REV. 8/10/12

KBR Horse Training Information

Exercising Body AND Mind

How Horses Learn

Horses are highly developed and specialized herd animals. Their ability to survive and flourish in a wide variety of wild environments in spite of predators and hardship is based in great part on their ability to learn. The trainer who understands the learning habits of horses will have much less difficulty teaching horses how to respond in the human environment. Additionally, when the trainer or handler is aware of the learning characteristics of the horse, the process will go much faster and the horse will be less stressed.

So, how do horses learn? In this information sheet we will discuss four basic elements, the "point of release", visual learning, patterning and herd hierarchical pressure.


Horses are curious and most like to explore their environment, however they don't have acute vision and virtually no depth perception. Thus, when confronted with new objects, they tend to study them through a series of advances and retreats, eventually either giving up on the object or becoming confident enough to actually smell it. If the object doesn't move or startle them, the curious horse will reach a point where he feels a release of tension and it is at this point the horse has learned that the object is "OK". (The horse may also flee the object, with the point of release may be when he has reached a sufficient distance away to feel OK.)

When a young horse is cutting up one of the herd elders may discipline him by running him around. At the moment the younger horse displays appropriate behavior, the elder horse stops her pursuit, "releasing" the youngster and in effect teaching him how to behave.

The point of release is a very effective teaching tool. One can set up stimuli, introducing the horse to something new that he may be frightened of, and manage the introduction until the horse reaches his own point of release. Or, one could be putting pressure on a horse (as in longeing), until that moment that the horse improves his behavior, then release him to reinforce the good behavior. Similarly, a young horse might not stand for the shoer. When the horse misbehaves, pressure is applied by sending him out to work on longe for a short period, yet he is "released" when he is willing to stand quietly next to the shoer.

It's not pressure or curiosity which cements the learning process, it is the timing of that point of release where either the horse's internal instincts (such as when exploring something scary), or that of the handler, send a message to the horse's brain which says, "That's it!"


Horses learn from each other. They see a horse do something and they will emulate it. We have paddle waterers in our pastures and paddocks. In the paddocks, we have to teach new horses how to use the waterers. In the pastures, where they see other horses using them and the new horses take to them right away. We put a barrel with a float valve in one of the pastures. After a half day the animals still wouldn't get within 50 feet of it. We tossed a couple of apples into it and one of the braver souls finally tiptoed over to check out the apples. Within a couple of minutes she was "bobbing" for the apples and the others immediately came up and pushed her out of the way.

Horses may also transfer this learning element to humans. When it is quiet, we let horses out to graze about in the stable, which is just outside our back yard. The gate to our yard is within sight of Sharon's quarter horse, Mikey. Mikey watched a new chain link fence being installed including a gate with a flip-type fork latch. A few days after the fence was in, we let Mikey out to graze. He simply walked over to the gate, nosed the fork up where he'd seen us grabbing it, and went into the yard.

Marcy would run from the farrier until she saw her mother standing quietly.
CJ Showing Scooter around the barn
We've had young horses absolutely panicked over some object in the barn or stable. When their owners would lean down and investigate these objects, including sniffing them, at least nine out of ten times a big horse nose would soon butt in to investigate the object, just as they would have with an older, "mentor" horse.


Horses learn from repetition. If they do something repeatedly, it will become a repetitive habit. If you let a horse walk off as you mount it a few times in a row, the horse will likely develop it as a habitual pattern. If the horse gets a can of grain each time after longeing, then he's going to be cranky the first time you break that pattern by throwing on a saddle and attempting to ride. With Mikey, Sharon cannot perform a maneuver in the arena at the same place two times in a row or he'll anticipate and expect to do it the third time Sharon gets there.

An example of a negative pattern is blindly rewarding with treats; the horse becomes a circus animal expecting a tidbit for every good behavior. An example of a positive pattern is whenever we leave the arena, we will open and close the gate from horseback before we proceed out on our "reward ride" or give the horse a grazing turnout. We do this from the first day a young horse is ridden in the arena. The trainer / handler has to be aware of patterning and avoid establishing negative patterns and encourage positive ones.

