10 Learning Theory-Based Horse Training Principles

Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed, renowned horse trainer and head of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, in Victoria, first presented his evidence- and learning theory-based principles of horse training in 2006. Since then he’s been refining and retooling them as he discovers more ways to promote equine welfare.

“It’s not about turning horse training into a science,” he explained, “but, rather, understanding, defining, and measuring what we possibly can.”

McLean presented a revised version of his training principles at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9, in Vancouver, British Columbia. They are as follows:

1. Train according to the horse’s ethology and cognition. By understanding horses’ behavior (e.g., their social organization, attachment, fear responses, separation anxiety, arousal, need for space and companions, etc.) as well as their thought processes, we can better comprehend what causes them fear, makes them feel secure, and so forth and incorporate those things into training. “It’s normal for us to project a very human interpretation of how horses think,” said McLean. “But in doing so we’re expecting far too much,” and this can create negative welfare situations.

2. Use learning theory appropriately. Horse training should involve the correct use of what is known as learning theory. Its main learning processes are habituation (becoming accustomed to things), sensitization, shaping, operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement), and classical conditional (using predictable signals). “When we get these wrong,” said McLean. “It’s one of the biggest causes of training-related stress in horses.”


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