The more we learn the better we get at the process of learning.
Our brains become more efficient at making connections, sorting out relevant information, and creating new memories.
For humans on a societal level, the practice of “higher education” through colleges and universities plays a big role in this. No matter what we study, the process of performing that learning and that study makes us more efficient learners and therefore better equipped for adjusting to a career outside academia.
If we continue to challenge ourselves with continuing to learn outside of formal education, we will retain these skills for learning throughout life.
The phrase to sum up this process is “learning to learn”.
The same happens for our horses. The more they learn, the better they will become at learning itself, and our role as their trainer becomes easier.
This applies to performing routine, necessary behaviors such as stand still, walk forward, stop, back up, etc. It also applies to more advanced movements of the body, such as place your right front foot forward, or lift your back, or shift your weight right.
In this article I want to discuss how taking the concept of “learning to learn” works and how consciously using this with your horse will make them not only easier to train, but also a safer riding partner as they become better at “thinking” through situations instead of simply reacting with old patterns.
Understanding the Brain
Let’s begin with a brief and very simplified description of the equine brain.
The lower regions of the brain process automatic body responses. This region of the brain governs breathing, heart rate, and fast responses. If a threat is detected by the horse’s senses, the lower region of the brain is what sends the message to respond, with a spook or startle.
Next is the limbic system, also called the midbrain. This section contains emotional centers of the brain.
Finally, there is the neo-cortex, large in a human and much smaller in a horse, but the horse’s neo-cortex allows for problem solving and conscious thinking.
The term neuroplasticity means that the brain is always changing. Areas that are being used will expand, but areas of the brain that are not used will be “pruned”.
The brain develops neuropathways – connections where information is passed. The more often any behavior is performed, the stronger that neural pathway becomes.
The process of learning creates new neural pathways, and the learner, the horse, needs to deviate from the old pattern in order to do something differently, and make a connection between cue and response.
This is the science behind “learning to learn”. As the horse learns something new, he creates more connections in his brain to support further learning.
Here is an example of how even the thinking pattern can change. If we pair new (and perhaps previously scary) objects such as clippers, tarps, a strategically placed plastic bag, with something positive, such as a food reward for investigating that object, we teach the horse to approach new items with curiosity and positive expectancy instead of fear. The horse learns to make a conscious decision to use the higher regions of his brain to actively investigate the item instead of startling and running off. We expand the connections in the horse’s brain for “investigating new things”.
Another example could be teaching a simple clicker training exercise such as targeting. The horse learns to offer behaviors – to try different movements and responses – to earn a reward. This ability is then transferred to the next time we are riding and make a request for a new movement, the horse will offer new responses more easily because he will have learned the process of new request – try different behaviors – earn reinforcement (reinforcement could be in the form of reward or release of pressure.)
What Affects Learning:
The Horse’s Participation
In training, there is a term called “choice point.” What this means is that when we can reward the moment when the horse makes a conscious choice to do what we were requesting the learning will be stronger. In essence we are not only rewarding the behavior, but also the thinking.
When the horse is an active participant in the training and making conscious choices the learning happens easier. The horse needs to know that his choices and behavior affect the world around him in predictable ways, including his interaction with us.
Learning, by definition, is making new connections in the brain. New connections in the brain means the horse needs to try new behaviors and movements to find the right answer.
There are several things that will stop the horse from trying new behaviors. The horse’s participation can be decreased, even accidentally, in several ways:
1 – Punishing incorrect responses
2 – Requiring submission, which reduces motivation to try anything new and different
3 – Physically controlling every movement, taking away opportunity for choice
4 – Training when the horse is in a state of stress
When punishment is associated with making the wrong choice, such as a yanking rein or a kicking leg for an incorrect response, not only that specific behavior, but also the more general pattern of “trying something new” is punished. Remember that trying new things is an essential part of learning.
Punishment can have it’s place to reduce unwanted behavior that is potentially dangerous, but it needs to be used with caution that it does not create negative emotion with training or reduce the horse’s freedom to try new behaviors.
Submission & Controlling Movement
There is a focus in many horse training philosophies on requiring submission from the horse. With equipment and training exercises, choice is taken away, and pressure is continued until the horse submits. Sometimes the signs of submission are subtle – a stoic horse who never offers new behavior and complies with listless responses. Other times the submission may be more obvious, such as a horse snubbed to a post being “sacked out” until he no longer resists.
