How horses learn – article by Tony Lander

Horses learn by …
by Tony Lander – August 2007

Many people will have heard or understand the following 4 points about horses:-

1.  Horses are sceptical, claustrophobic and cowards by nature.
2.  Horses are inquisitive, curious and playful by nature.
3.  Horses know what happened before what happened, happened.
4.  Horses learn by gaining comfort.

These four statements embody the process of horse learning.

I would like to explore the notion that “horses learn by gaining comfort”

Traditional horse training often applies fear, intimidation and mechanical means to get a horse to submit. Many people believe it is the pressure, or force, which teaches a horse…. BUT the opposite is actually true… it is the “gaining of comfort” (from the horses point of view) that teaches a horse.

Let’s look at an extreme  example – bucking the rider off.  Now, bucking is not necessarily comfortable for a horse, however generally, just after bucking the human off, comfort is achieved, so the horse may determine that bucking is a good thing as it happens just before the comfort.

Another example is ‘rushing off’ a float, a horse may do this as they consider the comfort is at the ‘end’ of that rush, so they hurry up and rush off the float.

We can, by understanding horse’s nature, help horses learn the habits which suit our requirements.

To effectively ‘train’ our horses we need to provide a stimulus (often termed pressure or discomfort), which causes the horse to move – once the horse moves in our required manner, we remove the stimulus, thus providing comfort for the horse and he ‘learns’ to do what he just did.

If this is repeated, the horse will respond in a similar manner if after each time, the comfort is provided.  One of the most important elements of this ‘training’ is us, the human, providing comfort at the right time.

As ‘trainers’, people need to develop their own timing (over many hours of practice), with the aim of refining timing to where a horse can think about doing what is wanted and the person gives comfort.

Let’s delve into what is comfort. First and foremost comfort is RELATIVE.

If they have their choice, horses are most comfortable when they are in a large open space with some other horses and there is both water and food available so they  may play, eat, drink or snooze – this is where they would be comfortable.

Conversely, almost paradoxically, a horse can also be comfortable in a “metal cave on wheels”, ie a Float. This is quite at odds to their nature, as a float is both noisy, and usually enclosed, which obviously is claustrophobic and fraught with danger for a sceptical, coward of a horse.

So, how is it that we can reach a point where a horse is willing, and even eager, to enter and stay in a float? The answer is through ‘relative’ comfort, the horse is  more comfortable inside than outside of the float.

How do we, (since we are predators) provide our horse with comfort? – luckily for us, there are many ways available, for instance, just be with them and don’t ask for anything, ‘hang out’; If you ask for a movement or manoeuvre and the horse does it, then relax, long enough to let him know it is right.

How do we do this when we are riding? – this becomes a closer ‘feel’ between horse and rider, for instance you might let the rein loose, you might relax your body a little.

Now that we understand that horses learn through gaining comfort, how do you apply this, and other natural attributes like curiosity and play in your horse, to building the partnership you have always dreamed of.

Let’s first think about how we approach our  time with our horse. Some people might refer to ‘working’ their horse or ‘playing’ with their horse.  I personally feel that if you ‘work’ your horse it seems to have a demanding connotation, which brings a not so good feel to the arrangement. If you go out and ‘play’ with your horse, you could be excused for thinking you have to win the game, and so the horse therefore, loses.

I like to think about ‘dancing’ with my horses!

If you think of how a girl and a boy ‘flirt’ before they actually get together, you could even try flirting with your horse before ‘catching’ each other. If you then go to ‘dance’ with your horse, you get together  to create something as partners where one leads and the other follows, you could be dancing separately at first, moving into a sort of freestyle mode, and then over time come together where the partnership is so close that only you and your horse can feel the ‘cues’ and to an audience it looks like you are in True Unity, simply responding to each others thoughts.

To reach True Unity, obviously takes time and practice. Like any dance partnership, you and your horse need a language and of course you need to know the Dance Steps. I like to think there is 1 introductory dance step, 2 principle dance steps, 3 purpose dance steps and 1 freestyle dance step, so a way to remember this is like 1,2,3,,1 a bit like some dance music??

1. The Introductory Dance step – Tolerance & Trust
Objective – help a horse be able tolerate anything and everything which they might find in their world. This is a big statement, though with the help of the horse’s desire for comfort as well as their innate characteristic for curiosity and play, they can eventually  tolerate an incredible amount.

