Working with your draft should be fun and rewarding. Even if you have done all your homework and spent time at lessons and weekend workshops, it’s important to remember that every time you interact with your horse, you are teaching or reinforcing a behavior.
Horses are alert by nature and pay attention to their surroundings. They are stimulated to learn by rewards that have a positive influence on their comfort and survival. When interacting with humans, this may be in the form of submission to something that releases a negative feeling, such as the pressure of the bit on the mouth, or a more positive reward that satisfies with comfort, such as a treat or gentle pat or scratch.
Knowing how your horse learns is as important as working and schooling it in a safe and secure manner. Realize that you and your draft learn things in much the same way. Do we actually train horses, or do they merely adapt to our wishes? Knowing how horses and humans learn with and from each other will enhance your working relationships.
There are six basic styles of learning: latent, habitual, associative, operant, imprint and insight. This may seem complex, but once you know the differences, they are easy to discern. In their basic elements, think of these learning styles in the following fashion.
Latent learning is how your horses learned that you are their caretaker. It happens more slowly over time without any obvious response. Horses knowing their pasture mates and how they move through the herd dynamics as they age is also a form of latent learning.
Habitual = Repetition
Learning by repetition is how your drafts know the way to your woodlot and back to the landing or wood yard without much practice. The activity is repeated so often it becomes habit and a pattern to their days. Desensitizing your drafts with repeated exposure to items that tend to startle or spook them is also a form of habitual training.
Associative = Stimulus
When just walking into the grain room and opening the container of grain elicits a response from your horses, you have succeeded at teaching them by association. The stimulus evokes a behavioral response. Associative training is often linked to sounds, which is why horses will step forward at the sound of “cluck” or come running when you call or whistle for them.
Operant = Choices
Your drafts know that if they touch the electric fence they’re going to get zapped. They have learned the consequences (electric shock) of the operant (the behavior – in this case, touching the fence). Operant learning allows your draft to respond and adapt to new things, such as a change in bit or harness. You can also make use of operant learning in new situations, such as graining young horses in a straight stall to help them understand it is a positive place to be.
Imprinting = Marked Desensitization
Imprint training is done at birth, especially within the first 24 hours, when foals are naturally programmed to receive imprint stimuli from both the dam and the environment. It is a critical time when long-term behavior patterns can be established. Imprint training should only be done by knowledgeable horse folk, as it can cause detrimental and lifelong obstacles to other forms of learning if done incorrectly.
Insight = Bonded and Emotional Rewards
While horses are not considered rational thinkers, there are times when their learning is intuitive. When your draft learns things without the use or aid of other styles of learning, we can often attribute this to insight. Horses, especially those that have deep working relationships with their handlers, are often bonded and work to please and experience emotional rewards, just as humans often do.
While simplified a bit for this column, there is a wealth of information on how horses learn and how our human actions impact their learning. Sometimes we train our horses to do something by accident, and we often use more than one form of learning at a time. Discovering the key ways your horse learns will help you make better choices in your training methods in order to attain your goals.