If the horse is offered no ability to make choice in their training, less of the brain is exercised and involved. When they go into a state of submission, they wait for every response to be controlled by the rider, instead of remaining actively engaged in the interaction and the training.
The more the horse has choice and is an active participant in the training, meaning that their actions bring them a reward or release pressure, the more quickly they will try new things, and therefore learn, in the future.
Horses need to know that their choices affect the world around them, including us, in a predictable way. A horse who is controlled and inadvertently forced into each behavior or movement with no reinforcement for the correct response through a reward or release of pressure can develop a condition known as learned helplessness.
This is where the horse feels that nothing they do affects their environment and essentially give up, going into a passive submissive state. In some forms of training this total submission is the goal, but I believe a horse that is making choices, actively learning, and creating new pathways in their brain is going to be happier, better connected, and in the long run, easier to train.
The Horse’s Emotional Levels
Remember that thinking occurs in higher regions of the brain and automatic reactions are processed in lower regions.
As the horse becomes better at learning and thinking, he can start to override those automatic responses.
The initial startle may still occur, but he can switch to thinking about the situation, and as a result of previous learning, make a choice to say, walk towards the piece of plastic caught on the fence, instead of bolting away from it.
When we teach the horse something new we want them to be in a calm emotional state. This makes trying new things easier as their brain is not flooded with stress hormones and pre-occupied with responding to perceived threats.
As a new response is learned it can then be requested in increasingly stressful situations.
The more your horse learns the better he will get at it. He will be easier to train, and will become more skilled at thinking and offering behavior.
Even simple learning exercises, such as touching a target, rolling a barrel, learning to ground tie, or adding another cue for back up will help your horse be a better learner and will then transfer to your riding work.
Now it’s your turn, think of something new you can teach your horse. Leave a comment and tell me what you will be working on!
I’ve had a fall and recovering from a double fracture in my pelvis. I should mention that I’m 67 years old. 😉 While I’m recovering I’m paying my trainer to ride my boy Congo at least 2X week.
She is really tough on him and I can see he is not enjoying the training. However I have not other options except him not working at all. I’m going out to spend time with him and groom and bath him. I want to start keeping him engaged and do some ground work with him that he might enjoy. I’m working on him not rushing past me while leading as he does this quite often. He’s 17.3 and about 1500 lbs so I don’t want him to be pushy with me. He wasn’t that way before my accident and I’m concerned.
Mary Ann, sorry to hear about your injury…Doing the groundwork with him is a fantastic idea, I would also work in some clicker training to keep his mind really engaged as well. Are you able to lunge him? Perhaps that work will be enough while you are recovering and you wouldn’t need the trainer to ride him – it sounds like it may be more detrimental than beneficial.
– Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Julia and Mary,
I know what it’s like to be injured and have to have others ride and take care of your horse. About 2 years ago, I took a bad fall (a horse, little kids and firecrackers – ’nuff said) and broke 3 ribs with a tear in one of my lungs. It was miserable. I fortunately have a really good trainer and some fantastic friends, who worked her, rode her fed and cared for her for about 6 weeks while I recovered.
Anyway, I think not only should you not let your trainer ride your horse any more, just get another trainer if you can. I can’t judge this person, but when read your concerns, I felt that I should share what I would do if it was me. It’s hard to find a really good trainer. I never thought I would find a guy in my area with the training lineage, the patience and the passion he has for horses. I hope you can find someone more suited to you and your horse. Good luck with your recovery!
Hi callie am working on standing still at the mounting block. Have placed the block at a right angle to a fence effectively making it hard for him to walk backwards.rewarding his success. Interestingly there is no problem at all when i mount bareback for the ride to the field.
Rae, have you checked the fit of your saddle? That would probably be the best place to start if he is more comfortable being mounted bareback.
– Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
I found that my mare learns a new thing best after being successful at a series of easier things already learned. It sets up the mindset for cooperation and seeking answers to my new questions. An excellent way is to have a great start at the mounting block. After watching Angelina’s video to teach a horse to bring its hip toward a tap, and perfecting that, it made approaching the mounting block very clear and rewarding for us both. We start each ride with success and a thank you and then head off to our warmup.