The process we can use to build the tolerance is one of approach and retreat, the bigger the horse’s intolerance the more retreat is required. Coupled with approach and retreat is the concept of rhythmic motion – motion which is consistent while the horse learns to tolerate that motion.

If we can apply the rhythmic motion and allow the horse to drift, ie. move his feet as needed, though not allow him to escape, he will eventually show a slight change which will allow us to retreat, or stop, the rhythmic motion – that is the comfort!!. This stop is what teaches the horse to do what he just did – the horse works out what happened before the stop.

To then proceed to trust, we must show the horse we are not going to kill, hurt or cause discomfort to him. We can again use rhythmic motion to instil the trust of us, eg. we could walk briskly into our horse and cuddle them where the saddle might go, or we could skip into that same place. If we do this with rhythm, the horse will eventually be not bothered by this. We could eventually be able to rub our horses all over and lay on their back, sit, kneel or even stand on their backs once they are trusting of us.

This Introductory Dance Step can be used for the rest of the horse’s life to expose and desensitise the horse to any situation, place, danger or thing which you might encounter.

Traditional horse training often applies fear, intimidation and mechanical means to get a horse to submit. This type of process goes against every fibre of the horse’s being, such that they will fight until they are mentally, emotionally and even physically broken or at worst – dead.

The opposite approach to fear, intimidation and mechanics is to apply communication, understanding and (horse) psychology. In an effort to improve ourselves as horsemen, we need to realise that horses see us as predators, our very nature is the opposite of what horses want. We, as humans, genetically like to live ‘opposite’ to a horse, we like to live in ‘caves’, roam in packs, hide, go directly for what we want, hunt, kill and eat meat. Humans desire to be the ‘top of the animal kingdom’, we consider we are superior in intellect, which means if man can’t ‘control’ an animal,  he will invent a mechanical device that WILL control that animal.

Most mechanical devices man invents require, make, force the animal to be contained, held, restricted in some form, for example with horses – halter, bit, noseband, tiedowns, martingale, draw reins, chambons, twitches, snubbing posts, races, crushes, stables just to name a few.

Horses are sceptics – what does this really mean?

First and foremost, it means horses do not trust anything they do not yet know. Their first reaction to anything new is mistrust, which shows up in a variety of body postures, noises and language, including head high, eyes wide and not blinking, lips tight and sucked in (‘lemon lips’), ‘snoring’ or ‘snorting’, turning, moving, running.

Not all horses show all the above responses, others show all at one time. The response of your horse is dependent upon a number of factors, including past experience  (learned behaviour), innate characteristics, and spirit.

Horses are cowards – meaning they realise the better part of valour is to run away and eat another day, rather than fight and maybe die. This is why some mechanical devices achieve so called results, because the horse eventually ‘gives-in’ as they do not wish to die, they simply ‘close down’ and submit with a bad taste in their mind, emotion and body.

Horses are claustrophobic, meaning they do not do confinement well. In fact, a horse may, if confined, bust over, under and / or through any confinement they find themselves in. This is why you hear of many horses pushing through fences, yards, ropes, running over people, running ‘through the bit’, pulling back when tied up, bucking when saddled and on and on.

A horse who is sceptical and confined is a very dangerous animal indeed – due to their size, strength and speed, a horse which feels trapped (this could be because of a tight saddle and rider as well as reins pulling the bit) is a recipe for disaster and an accident about to happen. When the horse is confined, the claustrophobic feelings override any thought for safety – the impulse to survive at all costs is all empowering and the adrenalin  rises to such a level that the horse is apt to do whatever it takes to get out of the constraint. This is why attempting to mechanically constrain a horse is not an effective way of building a mutual partnership with your horse.

Armed with this knowledge, we can now delve into WHY horses react they way they do. No matter what situation they are in, horses will behave just as nature intended them to. This means they will firstly treat everything scepticism, not wanting to be near or go near the ‘scary’ thing. If the horse continues to be sceptical, he will act like a coward, turn away and start to get distance between himself and the ‘scary’ thing. At this time, if the horse feels any type of restraint, the claustrophobic feeling will well up inside him and he will do all he can to ‘bust through’ the restraint.

Let’s illustrate the above with an actual example – a horse is lazily eating grass, when suddenly a ‘killer’ plastic bag is blown across the grass towards the horse then it stops. The initial reaction by the horse is the head flies up to a high position, the nose lets out a ‘snoring or snorting’ sound, the eyes are fixed and staring, this happened in an instant.

