THE 6 WAYS HORSES LEARN
Equus|Autumn 2020
You’ll be more successful in teaching your horse new skills or maneuvers if your lessons, timing and tasks are aligned with his natural modes of acquiring information.
Janet Jones, PhD

Horses are not just smart; they are learning machines. They scout for cues everywhere and soak up information. Once acquired, new knowledge sticks to a horse’s brain like superglue. If there’s a problem with equine learning, it’s that horses learn too quickly---and forget too poorly---to accommodate human errors.

In equine environments, horses remember where freshwater and grass are located, what times of year such resources are available, where the best shelter is found and how to get to it. They learn where every horse in their group ranks in the social hierarchy and know complex kin relationships and behavioral rules within an entire herd. They recognize the distinct smell of each animal in their environment, not just different species but also different individuals within a species. They recall which situations to avoid, and they don’t forget events that caused them fear.

In human environments, horses learn the sounds and sights of various car engines and horse trailers. They demonstrate their facility at either ramp loading or step-up entry. They recognize our faces, voices and clothes. They learn to associate verbal commands with specific behaviors, they know their own tack, they remember the meaning of 10,000 almost imperceptible body aids. Greet a horse you haven’t seen in 10 years, and he will remember you. For many of these feats, no instruction is needed: Just stand back and watch the flypaper of a horse’s mind capture everything that gets near it.

But when it comes to mutual performance within a horse-and-human team, animals need help. Each one is saying silently, “Please, teach me what I need to know, show me what you want.” By nature, they use their heightened sensitivity to body language in seeking the tiniest signals. They assume each one has meaning if only they can crack the code. Given a handler who uses the same cues consistently to achieve a given response, horses parse out human expectations the way bears find honey.

The trouble is that we humans are not as precise with our cues, or as clear in our expectations, as horses need us to be. We send mixed messages and reward bad behavior inadvertently, not realizing that our mounts just made a permanent connection between, oh say, rearing and resting.

We often fumble when choosing cues or in delivering them. We may not remember exactly which behavior a cue instigates. We generalize far more than our horses do---to us, the almost correct cue is close enough. But horses don’t have human levels of categorical perception. They learn each cue and response as a separate instance, with exacting detail. To horses, little differences have big meanings.

Many people think they’ve got to change course if a horse doesn’t respond to a signal the first time. But more cues, different cues, only make the problem worse. Instead, just ask again in the same way you have asked before. The cleanest and most consistent cues work best.

If the horse is paying attention, knows the signal, and can perform the requested behavior, he will. If not, you need to take a step back and teach the horse more clearly what you expect. If he doesn’t catch on after repeated tries, something’s wrong. And usually it’s the lesson, the timing, the teacher or the task.

TYPES OF EQUINE LEARNING

When we try to teach a flighty beast manners or maneuvers, it helps to know how his brain learns. We can then adapt lessons to match the brain processes at work. In general, the basis of all learning is neural connection. Allow me to oversimplify: A group of neurons that represents water activates at the same time as a group of neurons that represents lever-pushing. They form a weak connection that strengthens with use. Soon the horse knows that pushing the lever on an automatic waterer makes water arrive. In brain science, we say, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Eventually, the connection gets so strong that learned behavior becomes automatic. Using neural connection as a physiological basis, horses pick up knowledge in six basic ways: Association, Consequence, Observation, Emotion, Problem-solving and Testing.

Humans use these types of learning, too, but we add to them the powers of cognition, planning, reasoning, forethought and judgment, along with doubt, bravado, arrogance, and fear of embarrassment. A whole lotta extra baggage, in other words. Horses are fast learners partly because they don’t carry that baggage. They’re pure learners, too. A horse’s behavior is a mirror of his past: It is not diluted with his parents’ expectations, boss’s demands or children’s needs. A primary joy of living with horses is that they never lie about who they are. Good trainers can work with a new horse for a week and know exactly how he has been handled ---including the indiscriminate carrots an owner offers in secret or the weekly groundwork she claims to practice.

Learning of any type can yield both positive and negative results. Horses and humans gain knowledge that accrues to our benefit, but with equal proficiency we gain knowledge that is detrimental. We have to be careful about what we teach a 1,200-pound horse, because he has such a great memory that we might not be able to unteach the lesson for a long time.

1. LEARNING BY ASSOCIATION

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM EQUUSView All

PROGRESS AND STRUGGLE IN SENIOR HORSE CARE

A study from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University confirms what many dedicated horse owners have long known: Caring for a geriatric horse with a chronic health condition can be a significant physical and emotional burden.

5 mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

THREE WAYS TO PREVENT BLANKET INJURIES

Of all the things your horse could injure himself with, his blanket seems an unlikely candidate. But don’t rule it out. Blanket mishaps do happen and they can be serious. Here are three things you can do to avoid them:

3 mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

PUT AN END TO BARN DRAMA

While it’s impossible to prevent all discord at the barn, conflict resolution techniques can help solve problems, restore calm and enable everyone to enjoy their horses.