Sorry, it’s Angelino
Good solid advice! There is certainly a fine balance between the horse joining in the learning together with the rider, vs. submission. It is an intricate dance between rider/trainer and horse. Thanks Callie for all the effort put into this segment. I am becoming more aware of my handling of my horses and how to overcome the barriers to better horsemanship. I like the idea of giving the horse a reward when he has chosen to be curious and interactive with an unknown situation or abject instead so as to keep the horses mind engaged instead of over reactive.
Really enjoying working on the ground work exercises from the Balanced Riding Course.
Adding these into our time together has been fun, and I get the sense he is enjoying it also.
He’s challenged, but not overwhelmed.
He seems much more open to new concepts when I add them in short sessions.
It’s been a great way for us to get connected before we ride.
Thank you Callie!
Had a buddy/barn soar horse and was frustrated with lack of success to correct problem. So gave her the reins and did not direct where she went only increased her speed when she got close to gate of corral where other horse was or got close to other horse. After nearly 2 hours of back and forth to corral gate she diverted her direction consistently from the gate. Have done this three days and now she volunteers to go away and stay away from gate on her own. She learned that a relaxing ride away was better than a fast ride at gate area. This concept has now worked well with maintaining her attention. She is slowly learning to think of consequences before reacting as she did in past.
Love this! I saw that in mark rashids book. So glad it worked!!
That’s an interesting way to teach a horse. If I tried that with Zara, it would be a big reward! She LOVES to run! So I have to do other things, like direct her to another direction, when she settles (is relaxed) into that direction, I let her run. I suspect the run (or cantering) after the relaxing is the big reward for her. It’s funny how our horses prefer different things.
thank you!!, very helpful, will practice at the mounting block, and the spray bottle syndrome.
This learning to learn thing is exactly what I have been working on with my little mare. She was so hammered on by the professional trainer that she is always waiting for the hammer to fall. Making training fun has been my primary goal at this point. She is starting to enjoy our time together and now when she sees me coming, she will blast in from the pasture to greet me. Have returned to riding her as if she knew nothing. It’s a slow process to undo someone else’s ego/money driven ambition and cookie-cutter training methods.
Thanks for the affirmation.
What a great analogy Kay, good for you for building a relationship with her!
– Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Thank you for this segment. I just got a new horse (to replace my Hunt partner of 10 years–a super hard job!). He had never jumped before but I have and because I have pretty good balance and hands, I didn’t get in his way. He really seems to like jumping now and is becoming quite smooth over the little jumps, not rushing… So I decided to play a little stick and ball polo. Same scenario. I showed him the stick. Scarry the first time but didn’t spook dangerously. He trusted the second time. I could swing it the third time. Same sequence with the ball (we used a soft, plastic ball).
My point is to support your theme that learning leads to more learning if it is presented in safe steps without punishment for trying.
This is a horse who has never worked for treats or been clicker trained. When I add those incentives, it is a whole new level. I only wish I could be as mentally and physically able as a horse!
I’m going to start clicker training my mare, Sasha. She is 7, pretty stubborn, and has not been treated well at some point in her past (despite that, she’s very cute and I adore her). Every week is a new issue. Lately she refuses to turn left. It doesn’t matter if I use direct reining, indirect reining, leg pressure, or a combination of those, her response is to either back up or turn tiny circles to the right. She is food motivated and will do anything for treats. Clicker training will help me with an immediate way to reward her from the saddle when I can’t immediately offer a treat after she turns left. Any other thoughts or ideas would be much appreciated!
Katrina, is she like that all the time even when you aren’t riding her? If so, it would be worth considering that this could be some type of physical issue. Also, click here to watch the video we did several years ago on How to Steer – just a refresher for how to best apply the steering cues.
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
The short answer is no, she doesn’t do it all the time. Only when I’m riding her, and only when my instructor is not in the arena with a lunge whip while I’m on her. My instructor doesn’t even have to do anything other than walk toward us and she will behave perfectly. The long answer….we thought it might be a saddle fit issue because she is a fairly narrow horse. I ride in a western trail saddle, so I borrowed my friend’s treeless endurance saddle and pad that she uses on her Arab (the most different saddle I could find), she did exactly the same thing. I am trying to get in with the equine chiropractor, but he has some family illness issues and I’m a full time practicing physician in a town over an hour away, so we haven’t connected yet but it’s in the works. She can bend to the left perfectly and pivot on her front and rear to the left fine when I’m ground working her. Finally, when I ride her out on the property where she is boarded, sometimes she turns left just fine, and then suddenly realizes she did something she doesn’t want to do and stops and turns little circles to the right, long after she already made the left turn. Never any problem turning to the right. I think it’s some sort of trauma from her early life, but we haven’t figured it out yet.
