Teaching a Horse How to Learn

This is a follow-up to my June 16th article What does it mean for a horse to have “a lot of heart?”

At first, this one sounds like an oxymoron, but it is a vital step that so many people miss. Some horses are naturally quick learners and seem to be born with the ability to learn new things quickly. These horses are often described as having a lot of heart. Unfortunately, there are many horses who never reach their full potential because they lack one basic element: knowing how to learn from a human.

Why do horses need to be taught how to learn?

In order for us to teach a horse anything, we need to make sure he understands what we are trying to communicate.

In many ways, horses are like people. They have different personalities and learning styles. Horses naturally know how to talk to other horses and some horses seem more naturally inclined towards communicating with humans. But many horses need to be taught what is expected of them when they are supposed to be learning. This is even before they start learning anything.

There are two basic components to horse training:

1. Put the horse in a bind and let him figure it out.

give your horse time to learn the right answerLet’s use the article on yielding the hindquarters as an example. When you first start teaching your horse to yield the hindquarters, you start on the ground. You put the horse into a bind by applying pressure to his side with your thumb where your spur would go by the back cinch. If he does not respond, you tip the nose to the inside, increase pressure with your thumb, and cluck.

You are not forcing the horse to do anything. You are putting him in a bind by applying pressure. If he wants to get rid of the pressure, he needs to move away from it. Many horses won’t get it on the first try. They might walk out of the turn, back up, lean into the pressure, or any number of other wrong answers. It doesn’t matter that the first dozen answers he comes up with are wrong. There is no punishment, the pressure just doesn’t go away until he finds the right one. Some horse may need a little more pressure to encourage them to keep trying. Others may need the pressure to just stay constant and give them a chance to reach the answer in their own time. This is where the second principle is key.

2. It’s ok to get the wrong answer.

#Tipoftheday - A #horse needs to know it’s ok to get the wrong answer. Click To Tweet

Too many trainers are not willing to give horses the time they need to figure thing out on their own. Impatience helps no one. The more convinced a horse is that he is not going to be punished for wrong answers, the more willing he will be to try and learn. Wrong answers are ignored while the right answer is rewarded by an immediate release of pressure.

To begin with, the release of pressure itself is often an adequate reward. As the horse grows more comfortable with the training and more confident, verbal praise and a scratch on the withers is often a good reward. I do not recommend using treats as this can lead to dangerous behavior as most horses get pushy and demanding when treats are used.

Some horses need a lot of repetition while others only must do something once or twice to understand it. A good trainer accounts for these differences and tweaks the training program to fit the individual horse.

Slower is faster

I’m sure you’ve probably heard this many times, but that’s because it’s true. Slower really is faster. If you take the time to teach your horse how to learn and build up his confidence so he knows that he won’t get punished for trying, you will be amazed at how quickly your horse begins to blossom. Some take longer than others, especially if their training history is less than pleasant, but they all get there eventually. This also takes the fight out of training and allows for softer hands and a softer, more confident horse. The more confident the horse is, the quicker he will learn.

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