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.
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.
The Natural Horse Last revised: April 12, 2017. Two Przewalski horses.1 Regardless of what we make of natural horsemanship, all of the definitions presuppose that we know what a natural horse is. If we really want to do natural horsemanship, then we need to understand the natural horse: what do they do when we aren’t […]
There is one thing that all of our husbandry can’t change: horses love each other, just as elephants love each other and deer love each other. Horses can’t get enough of each other. They would be close together in a herd every minute of the day, given a choice. I was especially struck by this in driving across Wyoming, where a pasture can often be 100 acres or more. Survey such a pasture, and find who lives there: a half dozen or so horses. And where are they? Jammed together in one place or another, so close that one tail can swat the flies on a friend’s body. Horses never live alone in the wild, and should never be forced to live alone in captivity.
It is easy for us to spot play in children and domestic mammals. We’ve heard that there is a place where the deer and the antelope play. Those who have looked closely have found play in birds and even reptiles. But play is harder to spot in amphibians or insects or plants. Horses certainly play, and young horses are especially prone to play.
Benefits of Play
Over 30 hypotheses have been advanced by scientists to account for play, but there is not solid support for any one of these hypotheses. Play likely has multiple benefits.
Many have reported that play is more common in young, healthy, well-fed and securely attached animals, suggesting its occurrence indicates well-being. But it is also more likely in barren or boring environments, suggesting that it serves to reduce boredom — a condition not associated with well-being.
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.