I am going to teach Zara to lay down. This has a very practical purpose – when I go trails, there may not always be a “mounting block ” (i.e. a rock or fallen tree) that I can use to mount up.
My trainer always tells me to let her – Zara – make mistakes, then when she doesn’t do what I asked, make a correction that is equal to the mistake. Most reprimands are simple corrections to remind her what I want her to do and as soon as she gives me the least try, the pressure goes away. The concept in his training is “light-handedness.” So, as I read this blog, I see how his instruction is spot on and between what he teaches me and what I read here, I’m getting some of the best information possible! Also, I find it very interesting to know more about the different parts of the brain and their roll in learning. Thanks, Callie and everyone else! The comments from all of you are as helpful as the instructor’s !
Hello. I am really enjoying all of your video posts so far This one, on Learning to Learn, is greatly appreciated. I am feeling confused though as everything I have read has said that the best way to communicate is to apply pressure in someway to the horse until he shows a response. Am I correct in applying pressure to teach, but stopping before the 4 counter-productive strategies occur? So, in essence finding the balance, with each horse, of correcting(getting them to listen to me) and communication (me listening to them)???
Malayna, I’m not sure what you are referring to the with 4 counter productive strategies?
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Recently my horse doesn’t like to pick up his feet and gets an attitude. He acts like he wants to kick you if you don’t stop. I keep working with him and eventually he picks it up. Any suggestions with him? Any help would be great.
Hi Peggy, yes I have a few suggestions for you! I would try incorporating a little bit of positive reinforcement in working with him, if you click here you can watch a video with a horse named Zelli that we had in for training that had some of those similar behaviors.
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Thank you, Julia! This was very helpful and he has improved.
Hi Callie, Julie and Everyone! It is interesting to read your posts and I think I have a problem similar to some of the other people. I have a spirited mustang mare named Sitka that I have had for 6 years. She lives at home and the only place to ride is in her paddock or out in the open. Last year during a boost of confidence, I started riding her in the woods right behind our house, it’s just a small wooded area the size of 1.5-2 acres. She gets really animated and seems to prefer the woods over any other area. She very much has a mind of her own and quickly learns and anticipates what’s next. It’s a challenge keeping her from getting bored. What I thought was a good negotiating idea seems to be backfiring now: I figured we “work” first (if you can even call it that) and then, as a reward, I let her go through the woods. Since picking up riding again this year, she seems more belligerent about the woods than last year. I start riding her in the paddock, but as soon as I ride her out of it, I can tell she already has her mind set on going to the woods. I usually manage to ride her out in the open for about ten minutes, keeping her moving as we pass by that area. Eventually she gets mad and refuses to move forward, unless I let her go in the woods. I make a point of riding at least a few steps away and then deliberately turn her towards the woods in hopes she thinks it is my idea and not hers. I thought that negotiating would help: we practice bending and very basic classical dressage, then she gets to go through the woods as a reward. Now I’m not sure. You know the saying: “offer someone a finger and they’ll grab the whole hand”, well, that’s how she is. I thought she would become more cooperative but instead she is more insistent on getting her way. She is not a safe horse to take trail riding and I don’t have a trailer anyway, so I’m not sure what to do. It is also interesting and discouraging that this year she has started to bite me, which she never did in the past. Seems we are having respect issues, but I’m not aware of doing anything different as far as handling her. Thanks for reading my very long post.
I would be interested to hear Callie’s reply!!!
Katrin, sorry to hear you are having these troubles with your mare! I have a few ideas that come to mind for you…have you tried leading her past the woods? Or perhaps ride her through the woods and then take her into the arena? If she gets bored quickly the more you can change up your pattern the less she will anticipate what you are asking for next. The biting is also concerning, do you notice it occurring at particular times?
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
This blog gives me good food for thought in my work with horses that have been severely abused. One of the most frustrating aspects of this work is that although a horse may seem to come along and ‘learn’ things when working with me, they do not transfer that ‘learning’ later to their relationships with other non-abusive, gentle, knowledgeable horse people. It seem sometimes what I have assumed as ‘learning’ is merely ‘trusting’.