Thinking Like a Horse

By gaining a better understanding of how horses associate and learn, can we train them more effectively and ethically?

Thinking Like a Horse
TBy exploring their behavior, scientists have been able to uncover many mysteries of equine learning—and most are not so mysterious after all. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The 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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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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