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What in the world is “learning theory” and what does it have to do with me and my horse?

What in the world is “learning theory” and what does it have to do with me and my horse? by Dr. Camie Heleski, University of Kentucky

Learning theory is a summary term for what we know from psychology and horse behavior about how animals (in this case, horses) learn and respond to training. There’s a saying in the horse world that every time you work with your horse, you are either teaching him something or unteaching him something.

Negative Reinforcement

Three terms to learn from this topic area are: negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement and punishment. Firstly, negative reinforcement does not imply that it is bad! It simply means that you are trying to reinforce a behavior that you want the horse to repeat more often, and you are going to do something that the horse finds mildly unpleasant (aversive) in order to do that. For example, if you want to teach a young horse to lead, you can pull on the halter and lead rope until the horse takes a step forward. As soon as he or she takes that step forward, a skilled handler will immediately release on the halter/lead rope pressure. That is the negative reinforcement part…the release of the unpleasant stimuli (in this case, we see an example of pressure-release type training.) Much of what we do with horses revolves around negative reinforcement. How are most horses trained to walk forward while being ridden? The rider’s legs are squeezed around their rib cage. This is pressure and if the horse walks forward, a skillful rider will immediately release that pressure. If the horse doesn’t respond to light pressure, the pressure will get heavier. Eventually we want our horses to learn to respond to extremely light pressures that we refer to as cues.

Watch: Young Horse Mangement: Riding a Young Horse Part 1. Dr. Wood demonstrates using leg pressure in early training to develop forward motion. (From eXtension Horses YouTube Channel.)

Positive Reinforcement Positive reinforcement is also when we are trying to increase the frequency of a behavior, but the reinforcement now is something that the animal will find pleasant, for example, a food treat or a scratch on the withers. For example, if you have a horse that is a bit tricky to catch, and you start giving him a peppermint after each time you catch him or her, the vast majority of horses will soon become easier to catch…provided that the catching isn’t immediately followed every time by something that the horse hates.

Watch: Young Horse Management: Catching a Horse. Gently rubbing the horse after catching will act as a positive reinforcement. (From eXtension Horses YouTube Channel)


Punishment is a somewhat controversial area, so what follows should be viewed as my opinion on the topic (but I think you will find that my opinion on the topic is in agreement with many others). With punishment, we are trying to decrease the frequency of an unwanted behavior. For instance, if we have a yearling colt who tries to bite our sleeve when we are leading him, we might carry a dressage whip and tap him strongly on the chest whenever he attempts to bite. (I try to avoid slapping his face for fear of making him head shy.) With time and consistency, most horses will quickly reduce the frequency of the unwanted behavior. Another rule of thumb is to never punish the horse more severely than another horse would. For example, a cocky foal might try nipping his dam only to be reprimanded with a harsh, prompt nip back, but the mare would not proceed to reprimand, reprimand, reprimand for the next five minutes.

A foal is often reprimanded by its’ dam, providing a “natural” model for quick and fair punishment (Image left).

Warm Up Pen

Now to one of my soap boxes for a moment…the warm up pen at a horse show. Be certain, whether at home or at the show, that you are asking the horse to do something that it actually knows how to do and that you give it an opportunity to be correct. This goes along with another industry saying – make the right thing to do easy and the wrong thing to do difficult. It is one of my pet peeves when I see people in the warm up pen yanking on their horse’s mouth (which would often tell the horse to slow down) while spurring or kicking it in the sides (which would often tell a horse to go forward). Talk about confusing! The poor horse may become confused or frustrated and eventually offer up some sort of conflict or resistance behavior. In a mild case, this might be wringing his tail; in a more serious case, it might involve rearing. There are a few special cases where mouth pressure and leg pressure might be sending the horse a sensible message, but often times, people in the warm up pen are just mimicking what they’ve seen someone else do without thinking through whether it actually makes sense to the horse.

Our horses are our partners; they deserve fair practices during training, competing, or just having fun with them. We owe our horses a good understanding of learning theory. Happy riding!

Watch: Mental Focus and Confidence in the Warm-Up Ring. Developing a mental plan for the warm up pen can help relax both horse and rider and avoid stressful scenarios. (From YouTube Channel)

Additional Resources

Learning Ability of Horses. 2011. Ashley Griffin. Article.

Factors Affecting Horse Learning. Ashley Griffin. Article.

Reinforcement for Horse Learning. Ashley Griffin. Article.

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