Which type of training is best for your horse? There is an abundance of choice and information available. Should you apply the training scale, follow classical training or the traditional methods of your discipline, or use natural horsemanship? All of these methods claim to have the horse’s best interest at heart, be natural, ethical and speak the horses’ language.

While most horse riders, trainers and coaches accept current research and science-based information about equine physiology, nutrition, supplements and general care, they have not been as quick to do the same with training. Current research into how horses learn and how their minds work show that horses trained using positive reinforcement (well-timed food rewards) compared to horses trained without rewards:

  • learned tasks faster
  • remembered them for longer
  • generally had more positive associations with humans

When you understand the basics of how horses learn and apply modern training techniques you will be able to:

  • use ethical methods
  • train more effectively
  • deepen your relationship with your horse

The Basics of How Horses Learn

All horses learn the same way. They are constantly learning and gaining knowledge about their environment and the people handling them. Genetics, how they were raised and managed, and life experiences also impact learning. And just like humans, individuals learn:

  • at different rates
  • some things easier than others
  • in a variety of ways

Habituation: The simplest form of learning happens naturally and over time by learning whether something is important to notice or respond to or not. For example, horses in a pasture near cattle may at first be fearful and keep a fair distance away. Over time, they gradually become accustomed to the cows as they learn there is no threat.

Use habituation to gradually introduce your horse to a new place or object. If possible, give him freedom to make his own choices and decisions about approaching. If it’s safe, let him loose. Otherwise, use a leather or web halter and a loose lead rope and follow his lead.

Because horses don’t generalize, the process needs to be repeated in various situations and locations. For example, a garbage can on the road or at a horse show will not be seen as the same thing the horse has become familiar with at home.

If you go too quickly, force or punish your horse for his behaviour while he is learning about an unfamiliar object, you could end up ‘sensitizing’ him to it. He will have increased fear and could even become more afraid of it than he initially was.


(Left) The horse displays tension as it nears the trailer; (centre) gradual forward steps are asked for and rewarded; (right) until the horse has quietly entered the trailer, which may take several calm, patient sessions. (Anne Gage photos)

Learning From the Consequences of Behaviour (Operant Conditioning)

The consequences are either reinforcing (making the behaviour more likely to be repeated) or punishing (making the behaviour less likely to happen again). Reinforcement and punishment are either negative (removing or withholding something) or positive (adding something).

Positive Reinforcement: Adding something that is rewarding to the horse (e.g. giving a scratch or a treat) in response to a desired behaviour (e.g. standing at the mounting block).

The horse decides what is reinforcing for him. If your horse doesn’t like mints or scratches then using them will not be a reward for him.

Studies conducted by Carol Sankey MSc, University of Rennes in France, showed horses trained using positive reinforcement (well-timed food rewards) compared to horses trained without rewards learned tasks faster, remembered them for longer, and generally had more positive associations with humans.

Negative Reinforcement: Removing something unpleasant (e.g. spur or rein pressure) that results in the horse being more likely to repeat a desired behaviour (e.g. go forward or slow down). “Pressure and release” is negative reinforcement.

Use minimum pressure. Using too much risks creating tension or fear in the horse.

Positive Punishment: Adding something unpleasant (e.g. hitting or yelling) in response to an unwanted behaviour (e.g. mugging or nipping) making it less likely to be repeated and is commonly used in horse training. Unfortunately, it is often used reactively, too late after the behaviour, and when the horse’s behaviour is caused by stress or fear.

Negative Punishment: Removing something rewarding (e.g. your attention or treats) in response to an unwanted behaviour (e.g. mugging or pawing) making it less likely to occur again.

Operant Conditioning Training Success: Timing and consistency are crucial in training with these methods. Even a slight delay or inconsistency in giving consequences or rewards causes confusion for the horse. Training will take longer or not be successful.

Flooding: Being exposed to the scary object or situation without being able to escape. Some outdated horse training methods confuse this technique with “desensitization” and “sacking out”. It is applied to get horses used to something (e.g. tarps, flags, etc.) or to teach “patience” (e.g. patience pole). However, this method can make matters far worse by making the horse more terrified or becoming ‘shut down’ (i.e. learned helplessness).

For example, if a horse is afraid of being on a trailer or won’t load at all, people often resort to forcing them on by using lunge lines and whips. In the worst cases, the horse’s fear escalates to the point of fighting so hard that he (or a person) is injured, he collapses, or gives up. His original fear has not been solved, and may even have become stronger, leading to severe behavioural problems.

True desensitization uses a gradual step-by-step approach including positive reinforcement and is a much better way to introduce your horse to something new or to retrain him to approach something that he fears.

Using excessive pressure, punishment or force risks making the horse fearful, aggressive or shut down. The horse is likely to connect fear with the trainer, which will damage the relationship.

Working with a professional who is experienced with operant conditioning methods and has an understanding of science-based learning can help to improve your timing, skills, results and partnership with your horse.