How Horses Learn

An excerpt about how horses learn and what motivates them from Sandy Collier's new book, Reining Essentials: How to Excel in Western's Hottest Sport.
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An excerpt about how horses learn and what motivates them from Sandy Collier's new book, Reining Essentials: How to Excel in Western's Hottest Sport.

Editor's Note: In the October '08 issue of Horse & Rider, world champion Sandy Collier shares her core training secrets in an article called "Ride Smart," an exclusive adaptation from her new book (available now at www.EquineNetworkStore.com). In this online excerpt, Sandy shares her insights on how horses think and what motivates them. Learn what she knows, and become a more effective rider regardless of your discipline of choice.

In a typical learning session, your horse will give you several wrong answers before hitting on the correct one. Here my horse

In a typical learning session, your horse will give you several wrong answers before hitting on the correct one. Here my horse

Horses don't think the way we do. With our bigger brain, however, we can compensate for that and present our training in a way the horse can understand and respond to. Horses are basically lazy. They'd rather be under a tree somewhere, swatting flies off their buddy, than lugging us around an arena. Given two choices, they'll always opt for whichever is less work. Knowing this, you can stack the deck in your favor. You do this by making the option you want more desirable (again: easier, more do-able, more comfortable) than other options, giving the horse a chance to volunteer the correct "answer," then praising him lavishly for it.

This non-coercive approach encourages him to think and respond, rather than simply to react (the latter being his natural way). In effect, it enables him to learn how to learn. He discovers he can work his way through situations, becoming confident he can always find a way out of discomfort. Once he realizes this, it can even be fun watching him go through his repertoire of responses, hunting for the one you're looking for.

All this doesn't happen quickly, however. In a typical learning session, your horse will give you several wrong answers before hitting on the correct one. For example, when you're teaching him a turn on the forehand, the first time you put your leg back to ask him to move his hip over, his initial response will almost certainly be to sling his hip into your leg, trying to push it away. When that doesn't work, he'll likely try stepping forward. When that doesn't work, he'll go back to pushing into your leg or maybe even crow hop or kick at your foot.

Finally, on the fifth or sixth try, he'll step away from your leg, just as you intend. So you'll reward him with a pat and a break, and then ask again. His first response this time will almost certainly be wrong again--probably pushing against your leg or stepping forward. But his second or third try will probably be correct. He'll have skipped all the other wrong answers.

Do this for a week, and he'll not only get it right the first time, every time, but he'll also step smartly and smoothly around a full circle and be totally relaxed while doing it. But... it takes time.

Keep in mind, too, that horses are easily frustrated and discouraged, so you must be extremely patient and consistent in how you present learning opportunities to them. If you get impatient, lose your temper or make the learning curve too steep, your horse will start to worry. He'll become nervous and his adrenaline will flow. He'll chew the bit, grind his teeth or wring his tail. He'll "stutter"--become quick and desperate in his responses.

No learning at all takes place in this situation. Any correct response you happen to elicit at this point, under duress, is not truly learned by the horse and likely cannot be repeated. When you gain your horse's cooperation through intimidation, that cooperation is always defensive, and accompanied by resistance and resentment--a raised head, a stiff back. A good way to remember this is a terrific quote from trainer Doug Williamson: "When a horse's head is up, his brains dribble out and down his neck, where it's impossible for him to use them."

Another way to think of this is that the horse learns by the release of pressure, rather than by the application of it. If you spur a horse into a turn, for example, you've bullied him into it, and that's mainly what he learns--to feel intimidated by you. But if you set him up to make the turn, by placing his feet in the correct position and then "opening the door" with your aids, then he makes the choice on his own, and true learning takes place.

Sandy Collier has earned a lifetime of success in the performance horse world. Currently she's the only woman to have won the open division of the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity for reined cow horses (with Miss Rey Dry in 1993); she's also an American Quarter Horse Association World Show champion (with Sheeza Shinette in junior working cow horse in 2002). The popular trainer and clinician is based in Buellton, Calif. Find her new book, Reining Essentials, at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.