Another method of patterning involves operant conditioning, often referred to as "Clicker Training." Clicker training involves treats but differs from just handing out goodies due to the fact that the horse is patterned into a learning game and no treats are given unless a marker is sounded (the click) which signifies that the horse has completed the correct behavior. This all sounds pretty far fetched but most horses catch on to clicker training really fast and work hard to figure out all sorts of behaviors.

Dina schooling young Corey

This is Max, a clicker trained 6YO former wild stallion in his second week of gentling. His front foot is on the shoeing stand with no lead rope attached

The reason clicker training doesn't create a horse that constantly mugs the handler for goodies is that a pattern has been established at the very beginning of the training that the only time a goodie is produced is after a click is sounded which is only associated with a correct behavior (or a good attempt at a correct behavior.) The trainer can stand with a bowl of grain or a handful of carrots within sight and reach of the horse and the horse will typically ignore the treats and try to find the correct behavior. Spoiled horses that will mug people for treats typically don't mug during clicker training. They will, however, resume their undesirable behavior outside of the training environment if their owners or others continue to spoil them after the sessions are completed.


We have left this element until last since it is the one which is most abused.

We all hear some trainers say "You've got to make them do (such and such)," or "You have to be tough with them." Well, you can make a horse do many things, but it's certainly not using all of the tools in your toolbox. That same cowboy probably wouldn't attempt to build a barn with just a hammer. He'd probably need at minimum a saw, a tape measure and a level to do the job efficiently. He might be able to throw something together without these other tools, but what kind of quality would he get?

Some of these guys can get away with it because they are very good riders, have great reaction times, and a few even enjoy getting pitched on the ground. As for me, I'd prefer to use my dominance only as much as necessary and develop the other elements of horse learning "in balance". So in this context, here's what hierarchical pressure is all about.

All horse bands have some form of social order. Every horse in the herd has a ranking from top to bottom. This ranking is dynamic so as animals leave or rejoin the band, gaps in the order are filled or the returning horse assumes his former position, or perhaps finds himself in a new position in the order.

When a new horse (or human) is introduced into the equation, he must establish his ranking. This is seldom done by force, although force can be used between close-ranking contenders for the same spot in the order.

For the most part, the horse which displays the greatest leadership presence takes the top spot and earns the most respect, and sometimes this can be the smallest horse in the group.

I have absolutely no desire to engage in a physical contest with any horse. Most outweigh me by at least seven times, they are taller and can run faster. I'd much rather display my knowledge of herd communication and establish myself clearly as the leader. The easiest way to accomplish this is in the round corral, the methods of which are discussed in other training topics.

As the hierarchical leader, the horse is going to respect my space, will naturally yield to my pressure, will naturally watch for and respond to my cues and aids, and will want to earn my respect in response. If I ask the horse to follow me, he will whether on or off lead. If I signal to the horse that some upsetting stimulus is OK, he will accept my judgement. If I ask him to go off with just the wave of my hand, he'll make a snappy and respectful departure. The only hitch is, I have to be diligent myself to never betray that trust and following which I have solicited from my horse.


In a nutshell, here's how it all works. You present yourself to the horse. He is curious about you. Through good horsemanship techniques you establish yourself as a leader. You start to set up problems for your horse to solve (training the horse). The instant he gets the right idea, you release him so he will get the association. As the problems presented get more complex, you set it up so that your horse can see other horses doing the activities correctly, or in some cases you show the horse how to do something or that an upsetting stimulus is OK. You reinforce good habits by establishing repetitive patterns (but avoid overdoing this and boring your horse to sleep), and you avoid repetitive situations which reinforce negative patterns (bad habits).

The concept is really that simple. It's the conversion from theory to practical application which takes some thought and practice, but if you understand why certain things work the way that they do, you'll figure out how to get the results that you want.

Mustang Falcon showing off his stuff at the 2008 Nevada Day Parade.
Trooper (5 YO BLM mustang) off the range for less than a year at the WHB Expo.

(More specific details regarding these concepts are presented in the other topics in the training section.)

How Sensitive are Horses to Their Handlers?

Check out the story of Clever Hans

Continue to Understanding the Lick / Chew Reflex in Horses .

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