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How do horses learn?

Posted in Mind Matters

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Every time you interact with your horse, you’re training him and there are as many different training methods as there are trainers. It’s important for horse owners to have a basic understanding of how horses learn so they can make learning new skills successful and set realistic goals.

Your horse is continually adapting his behaviour to his environment – in and out of the training arena. Horses are neophobic, which means they tend to avoid unfamiliar or potentially threatening situations. Training can help your horse get over these spooky situations and there are a variety of methods. Here are a few…

Habituation aims to get the horse used to a new experience or environment through repetitive exposure to it. Many trainers do this instinctively, exposing their youngsters to a variety of stimuli at a young age. At first, the horse may exhibit increased flight behaviour and difficulty in achieving focus, but with time horses get used to focusing on what’s important, whether that be a course of fences or movements in a dressage test.

Desensitisation is a similar training technique, where the horse must learn to stop unwanted or spooky behaviour towards a certain stimulus through gradual, positive exposure to it.

Horses must also learn to adapt to new riders or owners – not every rider is trained the same! We call this ‘cognitive flexibility’ and horses have demonstrated good capability in this area. Some horses, however, such as those with a stereotypy like crib biting or box walking, may find it difficult to change previously learnt cues and this might highlight important considerations when training these highly-motivated animals.

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January 2018

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