Thinking Like a Horse
By gaining a better understanding of how horses associate and learn, can we train them more effectively and ethically?
We all know horses can’t sit at a desk and take notes on how to execute a clean flying lead change or stand quietly for the farrier. But there is some debate in the equestrian world about how horses do learn. Can they reason? Do they figure things out? Can they think things through after a day’s lesson? Do they pick up cues from other horses?
We’ve gone to some of the researchers studying equine learning to find out how the horse’s mind works and what methods he uses to learn what we’re trying to teach him. With a clearer comprehension of his learning capacities, we can adjust our training styles to achieve a more enjoyable and ethical partnership.
Trial and Error: Making Associations
The primary way horses learn is through associative learning—literally, making associations between stimuli and events. They feel a pressure on their halter, they take a step forward, the pressure disappears. It’s what Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher in the University of Pisa’s Department of Physiological Sciences, in Italy, calls a “binary” communication between horse and handler. In other words, it’s all about yes and no. We tell the horse through our aids: This is what I want, or this is what I don’t
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