What is Equine Learning Theory?
Learning Theory describes the ways in which animals learn and thus establishes clear
guidelines for correct training practices and methods of behavior modification.
Dr Andrew McLean is one of the most vocal advocates for the use of Equine Learning Theory
in training horses. Dr McLean holds a PhD in equine cognition and learning, in
addition to being a coach, winner of the advanced section of the famous Gawler Three-Day-Event,
representing Australia in Horse Trials and being short-listed for the World Championships.
Erica is the first person in the United States to earn a Diploma
of Equitation Science from Dr. Andrew McLean’s International course on Equine Learning Theory.
And How Can it Help Me?
When riders understand how horses learn, they become more
effective training partners. Using learning theory, the horse is taught in such
a way that it is easy for him to learn because it makes sense to him and reduces
any potential confusion. Because of this, learning theory results in calmer, safer,
much more relaxed horses that are more reliable in their responses.
It also results in horses that are trained to respond from light cues.
Horses that are trained without the application of learning theory often suffer
from incorrect and painful use of pressures.
This has significant welfare and safety implications and can lead to unwanted behaviors.
The components of Learning Theory Are:
Associative Learning: involving a relationship between
2 events that are paired. There are two types of Associative learning:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
Dr Andrew McLean explains the value of learning theory in
this excellent 50 minute video presentation from Equitana 2011:
Here is an interesting article on how learning theory
applies to dressage, equine biomechanics, and international Grand Prix dressage horse, Lorenzo:
Here is a link explaining how to apply learning theory to horse training:
To learn more visit
Dr McLean's website
To Schedule an Seat Lesson or Equine Learning Theory Consultation:
Contact Erica at email@example.com or
call Erica at (831) 206-9613
Long distance Video Consultations also available, click
for more details.