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Classical Conditioning: The Most Overlooked Element Of Horse Training

Fox clearly over threshold. This wouldn’t be a good time to start training something new.

Ever wondered about the R+ horse that pins its ears during training?

We all know the horse that is trained with food and bites… maybe even kicks. We know the natural horsemanship horse that performs obediently, but with his ears pinned, and tail snapping. We know the horse that is always amped and ready to go the second your foot hits the stirrup. Or the barrel horse that is spinning doughnuts at the gate. So, what’s going on with them? Obviously, we need to first rule out physical, environmental, and lifestyle issues. Then we need to look at the training. In my experience Classical Conditioning is the most overlooked element in horse training. I’ll explain my thinking here.

Classical Conditioning is present in all training.

First, we must understand what Classical Conditioning is. In past posts I have discussed Operant Conditioning and the ABCs of training. So far, I haven’t talked about how Classical Conditioning is also a part of training. Classical Conditioning is present at all times during training. It doesn’t matter which Operant Conditioning Quadrant you are using. There are always involuntary associations being made.

Harnessing the power of Classical Conditioning is one of the best things that we can do in our training. This ensures that the horse has the best opportunity to stay safe and be safe in a human environment. It also gives us the opportunity to use pre-learned cues to defuse a situation where the horse is becoming agitated. A lack of understanding of Classical Conditioning can also cause a lot of problems in training.

What is Classical Conditioning?

So first what is Classical Conditioning? In short Classical Conditioning is creating an association between an involuntary reaction and a cue. The association is created by pairing a cue with something that naturally causes the reaction. In doing so the cue will then cause the reaction without the natural stimulus. A great example of Classical Conditioning is Ivan Pavolv’s experiment with dogs. You can read about his work in detail here.

In short, Pavolv noticed that meat powder placed in a dog’s mouth would cause the dog to salivate. The meat powder is a natural stimulus (Unconditioned Stimulus). The salivation is a natural involuntary response to meat powder (Unconditioned Response). If the application of the meat powder is then paired with a bell, the dog will still salivate. The bell is an un-natural stimulus (Conditioned Stimulus), meaning a bell would not normally cause salivation in a dog. Eventually if the bell is paired with the meat powder enough, the bell will cause salivation without the presence of the meat powder (The Conditioned Stimulus now causes a Conditioned Response). This is Classical Conditioning.

Fox coming down from threshold. Here I am defusing the situation using pre-learned cues that are associated with relaxation.

Classical vs Operant Conditioning

The difference between Classical and Operant Conditioning is that in Operant Conditioning the voluntary response to the cue is dictated by the consequence. In Classical Conditioning the involuntary response to the cue is dictated by the association between the cue and an Unconditioned Stimulus. Are you feeling confused? Knowing the difference here is a big deal, and very important when it comes to understanding horse training.

A calm brideless ride with Fox through the forest. I live for these beautiful moments.

How is Classical Conditioning useful?

Ok so now that we have a general idea of Classical Conditioning, why is it useful for training horses? If we want to have calm focused horses in all situations, we need to initially train our horses when they are calm. This means not pushing them over threshold, and not stressing them with the training. This goes for both R+ and R- trainers.

It sounds counter intuitive right? When I say we need to initially train our horses in a calm state of mind with minimal environmental triggers, I often get pushback from traditional trainers. Their argument is usually that our horses will experience stressful situations in real life, they need to understand how to handle stress. My response is, imagine if you have a horse who is calmed down by your cues in stressful situations. What if your cues have been associated with calm relaxed feelings so much in training, that the horse is soothed by the cues? Imagine how many wrecks that would prevent. How many dangerous situations could be defused?

The mental state of the horse during training matters!

What if just like the bell causing involuntary salivation, your cue could cause involuntary relaxation? What I’m saying is the mental state of your horse when you train matters.

You can train anxiety/frustration into your horse, similar to the clicker horse that I mentioned above that is biting, and kicking, or the natural horsemanship horse with the pinned ears and the snappy tail. You can train anxiety/excitement into your horse just like the one that tries to go when you put your foot in the stirrup, or the barrel horse spinning at the gate. Or you can purposefully train relaxation into your horse.

Pairing Cues:

Pairing something that causes stress for your horse with your cues will eventually cause your horse to feel a little stressed by the cue. If each cue builds a little stress in your horse, you are essentially trigger stacking. If you stack enough triggers, and then add environmental triggers you will get a dangerous situation. Then things like bits, chains, etc, are necessary for maintaining control.

Alternatively, you can also pair your cues with things that bring relaxation to your horse. If, your horse feels a little relaxation around each cue, and is then exposed to an environment where there are a lot of triggers you can reduce the stress. Not only can this keep your horse under control, but it can defuse the entire situation.

