BEHAVIOR – Horse Psychology – The Trainer’s Best Tool by Jessica Black

Body Language Is the Essence of Equine Communication

Horses are very good at body language, even when it looks like they are not paying attention. With the twitch of an ear, a head mare signals her intentions to the rest of the herd; they move quickly out of the way. A stallion’s arched neck can mean gentle interest—or aggression. A shoulder cocked toward another horse (or toward a human who has yet to gain the horse’s respect) means more over or I’ll step on you. Horses are used to interpreting the slightest shifting of weight or tilting of a head; this too makes them easy to train. An experienced horse person can read the tiniest signs in the horse’s movements, often without being aware of doing so.  (See fig. 4.10)

4.10 — This horse is in a submissive stance, attentive to the trainer and trying hard to learn what is expected of hits. Note the relaxed ears and tongue out as the horse “chews”— moves his jaws—to indicate submission.

All else being equal, a trainer with experience interpreting equine body language will be safer and better able to do more with a young horse than an amateur, which is a good reason not to start your own horse if you are not a professionals. That said, anyone can learn to read the basics of equine body language. Most importantly, anyone can take advantage of the horse’s natural ability at reading humans. You can use any gesture you like to get a response from your horse. Horses tend to be trained according to conventional cues, such as clicking for a trot or jog, or using the outside leg to ask for the opposite lead of the lope, but these signals are for the most part arbitrary. If you would rather have your horse pick up the left lead when you point with your left index finger, and the right lead when you point with your right index finger, you only need to make him associate the movement of an index finger with a given lead.

A Little Psychology

As horse people, we spend a lot of time trying to “get inside” our horses’ heads. We want to use their equine interpretation of reality to help on communicate our wishes in a kind but effective manner. In the last chapter, I mentioned how negotiation has become the Zeitgeist; then I told you to be the herd leader, and I spent some time on how to make the horse’s instincts work for you. It may seem contradictory, but there is one thing we should agree on when it comes to training a horse: punishment does not work. Nor, as titan points out, does reward, if you are thinking about reward versus punishment as carrot and stick If you offer your horse a carrot when he stops, he will very quickly start stopping and swinging his head around to beg when you least expect it.  Random presentation of carrots works wonders, however, to make the horse a happy partner.

How do horses learn what we want? How do we train them? How is it that the best methods involve consistency and repetition, and the worst results come from losing your temper? Perhaps the simplest way to think about learning is as a combination of classical and operant conditioning (fig. 4.11).

4.11 — This horse is learning that being close to his handler is safe. “Learning” is any relatively permanent change in behavior brought about by experience or practice. Any change in the way an organism behaves is a result of learning and is accompanied by physical changes in the brain.

Classical Conditioning

The example of pointing to ask for a canter is a cue, or a conditioned response to any stimulus, and an example of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning was made famous by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the early nineteenth century, when he revealed his accidental discovery that dogs could be trained to associate the sounds of a metronome with food (the noise of a metronome would not normally mean any-thing to a dog: it is a “neutral stimulus”).

Dogs will naturally salivate (“unconditioned response” or UCR—fig. 4.12) when they see food (“unconditioned stimulus” or UCS); i.e. no one has to teach a dog to salivate when it smells meat (fig. 4.13). Pavlov discovered that if dogs hear a specific sound (“conditioned stimulus” or CS) immediately before seeing the food, they will “learn” that the sound means food coming, and will salivate as soon as they hear the metronome buzz (“conditioned response” or CR).

4.12 — An involuntary response to a naturally occurring or “unconditioned stimulus” is called an “unconditioned response.” A horse will instinctively react to someone waving her arms by changing direction and moving away. If you give a signal, such as pointing a finger or speaking a command just before making the horse reverse with arms or rope, he will learn to associate your signal with changing direction.
4.13 — The repeated pairing of a neutral stimulus with an UCS until the desired behavior is learned is called acquisition. This horse is learning to associate the word “Back!” with moving arms and rope (UCS) that make him instinctively step back.

The CS is usually a distinctive sound or visual sign—think cue. Classical conditioning relies on automatic, reflexive behavior. A dog does not decide to salivate when it sees meat, and a horse does not decide to shy or bolt when he sees some-thing scary. Once you pair a neutral stimulus (such as the metronome) with an UCS, the CR becomes an automatic reflex.

