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What is Equine Learning Theory?
And How Can it Help Me?
The components of Learning Theory Are:
  • Non-associative Learning:
    • Habituation: This occurs when horses get used to a stimulant through the process of desensitization and stops reacting in a fearful way. The techniques used for desensitization are:
      • systematic desensitization,
      • approach conditioning,
      • overshadowing,
      • and counterconditioning.
      To learn more about these techniques, click here to read Dr Andrew McLean's article
    • Sensitization: A learning process that occurs when an animal learns to react more quickly to a stimulus each time it is presented to him. A great example of sensitization occurs when a horse learns to respond more quickly to leg aids. He becomes sensitized to the feel of pressure against his sides.
  • Associative Learning: involving a relationship between 2 events that are paired. There are two types of Associative learning:
    • Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning is also known as trial and error learning. When we first ask for a certain response in the horse, such as a step back, the horse does not know what we want. So he trials certain behaviors and the trainer's job is to reinforce the correct behavior. There are two main methods of doing this:
      • Negative reinforcement: When the horse elicits the right response, we immediately take away or release the pressure we have used to ask for the step back from a lead rope or a bridle. The pressure motivates the horse to do something, but the release of pressure is what trains the correct response.
      • Positive reinforcement: Another method of reinforcing a desired response from the horse is known as positive reinforcement. An example would be when the horse trials the correct response, we reinforce that behavior with something positive, such as a treat or a rub on the withers. Clicker training uses strictly positive reinforcement.
      When we use both negative and positive reinforcement together this is called combined reinforcement. This is the most powerful way to reinforce the behavior we want.
    • Classical Conditioning: Also called Pavlovian conditioning. In classical conditioning the horse learns a relationship between two stimuli. The most common form of classical conditioning in riding and training horses is the use of the voice aids and the seat aids. The cues of voice or seat are given immediately before asking for the desired behavior using the operant pressure of a rein or leg aid. This results in the horse associating the cues with the pressure of the aid. An example would be to say whoa and stop your seat immediately before you use your operant of rein pressure to halt the horse. Eventually, through classical conditioning, the horse will associate your seat change and your voice command of whoa with the rein pressure and begin to halt before you have to use the rein pressure. This is what most riders want, a horse that is completely responsive from seat cues.
  • Shaping: Shaping behavior is when the trainer builds incrementally on an initial basic response to develop the ultimate desired outcome. For example The trainer might initially just ask the horse to take one step forward and reward that behavior. Once that response is confirmed, the trainer might then ask the horse to go forward for a complete stride. Next the trainer might ask the horse to continue to walk forward without any pressure until asked to stop. Later the trainer could vary the speed of the horse and have him walk faster and slower, or shorter and longer. Thus the trainer is shaping behavior from a beginning response to a more complex behavior. This complex behavior ultimately could be the combination of many responses, such as a combination of a turn and a yield response developing into half pass in dressage. Most good trainers are shaping responses from tiny improvements to the final outcome.
Trainers should also be aware that the horse's brain functions very differently from that of humans. Horses are not capable of abstract thought, there is only the present moment for a horse. But the equine memory is practically photographic, even many years after an event. Their thinking is more associative than reasoning. Dr McLean points out that "Horse trainers must make rewards immediate and connected to the correct behavior. We are training reactions or responses in the horse, not comprehension."

To Schedule an Seat Lesson or Equine Learning Theory Consultation:
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Combining an understanding of how the horse learns with improved rider biomechanics makes the whole riding experience more harmonious and satisfying.