Equine Cognition and a Breakdown of Applied Learning Theories

Now that we looked at equestrian sports from the horse’s perspective and also dug into origins and explanations of traditional training; let us once again jump to some studies to find out how horses learn. By studying equine cognition, we can develop methods that make the most sense for the horse, thus improving equine welfare. We must first look at their mental capabilities. Horses have a poorly developed pre-frontal cortex; this prevents them from being able to develop abstract thoughts (Kandel and others 2000, Premack 2007). With that being said, we understand that horses only live in the moment. They are unable to think about the future or the past. Memories are triggered by some sort of environmental stimulus. This would explain why horses create habits of continuous spooking at the same spot in a particular environment. Horses also lack the ability to solve problems. Learning is only through trial and error. Interestingly enough, horses have excellent long term memory (Wolff and Hausberger 1996), on the flip side, their short term memory is very poor (McLean 2008). Most trainers can say that they witnessed at least one horse that possessed a learned fear from an incident long ago. That learned fear from their long term memory tends to overshadow all of that recent desensitizing and retraining. All of these discoveries of equine cognition should be taken into consideration when formatting a training method.

There is one thing we need to touch base on before we get into learning theory, the situational necessities a horse needs in order to optimize learning. We must remember that every time we are touching the horse, we are teaching them something. Training does not start when the human is ready; some think it begins when entering an arena. Training sessions start with that initial approach to go halter your horse in the pasture, walk him to the barn, tie him up, groom and tack, etc. We are either teaching them to work with us or against us. If your goal is to have more harmony with your horse, yet you ignore his signals, you are destined to cause confusion. In his book Gallop to Freedom: Training Horses with Our Six Golden Principles, Frederic Pignon, a phenomenal horse trainer and performer, describes his experiences with his no punishment equality training philosophy. He explains that confusion and miscommunication is more abusive, cognitively speaking, than straight forward abuse or neglect. While neither is encouraged as a training method, pure abuse and neglect teaches the horse that the human is unsafe, period. Using ethical training in the ring but still acting controlling and rough in the barn tells the horse you want his trust before you go and turn on them, displaying true predatory tendencies. The same is true for the more common reverse situation; kindness in the barn then rough and controlling riding sessions. Any type of animal training needs consistency. That starts the moment you enter the horses’ environment and does not end until you are away from the stable grounds.

Horses, prey animals without the mental abilities to reason, have safety hierarchies that need to be fulfilled before they can learn. First, they need to feel safe, and I mean in terms of equine safety, not a human influenced version. They need forage, fresh water, and social contexts. Their hierarchy will not allow them to move forward in learning without having their basic needs met. Safety comes before food. For instance, if a horse does not feel safe on a trailer, they will not eat until they are returned to safety or gain comfort (commonly by company, as they are herd animals). If a horse does not feel safe in the ring, at a show, on the trail, then it is unlikely that they will learn anything that session. They will resort to fight or flight until they finally have their safety needs meet. It is important to know how to read your horse. Fighting a horse that does not feel safe will only make you a stimulus that triggers fear responses in the horse. Many humans that use training techniques that try to control the horse often are the main causes of stress in the animal. Taking a horse back to the herd in order for them to feel safe is not “giving up”, it is fulfilling the horse’s safety needs, thus creating comfort. Again, they lack higher reasoning, so in the moment, if you are the active wall between the horse and his safety, you are causing the stress. If you can be the human that helps reduce stress, in time you will gain real trust, have an animal that will enjoy learning from you, and have quicker quality results. You will be the human the horse runs to rather than from. Knowledge is the ability to read and identify the horse’s physical and emotional needs. Wisdom is the consciousness of consistently placing the horse’s need and the relationship before the desire to obtain results.

So how do horses learn? Many studies show us that horses simply learn through applied learning theories. These include:

Operant Conditioning: Behavior influenced by a type of reinforcement
Classical Conditioning: Associations between two events
Habituation: Involves elimination of a response to a stimulus in their environment

Operant Conditioning (4 Types)

Positive Reinforcement– Is the addition (positive) of a stimulus in order to increase (reinforcement) a desired behavior. This can be a treat or a scratch in order for a behavior to occur again.

Side note: Studies have shown that a scratch at the withers lowers heart rate, a great tool to help calm nervous horses. Horses in social behaviors tend to “make friendships” by scratching each other at the withers (Feh and de Mazieres 1993).

When using positive reinforcement, timing is everything. The reinforcement must be administered as closely as possible to the desired behavior. A secondary reinforcement is commonly used, and my personal favorite is the clicker. Due to the horse’s poor short term memory and the realization that a lack of behavior can still be considered a behavior, I can make a click sound at the very moment they give the desired behavior, in which they are already classically conditioned to predict a treat. This prevents lag time in between behavior and treat. Too much lag time and now you may be unconsciously rewarding a different behavior. Timing must be precise, timing is everything. It kind of reminds me of a game show, when they get the right answer then *ding ding* goes the buzzer, the contestant predicts a victory and a prize, and in this case a *click* and a treat. The secondary reinforcement results in quicker training and is extremely effective. We will dive deeper into this later.

