Conditioning and Modifying Horse Behavior

Conditioning and Modifying Horse Behavior

The learning process takes time. "It's like building a house," du Toit explained. "You start with the trenches, then build the foundation, walls, windows, etc., until you have a finished product."

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Equine behaviorist Malan du Toit, from Cape Town, South Africa, wasn't always a horse guru. His interest in equine behavior and learning was sparked 23 years ago after he acquired his first horse—a potential endurance mount with serious behavior issues. As a newcomer to horse ownership, du Toit wondered why his horse didn't understand what he wanted him to do. So he embarked on a journey to study as much as he possibly could about equine behavior.

Du Toit presented some of his and others' research into how horses' minds function during the 2014 Cape Breeders Association seminar, held Jan. 27-28 in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

He first described the phenomenon of anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human personality to animals. "We have this romantic notion that the horse understands us," du Toit said. "That's why we use words like loyal, mutual trust, determined, lazy, etc., (when describing horses), and we use this to justify punishment because we think the horse 'knows' what it means."

However, he continued, horses can't reason like humans can. There's also no scientific evidence of their capacity for observational learning (e.g., replicating or imitating observed behaviors) or forming concepts, he said. Rather, humans must condition horses to respond in the desired way.

"Conditioning is the process by which behavior is modified and horses learn to respond," using either a consequence (negative reinforcement) or a reward (positive reinforcement), du Toit said.

He listed some important aspects to remember when training horses:

  • The learning process takes time. "It's like building a house," du Toit explained. "You start with the trenches, then build the foundation, walls, windows, etc., until you have a finished product."
  • Timing is key. You must release your pressure on the horse within one second of him performing the desired action, du Toit said, in order to teach him properly.
  • Repetition is necessary for sustainable behavior—or, in other words, never stop training.
  • Encourage positive first experiences. A horse's first experience of something is lasting, so don't allow him to experience trauma the first time you try to train him.
  • The horse has to perform an action on his own accord. "Force doesn't work," said du Toit.
  • Be consistent. "For horse behavior to be consistent, we (the trainer) need to be consistent," he said.
  • Follow the horse's rate of learning. "The longer you take (to train the horse over time) and the shorter the intervals between (training sessions), the better the horse can learn," du Toit said. "Things are first absorbed in the horse's short-term memory, then stored in the long-term memory."

In conclusion, du Toit said, "A horse in our environment is a lost animal. It is our responsibility to train them so they learn to do what's expected of them. Otherwise, we move back into anthropomorphisizing the horse."

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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