Thinking Like a Horse

Thinking Like a Horse

By exploring horse behavior, scientists have been able to uncover many mysteries of equine learning—and most are not so mysterious after all.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

By gaining a better understanding of how horses associate and learn, can we train them more effectively and ethically?

We all know horses can’t sit at a desk and take notes on how to execute a clean flying lead change or stand quietly for the farrier. But there is some debate in the equestrian world about how horses do learn. Can they reason? Do they figure things out? Can they think things through after a day’s lesson? Do they pick up cues from other horses? 

We’ve gone to some of the researchers studying equine learning to find out how the horse’s mind works and what methods he uses to learn what we’re trying to teach him. With a clearer comprehension of his learning capacities, we can adjust our training styles to achieve a more enjoyable and ethical partnership.

Trial and Error: Making Associations

The primary way horses learn is through associative learning—literally, making associations between stimuli and events. They feel a pressure on their halter, they take a step forward, the pressure disappears. It’s what Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher in the University of Pisa’s Department of Physiological Sciences, in Italy, calls a “binary” communication between horse and handler. In other words, it’s all about yes and no. We tell the horse through our aids: This is what I want, or this is what I don’t want. 

But how does he even know what we want? Angelo Telatin, MS, director of equine studies at Delaware Valley College, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, says it’s all about comfort. “He’s just trying to do whatever it takes to remove the discomfort,” he says. 

Telatin is referring to negative reinforcement—not negative as in bad, but negative as in the absence of something. In the case of horse training, it’s the absence of pressure. So when the horse discovers an action that makes the pressure stop (such as moving forward when you pull on his lead rope), he’s learned to associate that movement with the release of that pressure. Lesson learned.

Horses learn to associate movements (such as backing up) with the release of pressure (the handler stops tapping the whip), which in horse training circles is known as negative reinforcement.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

But horses can’t just assume leg pressure means move forward, or that seat pressure means stop (or if driving, go forward), or that rein pressure means drop the head. That’s not their logic, says science-based horse trainer Andy Booth, an Australian who lives in Normandy, France. Their “logic”—if we can even call it that—is one of trial and error. “They’ll keep trying different responses until they get the one that results in comfort,” he says. 

In fact, just to prove that horses have no innate assumptions about what human cues mean, both Telatin and Booth regularly demonstrate “odd” associative learning to their students. Booth, for example, taught his old Quarter Horse mare to drop her head when you tap her on the croup. Telatin trains school horses to move toward a whip’s pressure on the shoulder instead of away from it. And these horses learn these associations within a matter of minutes. It can be strange to us for sure! But for the horses, it’s not any weirder than moving forward in response to bilateral leg pressure.

Habituating: Removing Associations

Complementing associative learning is a method called nonassociative learning—what we also know as habituation or desensitization. Nonassociative learning is critical in horse training for our own security and that of our horses, as well as for their well-being. Through habituation, horses learn to not respond to certain stimuli. 

What stimuli do you not want your horse to respond to? Waving flags. Barking dogs. Crackling tarps. Revving motorcycles. Buzzing clippers. Anything that comprises your basic nightmare for the average untrained horse—this list could go on and on. As much as we’d like to believe that we can convince horses to just “think” about the reality of things, of how unscary all these stimuli really are, that’s just not the way horses learn. 

Don't remove any adverse stimuli, such as clippers, when your horse pulls away from it -- this is just teaching him that if he moves away, the clipping stops.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Better then to teach them through nonassociative learning. If the horse understands that his actions don’t make the scary stimuli go away, he’ll realize that there’s no association between anything he does and the presence of that stimuli. And eventually he’ll come to realize that, as we already know, there’s nothing terrifying about those buzzing clippers.

So if you’re clipping your horse, and he pulls away from the clippers, don’t stop and turn off the clippers and calm him down before starting again, Telatin says. While that might seem like the nice and logical thing to do, it’s not logical for horses. The horse understands an association: Move away from buzzing monster, buzzing monster stops. So prepare yourself to keep those clippers on even as the horse moves around, and only turn off the clippers when the horse is not moving. (He’ll probably learn an association between standing still and the clippers turning off, Baragli adds. And that’s a good thing.) 

However, if it’s dangerous to do that (because the horse has already learned the association of flight responses with turning off the clippers, for example), start slowly, says Booth. “Don’t clip; just turn on an electric toothbrush and associate that noise with positive reinforcement (food and/or wither scratching),” he says. “Don’t let distance between the noise and the horse increase due to a flight response. And if the horse takes a step forward, make him step backward. Little by little you can move up his body toward his head, always being careful of the associations you’re making.”

