Learning takes many forms: habituation, sensitization, connecting a signal with a response, learning a sequence of movements, avoidance…Each has its own characteristics and effective way of teaching.

"In general, try to replace the thought: how do i make the horse do this?, by: how do I organize the situation so that the response I want is the most obvious and easy for the horse, and any other rather difficult for him?"



is the loss of reaction to a stimulus (signal, cue) that normally evokes it, by repeating the stimulus until the animal realises that reacting is a waste of effort.

Horses don´t trust new things until they are proven safe, so habituation forms a good part of early training.

A horse´s natural fear reaction to a new object is to move away to a safe distance, then return to examine it (see Investigation). The best way to habituate, then, is to leave the horse loose, introduce the object, let him go away if he wants, and then let him examine it until he loses his fear.

Even better is to find a way of reducing the stimulus until it does not provoke fear and avoidance, merely interest, habituate to that, and increase it gradually. This is especially valid when, for instance, we want to touch a sensitive spot or a foot: stroke a little way down the leg, take the hand off and let the horse see he has survived, then repeat from the start going a little further down, and so on. In this “approach-retreat” technique, we take small steps so the horse never becomes startled.

Food rewards do not help habituation and may even mask fear by persuading the horse to stand still. However, using a trail of food to persuade a horse to approach a frighteneing object to examine it in his own time may help. Holding the horse so he cannot get away does not reduce his fear and is an effective way of producing desensibilized horses and learned helplessness. Punishing a fear reaction, or showing fear at the horse´s fear, increases his conviction that he is in danger: hence, pulling hard at the reins or losing your balance when a horse shies makes him shy more. (Grab the mane instead, and then come back to let him investigate in his own time).


Connecting a stimulus with a response (classical conditioning).

(For instance, word cues.) The response must already exist and have some other way of being provoked. We produce the new stimulus, wait a second, and when the horse does not respond, ask him to do so by the normal way. By repeating this several times the horse understands what the new cue means, reacts before we ask him in the normal way, and gains a reward.

When a horse has learned a new cue, do not bore and confuse him be repeating it more than two or three times: wait until tomorrow.

Many “rebellious” horses do not do what we ask because nobody has taught them what our signals mean. This mare was ridden, a lot, with other horses and went along happily. But when asked to go forwards on her own, she reared and was incontrollable. Kicking and hitting her made things worse. In the first photo I am squeezing a little with my legs and trying to push her neck forwards, but can feel her preparing to rear. So my friend leads her forwards to explain what I mean, and I praise her. Then we explain what changing direction means. In a few minutes I can ride her anywhere. She´s pleased the chaos has stopped.

The connection cue-response is strengtened by: reinforcement and repetition

Positive reinforcement: reward. Relaxation, showing we´re pleased, praise words, food.

Negative reinforcement: removing the stimulus or pressure immediately the horse responds, or even begins to respond.

The connection is weakened by: asking when there´s no hope of a response.

What doesn't work: punishment, because it doesn´t explain what to do.



Reinforcement that arrives more than a second after the horse has done what is asked. Horses are very immediate.

Horses learn voice cues readily to avoid pressure, which they dislike.

Advanced movements like collection, flying changes, half-pirouettes and passage are best taught by the same principle of having the response before connecting it to a cue, by using natural obstacles, slopes and water. The horse will naturally start to make these movements in certain situations when he is strong and coordinated enough, because they are his most efficient way of dealing with the problem. Feeling this, we put him in the same situation, cueing him first, and he will repeat the movement. Once the connection is forged he will do it anywhere on cue. In this way the movements are never forced but done with easy grace and will.

Forming a new movement or series of movements (trial and error) Set things up so that it is easy for the horse to guess what is being asked (for instance, when teaching rein-back, put his face to the fence). Do not expect the full response the first time of asking, but praise the smallest attempt at the desired response. Relax, begin again and ask for a little more before rewarding. Often, that’s enough for one day: he’ll be eager to try again tomorrow and progress further. Rewards are essential. Punishment for a “wrong” response is useless: keep repeating the cue gently until he hits on the answer. If he doesn´t, think of a way of making it easier.

Cognitive learning requires appraisal, consideration, forming ideas, coming to conclusions and deciding how to act. Horses are better at it than we give them credit for. In their natural lives investigation, play and rich social interaction, in all of which behaviour must be adapted to complex situations, form a greater part of their behaviour than the simple stimulus-response connections used in most training. The obsession with control leaves the horse no room to decide anything for himself.

Some important notions:

  • A horse does not learn well unless he is calm, so in a new situation, calm him before trying to teach him anything.

  • One signal, one response.

  • The moment the horse responds, stop signaling.

  • Fix it up so the horse can find it” (Ray Hunt): when teaching, make the desired response the easiest and most pleasant.

  • Reinforcement teaches what to do, punishment never can.

  • Horses only use punishment to teach social limits, by sending away those that transgress them.

  • Reinforcements and punishment have their maximum effect when they arrive during an act, and somewhat less one second after completing the act. Two seconds later, the horse does not connect them with what he has just done, but with what he is doing at the time they arrive.

  • Habit has weight. When a horse has a bad habit, don´t provoke him to repeat it: re-educate him carefully using new signals and positive reinforcement.

    See also: ISES