but could just be projections of our own human cognition.

"We’re often very anthropomorphic," he said. "We ascribe human characteristics to horses–frequently."

For example, people might say their horses are "intuitive," he said. Or that they can "think back," or "feel guilty" or "feel remorse." Or we say, "my horse hates this; my horse hates that," or even "my horse hates other horses," McLean said. But do horses hate? Can they feel guilt or remorse? Can they think back? Are they intuitive? Possibly. But until we know for sure, we need to be careful about the terms we use. Otherwise, McLean said, we might be unfair to the horse, expecting too much.

"Our perceptions are sometimes big stumbling blocks (for us as scientists)," he said.

Likewise, because of these assumptions or beliefs, scientists might also have the tendency to seek information that supports their beliefs and to reject that which doesn’t (which is known as cognitive dissonance), McLean said.

And so, while scientists might think they’ve been objective all along, their own assumptions–and what we have accepted to be true as a culture–could in fact be preventing real scientific progress. To reach this "Golden Age" of training, scientists must finally learn to rid themselves of all subjectivity.

"Subjectivity … is all about opinions," McLean said. "And we all have them. What people do may be entirely objective, but how they describe what they do may be entirely different."

The rebirth of behaviorism in horses has been primarily led by ISES scientists, he said. They’ve been able to determine what’s wrong with some of the current training methods and to steer towards concepts that are in line with learning theory.

One problem with current training methods is what McLean called "dysfunctions" in negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement trains horses by putting pressure on the horse–a leg aid, a whip tap, a pull on the reins–and then releasing that pressure when the horse does what the trainer wants. "But riders are frequently using too much leg, or releasing pressure at the wrong behavior, or they keep pulling on the reins," he said. "We keep forgetting that it’s not the pressure that trains. It’s the release of pressure that trains. The pressure simply motivates."

However, McLean warned, learning theory should not be considered a replacement for ethology. Ethology–popular especially in Europe–is the study of innate behaviors, which "ethological" trainers base their methods on. "Thinking only along the lines of ethology is limiting and doesn’t tell us much about what is going on in human horse interactions, such as training," McLean said. "Ethology is important, but without learning theory, we are missing something."

Through learning theory, "Golden Age" training methods are emerging that follow the concept of how a horse’s brain works. For example, in dealing with a horse’s fear of new objects, trainers can try novel techniques such as "approach conditioning." Using this method the horse learns to actually move toward the object that frightens him. "Horses just become naturally brave with it because they’re the ones doing the chasing," McLean said.

Numerous other training techniques based on learning theory are under development and investigation, he said. And the one thing they all have in common is a freshly new, entirely objective approach to horse training.