How Horses Learn

Foal walking with mare as if she is a grownup horse.
Foal walking with mare as if she is a grownup horse.

During the past few decades, researchers, learning theorists, horse trainers and owners have devoted much time and energy to determining how horses learn.

Along with advancements in research related to how horses learn, many people involved with horses have worked to change training practices that have become outmoded and didn't take into account the way horses think and react to the humans who train and work with them.

Researchers and advanced thinking horse trainers have worked diligently to put the best learning theories related to how horses learn into practice. This has resulted in newer and better approaches as horsemen discover what best motivates horses to willingly and ably work with their human counterparts in getting the job done and done well, whether as an endurance horse, a child's pony, or a well-trained race horse.

Effective learning = Willing horse + Tuned-in trainer

Effective learning = Willing horse + Tuned-in trainer

With positive reinforcement, a horse learns to perform an action to receive something he desires, such as food, stroking, or praise.

Dr. Evelyn Hanggi, president and co-founder of the non-profit Equine Research Foundation has studied equine intelligence extensively and is one of the best-known researchers investigating how horses learn.

She challenges horse owners to "imagine a world where horses stand quietly for farriers and veterinarians, where they politely wait for their hay and grain, where they lower their heads and open their mouths for bridling, where they cooperate calmly when getting in and out of trailers, and where they respond willingly under saddle."

In fact, nearly all people working with horses, whether they are weekend riders renting a horse from a stable, a seasoned endurance rider, a cattle owner working with a herd or cattle or a race track employee who cares for horses at the race track, would like very much to have horses that are tuned into their tasks and are ready willing and able to be cooperative.

The key to having a cooperative well-mannered horse in many cases is simply recognizing how horses learn and putting learning theory into practice in both training and daily activities.

Dr. Camie Heleski, who has a Ph.D. in Animal Science with an emphasis in equine behavior and welfare has worked at Michigan State University since 1991 as coordinator of the two-year Ag Tech Horse Management Program at Michigan State University and is lead instructor for My Horse University's online Horse Behavior and Welfare Course.

In an excerpt from her online course Dr. Heleski notes that: "Most human learning psychologists probably consider only two main types of learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning." then goes on to say that these various ways of learning are not unique to either horses or humans, but, in fact, apply to other animals as well. In addition, it is important that horse owners and trainers understand the different types of learning, because it helps them choose the proper training technique for a desired response with your horse.

The learning types that Dr. Heleski covers in her course of study include:

  • Desensitization (Habituation)
  • Sensitization
  • Signal Learning (Classical Conditioning)
  • Operant (Instrumental Learning)
  • Discrimination
  • Conceptual Learning
  • Observational Learning
  • Imprint Training

Dr. Heleski then goes on to present the hallmarks of each type of learning which are briefly summarized here:


Desensitizing is when a horse becomes less reactive to certain stimuli. A horse has to accept human contact as well as pressure from brushes, the lead rope, and a saddle. Desensitizing is the type of learning that the horse does to become accepting of these normal occurrences.

A well-trained, older horse will already be desensitized to many stimuli, which will make the owner or trainer's job considerably easier. On the other hand, a young, highly reactive horse will require a great deal of patience and time while desensitizing to normal activities and routines.


The opposite of desensitizing is sensitizing, in which the horse becomes more sensitive or more reactive to a certain stimuli. If the first two times a horse rides past trees next to the arena, a woodchuck runs out and spooks him, the horse will likely be 'sensitized' to that area of the ring and will become wary upon approaching it. Another example of sensitizing is bathing a horse for the first time with ice-cold water, which is not likely to lend itself to making the horse easier to bathe the next time.

With their strong memories, a horse is very quick to remember pain or fear so it may be easier to sensitize a horse to something negative than to desensitize it after something bad has happened.

Signal Learning

Another type of learning is signal learning, which is also referred to as classical conditioning. Many people have heard of the experiment by the Russian researcher, Pavlov. In his experiment, he rang a bell each day, and then gave the dogs meat.

