Train according to the ethology and cognition of the horse

It may seem obvious, but according to one of the international horse behavioral experts you can train horses more efficiently by taking into account the biological needs and cognition of the horse. This idea has now been introduced as the first of 10 training principles presented by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). You can read more about these training principles here.


“Animals become the reflection of the people around them, they show us how well people understand their ethology and to what extent they take this into account in the training,” said Sue McDonnell, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist and head of the horse behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania. She presented the subject at the ISES 2016 conference that was held from June 23-25 ​​in France. 


This principle indicates that trainers must take into account the ethology and cognition of the horse. The official ISES document states: “Ethology is the science of animal behavior that provides information about how animals have evolved to survive. Cognition refers to the way animals process information about the world. During the opening of the ISES conference, McDonnell explained what this principle entails and why it is so important for the horse world. “There are still huge opportunities for domestic animal managers and trainers to apply animal ethology knowledge and improve the quality of the human-animal relationship. Including health and well-being, training and management efficiency, human and animal safety and productivity. This is certainly the case for horses. “ 


The horse’s social environment is an important ethological factor to include in training and management, McDonnell said. Horses rely on a stable social structure with clearly indicated boundaries between the herd members. They communicate with extremely subtle signals. If prey animals are separated from each other, it is very stressful. As social animals, they have the need to show dominance and submission. That is why it is important to let horses live in herds in the field, where they can express these behaviours. This not only increases well-being, but you can also achieve more during training because the horses will be less stressed. Finding a suitable horse friend and keeping them close when they learn new things can also reduce stress. 


It would also be good for trainers to remember that prey animals have a strong ‘panic’ instinct and are programmed to remember panic situations. That is why she advises to minimize the risk of this type of situation. Unfortunately, McDonnell said, horses are also programmed to show signs of fear, confusion, or physical discomfort as unobtrusively as possible. These signals make them attractive to predators. The consequence of this is that many people do not recognize signs of poor welfare and they assume that a horse is doing well in non-optimal conditions. “Pain-related behaviour can even be misinterpreted as undesirable behaviour by health care professionals,” she said. People who deal with horses will not always recognize subtle signals on their feelings, but it is something that they can learn very well. 


To understand horse ethology, there is nothing better than observing a herd of horses in the wild. “I suggest looking at horses in their natural environment, such as our semi-wild pony herd in New Bolton,” said McDonnell. “Having access to this herd has made me so aware of the fact that there is so much to learn by just watching horses. Even observing for two or three days can make it clear to you.” 


Regarding cognition, people should keep in mind that the intelligence of a horse is a function of its evolution. They therefore do not learn the same thing as humans or other animals, but this does not make them any less intelligent. “Horses are incredibly smart in certain things,” McDonnell said. “We only have to make a mistake once or twice and the horse remembers it and learns from it.” The disadvantage is that when horses learn from our mistakes, they often learn things that we don’t want them to learn. It would therefore be wrong to label them as unintelligent, while showing the undesirable behaviour that they have learned through our mistakes. “Anthropomorphically, we may call a horse ‘naughty’, ‘bad’, or ‘a bastard’, and that can lead to inappropriate and unfair behaviour toward the horse,” McDonnell said. “It is one of the curses of learning when you finally realize that the horse’s incorrect response is entirely devoted to your previous incorrect response. I am not saying this to make us feel guilty, but it is important to recognize that it is much easier to change our own behaviour than to tell our horses what we want them to do. ” 


Horses are excellent students, McDonnell said. If we pay attention to their unique cognitive abilities and their ethological needs, we can ensure well-being and highly efficient training. And that is what ‘horsemanship’ really is about! 

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