Teaching your horse something new, how does that really work?

It’s so much fun teaching a horse new things; from the basics like leading in a halter to complex tricks like lying down on command. Conditioning is often used to train a horse. This literally means ‘to make dependent on conditions’. 


Conditioned behaviour is learned behaviour that occurs under certain conditions (for example, rewarding or correcting) and becomes a habit. There are two forms of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. 



Classical conditioning 

In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus, i.e. a stimulus that has no meaning for the animal, is linked to a stimulus that does have meaning for the animal. This stimulus can be pleasant or unpleasant. A well-known example of classical conditioning is Pavlov and his dogs. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who first defined classical conditioning. He found that his dogs started salivating even before they got the food. To investigate further, he rang a bell and fed the dogs. At first the bell gave no response, but after a few feedings the dogs started salivating at the sound of the bell. The dogs had thus learned to associate the sound of the bell (neutral stimulus) with being fed. 


Horses also learn through classical conditioning, for example linking the sight of the feed scoop to being fed. Initially, the feed scoop has no meaning for the horse. But after getting muesli from this scoop several times, they link the feed scoop to getting food. After a while, the horse will show restless behaviour at the sight of the feed scoop, even if there is no food in it at that time. 



Operant conditioning 

In operant conditioning, the horse makes an association between certain behaviour and its consequences. Depending on the consequence, the behaviour increases (positive consequence) or decreases (negative consequence). Operant conditioning can be applied in four ways. Positive reinforcement: You add a positive stimulus so that the horse’s behaviour increases, you reinforce the behaviour. Examples of this are giving a pat or a piece of apple. Negative reinforcement: This is removing a negative stimulus so that the horse’s behaviour increases. So the word ‘negative’ means that something is taken away. For example, releasing the pressure of the reins if the horse has taken a step backwards when you asked. Positive correction: Here you add a negative stimulus so that the horse’s behaviour decreases. An example of this is raising your voice. Negative correction: This means removing a positive stimulus so that the horse’s behaviour decreases. For example, removing their full food bowl when they are kicking the door a lot when you come in to feed. 


When training horses, it is useful to be aware of which form of conditioning you are using. This will make you more aware of why you are doing what you are doing, and what you want to achieve with certain actions. Would you like to increase or decrease the behaviour your horse is showing? Unwanted behaviour is often unconsciously conditioned. Understanding how conditioning works makes it easier to reduce the unwanted behaviour and increase the desired behaviour. 

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