The bag now moves again toward the horse, at this instant the horse spins athletically half a circle on one hind foot and accelerates to flat out in two strides. Suddenly there is a rope fence (which was a yard around the horse) against the horse’s chest – and the horse is going so fast that the rope approaches (attacks the horse?) in an instant, the horse makes an attempt to jump the rope but fails and simply busts through the rope enclosure, scattering rope and pickets for metres. Once untangled, the horse has run 100 metres and turns to look at the now disappearing bag and lets out a ‘snort’ then sighs with relief while breathing quickly. Soon the eyes blink, the head lowers, the tongue licks the lips and then the horse begins eating again, safe in the knowledge that scepticism, cowardice and claustrophobia has allowed him to live to eat another day.

Another example, could be that the horse is tied to a float or tie-up rail. Many people assume their horse will stayed tied up and not pull back when scared. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take again one ‘killer’ plastic bag blowing across the paddock toward where your horse is tied. As above, the horse ‘snorts’, then being the sceptic and coward, he raises his head and moves back – creating the tension on the rope and on the halter as it goes tight over the poll. This action creates the claustrophobic ‘restraint’ and nature kicks in to the horse and he then pushes harder into the pressure of the halter. In so doing, the horse is likely to pull so hard that either the rope breaks, the rail breaks or the horse falls over and sustains injuries (or worse, all three). While this is happening the plastic bag ‘disappears and so the result is that the horse escapes the ‘killer’ plastic bag and the claustrophobic halter and again confirms that being sceptical, claustrophobic and a coward has saved his life.

Humans many times are responsible for setting up horses into situations where the horse’s nature comes to the surface and so the horse reacts as a sceptic, a coward and a claustrophobic. Often times the human cannot understand why the horse behaves the way he does, and simply labels the horse as dumb, stupid, a pull back, a run away, a rearer, a bucker, a bolter etc etc. This behaviour then is repeated day after day for a horse unless the human steps outside of their predatory thinking.

We need to change our thinking before the horse can change theirs. If we look at everything a horse does as him simply following his genetic reactive blueprint, then we need to present things differently to our horse to allow him to change his programming.

How do we as thinking horsemen offer our horse a better deal? How can we help our horses develop the confidence, the strength  to be hero’s and the ability to not feel claustrophobic in the face of overwhelming ‘equine perceived’ danger?

The answer is simple – we need to firstly learn the horse’s language, understand the horse’s motivators and help the horse change its psychological programming. Though I have said this is simple, it is not always easy, as it requires us to change our thinking, our behaviours and our habits (or programming)

We will no longer force our horses to do something. We will understand the horse’s motivators of Safety, Comfort, Play and Sustenance (Water & Food) and utilise these in an effort to help the horse re-program their behaviour.

If you can, for a moment, put yourself in your horse’s skin, and you will see that a if horse is able to exert his free will, he would not want any of the mechanical devices invented by man to be used to restrain him. Your horse would much prefer to be able to move away from what scares him, be free to investigate what frightens him, be able to run and live.

Fortunately for us as horse lovers, our horses have an almost unbounded ability to become desensitised to ‘scary’ people, places changes and things. Our horses also have an almost unbounded ability to override the cowardice and the claustrophobia once they are desensitised, and trusting of people, places changes and things around them.

We can help our horses become desensitised, accepting and trusting of things much quicker than if they were left to do this on their own. We can actively accelerate their acceptance and increase their desire to be in our surroundings by continuing the dancing theme.

I introduced the theme of dancing with your horse, if you remember 1,2,3..1, being 1 introductory dance step, 2 principle dance steps, 3 purpose dance steps and 1 freestyle or challenge dance step.  I went on to describe the 1 Introductory dance step – ‘Tolerance & Trust’ which, through approach and retreat can build desensitisation to all sorts of ‘scary stuff’, which develops a horse who is not sceptical and is no longer a coward.

Now, let’s look at how we can help our  horses overcome their claustrophobia and additionally build in respect for the human.

To help us help our horses, we can practice the 2 Principle dance steps :- Yield to a steady energy and Yield to a rhythmic energy

Principle Dance step – Yield to a steady energy

Objective – help your horse overcome claustrophobia by encouraging the moving away from energy rather than pushing through it and go onto develop respect from your horse to a point where the energy needed (from you) is minimal to move your horse forwards, backwards, right, left, up and down.

Steady energy means non-pulsing and physically in contact with the horses body.

