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.

Carrots and Sticks

Natural horsemanship favors the use of reward in daily interactions with your horse. Traditional horsemanship is more prone to using aversive influences, such as bits, spurs, and whips, but tries to disguise them as “aids”, “moving away from pressure”, etc. Is one approach better than the other? The answer to this question might hinge on the training techniques used, not the language we use. Your horse would choose to live in a world in which positive reinforcement was the norm. So would you. But would he learn better with positive reinforcement than with the other options? Positive and negative feedback have somewhat different roles. Both improve performance, but positive feedback is important to maintain a desired behavior, while negative feedback is most useful in adjusting current behavior.


Horses roll. They do so in places where others roll. Eventually, the area where they roll may lose its vegetation and become dusty. What we can’t see is what they smell. Before a horse rolls, he sniffs the wallow. During the roll, he rubs the dust into his fur, and his scent into the remaining dust. He acquires the scent of the herd, and the next horses to roll acquire his scent.

A horse with normal withers will usually lie down on one side, rub against the ground, then roll to the other side and repeat. A horse with high withers may need to stand after the first side, and lie down on the other to complete the job.

Learned Helplessness

Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.

Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.