Bad Behaviour

There is an expression that says, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This describes precisely one of the biggest contributing factors to problem behaviour in horses: the way we think about them.

Horses are not humans

We have a tendency to describe the behaviour of horses in human terms, as if they have human-like abilities and attributes. The scientific word used to describe this tendency is ‘anthropomorphism’. Because we think horses have human-like abilities or attributes, we therefore also assume that horses are supposed to know what to do (knowing the difference between right and wrong), and if they don’t, they are perceived as being naughty. Punishment is therefore always justifiable. This is unfortunately very far from the truth, as scientific research has shown that horses do not have higher mental faculties. Why not? Because those areas in a human brain, for example the right neocortex and prefrontal cortex, which are used for higher mental processes, are much smaller and smoother in horses’ brains and are dedicated to other tasks relating to, for example, survival.
It’s those areas in a human’s brain that give us the ability to think laterally and objectively, to reason and to be self-conscious. We must therefore accept the horse for what he is: a flight animal with a brain perfectly adapted for his life as a social grazer.
The horse is not a ‘thinking’ being who can analyse situations and know what to do, but rather a straight-forward animal who lives very much in the moment, with his biggest drive being to stay alive. The idea is thus to understand the horse for who he is. It is this misunderstanding that causes problem behaviour in the training process, and it should be avoided at all times.

How do horses learn?

It is furthermore also important, in our attempt to train horses (and to prevent problem behaviour), to understand how learning takes place in the brain of the horse. The learning process in animals is described in literature by different words and terms, but basically comes down to the following:

  1. Operant conditioning
  2. Classical conditioning

Operant conditioning

In operant conditioning, we train the horse to respond consistently to signals provided by us, whether we are on the ground or in the saddle. This way of conditioning is also described as trial-and-error learning (or learning through pressure and release). The horse learns that when he is behaving in a certain way, a reward will follow. The reward might also be a relief from some or other pressure, whether psychological or physical. The horse then learns to offer the rewarded behaviour. The more pleasant the outcome, the better the chances are for the horse to do it again. Then logically, the less pleasant the outcome is, the less likely the horse is to do it again. This is why any trauma should be avoided in the training process. It only takes one traumatic event for a horse to learn never to repeat whatever he perceived as a negative consequence. Such an experience will only activate the flight response, raising levels of adrenaline and subsequently impeding all learning processes.

Operant conditioning applications

Operant conditioning can be applied in two ways, namely through positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves the addition of something, for example food or a sound signal, and negative reinforcement involves the subtraction of something, for example the release of pressure.

During this process of training, and for learning to take place, timing is of critical importance. If, for example, a certain stimulus or pressure is applied, it needs to be released within half a second of the desired behaviour for the brain to make the link between the stimulus and the subsequent behaviour. The rider needs to be very quick and accurate with the rewarding of good behaviour. The release of pressure, in the case of negative reinforcement, can then also become the reward for the horse.

In the case of positive reinforcement, the signal or food must be added within half a second of the desired behaviour. This is also an area that can be a huge cause of problematic behaviour. If the release is not at the correct time, any behaviour other than the desired will be reinforced. When this happens, the horse is normally perceived as being difficult or stubborn and should be punished for this, while it is actually the trainer’s fault for the horse behaving in an unwanted way.

Many trainers will then attempt to use force in the training process. This never works, as it’s also important for the animal to perform the learned exercise on his own for learning to take place. Patience is therefore very important, as it is the trainer’s responsibility to put up the exercise so that the horse eventually does something in a desirable way on his own.

Classical conditioning

In classical conditioning, we train the horse to associate new or secondary cues to already established cues, previously learned through operant conditioning.

Problematic behaviour

The best solution to problematic behaviour is to prevent it from happening in the first place. That is the trainer’s responsibility and that is why it’s so important for every trainer to be aware of the facts mentioned above. Unfortunately, we all make mistakes. And believe me the emphasis is on us, because it is never the horse’s fault. There is therefore no error-free method of training. The question now is: what do I do when my horse has learned unwanted behaviour?

Text by: Malan du Toit

The full article appears in the January issue (118) of HQ magazine > Shop now