How The Horse Learns

Understanding how your horse responds to the aids is vital for riders.

The horse is an intelligent animal. He’s adaptable, sensitive, quick and willing to learn. He just needs us to tell him what we want him to do in a way that he can understand. Until recently. scientists believed that animal learning was confined to conditioning (see below) but many now accept that horses are also able to absorb information in other ways and learn complex tasks (something riders have always known!).

Horses can also learn to modify their instinctive behaviour. For example. a good trainer can teach a horse to approach an unfamiliar or frightening object, when instinct tells him to flee.


Conditioning is where a stimulus provokes a response – such as bright light and blinking. Unlearned responses like this are called unconditional reflexes. Conditioning also happens by means of reinforcement or reward. For example, a trainer asks the horse to walk on by giving a leg aid. As the horse moves, the leg pressure is immediately reduced this is the reinforcement. Quickly the horse learns that legs mean go forward and as soon as the horse does this he is rewarded (the pressure is released).

If the legs are clamped to the horse’s side, there is no reward and the aid will not become conditioned. The horse will not walk forward because he won’t understand what is being asked. As training progresses, these aids are refined and the horse learns that a leg aid In a slightly different place means go sideways, but the theory remains the same.

When the required response is achieved, there has to be some reinforcement or reward. Other examples of reinforcement include giving tit-bits when the correct response is gained, or praising either with a pat or the voice.These are sometimes referred to as positive reinforcements.


Punishment is not a productive tool for teaching horses. Training using punishment is based on fear and submission and does not make for a happy relationship. It’s also very difficult to get the timing of the punishment right. We’ve all seen the confused expression on a horse’s face when his rider hits him as they’re leaving the arena after a disastrous show jumping round he has no idea what he’s done wrong because the punishment is late and the poor soul has probably associated it with something he thinks is right every other day of the week.

Over the next few articles, you’ll find advice to improve your horse’s schooling. Use your knowledge about how horses respond to the aids to get the most from this information and become a better rider. Every time you give an aid ask yourself: “Did l make my request perfectly clear, have I rewarded or reinforced my aid?”


  • It’s important to be consistent with your training and riding. Always praise the right response and don’t change the goalposts.
  • Be positive and authoritative. Lack of confidence will confuse your horse.
  • Allow your horse the time he needs to digest and understand your request – his instinct is to run from trouble, not stand around trying to figure it out, so be patient.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *