Good or Bad Learning? Does Your Horse Understand August 28 2013

The book, 'Evidence-Based Horsemanship', is a cowboy-scientist collaboration by Dr Stephen Peters and Martin Black

As we will read in Evidence-Based Horsemanship, a horse's learning is largely about positive feedback. From a brain chemistry standpoint, positive feedback is linked to the release of a chemical or neurotransmitter called dopamine. In barnyard terms, we can think of dopamine release as closely tied to the relief of pressure. In other words, horses want comfort and relief from pressure. They will seek out the dopamine release because, quite simply, it feels good to them. 

If you’re sensitive, observant, patient, and able, you can take advantage of that specific proclivity. You can make your riding cues more and more subtle. You can create a refined, learning machine in your horse. At that point, your horse will perform incredible moves while you sit in the saddle making near-invisible adjustments.  And the crowd will roar.

But first, it’s crucial to better understand the horse’s learning process. For starters, from the horse's perspective, there is no difference between good and bad learning. 

We're not talking flying lead changes or piaffes here. 

Let’s take the much beloved task of trailer loading as an example: The horse may load into a trailer and find a release of pressure as the trailer is closed up and he finds hay to eat. There may be a dopamine release and a learning moment here.

Alternatively, the horse may pull back, get away from its owner, find relief of pressure, and get a dopamine release.

The “learning moment” might be even more reinforcing if he gets to graze. In other words, horses don’t discriminate between these good and bad learning moments. They will search for the dopamine release regardless of how humans interpret their actions. Another aspect of learning related to dopamine release, is a horse’s comfort level.

A horse won’t learn much if he’s scared or really uncomfortable. Nor will the lesson hit home if he’s bored or over-drilled. It’s when you find a balance between these two ends of comfort that the best learning occurs. 

As Martin Black writes: “…When we get the balance just right, the horse can operate at a place where he is interested but not worried. The more he experiences operating in this place, the more he looks for this place because it feels good to him.”