Smart Horse: Understanding the Science of Natural Horsemanship


When we say that a horse has learned something, we are really saying that we have increased the likelihood that he will perform a particular action in response to a particular stimulus. However, a horse always has the choice of whether to perform a learned behavior because he still has free will. Therefore, in horse training we really have two goals: first, to condition (train) the horse to perform a particular action in response to a particular stimulus (cue), and second, to motivate the horse to perform that action each and every time that stimulus is presented.

Stages of learning

There are four generally accepted stages of learning that are applicable to both human and animal psychology. These stages are applied to the learning of a new skill:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Fluency
  3. Generalization
  4. Maintenance

You will become very good at recognizing these four stages as you teach yourself to carefully observe the process by which your horse learns a new skill. The first stage, acquisition, can occur quite rapidly, especially if you use the reinforcement techniques explained in this book. During the acquisition stage your horse will learn to associate the cue you have chosen with the behavior you are teaching him. At first he may only perform the behavior in one out of 10 tries, but soon he will perform it correctly in five out of 10 tries, and then almost always. He has then entered the stage called fluency, in which the cue is almost always followed by the desired behavior. During this stage we often refine the behavior, practicing it until the horse performs exactly as we want.

Once your horse is performing the behavior confidently and consistently, take the behavior out of the barn, arena, or round pen. You will now ask for the behavior in a different environment. You will likely experience some regression, that is your horse will not produce the desired behavior as reliably as before, but if you persevere, your horse will begin to perform the behavior when you request it under many different conditions. This stage is known as generalization. It is an important step in the learning process because a horse takes a skill he has acquired in one environment, such as the round pen, and understands he can perform that skill confidently in any environment, such as at a horse show or on the trail.

The speed at which a new skill moves from acquisition to fluency to generalization varies, depending on many factors including the difficulty of the behavior you are attempting to teach. Simpler behaviors can be taught very quickly, perhaps in a single training session or two, whereas more complicated behaviors may take weeks to teach. In addition, the time it takes to complete a stage will vary with the number of times the cue is presented, the time between training sessions, the type of reward used, and the time between the performance of the behavior and the application of the reward.

Taking skills from the fluency stage to the generalization stage is a commonly overlooked step in training horses. I think this is largely due to laziness on our part. Once we have gone through all of the trouble to teach our horse a new skill, it is wearing to teach it all over again in a new environment such as an outdoor arena, on the trail, or at the show grounds. Then, too often, we get to the show and our horse reacts badly. We attribute our horse’s poor behavior to his stupidity, and we become frustrated. However, if we understand that we must teach our horse in a variety of settings for him really to learn a skill, then we can avoid feeling frustrated and fix the problem before the show. In addition, you must move your horse’s skills from fluency to generalization for him to progress to the next stage, maintenance.

Maintenance is the stage we seek for all the skills we teach our horses. At this stage our horse will reliably perform the skills he has been taught in a variety of settings. Sometimes animals appear to forget a particular behavior during the transition from generalization to maintenance. Some propose that this is due to the knowledge moving from your horse’s short-term to long-term memory. What you will see is a regression in how he performs a skill for a few days. However, if you are patient and continue to practice, you will find that the behavior returns better than ever in a few days. Moving a new skill from the generalization to the maintenance stage takes a relatively long time after the initial stages of learning. It could take months or longer, depending on how often the skill is practiced and how complicated the skill is.

Classical conditioning

The basis of studying animal behavior is knowledge of classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian researcher who studied salivation and digestion in dogs, would bring his dogs into a room and place each of them in a harness. His assistant would then bring in food and feed each of the dogs. The presence of the food would induce salivation, which Pavlov could collect and study. Pavlov soon realized that the mere sight of his assistant would cause the dogs to salivate, even in the absence of food. Intrigued by this behavior, he refined the experiment by sounding a buzzer just before every meal. Soon the buzzer alone stimulated the dogs to salivate. He called the food the unconditioned stimulus, because no training was necessary to induce the dogs to salivate at the sight of food. The buzzer became the conditioned stimulus or cue. Without training, the buzzer meant nothing to the dogs. But with repeated experience and the close timing between the buzzer’s sounding and the presentation of food, the dogs soon associated the buzzer with food and would begin to salivate as soon as they heard the buzzer.

Do you think the dog would have salivated if the buzzer had sounded an hour before the food was presented? How about if the buzzer had sounded at variable times before the food was presented? The dog might eventually understand the connection, but the response would not be consistent or strong. The ability of classical conditioning a sound as a cue to provoke an unconditioned response has been documented in almost all animals. From these studies, we have learned that the conditioned stimulus (buzzer) must occur before (not during or after) the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus (food) for an animal (or human) to associate the cue with the response. We have also learned that the cue must occur at a consistent interval and must immediately precede the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus to get the strongest response.