Knowing that your horse will respond to you in a relaxed way, and that you can help him relax, builds your trust in your horse. Photo by Trina Cary Photography

Calm horses are not necessarily dead boring horses.

So, what do you want your horse to be feeling around your cues? I know which one I want! I get comments all the time about how calm my horses are. People will even say that my horses must be so boring to ride, and they prefer lively horses. It’s a bit amusing to me, as my Thoroughbred Jade is highly sensitive and was quick to react with a fight or flight reaction when I first started training her. I have yet to work with a horse “hotter” than her. Today she is very laidback and is very safe and quiet. This is because she was trained in relaxation.

Jade. I love this horse so much! She is the horse that taught me so many lessons around Classical Conditioning.

Our horses should not be dead broke. They should acknowledge their environment.

Don’t get me wrong Jade still reacts to things. Her most recent reaction was to lightly tense up while we were out on the trail in a windstorm. She had heard two trees squeaking loudly as they got pushed together. We could have carried on walking in tension, but I prefer a relaxed horse, especially when I don’t know if we will encounter a bear or something triggering further down the trail. I don’t need unnecessary trigger stacking.

All I did was give her a whoa cue. She twitched her ears in the direction of the trees, we heard the sound again, she took a deep breath, I cued walk on, and she relaxed completely and carried on. As a young horse she would have bolted and bucked. Now she is calmed and reassured by my cues. Can you see how paying attention to this element of training could make horses safer?   

A summarized example:

So, here’s one example of how classical conditioning conscious training with a focus on creating relaxation looks.  When I train a new behaviour, I work in a calm relaxed environment with minimal triggers. I typically choose an environment where my horse will go to relax, eat, or sleep. I keep an eye on my horse to be sure that he is truly relaxed. If I see any sign of stress I immediately feed. A horse with his head down eating is a relaxed horse, eating can even cause involuntary relaxation in horses.  

Once I have a behaviour established in relaxation I add in my cue. Then once the cue is well established, I begin adding in environmental triggers, and check to make sure the cue and behaviour remain calm. Eventually I can take this new behaviour out into crazy situations, and the horse will remain calm and soothed by the cue.    

So instead of exposing our horses to tons of new stimulus and expecting them to learn to behave calm even if they physically aren’t. We begin with training them calm and build the environmental stress, ensuring that they stay physically calm. This prevents our horses from standing calmly and not showing that they are physically reaching threshold, until they explode seemingly out of the blue.

I want my horses to express when they are moving towards threshold. It’s similar to wanting my dog to growl before he bites. I don’t want my dog to just bite without warning.

My horses will show when they are getting overwhelmed long before they reach threshold. Jade minimally tensing up over the trees is an example of this. This gives me tons of opportunity to find solutions, sometimes it’s just giving her an easy cue like the whoa cue. I know this cue will give her a sense of relaxation, and give her something to calmly focus on while we get through the situation. If the scary situation is enough for me to choose to give a cue that causes relaxation it becomes an awesome training opportunity… then with enough pairing the scary situation can even become a cue to relax.  

Jade letting us know that she hears the camera clicking. Fox and I are peacefully observing her. I’m checking to see if she needs help. She soon chose to graze, and relaxed completely. Photo Credit to Faith Sawyers
Whoa to canter here. Jade is extremely responsive even though she is relaxed. She just isn’t distracted, tense, and anticipating.

Relaxation does not mean lack of energy, or lack of reactivity.

Don’t confuse relaxation around a cue with lack of energy. Jade will go from whoa to a gallop in a second on cue. She will also go from a gallop to a whoa the same way. She isn’t slow or dead to the aids. I mean she is a thoroughbred and has a strong instinct to run! She just isn’t physically tense or anticipating. In fact, she is an incredibly responsive horse because her mind is relaxed and waiting for the next cue. She isn’t stressing and looking somewhere else, I don’t need to ride her with a short rein. The gallop is full of energy, but just as relaxed as a walk in the park.    

We don’t need to “fight” our horses. We just need to take a closer look.

Finally, when I see a rider “fighting” with a horse that is clearly over threshold. Spinning, bucking, rearing, bolting, sweating excessively, tense etc. I’m not impressed by the rider’s skills when they are able to stick, or able to “win”. I just hope that the rider is able to take a hard look into why the horse is reacting like that, and hopefully they will find a way to help their horse. Maybe they have just missed the concept of classical conditioning, and need to take a little step back. I would say a lot of times when these “fights” happen, there is an element of Classical Conditioning that has been accidentally trained in, and is being overlooked

Just some food for thought. I hope this is helpful.

Have a lovely day,


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