How do horses gain knowledge and process what they learn? Read here important insights useful for training and management of your horse!
To improve training and management of our horses, we need to understand how they learn, what they need to be able to learn and how they process and remember stuff they have learned.
With those information there will be more horse orientated training available, the management of our horses will improve and our horses will be happier and healthier long- term. That's what we all want for our horses, right?
When you know better, you do better!!!!!
Learning means building connections in the brain. So, how do horses learn????
Horse learn through these 6 types of learning:
Horses are actually FAST learners as they don't carry the extra " baggage" that humans do, such as cognition, planning, judging, reasoning, doubt, arrogance and fear of embarrassment. All these "baggage" is either part of our future (worrying) or the past ( experiences), but not happening when we are PRESENT. Horses are present all the time as they are PREY animals.
A horses behaviour is the result of past learning experiences in situations in the past. It is not influenced by his " parents expectations" or " boss demands" just as examples, as it is often in our life as humans.
Horses are PRESENT and show us how they are. They do not lie, they might " shut down" but never lie or judge as this is not part of their brain function.
Horse have a good memory, so we have to be mindful what we teach them. Their memory is that great that we will need a long time to unteach them unwanted behaviours or reactions. Those of you who have a horse that has made bad experiences in the past know exactly what I mean.
Also those of you who have a riding school and horses that are working with the riding students know, that it is necessary to ride the horses yourself on a regular base to "correct" them from the influence of the unexperienced rider.
Lets have a look now on the 6 ways a horse learns:
Learning by association happens when two events or ideas are linked.
Example: A hay truck precedes hay in time, means the horse relate the truck to the hay.
If you praise your horse with the words " good boy" and provide a stroke on the neck at the same time, your horse will link the stroke on the neck with that praise.
Learning by consequence is also often called " operant or instrumental conditioning".
What that means is, horses learn by cause and effect.
Example: Horses get fed when coming to the gate in the morning. So they learn, coming to the gate results in having a meal.
Humans learn by observation all the time. Think about children. They copy what they see or hear from their parents all the time.
Horses are experts in learning by observation. Foals learn from their mums that a scratch from a human can be pleasant, the farrier is not a monster and certain objects ( plastic bag) are nothing to be scared of if the mum stays calm. Trailer loading is another example. If a horse watch the other horse walk into the trailer with no issues, chances are it will do the same with no fear.
Strong memories are built by brain chemicals that cause emotions.
So, if your horse experiences fear in a situation it will remember that situation or even the smell, noise or object(9e.g. a trailer...) that was involved with this situation. So, to enable optimal learning create a state in your horse with the emotion of tranquillity, curiosity and trust. Allow your horse to look at you for reassurance and leadership. Feeling safe enables learning and is very important for connection.
Horses are able to find solutions in situations where they feel safe and their curiosity is activated. Thins about the situation where your horse managed to open the gate just by playing around long enough on the chain or handle. Problem solving also occurs when horses are trained new lessons. they try to figure out what we want them to do to fulfil the task.
Most people interpret testing as misbehaviour. But the brain is telling a different story. Testing is is one of the most effective ways of learning in mammals.
We do test ourselves when studying to get an idea of the knowledge we have.
Horses never stop testing as they always learn.
So, next time your horse is testing you, remind him of your expectations so he cannot get away with a misbehaviour. And think about it in a good way, as your horse just asks you want you want, he is just figuring out what you expect from him.
So, when it comes to learning a horse is quite similar in some ways a human learns.
The most important part is, we need to provide an environment that puts the horse in a mental state where learning is possible. So reduce stress, relax yourself as well, and the you and your horse can grow together and live the potential that both of you have.
For happy horses and smiling and relaxed rider.
Britta Bruns, Invercargill