10+ mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

The turning point

You don’t always get the horse you want, but sometimes you get the one you need.

6 mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

A FOREVER HOME

How a Facebook post led to a midnight rescue and an unexpected partnership

3 mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

Nice work if you can get it

A career focused on horses is not for the faint of heart but the rewards are many and can last a lifetime.

3 mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

MAKE WINTER EASIER FOR YOUR OLD HORSE

The season ahead may be hard on aging horses in cold climates but with some planning and preparation you can help yours sail through until spring.

10+ mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

7 THINGS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN ABOUT TETANUS

With modern vaccines and wound management practices, tetanus is almost a thing of the past. But the threat persists, so it’s wise to remember which horses are most at risk and why.

10+ mins read
Equus
Winter 2020

THE FIRST AMERICAN “SPORT HORSE” BREED

The very name of the American Standardbred reflects the performance requirement established at the inception of the breed. Here’s how genetics, conformation and training came together to create horses that could trot a mile in 2:30 or less, or pace it in 2:00 flat.

8 mins read
Equus
Autumn 2020

THE 6 WAYS HORSES LEARN

You’ll be more successful in teaching your horse new skills or maneuvers if your lessons, timing and tasks are aligned with his natural modes of acquiring information.

10+ mins read
Equus
Autumn 2020
RELATED STORIES

A skeptic's journey with CBD

Life really does fly by. Before I knew it, my 40s 30ish had arrived, and with them came some new gifts from dear ol’ Mother Nature— frequent knee pain, stress, low energy and sleeplessness. Now, I’m a realist about these things, I knew I wasn’t going to be young and springy forever. But still, with “middle-age” nearly on my doorstep, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. That is until I found my own secret weapon. Another gift from Mother Nature.

3 mins read
Oxygen
Spring 2021

CBD for your pain

Life really does fly by. Before I knew it, my 40s 30ish had arrived, and with them came some new gifts from dear ol’ Mother Nature— frequent knee pain, stress, low energy and sleeplessness.

4 mins read
Oxygen
Winter 2021

Zebulon Pike's Life on the Mississippi

Follow his trail from St. Louis, Missouri, to Walker, Minnesota.

5 mins read
True West
September 2020

Zebra Stripes Stop Flies From Biting

Why do zebras have stripes?

1 min read
Muse Science Magazine for Kids
September 2019

An Entrepreneur Lives His Nightmare as a Rival Cashes In on His Best Idea

To score big with the NFL...a small company named Lynx invented a cool new technology...but a funny thing happened on the way to the end zone.

10+ mins read
Inc.
February 2016

ज़ेब्राफिश और रेटिना का इलाज

छिपकलियों की पूंछ टूटती है और कुछ ही दिनों में बिना हड्डी वाली नई पूंछ बन जाती है। कुछ विकसित रीढ़धारियों में क्षतिग्रस्त अंगों में पुनःनिर्माण (रीजनरेशन) की क्षमता होती है। अकशेरुकी प्राणियों में तो कई ऐसे उदाहरण हैं जो अपने शरीर के अंग या पूरे शरीर को भी फिर से बना सकते हैं।

1 min read
Srote
February 2021

FAREWELL, KUMKUM

DEVESH SHARMA PROFILES VETERAN DANCER AND ACTRESS KUMKUM WHO PASSED AWAY RECENTLY

3 mins read
Filmfare
August 2020

MANIESH PAUL & HIS MAGIC ON STAGE

From hosting shows to RJing, microphone has been Maniesh Paul’sbest friend ever since he started his journey in the entertainment industry. Today we know him as the best host Indian television has ever seen, successfully transitioning between small screen, silver screen and web. Raring to get back to work post lockdown and the pandemic. From hosting shows to RJing, microphone has been Maniesh Paul’sbest friend ever since he started his journey in the entertainment industry. Today we know him as the best host Indian television has ever seen, successfully transitioning between small screen, silver screen and web. Raring to get back to work post lockdown and the pandemic. The actor opens up with us in a hearty chat about his journey so far and his plans for the future with Zeba Khan.

6 mins read
iCraze
June 2020

My favourite ROOM

This issue we catch up with Geri O’Toole from Geri Designs & Co, who works on interior architecture and design projects operating from her creative studio and showroom in the heart of Limerick City. Here Geri welcomes us into her home and gives us a closer look at her favourite room.

2 mins read
Ireland's Homes Interiors & Living Magazine
July/August 2020

जेब्रा से बनी जेब्रा क्रॉसिंग

जेब्रा की बॉडी इसे गधे और घोड़े के वर्ग में शामिल करती है। इनकी शारीरिक बनावट ही इन्हें एक-दूसरे से अलग भी करती है। जेब्रा के शरीर पर सफेद और काला, केवल दो ही रंग होते हैं। यही इन्हें इनके वर्ग के दूसरे जानवरों से बिल्कुल अलग रूप देते हैं।

1 min read
Nandan
May 2020