This is something unnatural for a horse to do, because they are claustrophobic by nature, they would push through steady energy. This particular dance step is imperative if you want your horse to be thinking through claustrophobic situations  rather than simply reacting, for instance halters, bits, saddles, fences, floats. This dance step is also imperative if you want to be able to ride your horse with feel, and grace, as most of your communication will be via steady energy, especially as you both become more refined and head for True Unity.

The steady energy is best taught with either a stick or your hand, and using 4 phases of firmness as you apply the energy. The simple way to think of applying the phases with steady energy is if you would like your horse to move backwards, apply your stick to the chest and keep it steady (not pulsating) and phase 1 just puts energy onto the hair for about 3 seconds, phase 2 is move the stick into the skin for about 3 seconds, then phase 3 move the stick into the muscle for about 3 seconds, then phase 4 is move the stick into the bone and wait until the horse moves one  step then remove the stick (if the horse moves one step at any lower phase, then remove the stick) ie. give comfort (remember horses learn by receiving comfort).

The overriding point here is to understand that the horse will learn when you REMOVE the energy, so as soon as the horse makes a move in the wanted direction, remove the stick or hand.

The basic dance moves to practice with Steady energy are :

  • Backwards from the nose
  • Backwards from the chest
  • Forwards from the knot of the halter under the chin
  • Lower the head via energy on the poll
  • Lift the head via energy under the head / neck
  • Move the front feet around a circle (back feet remain relatively still)
  • Move the back feet around a circle (front feet remain relatively still)
  • Move the front end a step or two sideways, then move the back end a step or two sideways

Principle Dance step – Yield to a rhythmic energy

Objective – help you develop respect from your horse to a point where the energy needed (from you) is minimal (and not in contact) to move your horse forwards, backwards, right, left, up and down.

This dance step helps you convince your horse that you understand his language, as this, rhythmic energy, is the one that most horses use to ‘dominate’ each other, for example – a horse uses rhythmic energy in phases such as

  • Phase 1 – crinkled nose and staring eyes
  • Phase 2 – ears back
  • Phase 3 – snaking head and neck or lifting the head and neck
  • Phase 4 – bite, strike or kick

You are able to replicate your horse’s phases using your own body language and with help from a stick or rope, for example:

  • Phase 1 – you simply ‘stand up tall’ with strength (or LIFE) in your body
  • Phase 2 – you can either wave the stick or swing the rope or shake your hand (just like ears back, though yours are already back!!)
  • Phase 3 – you can now move toward your horse creating more rhythmic energy (ensure you are safe, ie be out of reach of your horse’s feet and teeth!!)
  • Phase 4 – you now need to follow through with a “bite or kick” by actually touching your horse with the rhythmic energy of the rope, stick or hand – yes this means you will have to come into contact with your horse… wait!! This will only happen IF your horse has not yielded to phase 1 through 3.

Hint: ALWAYS start your rhythmic energy  at Phase 1 (because this is where you eventually want all your responses from your horse) and progress up the phases until your horse moves (yields) then stop the energy and relax, maybe even rub your horse to a stop.

The basic dance moves to practice with Rhythmic energy are :

  • Backwards from in front of your horse using stick or hands
  • Move the front feet around a circle (back feet remain relatively still)
  • Move the back feet around a circle (front feet remain relatively still)
  • Move the front end a step or two sideways, then move the back end a step or two sideways
  • Cause your horse to walk with you at a respectful distance (no holding the clip, you are beside the shoulder or beside the head) – this is particularly rewarding, having a horse who willingly walks beside you as opposed to “dragging” along on  the end of the rope behind you, or worse, jumping on top of you!

If you practice and achieve the 2 dance steps described above, your horse will look at you like you are a legend. He will respect you for the knowledge you have and the language you display – your horse will begin to see you as a leader, someone who is worth being around and following. The bottom line is that you will have taken the time and effort to enter his world and look at things from his perspective; this shows your respect for your horse and that you truly want to be the horseman he wants you to be.


Tony Lander

Achieved 4 star rating as a PNH Instructor and Young Horse Trainer, now teaching as part of the International Horsemans Institute using principles learnt from Pat Parelli. Tony has competed successfully in the showring in many different equine disciplines with his Purebred Arabian Stallion Clover Park Sahony.  Tony’s time is now dedicated to helping people get the best out of their relationship with their own horses through Natural Horsemanship. Over the last ten years, Tony has helped people and horses in all states of Australia, North and South islands of New Zealand, the USA and Germany. Tony presented at the inaugural International  Horseman’s Rendezvous in Germany in September 2006 and again in 2007.

Visit Tony Lander’s website for more information

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