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How the Horse Thinks and Learns

how horses think and learn


Regardless of the discipline you choose to compete in, your success will depend on your ability to teach and communicate with your horse.

Therefore, it’s essential to understand the basics of how a horse thinks and learns.

In this article, we will look at the horse’s natural instincts and how he learns to respond to your aids.

About your horse

1. Your horse is not a human!

It’s very easy for us to treat our horses like a human; believing that they have human traits, emotions, and cognitive abilities.

Not only is this confusing for the horse, but it can also be very dangerous.

So, first and foremost, we need to understand that horses think like horses. It is our responsibility to communicate with them in a way that they understand, and not the other way around.

2. Your horse is a herd animal

Horses are conditioned through many thousands of years of evolution to live within the safety of a herd environment. The greater the size of the herd, the more likely his odds of not getting eaten by a predator.

From the herd, the horse received not only security but also companionship and knowledge of where food can be found.

By nature, the majority of horses are followers, so when placed in the domestic setting they’re quite happy to follow a trusted human as opposed to another horse for their security.

3. Your horse is prey

In nature, the horse is a prey animal whose immediate instinct is to flee when threatened. It’s that flight response that causes horses to spook and shy away from the scary flowers at B or the terrifying judge’s car at C!

Although spooking is annoying to the rider, to the horse, it’s done without thinking. Horses are programmed to be continually alert to potential danger. If you punish the horse for spooking, that only reinforces his initial reaction to run away and only makes the situation worse.

Related Reads: How to Deal with a Spooky Horse

If a horse is unable to take flight, its “fight” response often kicks in.

Picture the horse whose rider is holding him in a fixed, blocking contact. The horse cannot move freely forward and feels trapped, so he becomes resistant and tense, fighting the rider’s hand in an attempt to break free.

So, when schooling your horse, you must always provide him with a way out so that he doesn’t feel trapped and tense. That might be by easing the inside rein or taking the pressure off the horse by choosing an easier exercise.

4. Your horse is (naturally) lazy

In his wild state, your horse will not expend energy that is not necessary for his survival. When searching for food and water, he will do so with only the minimum effort required.

When you are training your horse, you need to be aware that he is always looking for the easiest answer to your questions. So, you should aim to teach the horse in a logical and progressive manner so that everything you ask him to do is easy.

5. Your horse needs balance

In the wild, if the horse flees from dangers and falls over he can become lunch! Therefore, balance is very important to him.

When riding and training, the horse will always be trying to balance himself under the weight of the rider.

We can use this to our advantage in two ways;

  1. The horse’s need to work in balance with his rider is what allows us to form a harmonious partnership that moves together as one.
  2. A balanced rider reinforces the horse’s need for self-preservation and therefore helps the horse to stay relaxed.

Reading your horse’s body language

The easiest way to determine your horse’s emotional state is by looking at his ears.

  • Pinned back ears are a sign of anger, discomfort, and temper.
  • Ears that are pricked forward signal that the horse is paying attention to something in front of him.
  • Ears that are flicking back and forward mean that the horse his dividing his attention between what is in front of him and what’s behind him (e.g. you sat on his back).
  • Ears that are hanging floppily to the side indicate that the horse is relaxed, possibly even asleep.

When you are riding your horse, you want to see relaxed ears that are turned back towards your (not pinned back ears). This indicated that the horse has his full attention on you rather than what’s going on around him and remains free from tension.

How your horse learns

1. Can a horse use logic to learn?

Your horse’s brain is very different from yours.

For a start, the horse has a much smaller brain relative to his body size than you do. Also, the horse’s brain is structured differently, which explains why he doesn’t apply logic in the same way that you do.

The neocortex, which is the part of the brain that’s used for functions such as logic, abstract thinking, and reasoning, is much more developed and larger in the human brain than the horse. That’s because a predatory brain needs to devise strategies to track and anticipate the movements of prey.

On the other hand, the horse’s brain is more geared to survival, i.e., locomotion and sensitivity, which are required for flight. For the horse, problem solving and logic are not necessary skills. So, the horse learns through experience and associative learning or trial and error.

