Home » Horse Psychology: How Do Horses Really Learn?

Horse Psychology: How Do Horses Really Learn?

Ever wonder what’s going on inside your horse’s head?

Have you ever wondered what’s going on inside of your horse’s head?

Probably something along the lines of imagining green grass, and keeping an eye out for scary rocks, suspicious flowers and dark corners right? In all seriousness the best we can do is guess. That being said there are some things that we do know, that can help us work with our horses even when we don’t really know exactly what they are thinking. The term “horse psychology” is thrown around a lot in the horse training world.  Quite often when a successful horse professional speaks about horse psychology we accept what they are saying. Usually on the assumption that they have been working with horses for a long enough time, they are getting results in their training, and what they are saying sounds similar to what we have already learned. Unfortunately a lot of the theories about how horses think that are used as facts in horse training don’t come from horse psychology, and don’t have real scientific backing.

Superstition and Anthropomorphism are both VERY common in modern horse training.

A professional has enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t, but they don’t necessarily know why it works. Which leads to superstitious ideas, which can often be anthropomorphic. On top of that, making wrong assumptions for why something works can muddy the training, and make the learning process less efficient, and more stressful for the horse. We can even take this a step further and say that it also makes the learning process more difficult for the human too.     

Years ago, (I won’t say how many) I studied psychology in university. Everything that I learned was referenced, had some form of research to back it up, or it was stated that it was a hypothesis that required more data. This got me thinking about “horse psychology”. I began searching for information and studies on the subject. At the time there was surprisingly little data on how horses actually think. Fortunately, it seems that there is more now. The research is continuously changing and growing, which I hope continues. Anyways I have always had a curious mind, and I dared to question some of the age old ideas around horse training.

You must be the boss, you must be the dominant horse.

Probably the most common thing I have heard is that you must be the boss, you must be the dominant horse. The horse must know that you are his leader and will keep him safe. If you don’t lead, the horse will… (insert a million superstitious bad things that horses do to weak passive people). There are a lot more statements like this. I have heard this particular statement so much that I know it is understood by many as universal fact. Then comes the methods to improve our dominance and leadership. There are a whole lot. More on that further down. 

I believed this too until Fox came and showed me something different.

Before we move on I want to make one thing clear here before I pull this all apart. I am not a hypocrite. I have used these statements, lots! For sure, I have been what I would call a “successful” dominant leader with all of my horses… Except for Fox who was “pushy” when I got him, and would drag me to the nearest food, like I wasn’t even there. I mean I have been training horses for a long time, and I have never been “disrespected” to such a level by a horse before. Not even when I was a little kid. I have prided myself in being a good leader, I have worked with dangerous horses, I have fixed problem behaviours… and there I was flailing, pulling on the reins and kicking like a complete beginner while Fox calmly walked us into the ditch to eat grass, dragging me out of the saddle as he reached down to graze. I felt like a little kid in need of a grass rein. I had a few comments from people saying we looked just like the Thelwell Cartoons… It’s a good thing you can’t see my face in the photo by the grassy bank… I’m sure I am wearing an expression of despair.  

Even during photo shoots when we were short on time, and running out of light… Fox HAD to drag me to the bank to EAT. At least the bank was high here and we didn’t get an image of me trying my hardest to pull his head up…. Photo Credit: Trina Cary

I just needed a bigger bit, a longer whip, more respect, more dominance, better leadership etc… none of these solved the behaviour.

This happened multiple times, in front of multiple people, who all had advice. I got to the point where I had swallowed my pride, and was consulting other professionals, and getting any advice I could. A bigger bit, a longer whip, more respect, more dominance, and better leadership were the usual comments. I finally started riding Fox with a whip so that I could whack him if he even looked at the grass… then he started to reach around and bite my whip while walking to the grass. He’s smart and quickly learned that I couldn’t hit him if he had the whip in his mouth.

We continued taking photos moments later when we finally got away from the bank. There is nothing like the classic grass in mouth photo. Truly elegant. An excellent example of good training. Photo Credit Trina Cary

When he wasn’t reaching for food he was ramming into other people’s horses which was even more embarrassing. He has been the most humbling horse I have ever experienced. At the same time, he’s the horse that inspired me to grow and learn. He’s my one in a million. Needless to say, he is stuck with me for life. I had gotten too comfortable in my training program, too sure of myself, and because of him my training has changed and improved immensely. I am forever grateful for the lessons that this quirky horse has taught me.

Don’t worry it is completely resolved now.

Fast forward to today. Fortunately I can laugh about this now, as he currently eats on cue when we are together, and requires zero effort from me to lift his head and change locations. One of my favourite things to do now is bring him in from grazing. All I need to do is stand beside him at liberty and ask. He will quietly follow me in. No more putting the halter on, and pulling, and getting dragged around. I will make a blog post in the future about how I was able to use science based training to work with and sort out the behaviour that I was seeing in my food obsessed pony without any force. So stay tuned.

It’s difficult to be the boss and communicate through body language with our horses when we lack some pretty necessary body parts…

Ok back on subject. There are a huge number of methods and ways to prove our dominance out there. All based on “horse psychology”. Quite often being the boss with your body language or energy or both. According to many trainers and “horse psychologists” horses have a universal language and hierarchy that they all understand, and we can be a part of too. I mean we have seen it. One horse puts his ears back… the other moves. So let’s pull this idea apart. We are to be the “boss” through some form of body language (there are many forms), first off we are missing some fairly important body parts for this kind of communication. We don’t have mobile ears, and we don’t have long flowing tails that we can snap. Which puts us at a disadvantage. But horses are good at reading tension, subtle body language, and feeling energy. So they naturally can read what we are thinking, and will react to our leadership even before we know… or do they??

