In the information age, Q and A columns , blogs, and on -line forums provide an buffet of answers to the questions horse owners have as they try to communicate with their 1000 lb., non-English speaking partners. The process of equine training and management can be puzzling. In in the horse world, where emotion and fact often collide, how do we know how horses really think, feel and learn?
If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages …Maybe take an animal degree. (Dr Doolittle)
In riding and showing horses, we’re always solving puzzles – how to solve a behaviour problem, figure out the source of a gait abnormality or how teach a skill and then refine it so it’s better than the competition! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not muck around with speculation. I want to sift through the anecdotes and get right to the facts. For the best solution, I seek to separate the truth from what someone thinks is true or what I hope might be true.
Which solution has the track record of success with multiple horses time after time? Is there research to back up the theory? Is it a lasting solution or a quick fix?
I approach training on the basis of behavioural science - how horses think and learn.
We’ll never know what it’s like to be a horse but there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to the way horses are wired – and it’s not like humans!
So how do we know what we know?
The evidence of research
One of the things I love about teaching equine behaviour is studying all the cool research that’s been conducted on behalf of horses. Studies on hundreds of horses confirm that horses learn things by operant conditioning – trial and error, pressure and release. We’ve learned what motivates them, scares them and what they actually see, hear and smell. Technology is available that actually shows the action of various bits inside the equine mouth, so we don’t have to speculate. Equipment is used to read the heart rate and stress hormone levels during various training and handling practices so we can confirm if a horse is under stress even if he may not appear so. Many of the findings verify what those of us who have trained many, many horses have concluded intuitively. But, based on what we now know through science, I’ve changed my approach in some areas over the years, turning my back on some stubborn traditions.
The evidence of the horse’s brain
Simply by comparing the anatomy of the human and equine brain, we see that horses have a relatively small area devoted to reasoning and higher thought processes such as analyzing and strategizing. Social grazing animals don’t need the same ability to speculate, (“What if?”), plan (“Next time I will…”), or analyze emotion (“I really overreacted…”).
A horse does however, have a large region devoted to coordination and learning –by- doing.
The evidence of survival as a prey animal
What motivates a grazing prey animal? Instinct to flee sounds and sights. The safety of the herd. The ability to roam and graze and procreate. A photographic memory to recall dangerous situations (without the human tendency to analyze these memories ). How much differently the horse and dog trainer must approach their teaching! Prey animals don’t need strategy or logic. They do need to follow the leader, escape entrapment and react quickly.
So it seems to me, the most efficient and humane way for me to solve my horse puzzles is to set my human reasoning and emotions aside, take an honest look at the facts and think like a horse!