Therefore, your horse does not have the ability to plan ahead, ie. he cannot pretend to be lame to get out of work.

2. How do you teach a horse?

A horse has a good memory and positive and negative sensations are quickly learned.

You can train a horse through dominance and aggression, but this will limit the scope of learning and cultivate little trust from the horse. Some horses may submit, but others will attempt to flee or fight back. Regardless of the outcome, the horse will never be relaxed and comfortable in his work.

In contrast, if you teach the horse through positive reinforcement and praise, then he will be happy to do a movement over and over again without the use of force.

3. How does a horse learn to understand aids?

The horse learns aids through the removal of pressure.

For example, the horse feels pressure on his side from your right leg. As soon as the horse steps away from the “discomfort” of that pressure and moves to the left, the pressure is removed, so the horse eventually learns what that particular aid means.

In the beginning, the pressure will be removed and the horse will be rewarded for even the slightest of effort in the correct direction, but as the training progresses, he will gradually begin to be rewarded for only perfect responses to the aid.

4. Do horses learn quickly?

When taught correctly and sympathetically, horses can learn incredibly quickly. Also, once the horse has learned a lesson, he is likely to remember it for a lifetime.

That’s good news, right? Yes, it is, but there is a negative to that too. That’s because if you make a training mistake or allow the horse to continue working in a way that’s incorrect, the horse assumes he’s giving you the response you want. When you contradict that assumption by reprimanding the horse, he will be at best confused and at worse frightened, possibly triggering the flight or even fight response.

5. What’s the horse’s attention span?

Horses are somewhat like children in that they have a limited attention span, which varies between individuals. You need to get to know how long your horse can concentrate before his attention fades to know when’s the best window of opportunity to teach him something new.

The same principle applies when working-in at a competition. You need to discover how much working-in time you need before you find your horse’s attention “sweet spot.” Once you know that, you can time your entry down the centerline to perfection!

Not getting the response that you want?

There are many reasons why a horse does not respond, or responds incorrectly, to our aids. Usually, it’s because he doesn’t understand or he was not mentally and physically prepared.

Check that the aids were applied at the right time and in the right place and that the horse was ready to receive them, and then make the necessary adjustments to help the horse understand.

Don’t be afraid of taking a step back if you need to. Review the training to date and re-cement the aids before moving forward again.

Teaching the horse to be unresponsive!

The horse is continually learning, so to him, everything is a learning experience.

As the famous saying goes, “You are either teaching or unteaching your horse.”

This means that sometimes we inadvertently teach our horses to become unresponsive to the aids.

Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

Have you ever watched a class of riding school ponies with beginner riders? Those little legs keep on kicking at every stride, but the ponies take not a jot of notice!

Now, watch those same ponies in the field and notice how they can sense the irritation of a tiny fly landing on their side, twitching the insect away immediately.

So, it’s not the case that the ponies can’t feel the rider’s leg, but simply that they have learned that it’s okay to ignore the leg aid.

The same applies to the rider who constantly kicks her horse to try to create more impulsion, gets no response, so carries on kicking regardless. Her horse has learned that he doesn’t need to pay any attention to the leg, eventually becoming dead to it.

Related Read: How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg

Scenario 2

Similarly, watch a novice rider schooling her horse, niggling at the horse with her spurs to move sideways away from the leg.

The horse moves sideways, but the rider persists in applying the aid.

How is the horse meant to understand that he’s responded correctly to the aid if the aid is not removed? Depending on the horse’s temperament, he will either become dead to the aid or will show resistance to the spur.

Remember to reward your horse and avoid confusing him by removing the aid once he’s responded to it as you want him to. In effect, the horse learns that the pressure will be removed as soon as he yields to the rider’s aid. It’s basically using a carrot rather than a stick approach to training the horse.

The removal of pressure is the horse’s reward and he will eventually learn to respond to the most subtle and slightest of aids.

In conclusion

To be able to train your horse to maximize his full potential in the dressage arena and as a safe, happy riding horse, you need to understand how the horse thinks and learns.

The most important thing to remember is that your horse is not a human and it’s your job to communicate with him in a way that he understands.

So, to be a successful dressage rider and trainer, you must learn to think like a horse!

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