Thursday, March 19, 2015

Principles of Horse Learning

We constantly debate different horse training methodologies—Parelli versus Anderson, classical German dressage versus classical French dressage, development of Alpha horse versus partner relationships, etc. I decided I have been getting caught up in labels and trainer personalities, so I thought I would try to switch my thinking from what is a “label” to “how does the horse learn.”

Most of us borrow a technique from TTEAM, a tip from our Pony Club teacher, some Centered Riding, a dash of tolt training from our Icelandic instructor, the friendly game from Parelli, but why do we select those particular training techniques?

My Icelandic horse Blessi is really my best guide to what works for us. He usually likes doing new and different things, but he is quick to respond to something or someone he thinks is unfair, confusing, aggressive, or overly repetitious.

I was doing some online research when I came across the following article: “Does Your Training System Stand the Test of Science?” published by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). McGreevy and McLean reviewed the scientific research on equine learning theory and ethology to define what equine training principles are effective. The principles they lay out, paraphrased below, apply across all equine training methodologies from natural horsemanship to classical dressage.

1. Equine learning theory needs to be followed: Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and habituation can be used effectively but they must be used properly. Negative reinforcement must have a release, and there should be no prolonged pressure.

2. Train easy to discriminate signals: To be clear to the horse, certain signals can only be applied to the appropriate parts of the horse anatomy, and you should not confuse the horse by applying multiple signals at the same time.

3. Train and shape responses singularly: In other words, “chunk down” the steps and build them up one by one.

4. Train only one response per signal: One signal should have one response, but you can use several signals for the same response (i.e., several different ways to ask for backing on the ground), but once again this should be shaped and developed progressively.

5. Responses are to be completed within a consistent structure to confer predictability: Learned responses should be trained and occur within a certain timeframe so that they become habitual.

6. Train persistence of responses or self carriage: We should train the horse to self-carry or continue with behavior without excessive nagging or pressure.

7. Avoid associations with flight responses/fear because they are difficult to extinguish: “When animals experience fear, all characteristics of the environment at the time (including humans present) may be associated with the fear. It is known that fear responses do not fade as other responses do, and that fearful animals tend not to trial new learned responses. It is therefore essential that fear is avoided in training.” (ISES, paragraph 9)

8. Incorporate relaxation and ensure the absence of conflict in training: Make sure that the
horse is relaxed during training. Avoid using uncomfortable tack or restraining devices.

When I looked back at the techniques that Blessi and I liked from Methodology X, they followed the above principles. When I looked back at bad experiences that Blessi and I had with Methodology Y, those methods broke the above principles, especially 7 and 8.

Believe it or not, there is a close tie between ISES and Iceland—and not just through my evaluation of Blessi’s training experiences. For many years, the renowned International Center for Icelandic Horses at Hólar University College, Iceland, had a research association with the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2002, the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation (associated with the University of Pennsylvania); the University of Lincoln, Great Britain; and Hólar University College, Iceland sponsored a historic conference on horse welfare and behavior at Hólar. Daniel Mills, Principal Lecturer in Behavioural Studies & Animal Welfare, University of Lincoln, Great Britain, proclaimed this conference “probably the greatest gathering in recent times of equine behaviour and welfare scientists, with expertise spanning five decades of research” (2002, para 1).
Scientists from Europe, North America, and Australia traveled to Iceland to present papers on topics such as horse housing, medical research, and social behavior. These presentations can be found online at the Havemeyer Foundation link cited in the references below. The site is a treasure trove of research articles on the Icelandic horse.

Conference attendees acknowledged that the public and science have to take co-responsibility in promoting the welfare of the horse. Since 2002, scientists specializing in equine research have continued to hold yearly conferences to this end, and ISES was founded as a result of these conferences. ISES’ mission is to apply the results of scientific research to help improve the welfare of horses and their treatment by humans. And to think this all started in Iceland!


International Society for Equitation Science. (no date). “Does Your Training System Stand the Test of Science?” Found at

Mills, D.  (2002). “Call for better communication between science and public.” Found at


MegF said...

Very thoughtful post. I often ponder such training methodology differences. Will be checking out your link. Thanks. -- Love your blog.

Blessiowner said...

Thanks! I always enjoyed your blog. When are you going to re-start it? I learned a lot.