Is Ptarmigan a dominant mare… or is she having a chat with her friend about a resource….

Below is a quick example of how we could interpret Ptarmigan as being a dominant horse, and not respecting the human… Or we could see it as simple resource guarding. The human isn’t really involved in the conversation, but he is definitely the topic of conversation. Maybe they just see us humans as resources?

**Note: If you are viewing this on a phone just touch the description words and slide them up or down to view the photos**

Do feral horses see us as peers or predators?

It randomly occurred to me while I was taming some colts, while watching them bunch together at the end of their pen as far away from me as they could get, that if they saw me as a horse wouldn’t they come up and try to sniff my nose? I mean just a quick search and you can see how horses react on youtube when people put actual horse heads on and go into their horse’s paddock. The horses usually rush right over to sniff the nose… When I first got to touch the colts they always smelled my hands or hair first, and then my face. They didn’t do the baby horse mouth though, where they open and close it to indicate that they are immature. Wouldn’t they if they saw me as a horse? I mean if I want to be a dominant leader, my horses would need to recognize me as a horse first right? I haven’t ever seen a horse follow another species around because it moved its feet. It would go against all instinct for a horse to follow a puma after being chased. The puma may have shown dominance by moving the horse, but the horse doesn’t suddenly see a leader. He sees a predatory Puma. So looking at the behaviour of the colts I suspected that they thought they were dealing with a predator, not a peer.

Feral horses react to body language, but not in the understanding way that we want.

These colts had never been handled by people. Guess what? They didn’t naturally know how to react to my body language. Once they were tamer they would either crowd me, or spook away from me. They would react to my body language, but not in a way that I wanted. I was either their food resource, or I was something that they wanted to play with, or I was a scary predator. They were usually curious about me, ignoring me, or spooking away from me. It wasn’t until I consistently, and consciously taught them the meaning behind my body language that they began to respond to it, in a more traditional way.  Now all of this being said, this is my experience only. 

This was a year later. They were very tame here.

What’s really going on?

So, what’s really going on?? Maybe somewhere down the line they will prove that horses naturally recognize our body language, and we can be leaders. But until then here’s something that I think is better. It involves focusing on how and what our horses are learning. 

I hope you have noticed that I used the words Naturally Recognize, when I’m talking about horses and body language. I am by no means saying that horses don’t recognize and react to our body language. They absolutely do. How the horse recognizes, and reacts to our body language during training is a learned response. It’s not a naturally occuring response. Right from the moment we come in to contact with our horses we are the teachers and they are the students. They are learning what our body language means. So how do they learn this? Enter, Equine Learning Theory, the study of how equines learn.

The four quadrants of Operant Conditioning.

I’m going to give you a basic overview, and in later blog posts break everything down in more detail. So for horses, like any other animal we have the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning. Negative Reinforcement, Positive Reinforcement, Negative Punishment, and Positive Punishment. We also have Classical Conditioning, but I will cover that in another post. Below is a beautiful graphic shared with permission from www.fedupfred.com. Followed by a more detailed description of each quadrant.

Negative Reinforcement:

Let’s start with the most popular way to train horses. Negative Reinforcement or pressure and release. This is the way most of us learn to work with horses right from the beginning. Add an aversive, the horse reacts, remove the aversive. Add something the horse doesn’t like to create the behaviour, and remove it when the behaviour has occurred. The removal is where the learning happens. There are many nuances to negative reinforcement, but this is the basic overview. We are reinforcing a behaviour that we want to see more of.  A real world example is asking the horse to walk forward with a halter and lead rope. Applying gentle pressure to the lead (enough that the horse finds it uncomfortable and wants relief), and immediately releasing when the horse steps forward. With repetition we will get more steps forward.

Positive Reinforcment:

Next we have Positive Reinforcement. This learning quadrant involves adding something that the horses finds reinforcing to encourage more of a behaviour. This goes: cue, behaviour, reward. The reward can be anything the horse finds enjoyable. This also makes the behaviour more likely to happen in the future. For example you cue the horse to step forward, he takes a step forward and he gets a treat, with repetition he will take more steps forward. 

Negative Punishment:

Then we have Negative Punishment. Punishment in theory makes a behaviour happen less. Negative punishment is the removal of something the horse enjoys to reduce the occurrence of a behaviour. For example your hand goes by the horses mouth, he knows you have food in your hand, he bites, you don’t give a treat reward. This will in theory reduce the likelihood of the horse biting.   

Positive Punishment:

The fourth quadrant is Positive Punishment. Positive punishment is adding something aversive to reduce the occurrence of a behaviour. For example your hand goes by the horse, the horse bites, you hit the horse. This again in theory will reduce the likelihood of the behaviour.

Ok so now that we have discussed the overview of the ways that our horses learn it’s important to acknowledge that every interaction we have with our horses is working somewhere in these quadrants and altering their behaviour and reactions to us. Even if we don’t want to be, we are teaching all of the time. Getting to choose how we teach, and what we want to teach is the fun part! Horses are particularly sensitive to body language and are quick to learn what brings them what they want and what doesn’t. So maybe our horses naturally recognize our body language, or maybe they begin making associations the second they meet us, and this leads to them understanding our body language. Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about being the boss. Maybe we should focus more on being intentional about what we want to teach them, paying attention to what is reinforcing a behaviour, and staying consistent in our application. When we are intentional about what exact body language, or behaviour we are teaching, our training automatically becomes cleaner and clearer for our horses.

Have a lovely day!

Courtney

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