…How Horses Learn
Anthropomorphism, or attributing human qualities to our horses, can get us into trouble. Horses and humans are wired very differently. Effective trainers understand how horses perceive the world, what motivates them, and how they learn.
Horses are prey animals, humans are predators
Prey animals need to be more wary than predators in order to survive. When they perceive frightening stimuli or “pressure”, they flee, and they don’t stop to ask questions until they have reached a “safe” distance when they can stop and evaluate the threat. Freedom is the reward. The horse does not require the higher mental abilities of reasoning, abstract thinking, and logic.
The handler must give an instant reward when the horse responds positively i.e. STOP & DO NOTHING. It is crucial for horse handlers to be in control of their emotions, and of the timing and intensity of their cues.
Safety, Comfort & Play
- Horses are herd and social animals (play over isolation)
- Horses find comfort (i.e. food & shelter) and safety within a herd
- Horses are motivated by survival: to eat grass all day and flee danger
The alpha horse, or leader, is the one who makes the decisions about when to seek out water, shelter, or rest, and the subordinates trust and follow. As horse owners, humans must be the leaders.
Body Language & Leadership
Alpha horses confirm their dominance by their ability to use threatening body language to cause their subordinates to retreat. No horse has permission to step into the leader’s personal space uninvited. Body language is the major way horses communicate, and a good horseman will do the same.
Everyday Dos & Don’ts
Problems occur when we try to fit the square peg of horse thinking into the round hole of people thinking.
As a regular exercise and throughout the training process, the handler should ask the horse to step away from him (either backwards or to the side) and to yield to pressure applied to any part of his body. Handlers who step back when lungeing, or in the stable environment, may be unaware that they are inviting the horse to step right into that leadership vacuum and possibly barge right into them. So always be aware that you are training.
Inconsistency, such as being cuddly and permissive on one occasion, and slapping and jerking the horse on another, will confuse him. Nothing is more baffling to a horse than boundaries that change.
“Make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy. Let your idea become the horse’s idea.” ~ Tom Dorrance
Different Wiring, Different Logic
Horses’ brains are structured differently than humans and this explains some of the frustration we may encounter when we try to use human logic in training.
Scientists report that the neocortex, the centre required for higher mental abilities, (i.e. reasoning, abstract thinking, logic) is larger and more developed in the human than in the horse. These are crucial mental functions for the predator that uses strategy to track his prey and predict its movements.
In contrast, the horse’s brain is dedicated to tasks relating to survival, i.e. physical sensitivity and locomotion. As a prey animal, the horse is up and running soon after birth, sorting out the information he picks up from the environment with his keen senses. He’s motivated to eat grass all day and flee danger. Problem solving is not a necessary skill, hence he learns through experience.
Where we want to teach the horse a task, the horse learns through trial and error until he understands what is being asked of him – which takes us back to that INSTANT reward of freedom.
2500 years of experience tells us….
Xenophon was an Athenian soldier and historian, Greek philosopher, military leader and an author. A passage from Xenophon’s The Art of Horsemanship illustrates that Xenophon understood how important the Release is as a Reward for the horse. Also interesting is the reference to raising the neck.
[10.12] The mouth must neither be pulled so hard that he holds his nose in the air, nor so gently that he takes no notice. As soon as he raises his neck when you pull, give him the bit at once. Invariably, in fact, as we cannot too often repeat, you must humor you horse whenever he responds to your wishes.
This next quote demonstrates that even 2500 years ago it was understood that the smart and obvious way to train horses is to reward the behavior you want.
[8.13] Now, whereas the gods have given to men the power of instructing one
another in their duty by word of mouth, it is obvious that you can teach a horse nothing by word of mouth. If, however, you reward him when he behaves as you wish, and punish him when he is disobedient, he will best learn to do his duty.
[8.14] This rule can be stated in few words, but is applies to the whole art of horsemanship. He will receive the bit, for example, more willingly if something good happens to him as soon as he takes it.
He will also leap over and jump out of anything, and perform all his actions duly if he can expect a rest as soon as he has done what is required of him.
For more information, see article by Lindsay Grice, Lecturer in Equine Behaviour, Certified Equine Canada Judge AQHA, Level 3 NCCP sport coach published in
October 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
How Does This Translate on the Polo Field?
The emotional horse is hell bent on fleeing scary situations. In flight mode, his movements become quick and unnatural instead of long, soft, and CALM. And in flight mode, the polo pony will be burning proverbial rubber to get back to the relative safety of the pony lines. The calm horse is the thinking horse who is able to deal with the stress of the match without losing the plot.
So the next time you’re tempted to anthropomorphize, remember that horses and humans are wired differently, and try thinking like a horse instead!
See also our resource library for more information on scientific evidence-based horsemanship.