How horses learn: a guide to understanding equine mental processes

By Julie Harding on |


How horses learn

Knowing how horses learn is key to creating a strong relationship with them. By understanding the basics of their mental processes, we can become better handlers, carers, trainers and riders.

If you imagine that your horse has similar mental abilities to you, think again. They don’t. While we differ in terms of ‘brain power’, though, the good news is that we all learn the same way.

The horse has evolved to survive predators, living in the ‘here and now’, and is driven by the three Fs: friends, forage and freedom. While the human brain has a well-developed prefrontal cortex, enabling planning, projection of time (forwards and backwards), concepts and self-reflection, in the horse the pre-frontal cortex is underdeveloped.

However, essential to the survival and evolution of the horse is the amygdala, the fear centre in the brain. The horse boasts the largest amygdala of all domestic animals — and we ride him!

In the beginning…

From the moment a foal is born, he is learning escape and avoidance behaviour to survive predators. From trial learning through social transmission to habituation, every interaction the horse has in his environment is a learning opportunity, including with you.

The simplest form of learning

If a horse is exposed to stimuli often enough with no consequence, he will learn that he no longer needs to fear it. For example, when he wears a rug for the first time and does not remove it through bucking, rolling or similar, then he learns to get used to it. This process, called habituation, is the simplest form of learning.

How horses learn by consequence

Horses also learn through trial and error, or operant conditioning. This works through releasing pressure for the correct behaviour (negative reinforcement) or rewarding a behaviour by adding a scratch at the base of the wither or food (positive reinforcement). This makes the behaviour you do want more likely in the future.

How horses learn by association

Horses are excellent at associative learning. A neigh at the sound of your car arriving at the yard is an example of associative learning, as the horse predicts food, freedom and friends, which is anticipatory behaviour.

This mode of learning is all about a vocal, visual or physical cue and is often referred to as classical conditioning. “If you slow your seat, then use your reins if your horse doesn’t respond, with repetition, he will slow his legs from your seat alone. You no longer have to use the reins, as your seat predicts stronger pressure to decelerate,” explains Lisa Ashton, an equitation science consultant.

A photographic memory

A horse boasts a fantastic long-term photographic memory, but a particularly poor short-term one. “Horses have a photographic memory, unlike humans who recall information in a series of episodes with each recall slightly changing and distorting it,” says Ashton.

It is through this means that the horse may be aroused by an unusual picture that will trigger his flight mechanism. Human intervention — in the form of training and riding — aims to halt this.
It is therefore not surprising that when the horse sees even a familiar object in a familiar place that wasn’t there yesterday he will react and respond.

“If you take an object your horse knows, such as your wheelbarrow, and put it in the school, he should react — an essential behaviour to his survival and evolution,” says Lisa.

“While you need some stimulus for your horse to perform optimally, always benchmark relaxation in training,” she adds. “Anything learnt through fear will come back when you least expect it, like a burst and referred to as spontaneous recovery. The key to good training is to read how your horse feels about his environment, which includes you, and stay below his optimal arousal threshold, so that learning occurs.”

Lisa Ashton runs EquiSci. For details of her clinics, The Best for your Horse (4, 11, 18, 25 January), in Stanton by Dale, Derbyshire, visit


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