Negative Reinforcement – Is the removal of a stimulus (negative) in order to encourage a behavior to continue (reinforcement). This can look like the removal of leg pressure to get the animal to move forward; or the removal of rein pressure when the horse stops.

Negative reinforcement is a common tool used in both classical riding and natural horsemanship through the use of the releasing pressure to encourage a desired behavior. Natural horsemanship stresses the importance of the timing of the release in order for it to be effective. I often find issues with negative reinforcement since it just doesn’t appear to be too much fun for the horse. Usually there is no way around the use of it. For instance, even just a slight tense up from the rider to have the horse ever so slightly feel the cue to move forward still falls under the category of negative reinforcement. And unfortunately, false learning often happens due to lack of comprehension from the human. The example in Gemma Pearson’s study, an equine behaviorist and veterinarian liaison for the recently mentioned ISES, is a common example of improper handling. If a horse fears clippers and lifts their leg to avoid it, the human may move the clippers away from the horse to avoid cutting him on accident. Well that just so happened to teach the horse that when they move away from the clippers, the unwanted stimulus will also be removed, thus causing a falsely learned behavior. This is often generalized with other stimuli such as grooming or washing of the legs. Now we have a horse that was unconsciously taught to respond to stimuli on his legs with hypersensitivity.

Positive Punishment – Is the addition (positive) of a stimulus in order to end or eliminate a behavior (punishment). This can look like a smack to stop a horse from biting or kicking.

So in the context of our hypersensitive horse that was falsely taught to move away from stimuli on the legs is now snatching up the leg higher and faster as the behavior starts shaping and refining (the initial response starts building towards the desired final outcome). His actions may result in kicking or striking out. The human then applies positive punishment and smacks the horse to stop this behavior. The horse is kicking out due to the negative reinforcement and does not associate kicking out with the positive punishment of the slap (remember the bad short term memory). The human just created boat loads of confusion. Such a simple task eventually grew into a scenario which causes discomfort, doubt, and unsafe feelings, yet the human does not even acknowledge this perspective.

Negative Punishment – Is the removal (negative) of a stimulus to end or eliminate a behavior (punishment). This can be viewed as the removal of a feeding in order to stop a horse from behaving badly under saddle, or removal of a mare from a stud behaving with spirit.

Of all the operant learning theories, this one cause more issues than it fixes. Again, we have to be reminded of their poor short term memory and our lack of precise timing. The horse will mostly likely not identify the behavior for which it is being punished for. Both punishment methods usually will just result in welfare consequences due to anxiety or fear of the human associated with punishment, causing dangerous situations for both horses and humans.

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning -Is the process of making associations of two previously unrelated events. Anyone remember Pavlov’s dog? While studying digestive physiology, he noticed that the dogs would start salivating when he rang the bell to signal that it was feeding time. They would salivate at the sound of the bell even though there was no sight or smell of food. They learned to associate the bell with food through consistent associations.

Horses are great at classical conditioning. Operant conditioning allows the horse to control their environment while classical conditioning allows for predictability of their environment. This is so important for their survival. For example, the boss horse pins their ears and takes actions to demand that everyone moves out of his way through a series of kicking and biting. It does not take long for the subordinate horses to associate the pinned ears with the dominant action. The herd quickly learns to move away (conditioned response) by sight of pinned ears (conditioned cue). The ability to predict the outcome reduces stress in the lives of prey animals.

This can work against us. For example horses who shy at needles. Pretty soon they see the vet and are overwhelmed with fear before they even interact with them. On the bright side, horses can easily be re-trained with counter conditioning. If a horse has an innate fear response to something, you can create positive associations using a stimulus they would enjoy rather than fear. An example would be a worming tube; most horses dislike it due to of the awful taste which they associate with the sight of the tube. All of the sudden you cannot get within two feet of them with the tube in your hand. To counter-train this, you can use a clicker and start with the reinforcing of calm behavior around the worming tube. Later, you can progress to reinforcing interest in the object followed by mouthy behavior with the tube. Giving him some honey or sugar water is another method that can produce positive experiences while creating new associations. Consistency is the key. Each horse is unique with different likes, needs, personalities, etc. This is the fun part; you can get creative when exploring what type of stimulus drives your horse, sparking his interests and curiosities. You can also make your cues to be whatever you would like, like constructing a new language that only your horse would understand.


Horses will get accustomed to different aspects of their environment through frequent exposure which results in an eliminated or lowered fear response. An example would be a horse that is desensitized to machinery and vehicles due to stabling near a farm or busy road. Habituation is useful, however there are limits. Progress can be a long road. Habituation lays as the foundation for desensitizing training. There are a few different practices for behavior modification based on habituation.

Flooding– Involves overwhelming a horse with an averse stimulus until it ceases to react. An example would be locking a horse in a stall with a foreign object in hopes that the horse will eventually get over their fear. Problems due to flooding are elevated stress levels or actually causing more fear. They are unable to act on their flight response and find yet again another situation where the human is the cause of stress.