For a horse that has already associated flight responses with clippers or other scary stimuli, frequent pauses will give him the impression that he’s controlling the situation, Telatin adds. “As long as the horse is standing still, clip for a few seconds and then stop for a few seconds, then clip, then stop,” he says. “He’ll think he’s stopping the clippers by standing still.” 

Timing and Precision

While these two learning methods might seem simple enough, they actually put a lot of mental pressure on us. We have to concentrate, says Barbara Padalino, PhD, of the University of Bari Aldo Moro Veterinary School, in Italy. We have to make sure we’ve got a close eye on the horse’s slightest movements, so we can reward at just the right time. 

Horses are naturally extremely sensitive animals, she says, highly attuned to the most subtle movements—a survival mechanism in herd animals that must communicate flight signals quickly and discreetly in the presence of danger. 

That means our cues have to be precise, because a slight difference in our communication can mean something very different to a horse, Telatin says. It also means we have to be extremely accurate in our timing. The very moment that the horse begins to respond the way we want him to, we must reward him. 

So if you’re training your horse to drop his head while being ridden, release some (or all) of that rein tension as soon as he lowers his head even slightly. If you don’t, you’ll end up habituating (desensitizing) your horse to that rein pressure—just like you’re trying to do with those clippers. Your timing and precision will make all the difference in whether the horse learns an association, or no association, with your cues. 

And if you’re using negative reinforcement intermittently (like gentle tapping with a whip), keep the tapping rhythm short, with gaps between pressure lasting less than a second, Booth adds. If the gaps are longer, the horse’s brain will associate his most recent action with the removal of pressure—an association you didn’t want him to learn. 

Fast Acquisition, Lifetime Memory

Our sources agree that when taught correctly, with respect for their learning styles and capacities, horses can learn incredibly fast. An experienced trainer who understands associative and nonassociative learning can teach a horse a basic association (touch a ball to receive a carrot, for example) in minutes. And horses are likely to remember that lesson for their lifetimes, as several studies have shown. 

That’s good news, but it’s also bad news. Because if someone’s made a training mistake along the way, that mistake can be hard to undo—and that’s usually what leads to the image of the “difficult” or even dangerous horse. We can unwittingly teach our horses bad associations, such as bucking and rearing, because of our poor timing or inaccurate understanding of how they learn. 

“They’ll probably never forget that association, no matter what we do,” Booth says. “But we can teach them other associations to help change their behavior.” 


And with the right retraining, some associations can become “extinct”—meaning the horse recognizes that the reward doesn’t come anymore, so that response is no longer effective. But that kind of retraining takes real skill. If an experienced trainer can ride through the bucks while still whip-tapping a horse who responds to whip-tapping with bucking, he or she can extinguish the tap-buck association. “The important thing is to not stop the tapping even if you’re getting unbalanced from the bucking, or the association will just be reinforced even more,” Telatin says. 

Effects of Stress and Attention

Certain situations are more conducive to equine learning than others. Horses need a calm, low-stress environment for optimum learning. In a recent study, Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, showed that horses that were stressed (exposed to stressful stimuli like blowing tarps and barking dogs) before or after training did not perform as well as unstressed horses when tested on that lesson a few days later. Those that fared worst were the ones that were stressed after training, Lansade adds. 

“That means keep stress to a minimum even after a lesson,” Lansade says. “Don’t hose off your horse right after training if he doesn’t like that, and don’t lock him up in a stall all by himself because isolation is stressful. Better to put him out at pasture with friends at the end of a session.”

Fellow researcher Céline Rochais, PhD, of the University of Rennes, also found that a horse’s attention level is critical to learning. Too little—or too much—attention to the trainer can prevent the horse from learning efficiently, she says. “It seems that there might be an optimal window of opportunity in a horse’s attention span toward humans in order to learn a task,” she says, adding that further research is needed to define that window. 

Take-Home Message

No doubt about it: Horses are smart creatures. But they don’t learn the same way we do. By exploring their behavior, scientists have been able to uncover many mysteries of equine learning—and most are not so mysterious after all. Simple and direct, horses’ learning methods are our key to better communication and more ethical equitation, ideally leading to improved horse-rider partnerships and optimized horse welfare. 

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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