Horse training approaches should involve the principles of learning theory (the principles of how all organisms learn), and consider motivation, associative learning, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and habituation. In addition, horse training should consider equine ethology (the study of the horse’s natural behavior), so that we use stimuli similar to those that horses naturally respond to, and reinforcers that they find reinforcing. This seems needlessly complicated, but that’s how the world works. In fact, basing our training on learning theory and ethology simplifies everything. Without understanding these fundamentals, we enter a world of accidental results and mythological explanations of those results. And that is today’s world of equestrian coaching.
Grass Loves Horses
Horses are grazers. “Graze” comes from Middle English grasen, from Old English grasian, and that from græs, grass, so a grazer is a grass eater. Horses are grazers, as are cows, sheep, bison, buffalo, deer, elk, wildebeest, zebras, and kangaroos.
Special saliva. When a mammal or a plant-eating insect eats dinner, it creates saliva, some of which it leaves on the grazed grass. For over 40 years, scientists have known that grasshopper grazing increased the growth of the grass they ate. In 1980, Dyer applied a component of mouse saliva — epidermal growth factor (EGF) — to sorghum seedlings, and found this significantly increased the speed at which shoots and roots grew, and found that such growth was dose-dependent: more saliva meant more growth. EGF is not only found in grasshopper saliva. It is also found in mammalian saliva (including yours) and in spitballs.
What do horses want? herd, carrots and grass, in that order. Especially in comparison with ourselves, horses have simple desires. None of those desires seems to suit us. Horses don’t want to be ridden. They don’t want to tear around in the round pen. They don’t want to get on the trailer. And they often don’t want to go into the wash stall.
All of our activities with our horse are our idea. They are activities that serve our goals. They approximate what we want. Just because your horse is passive and is willing to cooperate, and doesn’t speak English, you should not assume that he finds your time together pleasing.
Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.
Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.