Horses have strong instincts and in training it is very beneficial to work with, rather than against, their natural behaviour and responses. They are in addition very adaptable and quick to learn from their experiences. It is possible to teach a horse to respond to quite subtle signals, and even to override their natural instincts, such as fear of an unfamiliar object or sound. Given the right training, a horse can become a very willing and responsive equestrian partner.
Instinctive and Learned Behaviour
It is undoubtedly easier to teach a horse to respond to a signal when the desired behaviour comes naturally. A horse will readily move forwards to a squeeze from the leg, but he/she will be reluctant to respond to a signal to move backwards when he/she cannot see what is behind him. By understanding the natural behaviour of the horse, we can use and develop his strengths, rather than work against them.
Although your horse will respond to situations instinctively, she can also learn responses based on her own observation and past experience. We can definitely make the most of this quickness to learn and ability to remember how to deal with particular situations, such as remembering how she successfully jumped, for example, a difficult fence on a previous occasion.
Similarly, a horse learns that a response he makes will be followed by a particular consequence. For instance, he learns that by kicking the stable door he will be fed, or that by halting to the pressure of the reins the pressure will be released. The feeding of the horse is a positive reinforcement to his initial act of kicking the door – the horse is therefore encouraged to continue his bad habit because he gets food as a result. The release of the reins is a negative reinforcement if the initial response of halting – the horse is encouraged to respond to the aids so that the pressure on his mouth will be released.
Using Punishments Carefully
A great deal can be accomplished in training by simply ignoring undesirable responses. A response that is neither rewarded nor punished tends to disappear. A positive punishment, such as kicking the sides of the horse after he has refused a fence, should be used carefully. If used too much, it can become associated with a type of work, which in turn can lead to unwilling behaviour.
The threat of punishment is often enough on its own, for instance by taking your legs away from the horse's sides but not kicking him. Not rewarding an unsatisfactory response can also work well with a trained horse.
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