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How Horses Learn

HOW HORSES LEARN Dr. Camie Heleski, University of Kentucky

Excerpt from the online course Horse Behavior and Welfare from My Horse University

Introduction to Learning Most human learning psychologists probably consider only two main types of learning—classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In this article, we will cover these two types of learning along with some other types that are considered special forms or circumstances of the two main types. You may have heard of some of these, and they are not unique to horses—they apply to humans and other animals as well. Although it may seem like a lot of unnecessary psychology, it is important that you understand the different types of learning, because it will help you choose the proper training technique for a desired response with your horse.

The learning examples that we'll cover are:

• Desensitization (Habituation)

• Sensitization

• Signal Learning (Classical Conditioning)

• Operant (Instrumental Learning)

• Discrimination

• Conceptual Learning

• Observational Learning

• Imprint Training


Desensitizing is when a horse becomes less reactive to certain stimuli. Horses need to become familiar and accept all sorts of things in a domesticated environment. A horse has to accept human contact as well as pressure from brushes, the lead rope, and a saddle—just to name a few! Desensitizing is the type of learning that the horse does to become accepting of these normal occurrences.

A well-trained, older horse will already be desensitized to many stimuli, which will make your job considerably easier. On the other hand, a young, highly reactive horse will require a great deal of patience and time while desensitizing to normal activities and routines.

One example of desensitizing is “sacking out” with a saddle blanket. Starting with a horse that is already accustomed to human contact and halter and lead rope, hold the horse in a reasonably confined area. Bring a saddle blanket up to the horse and let the horse smell the blanket, then lift it up and down a few times, then begin rubbing the horse with it. If this process has gone smoothly, you can now begin lightly tossing the blanket onto the horse’s back, rubbing it over the horse’s back and croup, etc. Eventually, the horse will accept the blanket on its back. This may take several sessions (This is not supposed to be “flooding” where you saturate the horse with sensory overload until it basically gives up and stands there.)

Police officer on horseback

Figure 1. Police horses must be desensitized to loud noises, moving vehicles and crowds.


The opposite of desensitizing is sensitizing, i.e., the horse becomes more sensitive or more reactive to a certain stimuli. For example, if a horse is clipped its first three times with blades that are hot and/or dull, the horse learns that clipping is a painful experience and becomes increasingly reactive to clipping. Or if the first two times a horse rides past trees next to the arena, a woodchuck runs out and spooks him, the horse will likely be “sensitized” to that area of the ring. Another example of sensitizing is bathing a horse for the first time with ice-cold water, which is not likely to lend itself to making the horse easier to bathe the next time.

Remember that great horse memory? A horse is very quick to remember pain or fear so it may often be easier to sensitize a horse to something negative than to desensitize it after something bad has happened. Try your best to think through scenarios before you start to see if they are likely to cause problems down the road.

Figure 2. This video, made possible by extension specialists at Louisana State University Ag Center, discusses ground work principles in horse training such as sensitizing and desensitizing the horse.

Signal Learning

Another type of learning is signal learning, which is also referred to as classical conditioning. Many people have heard of the experiment by the Russian researcher, Pavlov. In his experiment, he rang a bell each day, and then gave the dogs meat. He measured the salivation, which was normally associated with the presentation of the meat. Eventually the dogs would salivate in response to just the bell ringing.

Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate in response to a bell because it was originally associated with presentation of yummy food. In this example, the unconditioned stimulus (yummy food) was paired with conditioned stimulus (bell), so eventually the conditioned stimulus elicited the same response as the unconditioned stimulus.

Another example of signal learning is when horses in a barn become excited when they hear the feed cart start rolling around. They have learned that the sound of the rolling cart means food is coming.

Large warmblood stallion with a Chifney bit

Figure 3. Stallions can learn that certain equipment (such as this Chifney bit) is associated with going to the breeding shed, whereas other equipment (such as a snaffle bridle) is associated with the job of riding. (Image left)

Operant Learning

When an animal learns to operate on its environment to obtain a reward or positive reinforcement, this is called operant learning (also referred to as instrumental learning). For example, a horse is taught to push a lever in return for a food reward. Or horses have been taught to turn on a heat lamp in response to a cold environment.

In training, we more commonly condition the horse to learn that making the correct choice will result in the removal of aversive stimuli (e.g., leg pressure stops when horse moves forward).

Figure 4. This video, made possible by the Louisiana State University Ag Center, discusses the horse training principles such as consistency, pressure, the stress and relax cycle, and the ultimate partnership between the rider and the horse.

Discrimination Learning

Discrimination is the ability to differentiate between objects. In a study by Flannery, ponies were conditioned that one of two symbols on a feed box would gain them access to a treat (e.g., a star on the box versus a circle). The ponies did learn to discriminate between several pairs of symbols; however, if the symbols became too nearly alike, the ponies became very agitated. When the symbols were highly similar to one another, ponies become frustrated and began swaying back and forth between the choices…almost like weaving. Anecdotally, horses seem to be able to discriminate between different people going out to catch them.

Conceptual Learning

Conceptual learning is one of the highest forms of learning. A concept is defined as a general idea inferred from specific instances or a general mental picture of something that is common to several objects. For example, if you were to see six different balls of different sizes and colors, but you recognized that they are all round, you understand the concept of "round." Another example is when a young child can select the object that is different from a set of objects, and can do this with different sets of objects. He understands the concept of "different."

Chimpanzees, great apes, and dolphins have shown evidence of conceptual learning, but this evidence has been much more elusive in the horse. There has been little evidence that horses can generalize, but one Cal Poly study offers support that this may be possible, at least in some horses. In this study, a horse learned to discriminate between squares/non-squares and circles/non-circles and was able to generalize to triangles/non-triangles—even though he’d never seen them before. It may not sound like much to us, but in terms of horse learning, it is a very important finding!

Figure 5. Is your horse an equine Einstein? (Image left)

Observational Learning

Observational learning is learning a behavior by watching others. There has been no published research that horses can learn either good behaviors or bad behaviors from watching other horses. In these experiments, some horses watched other horses being trained and some horses watched other horses engaging in stereotypies, such as cribbing, yet neither behavior appeared to be adopted.

Observational learning differs from social facilitation in that “social facilitation” mainly applies to a situation where all horses as a group engage in certain activities at the same time. For example, horses in a herd in a pasture will often go up to the front of the pasture for water at about the same time. Social facilitation may motivate an animal to learn an already instinctive behavior by observation, but it is more nearly like peer pressure or herd mentality.

Imprint Training

The use of the word "imprint" in training horses was coined by Robert M. Miller, D.V.M., author of Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal. According to Dr. Miller's definition, imprinting is a learning process for establishing behavior patterns. Dr. Miller's imprinting techniques are performed on newborn foals just after birth. Imprinting is based on desensitization, which is the act of applying a stimulus until the animal is less sensitive and less reactive, and relaxes. The idea behind imprinting is that desensitizing the foal during the first couple of days of life makes the foal easier to handle and train later on. This is not “true” imprinting in the same way that some baby birds rapidly develop a strong attachment to the first moving object they see, whether it's the mother, a human or a wagon being pulled.


By knowing how the horse processes information, you can optimize the training of your horse and improve its effectiveness. Even if you already own a well-trained horse, understanding more about its cognitive processes will help you to not “un-teach” the well-trained horse. When you have determined what you want to train your horse to do (or not do), think about the type of learning involved.

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