He measured the salivation, which was normally associated with the presentation of the meat. Eventually the dogs would salivate in response to just the bell ringing.

Another example of signal learning is when horses in a barn become excited when they hear the feed cart start rolling around. They have learned that the sound of the rolling cart means food is coming.

Operant Learning

When an animal learns to operate on its environment to obtain a reward or positive reinforcement, this is called operant learning (also referred to as instrumental learning). For example, a horse is taught to push a lever in return for a food reward. Or horses have been taught to turn on a heat lamp in response to a cold environment.

In training, we more commonly condition the horse to learn that making the correct choice will result in the removal of aversive stimuli, for example leg pressure stops when horse moves forward.

Discrimination Learning

Discrimination is the ability to differentiate between objects or people. Studies have shown that equines can be conditioned to recognize symbols when recognizing a certain symbol results in the equine receiving a reward or treat. However, if the symbols are too nearly alike, the equine can become agitated because they don't seem to be able to distinguish between two similar symbols.

Anecdotally, horses seem to be able to discriminate between different people coming out to catch them and they reward the person they favor by approaching that person showing their willingness to be caught. The same horses will ignore the efforts of a person that hasn't rewarded them in some way with their approach or who has punished then in some way for not coming readily.

Conceptual Learning

Conceptual learning is one of the highest forms of learning. A concept is defined as a general idea inferred from specific instances or a general mental picture of something that is common to several objects such as roundness or squareness.

Although little evidence has been published that horses can generalize, one Cal Poly study offers support that this may be possible, at least in some horses. In this study, a horse learned to discriminate between squares/non-squares and circles/non-circles and was able to generalize to triangles/non-triangles although he had never seen them before.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is learning a behavior by watching others. There has been no published research that horses can learn either good behaviors or bad behaviors from watching other horses. This includes the development of stereotypies. In these experiments, some horses watched other horses being trained and some horses watched other horses engaging in stereotypies, such as cribbing, yet neither behavior appeared to be adopted by the observing horse.

Observational learning differs from social facilitation in that 'social facilitation' mainly applies to a situation where all horses as a group engage in certain activities at the same time. For example, horses in a herd in a pasture will often go up to the front of the pasture for water at about the same time. Social facilitation may motivate an animal to learn an already instinctive behavior by observation, but it is more nearly like peer pressure or herd mentality.

Imprint Training

The use of the word "imprint" in training horses was coined by Robert M. Miller, D.V.M., author of Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal.

According to Dr. Miller's definition, imprinting is a learning process for establishing behavior patterns. Dr. Miller's imprinting techniques are performed on newborn foals just after birth. Imprinting is based on desensitization, which is the act of applying a stimulus until the animal is less sensitive and less reactive, and relaxes.

The idea behind imprinting is that desensitizing the foal during the first couple of days of life makes the foal easier to handle and train later on. This is not 'true imprinting' in the same way that some baby birds rapidly develop a strong attachment to the first moving object they see, whether it's their mother or a man walking by.

Your horse - what works best?

While all learning types are useful in some ways with most horses, most horse owners and trainers choose to focus on those that effectively get the results they want from their horses. During past decades, negative reinforcement took precedence in much horse training.

Punishment was often used until the horse reluctantly complied with the trainer's wishes. The results were often negative for both the horse who learned just enough to avoid the punishment, and the trainer who failed to win the horse's trust and cooperation. This made each learning endeavor difficult for both horse and trainer.

According to Temple Grandin, the celebrated animal scientist whose autism enables her to see things the way animals probably do, horses learn best when they are not stressed.

"To avoid stressing your horse, be aware of signs that he's becoming agitated whenever you're working with him. "Is his tail swishing? Is he sweating overly or quivering? End the lesson before he blows up. Don't make a training session longer than he can comfortably stand it, and always quit on a good note," she says.

"And, to up the odds that your horse "gets" what you're trying to teach him, make sure all rewards come within one second of the action being rewarded. "Otherwise, your horse won't make the association. That's because a horse has less "association cortex" in his brain than humans do. Our "computer" is 10 times bigger than his is."

