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.
I believe that all animals have moods. Sy Montgomery writes “hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemicals associated with human desire, fear, love, joy, and sadness, are highly conserved across taxa… This means that whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions (moods) appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we to be accosted by a mugger.”
Among the most remarkable animal stories are those involving friendships where we might not expect them. A friendship between man and dog is not surprising — after all, a dog is man’s best friend. Nor is it surprising to find a friendship between two dogs — or two men. We expect intraspecies friendships (friendships within the same species) .
But then we don’t. A friendship between two fish would surprise us, or between two invertebrates, two amphibians, or two reptiles. And we are surprised when we come upon apparent friendships between two very different species, such as cat and bird or duck and owl.
Touch is very important to your horse. It is the main way that you communicate with him when you are on his back. Horses bond through touch, and relax when they are touched by a loving partner. And because his vision up close is very poor, touch becomes very important to him when you are up close.
The importance of touch is made clear when we learn that his side, where you might have once kicked him, is more sensitive even than a human fingertip or the calf of your leg, and that he can react to a touch that would be too light for you to feel at all.
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.
Some forms of massage, done on certain areas of your horse, will likely make him feel better, and may have other benefits. But not all massage has value, and some may be detrimental.