In the Shadow of Horse

In the Shadow of Horse
In the Shadow of Horse

Sunday, November 2, 2014

How Horses Learn

Horses learn as people learn. There are a variety of methods and modes of learning. Horses are born to learn, and learn from their first breath to their last. Whenever horses are around humans, they are learning. They learn and remember most everything any human teaches them, including behaviours not intended to be taught. Appreciating learning science is essential to successful horsemanship.

The foal’s first teacher is her dam. Once the mare catches her breath following parturition, she begins teaching her foal. She utilizes operant conditioning to help the foal rise and suck. She applies gentle pressure to the foal with her muzzle in rhythm with the foal’s movement. When the foal moves in the direction best suited to rising as the mare suggests, the mare releases the pressure, conditioning the foal. This operant conditioning that utilizes negative reinforcement teaches the foal the best method to rise and stand to find a nipple, and subsequently suck. The mare also utilizes positive reinforcement to teach her foal. She rewards appropriate behaviors with milk, rubs, and nickers.

Once the foal learns to nurse, the foal learns to move out alongside her mother, developing her locomotory skills. The foal develops her innate movements under the mother's guidance and tutelage. Many behaviours are innate and instinctual, but all are best served to be honed by the mare’s example. Rewards, cues, protections, support and guidance develop the foals learning abilities.
Foals are born to run soon after birth. Within hours many can and do run when afforded the opportunity of open space in which to do so. Foals are precocious, meaning they are born with a well-developed nervous system. Altricial species such as the dog and humans are born helpless and require weeks for the nervous system to develop into a moving mammal. Not so the foal.
Precocial species are not only able to run, they are able to learn shortly after birth. The mare and foal are best served to be provided with a natural open setting in which to develop their learning and moving about. Green open pastures provide the best teaching and learning opportunities for the mare and foal. A stall or stable is perhaps the worst place for the mare to effectively teach the foal. 
It is critical the foal learn from the mare, and later the herd, so as to be amenable to human training later in life. Social learning is critical for the foal to grow up into a teachable, trainable willing partner. 
During the first hours of life, the foal becomes a horse. This imprint phase is a unique and critical learning phase that molds the foal into a horse. The foal absorbs the behaviour of the dam utilizing social learning. The first hours and days of life is the most critical learning period of the foal, and this learning should be supported and nurtured from a distance by humans. Social learning is critical for all species, and is particularly important for group survivalists such as the horse. The horse is taught to be a horse by the dam and the herd. Learning the social constructs of herd life is critical for group survival. As well, learning the social constructs of the herd prepares the foal to be taught by humans later in life.

Accomplished horse trainers utilize all the teaching strategies that the mare uses to teach her foal. Operant conditioning, associative learning, classical conditioning, habituation, desensitization, and social learning are all taught to the foal by the mare. It is critical the mare be allowed to teach the foal in as natural a setting as possible so that humans can later train the horse using the principles taught to the foal by the mare. 

All horse trainers should learn, know, and appreciate the scientific terms regarding learning (training). 
The traditional training of horses utilizes negative reinforcement. All horses are trained utilizing negative reinforcement as the primary method to teach responses to specific cues. Negative does not imply that the training method is unacceptable or bad for the horse. Mares teach their foals using negative reinforcement: Pressure is applied, and then released when the horse or foal gives the correct response. So then, pressure followed by release to the desired response is negative reinforcement. Remember the terms negative and positive have nothing to do with good or bad when used in the context of training and teaching horses. Negative means taking something away. In behavioral learning terms, positive connotes adding something, such as a reward, as in positive reinforcement, or adding punishment, which is termed positive punishment, which can be unacceptable despite the terminology. 
Positive reinforcement is adding something, such as food or a rubbing reward.
Negative reinforcement can be enhanced with positive reinforcment. 1. The pressure is applied such as a pulling on the rein. 2. The horse responds by turning and the pressure is immediately released (this release is the reinforcement, but since pressure was first applied, the pressure has to be removed, which is a taking away, a negative act, thus the term negative reinforcement; how all horses are trained). 3. Once the pressure is released, or as the pressure is released, the horse can be rewarded with rubbing or verbal praise, which is using the addition of positive reinforcement to train. Once the horse has responded to the pressure or cue, and the pressure is released, another something can be added to enhance the behavior, to increase the likelihood of the behavior repeating itself. This end act of reward, if utilized, is termed positive reinforcement. The release preceding the rub, however remains negative reinforcement. For those of you who are interested in understanding the principles of horsetraining and horsemanship, you must learn the terminology and concepts of learning theory, first.
4. If the horse turns the other way and bolts, positive punishment is sometimes used to teach, such as painfully jerking the horse around with the reins, or spurring to punish the unwanted response. Of course, the horse who bolts the other way has not been properly taught or prepared (Culpa equestribus non equus). Jerking the horse around is scientifically termed positive punishment. Although termed positive punishment, this type of training (excessive or predominant use of punishment) can be bad for horses and result in a fragile unreliable relationship. Remember this: the horse always has the last word.
Willing partnerships are preferred to indentured servitude (fear of punishment).

The combination of negative reinforcement accompanied by positive rewards is operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental conditioning, often known as horsemanship.
Classical conditioning is conditioning by association, and classical conditioning plays a large role in horsetraining, as well, as those of you interested will learn, and learn well, just like a horse can learn so well.
The dam teaches the foal how to be a horse using all these techniques, and so do humans when they train horses in later life. For a horse to be trained by a human, a foal must grow to be a horse, and only the mare and other horses can teach a foal to be a horse. Man has no role in teaching a foal to be a horse, as that is the mare's domain, and her herd's. Foals that grow up fully a horse are the horses that are simplest to train.
Shared sociality. Kinetic empathy. Learn to train as the mare trains. Let the mare train the foal, please.

Horses are horses. Folk are folk. They live together, share a social fabric. Horses and horsefolk share many aspects of living, including communication and learning.









Diagram compliments of Helen Hornsby, equine learning specialist. 
Dr Gustafson is an equine veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, and novelist. He helps refine horse and dog training methods to accommodate the inherent nature and behavior of horses and dogs. Applied veterinary behavior enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Natural approaches to development, training, nutrition, and conditioning sustain equine health and enhance performance. Behavioral and nutritional enrichment strategies enhance the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses. 

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