Do you realize?

Like it or not, horses consider us as 'predators' and because they are prey animals, they aren't capable of discerning the difference between an aggressive or frightened predator. To the horse, whether you approach him with anger or fear, you are tense and have an unbearable energy, which comes across to him as emotionally unbalanced and out of control. -Linda Parelli.

For example, the horse owner goes to the pasture to catch the horse. Because the horse has been punished by being pushed around, abruptly bridled and saddled and worked, the horse doesn't come when called, and, in fact, runs to the furthest corner of the pasture.

The owner, being in a hurry, goes back to the barn and gets a bucket with a little grain in it. Upon returning to the pasture, the hungry horse finally gives in and approaches the owner, who grabs him and puts a halter on him.

He vigorously leads the horse back to the barn, where the bucket containing the grain is placed out of the horse's reach and the horse is quickly saddled, and forced off to do the day's work.

What does the horse learn during this scenario? Certainly, he will not be eager to be caught in the future and will avoid the owner whenever possible.

Contrast this scenario with the horse owner who uses clicker training to gain a horse's trust and respect. According to Jenni Nellist, a well-known horse behaviorist: "The best way to go about it (training a horse) is to understand that clicker training deliberately harnesses 'learning theory' the psychological fundamentals of how they (horses) learn. This gives you freedom to decide what your horse learns and how you go about training within the capacity of the horse."

Nellist uses the following guidelines in her clicker training

1: The clicker is associated with a reward - food, wither rubs - things pleasurable for the horse

"The clicker noise is made, then a reward is given. Horses quickly come to expect the reward whenever they hear the clicker. Horses easily learn sequences in order to know what happens next, so you don't even need a clicker, any perceptible signal that comes right before the reward will work."

2: What you click is what you get!

"The horse has learned that 'click' means reward; their gut feeling is 'click' IS 'reward'. Exactly what your horse was doing when they heard the click is remembered. They repeat that behavior to see if you click and reward again - it's that powerful."

"This also means that once the horse knows what to do and when, the clicker is no longer needed. You are then free to vary the reward, just remember, the reward is in the eyes of the beholder."

"With positive reinforcement, a horse learns to perform an action in order to receive something he desires, such as food, stroking, or praise. In PR training, the horse becomes an active participant, eagerly seeking the right answer. Dull horses brighten, sour horses turn sweet, and the underachiever suddenly moves to the head of the class." - excerpt from "Perfect Manners" by Dr. Evelyn B. Hanggi.

Horses following behavior and social status

An interesting study related to horse behavior at the University of Regensburg in Germany researched what caused horses to adopt a "following behavior" towards people. It was determined that some horses reacted positively to a handler in a riding arena and eventually responded by following that person around. Meanwhile other horses merely stood watching the whole event involving the handler.

Leadership in horses determined by social status

Leadership in horses determined by social status

Researchers discovered that whether a horse learns new behavior by copying another horse depends upon their social status, but they'll only readily pick up the new behavior if they have a certain relationship with the horse they're watching.

The researchers discovered that whether a horse learns new behavior by copying another horse depends upon their social status.

Horses can learn how to do something simply by observing another horse. But they'll only readily pick up the new behavior if they have a certain relationship with the horse they're watching.

Horses tend to copy others that they respect. When a bystander horse had a turn in the arena, he quickly copied the following behavior if the horse they'd been watching was dominant in social status.

Conversely, the bystander horse would not readily follow the handler if he had previously observed a subordinate horse. A horse also failed to mimic another horse's behavior if the horses were from two different social groups and didn't know each other.

By knowing how a horse processes information, the owner or horse trainer can optimize the training of the horse and improve his effectiveness as a trainer while gaining the cooperation and respect of the horse. In addition, the owner or trainer, who already has a well-trained horse, will understand more about the horse's learning processes, and therefore, will not "un-teach" the already well-trained horse.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.