Stimulus Blending– Is a method that combines an averse stimulus with a non-averse one. For example, asking a horse to lower his head by a pull of a rope at the same time you blanket a nervous horse. A stimulus such as lowering is asking the horse to relax into pressure which may help the horse’s nerves while the blanket goes on. This method may be effect but still may cause elevated stress. It is typically done with negative reinforcement also known as “pressure-release”.

Approach Conditioning – Natural horsemanship calls it the “approach-retreat” method. A prey animal naturally runs from things that will chase them. Through approaching then retreating, the horse can quickly habituate to the ability to chase something. They are not too overstimulated at a single time and may gain interest if they find the stimulus to be harmless. The learning is based on negative reinforcement; the removal of the object reduces stress to increase the likelihood of acceptance.

Overshadowing– A method based on the idea that the horse cannot focus on two simultaneous stimuli. When approached with two stimuli, the horse prioritizes which one to focus on while the other stimulus undergoes habituation.

Overshadowing commonly acts as a “quick fix” method, especially in situations of immediate attention like vet or farrier care. Such encounters occur under time restraints and are not meant to be training sessions. A common example is the lip twitch. This may just be a distraction. It may get the job done but does not address the actual acceptance of the averse stimulus.

Counter Conditioning– The act of using classical conditioning to change a feared stimulus to a positive one. Pearson gives a good example of the use of clippers. A horse that fears clippers can be counter conditioned by receiving a treat once they hear the sound of the clippers (more precision with a clicker). As previously mentioned, classical conditioning requires accurate timing. Clippers need to be turned on before delivering the click or food; if the opposite, they cannot associate the two. The stimulus must come first, then an immediate reward.

This is my favorite method for getting a horse over their fear. They are simply making new positive associations. This is intriguing, progressive, and does not break the spirit of the horse. They undergo less stress with counter conditioning while unlocking their curiosity for the previously feared response.

I understand that this is a long article, but I cannot stress enough just how important it is for a trainer to be aware of equine cognitive function. It is an amazing realization when we begin noticing things we may have done incorrectly due to lack of awareness. It is common for people to hold the horse to higher cognitive standards or unconsciously communicate mixed signals. Confusion between horse and human are the most common reasons for “misbehavior”. Our horse is our mirror. They always act in the moment. However, they can undergo a complete transformation if we are prepared to handle both averse and non-averse stimulus using methods that reduce the stress of the horse. Now that we have the knowledge of the horse’s learning abilities and different methods of teaching, we can choose the ones that are the most mutually beneficial. If you want to produce love, curiosity, enjoyment, and involvement from the horse, you yourself have to offer love, curiosity, enjoyment, and involvement. Together horse and human can unlock a true understanding of one another.

Works Cited

Feh, C. & De Mazieres, J. (1993) Grooming at a preferred site lowers heart rate in horses. Animal Behavior 46, 1191-1194.

Kandel E.R., Schawrts, J.H., & Jessell, T.M. (2000) Principles of Neural Science. 4th Edn. McGraw-Hill Medical.

McLean, A. & McLean, M. (2008). Academic Horse Training. Australian Equine Behavior Centre.

Pearson, G. (2015) Practical application of equine learning theory, part 1. In Practice 37, 251-254.

Pearson, G. (2015) Practical application of equine learning theory, part 2. In Practice 37, 286-292.

Pignon, Frederic. 2009. Gallop to Freedom: training horses with our six golden principles/ Frederic Pignon & Magali Delgado; with David Walser. Trafalgar Square Books. North Pomfret, Vermont.

Premack, D. (2007) Human and animal cognition: continuity and discontinuity. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences 104, 13861-13867.

Wolff, A. & Hausenberger, M. (1996) Learning and memorization of two different tasks in horses: the effects of age, sex and sire. Applied Animal Behavior and Science 44, 137-143.


2 thoughts on “Equine Cognition and a Breakdown of Applied Learning Theories

  1. Excellent! Thank you so much for writing this! I so appreciate that you provide citations and articles for your post. I have always said that horses learn by the “velcro” method-if you can link on something new to something they already know, they learn it much faster. Didn’t realize that was Classical Conditioning! When I read “Habituation” I instantly thought of the passage in Black Beauty when BB is turned out in the pasture next to the train and is as first terrified and then, with time, not troubled at all by the passing of the trains. Habituation is also why my herd is not overly concerned with the plow truck, trash truck, etc. as they are kept somewhat near the road and can watch these vehicles on a regular basis. Please keep up the good work! Lisa : )


    • Thank you Lisa! 🙂

      You are so right, and I’m glad you enjoy it! More posts are underway. With my 16+ years of experience with horses, I am so excited to still be finding that there is more and more to learn. With starting this academic journey, I have already grown a better understanding for how to train and why. The equine industry tends to stress a lot of “doing”. Go train, go ride, through trial and error until you get it right. While I know the doing part is important, I believe having a balance between learning and doing is crucial. With the knowledge of how horses think and learn we can spend less time “doing” or “doing it wrong”. We can save our horses and ourselves time, stress, and confusion by knowing what we are going to do and why we are doing it. And I hope in sharing what I discover, I can help other horse owners have an easier and more pleasant time with their horses.



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