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  • Alison Lincoln

Helping horses learn

Calm first

Learning and memory are state dependent. What this means is that the emotional or physiological state of the horse will influence its ability to learn and recall information. You may have experienced this with “hot” or highly emotional horses that find it difficult to learn until they have mastered the art of relaxation. Ensuring your horse is calm emotionally and relaxed physically when learning a new task or behaviour gives the best chance of that new response being effectively stored and retrieved.

“One absolute truth is that it is impossible to “layer” training onto tension or anxiety or nervousness. First, the trainer must figure out how to soothe away tension. This will take as long as it takes. Calm first, training onto that.”
Denny Emerson

Ignore incorrect responses

Cognitive studies show that when learning about the world around them, horses are constantly modifying their behaviour as a result of experience. It’s important not to judge the impact of these experiences by the motive or intention of the rider or coach but by the reaction of the horse. How a horse perceives an action will determine how it reacts in future.

When learning a new skill or exercise it is likely the horse will make mistakes. If these mistakes are viewed as annoying and unacceptable the horse may be punished causing anxiety and confusion. However, if these incorrect responses are ignored and only the correct response rewarded the mistakes eventually decrease in frequency. At the same time, the correct response because it has been rewarded will increase in frequency and replace the incorrect responses. This is particularly important during the initial learning process. If you can ignore the incorrect response and encourage the correct, random response your horse will learn quicker and be more likely to retain the lesson.

For example, when first teaching a horse to back up in hand, successful trainers will ignore any initial head tossing caused by the pressure on the lead rope or chest and give a reward when the horse takes a step back. Over time the head tossing diminishes and the backing up becomes softer and from a lighter aid. In fact, horses are very good at problem solving using general solutions, so moving away from pressure on the chest will likely be used as a random solution to pressure applied to other areas of the body.

This ability to form general solutions to learning problems as well as a good memory means the horse can have difficulty replacing previous learning with new learning so any bad habits that have developed are hard to eradicate. However, this is equally true of good habits and thus a strong emphasis on the correct basic training and positive training experiences in the early stages is essential.

“be aware of your horse’s mental needs, learn what suits your horse for fitness and fun!”
Tim Price, British Eventing Life, Mar 2019

Learning to learn

It’s equally important to keep horses learning new skills or exercises rather than just practising established ones. This is because horses “learn to learn”. The more tasks a horse learns to perform (whether they are relevant for competition or not) the easier it is for the horse to learn subsequent new tasks. So don’t be afraid to teach your horse new things even if they are not relevant for your particular discipline.

A word of caution though, when teaching something new avoid drilling the horse with endless repetitions. Research published in the Journal of Animal Science found that concentrating learning in long training sessions actually decreases the horse’s learning efficiency. Horses learn best if training sessions are kept short and you work on a different exercise each day. Once your horse has performed the exercise successfully a couple of times (3-4) move on to the next one. Whilst this does increase the time taken to achieve a particular level of performance the actual performance is generally of a higher quality.

“The lesson should be ended more or less immediately on a happy note. At all stages of training we must resist the temptation to keep going a little longer because everything is going sweetly. This is precisely the time to stop – before problems arise.”
Ginny Leng, Training the Event Horse

Suggested reading:


Mills & Nankervis – Equine Behaviour: Principles & Practice

McGreevy & McLean – Equitation Science


Mills, D.S. (1998) Applying learning theory to the management of the horse: The difference between getting it right and getting it wrong. Equine Clinical BehaviourorGhGHHoho

McCall, C.A. (1990) A review of learning behaviour in horses and its application in horse training. Journal of Animal Science

Rubin et al. (1980) The effect of varying temporal distribution of conditioning trials on equine behaviour. Journal of Animal Science

McCall et at (1993) Relationship between number of conditioning trials and training session and avoidance learning in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Sappington et al (1997) A preliminary study of the relationship between discrimination reversal learning and performance tasks in yearling and 2 year old horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science


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