HOW HORSES LEARN
Like all animals, learning in horses is largely dependent on their natural behavior. Horses are highly social animals with complex organization: the herd is composed of family groups and their dominance hierarchy is dynamic. Although we often talk about “alpha mares” and “dominant” horses, there is no one alpha mare in a group: the dominant role will shift from horse to horse depending on what resource is desired at a given time. Thus, one horse will only ever be dominant for 70% of the time. The shifting dynamic of a herd suggests that the notion of “leadership” (the idea that we must be “alpha mare” to our horse to gain its respect) is not grounded in science.
It is unlikely that horses see humans as part of the herd. A horse will learn to perform the behaviours its trainer asks of it simply because the trainer has rewarded certain behaviours and ignored other ones. This is called operant conditioning.
FEAR AND FLIGHT
The anatomy of a horse’s brain is distinctly different from ours in that its does not have a prefrontal cortex and therefore cannot project into the future, reflect on the past, or reason. For survival purposes, the horse lives in the moment and reacts quickly to its surroundings. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear, is very large in the horse compared to other species. When a horse experiences fear, its natural reaction is to flee. As it flees, the horse develops strong and long-lasting memories about the fearful stimulus. These fear responses can be suppressed through training but unfortunately cannot be extinguished. If your horse spooks in a corner of your indoor arena because the snow fell off the rood, he’s quite likely to spook there again the next time he is in that corner of the arena; he is simply reacting to his survival instinct and remembering the fearful event that occurred in his past.
MEMORY AND TRAINING
Horses have excellent and sophisticated memories. This memory can be a hindrance if the horse experiences a fearful event that leads to spooking, bucking, or rearing, but it can be an asset when training a new skill. When a response is deeply embedded in the horse’s brain, it will remember very accurately what it has learned even if it has not practiced that behaviour for a long period of time. Horses are particularly good at remembering events that occurred in specific locations; this is called Content Specific Learning. As trainers, we can use this information to more quickly and effortlessly train our horses. For example, if we want to teach our horse a flying lead change, we should ask for the lead change in the same location of the arena every time, remembering that simply because the horse has learned a response in one location does not mean it will perform that behavior somewhere different.
We must be careful not to underestimate the mental capacity of the horse, and assume that it is brutish or without feeling, or overestimate its cognition and misinterpret its confusion for stubbornness, laziness, or vindictiveness. We must get away from ascribing anthropomorphic terms for the horse (“stupid,” “dull,” “keen,”) and instead recognize that everything that the horse does is a product of its natural behavior or the behaviours we have (advertently or inadvertently) taught it. The better we understand how the horse learns, how it processes and remembers information, and how is ethogram (natural behavior repertoire) affects it, the more effective and humane our training systems will be.