How Horses Learn, by Monty Bruce
In this article we will discuss how horses learn, how to best apply this info to the horse and the step by step process we use in my training program. My goal is to give you solid proven information that is simple and easy to follow in a manageable amount of time to produce the best results for you and your horse.
I have started and trained colts from about every breed. Stock horses, Warm bloods, from Quarter horses to Paso Finos and everything in between all in this same fashion.
So you have selected your prospect and you are ready to get started. First let’s talk about how horses learn. There are two main processes: pressure, release of pressure (cues) and repetition. When we apply pressure or cue a horse and they react correctly to the pressure, we release the pressure or cue on them. When we apply pressure there is energy and movement created, this is very basic in the beginning stages of training. As training progresses and we gain more and more control of the movement and the horse’s body, we can direct that into the moves and maneuvers we want. This is when our timing becomes a key factor. When we apply pressure to the horse and we get the correct response, we must release the pressure instantly to clearly let the horse know he has made the correct response.
Example; if we apply pressure and pull on the horse’s reins to stop him, the very instant he ceases motion we release the pressure to reward him for stopping. By releasing pressure we can create the desire in a horse to do what we ask – again we will use the stopping for an example; If the horse does not stop well, instead of yanking on his mouth or using a bigger bit, we want to make him want to stop. We can make the horse want to stop because he thinks it’s a good idea. We try to keep this approach on all phases of training. When we pick up the reins, apply pressure and set our hands, the horse will look for relief from the pressure. His first reaction might be to push against your hands or throw his head up, but just hold your hand position with the same pressure and he will find the relief when he breaks at the poll and drops his head.
The first time he finds the relief from the pressure he will probably stumble on it by accident, but the very instant he gives his head and stops, you release the pressure and give the reins back. By being consistent with your pressure and release of pressure timing, he will start to look for that spot of relief.
The horse starts to realize that if we take a hold of the reins and say “whoa”, if he stops and gives immediately to you he gets the relief from pressure instantly. It becomes a good idea to him to stop and he starts wanting to stop.
Also, when we sit down and say “Whoa” on our horse and there is no response, we have given them the chance to stop on their own. We then take a hold of the reins and softly draw them back till the horse stops, then we make them back up several steps every time they do not stop for us. It may take fifty times of asking first (by sitting down then saying “whoa”), then telling him by drawing in the reins and backing him. But, one time he will stop crisply for you when you give him the voice command. When he does, be ready, don’t pull on the reins, just drop them and sit quietly and pet him. Clearly letting him know that was the correct response.
Again by using this method we are teaching the horse, not pulling, yanking on his mouth or using a bigger bit. We are communicating with the horse. These are examples, but they are also the principles we want to use in every area of our training. The next question we want to ask is how do we apply pressure to our horse. Remember, we are teaching the horse and we want him to respond to us willingly, we are not forcing him. We want to present it to him that when we ask for something, with time, repetition and consistency, he wants to give us the correct response. When we first apply pressure to ask something of him, we ask or apply very lightly, hesitating to give him the chance to respond to light pressure. On a horse that is just learning something new, likely he will not respond at first. Next, we will tell him with our pressure in the form of a cue what we want. We will tell him by stepping up the pressure and slowly keep stepping up the pressure until even if by accident, he takes one step in the right direction. Once the horse takes the first step, immediately release the pressure rewarding him.
Important note, when stepping up the pressure, be sure to keep the cues consistent and gradually increase the pressure. Remember, we are asking, directing and teaching, not demanding or forcing.
Repetition is the next major factor in a horse’s learning. Once a horse understands what we are asking of it and how to give us the correct response, then it is a matter of being consistent with our cue or pressure, time and release of pressure, that train the horse for the response we want.
Monty and his staff operate a training facility specializing in reined cow horses in north central Iowa.
Until next time good luck and God bless, Monty Bruce
Visit our website: www.montybruce.com
[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 1, Issue 4.]
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