Now let us consider a situation in which the buzzer was so loud it frightened the dog. Do you think that the sounding of the buzzer would become associated with salivation? Probably not; however, the buzzer may become associated with fear. Conditioned cues may become associated with emotional responses as easily as they can become associated with movement or other reactions, such as salivation. When applying the above to training horses, we want to link our cues to physical actions within a positive emotional context. During a training session the horse’s emotional state should be one of trust and comfort, not fear. Otherwise, we may inadvertently condition the horse to fear a stimulus instead of responding to it by performing a desired behavior. Compared to other species, such as dogs, horses are more easily conditioned to fear objects, sounds, or situations. As prey animals, this ability has kept horses alive in the wild. Therefore, it is our duty to be very careful in how we present and choose cues in order to decrease fear associations in horses. If we do this effectively, then horses will learn rapidly and learn to handle their fear.

Operant conditioning

So far, we have discussed the introduction of a cue (buzzer) to a stimulus-response scenario that already exists, that is seeing food initiates salivation. Now we need to discuss how we develop a stimulus response scenario from scratch. By this I mean we want to teach more complicated behaviors that will be performed by the horse in response to a cue such as leg pressure to initiate a canter.

The most common behaviors that we ask of our horses are an action or movement. The very first time you put a halter and lead on a foal and pull on the lead rope, the foal does not know that you want him to follow you. The pull is the stimulus or cue; the foal’s following you is the response. We can develop this responsive behavior by using several tools. First, your horse must have a way of discerning desired behaviors from ones that we do not want. We will do this by reinforcing him. By reinforcing behaviors, our horse learns that if he responds to a cue, he will either be rewarded or punished.

When an animal learns that his or her initial action results in a reaction from you, it is called operant conditioning. That is, the final reaction operates on the initial action of the animal. We do this by reinforcement in the form of a reward or a punishment. The animal then discovers that its initial action will result in either a pleasant or unpleasant reaction. It is important to remember that rewards and punishments fall under the category of reinforcements and that reinforcements immediately follow the horse’s action. Therefore, reinforcements influence the horse’s preceding behavior by making it more or less likely to occur again.


Typically, when we think of reinforcement we think of rewards. But the definition is broader. We use reinforcements to make desired behaviors more likely to happen and unwanted behaviors less likely to happen. We will use the term positive to mean we are doing something and the term negative to mean we stop doing something. Do not think of it as positive equals good and negative equals bad. It is more like math; when I use the term positive, I mean we are adding or putting something into the situation, and when I use the term negative, we are removing something from the situation. We’ll use rewards to reinforce wanted behaviors and we’ll discourage unwanted behaviors with punishments. Therefore, there are four terms we can use to describe the four different types of reinforcement: positive reward, negative reward, positive punisher, and negative punisher.

A positive reward is an action on our part that serves to make the preceding behavior more likely to recur, and it can be a treat, pat, rub, or other social behavior horses enjoy. We use the term positive because we are doing something to the horse that he likes. A negative reward also makes the preceding behavior more likely to recur. We use the term negative because as a reward we are removing a stimulus that the horse dislikes. For example, we may stop chasing him around the round pen or waving a rope at him. Other examples of negative rewards are when you stop pulling on a rein or squeezing with your leg.

Punishments are used to discourage unwanted behaviors. A positive punisher is the overt punishing act -- we slap or hit the horse to discourage him from doing a behavior such as biting. In this case we are punishing him so we are applying something that he does not like. A negative punisher occurs when we take away something the horse likes -- a buddy is removed from the pen, the horse’s stall is shut so he cannot socialize with other horses, or his dinner is removed from the round pen. This is sometimes called a "time out."


  • For a stimulus to become conditioned (the buzzer for example), it must occur immediately before the unconditioned stimulus (presentation of food) for it to link to the ultimate action (salivation).
  • Eventually, the conditioned stimulus alone will initiate the ultimate action (e.g., salivation) in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus (food).
  • When applying classical conditioning to horse training, cues that evoke a fearful response should be avoided.


  • Your conditioned stimulus (cue) will be something that is obvious, a sound or movement, but not scary.
  • Remember the importance of timing and consistency.

For more information about the book Smart Horse: Understanding the Science of Natural Horsemanship, click here.

About the Author

Jennifer MacLeay, DVM, PhD

Jennifer MacLeay, DVM, PhD, an equine veterinarian, practices and teaches at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Fort Collins. She is also an experienced equestrian.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More