10 Learning Theory-Based Horse Training Principles

Boy Riding School learns to be a rider

Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed, renowned horse trainer and head of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, in Victoria, first presented his evidence- and learning theory-based principles of horse training in 2006. Since then he’s been refining and retooling them as he discovers more ways to promote equine welfare.

“It’s not about turning horse training into a science,” he explained, “but, rather, understanding, defining, and measuring what we possibly can.”

McLean presented a revised version of his training principles at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9, in Vancouver, British Columbia. They are as follows:

1. Train according to the horse’s ethology and cognition. By understanding horses’ behavior (e.g., their social organization, attachment, fear responses, separation anxiety, arousal, need for space and companions, etc.) as well as their thought processes, we can better comprehend what causes them fear, makes them feel secure, and so forth and incorporate those things into training. “It’s normal for us to project a very human interpretation of how horses think,” said McLean. “But in doing so we’re expecting far too much,” and this can create negative welfare situations.

2. Use learning theory appropriately. Horse training should involve the correct use of what is known as learning theory. Its main learning processes are habituation (becoming accustomed to things), sensitization, shaping, operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement), and classical conditional (using predictable signals). “When we get these wrong,” said McLean. “It’s one of the biggest causes of training-related stress in horses.”

3. Train easy-to-discriminate signals. Make sure your aids are clear and significantly different from one another when asking a horse to perform maneuvers such as gait transitions, going faster or slower, shortening or lengthening the stride, turning, and head and neck flexion. “Blurred and ambivalent signals can lead to confusion, distress, and responses that compromise performance and rider safety,” said McLean.

4. Shape horses’ responses. When training, start by shaping the basics, such as speed and directional control, then gradually move on to things such as head and neck position. “You need to control what the horse’s legs are doing before refining things, so that everything is easy and one thing moves on to the next,” McLean said. Otherwise, poor shaping can confuse your horse.

5. Elicit responses one at a time. Make sure your cues, like words, are clearly separated from each other. Clashing cues (for instance, asking for acceleration and deceleration simultaneously) create a confused and, eventually, dull horse, McLean explained.

6. Train only one response per signal. Each of your riding cues should have just one response associated with it. Ambiguous rein and leg aids, for example, cause confusion, said McLean.

7. Form consistent habits. Horses thrive on predictability and habit. Ensure gait transitions, for instance, are of the same structure and duration each time you ask for them.

8. Train self-carriage. Teach your horse to “keep going” in rhythm and straightness without constant signaling on your part. McLean offered an analogy: “Is the bird really trained to sit on your arm if you’re holding his wings?”

9. Avoid flight responses. A horse’s flight instinct is in response to fear. “If we embed fear in our training, it can cause learning deficiencies, stress, and problem behaviors,” McLean cautioned.

10. Demonstrate minimal levels of arousal sufficient for training. Basically, your horse should be relaxed (not to be confused with dull) when performing. High levels of arousal can cause hyperreactive behaviors that riders then think they need to punish, leading to a welfare issue, explained McLean.

Take-Home Message

These 10 training principles can help riders and trainers maintain horse welfare during training and are key to ensuring horse and rider safety and helping a horse perform at his best, said McLean.

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