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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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HOW HORSES LEARN?


 [Part 2 Teaching Strategy]


 

Horses learn as people learn

There are a variety of methods and modes of learning. Horses are born to learn, and learn from their first breath to their last. Whenever horses are around humans, they are learning. They learn and remember most everything any human teaches them, including behaviors not intended to be taught. Appreciating learning science is essential to successful horsemanship.

The foal’s first teacher is her dam. Once the mare catches her breath following parturition, she begins teaching her foal. She utilizes operant conditioning to help the foal rise and suck. She applies gentle pressure to the foal with her muzzle in rhythm with the foal’s movement. When the foal moves in the direction best suited to rising as the mare suggests, the mare releases the pressure, conditioning the foal. This operant conditioning that utilizes negative reinforcement teaches the foal the best method to rise and stand to find a nipple, and subsequently suck. The mare also utilizes positive reinforcement to teach her foal. She rewards appropriate behaviors with milk, rubs, and knickers.

Once the foal learns to nurse, the foal learns to move out alongside her mother, developing her locomotory skills. The foal develops her innate movements under the mother's guidance and tutelage. Many behaviors are innate and instinctual, but all are best served to be honed by the mare’s example. Rewards, cues, protections, support and guidance develop the foals learning abilities.

Foals are born to run soon after birth. Within hours many can and do run when afforded the opportunity of open space in which to do so. Foals are precocious, meaning they are born relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth with a well-developed nervous system. Altricial species such as the dog and humans are born helpless and require weeks for the nervous system to develop into a moving mammal. Not so the foal.

 

Precocial species are not only able to run; they are able to learn shortly after birth. The mare and foal are best served to be provided with a natural open setting in which to develop their learning and moving about. Green open pastures provide the best teaching and learning opportunities for the mare and foal. A stall or stable is perhaps the worst place for the mare to effectively teach the foal. 
It is critical the foal learn from the mare, and later the herd, so as to be amenable to human training later in life. Social learning is critical for the foal to grow up into a teachable, trainable willing partner. 

During the first hours of life, the foal becomes a horse imprinted by the mother and a human. This imprint phase is a unique and critical learning phase that molds the foal into a horse. The foal absorbs the behavior of the dam utilizing social learning. The first hours and days of life is the most critical learning period of the foal, and this learning should be supported and nurtured by humans. Social learning is critical for all species, and is particularly important for group survivalists such as the horse. The horse is taught to be a horse by the dam and the herd. Learning the social constructs of herd life is critical for group survival. As well, learning the social constructs of the herd prepares the foal to be taught by humans later in life.

 

Accomplished horse trainers utilize all the teaching strategies that the mare uses to teach her foal [read part 2]. All horse trainers should learn, know, and appreciate the scientific terms regarding learning (training). The traditional training of horses utilizes negative reinforcement. All horses are trained utilizing negative reinforcement as the primary method to teach responses to specific cues. Negative does not imply that the training method is unacceptable or bad for the horse. Mares teach their foals using negative reinforcement: Pressure is applied, and then released when the horse or foal gives the correct response. So then, pressure followed by release to the desired response is negative reinforcement. Remember the terms negative and positive have nothing to do with good or bad when used in the context of training and teaching horses. Negative means taking something away. In behavioral learning terms, positive connotes adding something, such as a reward, as in positive reinforcement, or adding punishment, which is termed positive punishment, which can be unacceptable despite the terminology. Positive reinforcement is adding something, such as food or a rubbing reward. Negative reinforcement can be enhanced with positive reinforcement: