Horses as Learners

Individuality extends pretty far down the levels of evolutionary complexity. Many organisms, confronted with the same stimulus, will behave differently.

Horses are complex enough to be highly individualized. For instance, Lensman is a curious explorer with strong social drives and little interest in being dominant, while Gunsmoke is always interested in being dominant, will go out of his way to control Lensman, and is more focused on eating than exploring.

When turned out together into a new pasture, Lensman went to see each corner of the fence before settling down at the center to eat. But Gunsmoke simply went to the center of the pasture and ate, content to allow Lensman to explore.

In another instance, new neighbor horses came to the fence and Lensman immediately went to visit them. Lensman spent some time with them before Gunsmoke got interested and came over to shoulder Lensman aside, as if to say “OK, kid, I’ll take over.”

In another case, the horses started to encounter deer at our new place. Lensman was transfixed by the sight of them. He seemed to want to become one of them. His body actually stretched and became taller and his eyes widened darkly as he stared at them. He would walk slowly toward them as if mesmerized. Which was funny, because he had seen deer before, but maybe not in the same context.

Gunsmoke, on the other hand, was alert, but gave a sense of looking at competition or potential danger (Remember, horses have never seen “Bambi” – they don’t know what deer are, or are supposed to be like). He can spot them much farther away and will stand stock still as if trying to figure out what he is seeing and whether to worry about it. But he doesn’t approach them, he just watches them.

One day, the deer came close to the edge of the paddock and Lensman walked toward them, slowly, as if in a trance. Then he stood there for ten minutes, staring at them. Then, suddenly, Gunsmoke looked up from his haybox and saw what was going on. He immediately galloped down the hill toward Lensman and the deer, so that the deer and Lensman scattered at his vehemence. Then Gunsmoke came trotting back up the hill, for all the world looking totally pleased with himself as if saying “Well, I showed them who’s in charge!”

What does this have to do with learning? Well, it’s simple. Horse learning styles are as varied as their individuality.

But their learning styles are not always or fully consistent with other parts of their personalities.

For instance, you might expect Gunsmoke, as a largely dominant horse, to be equally dominant during the training process. Not so. In fact, Gunsmoke worries over maneuvers in his session. After the first demands of any complexity, when we stop for the rest, he almost always waits a moment and then sighs deeply as he releases his tension. He does the same for anything he may not have mastered:  when confronted with advanced demands – maneuvers he doesn’t know or complex aids – he may do anything from flap his lips in distress, to fight with his bit, to trying random maneuvers. Eventually, as he masters the connection, these reactions diminish and vanish.

Lensman may feel the same concerns, but it comes up less often for him, as he has “more buttons” so the chances of doing something he doesn’t understand is smaller. Also, he has a tendency to internalize his stress – though a high head, wide eyes and harsh breathing are manifested when he is stressed.

Gunsmoke tends to shed longer term training stress, but Lensman can remember and manifest stress reactions to harsh training for years. For instance, his original owner damaged his lead change by spurring him into the change and then yanking on the bit as he leapt forward into the change, This took several years and failed tries by other trainers to remove – they did their own damage in the process, which also had to be removed – and it took a delicacy of approach to avoid reawakening the hidden demons.

If you don’t understand these things about your horses, you can’t train them. You’ll get emotional responses that you don’t understand, suboptimal performance, and potentially an unhappy, stressed horse.

So spend some time with your horse. Listen to them while you train them. Learn from them so they can learn  from you.