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The ABCs Of Horse Training

The ABCs of horse training are simple and concrete in theory, but in reality they are part of a creative art that takes years to develop

We have talked about Learning Theory as well as LIMA and The Human Hierarchy. These previous posts outline how to go about horse training in a clear logical way. They are helpful in explaining the foundation for the next steps.  

Now its time to dive into actual horse training. The ABCs are a concept that all horse training is based on. It doesn’t matter which operant conditioning quadrant you are working in. The ABCs are always the same. A stands for Antecedent Arrangement, B stands for Behaviour, and C stands for Consequence.  

A is for Antecedent Arrangement:

Starting with A. What is an Antecedent Arrangement? An antecedent is anything that comes before. In this case we are referring to anything that comes before a behaviour. An Antecedent Arrangement is usually something/somethings in the environment that help trigger a behaviour. This can be anything that is occurring in the background of the horse’s life, such as herd dynamics, living space, health, age, breed, previous training… the list is long. It also refers to the immediate training environment, location of friends compared to the training environment, distractions occurring or not occurring around the training environment, cues, props, again the list is long.

The Antecedent Arrangement covers everything!

We can adjust the Antecedent Arrangement in our favour to make the desired behaviour more likely. So this is where we begin. Imagine we want our horse to learn to touch a hand held target with his nose. How do we start teaching this behaviour? We adjust our Antecedent Arrangement so the horse bumping into the target is most likely to happen. The Antecedent Arrangement covers EVERYTHING.  

An example:

We want to present the target to our horse and have him touch it with his nose. The first step is to organize the environment so that the horse is most likely to touch the target. This organization is the adjustment of the antecedent arrangement. If I were to teach targeting to Fox I would put him in Protected Contact. Then I would set up a bucket near the fence where I will be working. I would put some pellets in the bucket. Fox would move to the part of the fence where I would like him to be. Then I would present the target to him very close to his nose. The target would be a new object. Knowing Fox, he won’t be able to resist checking it out. He will move to sniff the target. This is my first step towards the behaviour that I’m looking for.

Another Example:

With another horse Lilly, who I know is very wary of anything that looks like a crop I would arrange the environment differently. I would keep the target out at the very beginning and look for any behaviour from her acknowledging the target, and then move from there. These are just two small examples of how the environment could be arranged differently to encourage behaviour from different horses, adjusting these factors is adjusting our Antecedent Arrangement.

Antecedent: Teaching Fox to touch a target with his nose. The antecedent arrangement here is the bucket, the target, my location, the hay on the ground near the bucket, we are close to the fence so that I can step back into protected contact if needed without disturbing the process. He is in a pen separate from his friends to reduce distraction. I’m using low value food to reduce food anxiety, the list goes on and on.

There are endless possibilities for adjusting the environment, so don’t be afraid to embrace your creativity here. First we make sure that the Antecedent Arrangment sets the horse up so that he can fulfill our criteria for the behaviour. Then we move on to the next step… B for Behaviour.

B is for Behaviour:

Behaviour is what occurs after the Antecedent Arrangement. Sticking with our targeting example: In a perfect training session, we have a perfect antecedent arrangement. The horse fulfills the behaviour requirements (he touches the target, or whatever step you are on in your training plan). You are both happy feeling like you are communicating well and have solved the puzzle. In reality, training sessions aren’t perfect. Maybe we present the target and the horse jumps away from it. Then we need to go back to the drawing board and adjust our Antecedent Arrangement. We adjust it to see if we can trigger a behaviour closer to what we are looking for. The horse’s behaviour when presented with the target, is then reinforced/dictated by the last step.  

Behaviour: Fox Touches the target stick. I know I have a good antecedent arrangement when the behaviour is most likely to happen.

C is for Consequence:

C the Consequence is what follows the behaviour, and either encourages it, or doesn’t. Using the target example: 

ABC Positive Reinforcement:

An example of Positive Reinforcement. The horse is presented with the target (Antecedent), he touches it with his nose (Behaviour), he is then given a reinforcer (something he likes) (Consequence). This sequence will likely cause the horse to touch the target again. 

ABC Negative Reinforcement:

An example using Negative Reinforcement: The horse is presented with the target, and the trainer pushes the horse’s nose to the target with their hand (Antecedent), the horse touches the target (Behaviour), the trainer removes their hand from the horse’s face (Consequence). This will likely cause the horse to touch the target again, but only if the horse finds the pressure on his nose aversive. 

ABC Positive Punishment:

An example using Positive Punishment: The horse is presented with the target (Antecedent), he moves his head away (Behaviour), the human hits the horse for moving away (Consequence). This could cause the horse to react differently next time. Notice that I didn’t say touch the target? Punishment doesn’t tell the horse what we want, just what we don’t want.

ABC Negative Punishment:

An example using Negative Punishment: The horse is presented with the target (Antecedent), he moves his head away (Behaviour), He doesn’t earn a reinforcer that he knows the trainer has (Consequence). This could cause the horse to react differently next time. Again it won’t necessarily make the horse touch the target. Punishment tells the horse what not to do, but it doesn’t tell him what to do. Also in this case the horse has to know in advance that the trainer has food, and is feeding for behaviour.  

Consequence: Fox receives a food reward for touching the target. He will be likely to touch it again in the future.

The consequence is where the learning happens.

I’m not sure if you noticed here, but the consequence is where the learning happens, and what dictates what the next response may look like. The key to horse training is timing the consequence perfectly and choosing the right consequence. If you get both of these right they will reinforce the behaviour you are looking for. It’s incredibly important that we as trainers pay attention to what is getting reinforced and make conscious decisions that help our horses learn seamlessly. I put a guess of the likely behaviour after each sequence because horses are individuals, and their reactions to each consequences will be determined largely by their individual personalities.

An example of the horse learning from the consequence:

For example, if I hit Fox for moving away from the target, he would most likely get tense, and show his tension by pinning his ears and snapping at me with his teeth the next time a presented it. The exact opposite of what a horse with a flightier personality might do. A flightier horse may move away quickly the next time he sees the target, to avoid the consequence of getting hit.  

All behaviour is driven by our individual reactions to the environment. The ABCs are occurring everywhere all of the time. The trick as a trainer is to be able to recognize the antecedents, resulting behaviours, and the consequences that are driving them. If you don’t have a lot of time to train horses you can still spend time learning. The ABC loops occur for all animals, even humans. The next time you’re with people, or your dog, or cat, try to see if you can see what’s driving certain behaviours.

Antecedents can be tricky to pick out, especially with humans because we often don’t know their reinforcement history, and in-born tendencies. If you spend enough time focusing on the ABCs of behaviour occurring all around us, you will be surprised at what you see. Behaviour will begin to take on logical loops, and things that seemed random before will make a whole lot more sense… You can even look at your own behaviour and see what’s driving you… are we as in control as we think….?

Have a Lovely Day,



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