Horses become conditioned to some things very easily; just a few presentations of a neutral stimulus with a naturally occurring UCS can result in a strong fear response. Fear is a conditioned emotional response that can be very strong and difficult to overcome (in humans extreme conditioned fear responses are called “phobias”). The good news is that almost any behavior can be conditioned, including a lack of fear response. Remember habituation (desensitization)? Teaching a horse not to fear uses classical conditioning by repeatedly pairing the scary object with a non-scary, non-hurtful environment. Something as simple as following the presentation of crinkly shiny plastic with grain every day will teach the horse that the plastic is not scary, and in fact, may mean food is coming.

Operant Conditioning

In classical conditioning, animals learn through association. In operant conditioning, they learn through consequences to behavior. When a behavior is followed by a pleasant consequence, it tends to be repeated; when it is followed by something unpleasant, it will not. “Operant” means voluntary behavior; BE Skinner (1937) coined the term and made the method famous. Remember that classical conditioning results in involuntary behavior, or a reflex reaction to a learned stimulus. In operant conditioning, voluntary behavior is strengthened through positive or negative reinforcement.

       Positive reinforcement is similar to what many would think of as a reward: it works to reinforce behavior by the addition of a pleasurable experience (for example, a treat or pat on the neck).

       Negative reinforcement works by the removal of a disagreeable stimulus (for example, relieving the pressure on your horse’s side as soon as he yields to your leg). In Cowboy Dressage terminology, this is referred to as Release; judges look for evidence of this reward for a horse’s correct response in competitions. Note that negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment: reinforcement always strengthens behavior. Punishment weakens it (figs. 4.14 A & B).


4.14 A & B — Negative reinforcement is the horseperson’s most useful tool. Pressure can be applied with the aids to elicit a desired response; as soon as the horse makes the slightest move toward the goal, the pressure must be relieved. The horse will learn that the sooner he responds, the faster the negative sensation (pressure) will go away. This is known as the Release in Cowboy Dressage. Applied properly, pressure and release are all you need to teach a horse to do a turn-on-the-haunches (as Eitan and Cheyenne perform in the top picture), or even a pirouette (such as the one Sheila Varian and her horse Jubilation perform in the bottom picture).

       Punishment is any consequence that makes a behavior unlikely to reoccur. Like reinforcement, it can be either through application of something unpleasant (shouting or hitting the horse with a whip, for example) or the removal of something pleasant (taking away food). The reason punishment does not work well as a training method is because it is difficult to administer successfully, and often results in fear and anxiety that cause the animal to avoid the punisher rather than the behavior. Successful punishment should be consistent, commensurate with and immediately following the bad behavior. There are times when punishment may be necessary (you want to eliminate all biting and kicking behavior), but the pur-pose of most training is to make desired behaviors happen more frequently (picking up the correct lead, calm response to aids, and so forth). This is most effectively done through reinforcement.

“Behavior modification” is the psychological term for using operant conditioning to change behavior. What horse people call “training” follows many of the principles of behavior modification. It is useful to remember these principles as you start on the long process of turning your horse into that perfect mind’s eye vision. No matter what stage your horse is at when you bring him home, you will need to take small steps toward your goals, using reinforcement to encourage the repetition of desired behavior. This reinforcement of simple steps toward a complex goal is called shaping; the steps are successive approximations. Successive approximations are the basis for training your horse to do anything. The defining characteristic of successive approximations is that they are small steps toward the ultimate goal; they should never be more than the horse can easily assimilate.

Classical and operant conditioning both come into play in the training of a horse, even though many trainers may never have heard the scientific terms. Most of the skills your horse learns will be acquired through a mixture of both. At the beginning, the horse’s natural responses must be associated with cues that allow you to control him; instead of automatically running from a scary stimulus (person), the horse learns to run and turn when you tell him to with cues (conditioned stimulus). Then you may use reinforcement to strengthen desired behaviors. The most effective way to use positive reinforcement is occasionally, but not always, to reward the horse with a treat for performing the desired behavior (fig. 4.15).

4.15 — Giving your horse treats can help training, both by fostering a close relationship and by reinforcing desired behavior. It is especially effective when you are careful not to establish a pattern that your horse can recognize so that he does not always expect a treat and beg for one at inconvenient times.

Most reinforcement will be negative: you remove the pressure of your leg as soon as the horse yields. If you want an automatic response to a specific cue, you will then use classical conditioning to teach the horse to associate the cue with the behavior taught with reinforcement (a kiss or a tap with the outside leg replaces lifting the horse into the correct leg by applying pressure at the right moment in his stride).

Excerpted from, Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training, and ...
copyright © 2015 Jessica Black
This excerpt reprinted by permission of Trafalgar Square Books

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