Some horses learn better than others—here’s why

If someone asked you what determined the learning ability of a horse, what would you say? Are some horses better, or worse, learners than others? And can we influence the learning ability of our horses?

According to Dr. Stephen Peters, a neuropsychologist, and horseman Martin Black, the coauthors of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, that answer is “yes.”

Learning to learn

A horse’s ability to learn is largely dictated by his past experiences. Has your horse been able to explore, with or without a rider, circumstances to find a right answer, or has it been micromanaged and forced into a specific answer?

Horses that have had the opportunity to explore solutions and make mistakes are the better learners, the pair says. These horses have “learned to learn.”

Dr. Peters explains that a horse that’s exposed to a myriad of experiences has extensive dendritic fields (neuron-to-neuron connections in the brain), therefore increasing decision-making and learning capabilities.

Consider a horse that has been stalled or kept away from other horses for most of his life compared with a wild mustang that has lived in a herd environment. A stalled horse likely hasn’t had the opportunity to interact with other horses or gain stimulation from varied environments. On the other hand, the mustang, or even a turned out ranch horse, is in tune with herd dynamics and is an expert at negotiating adverse terrain. These two horses represent two very different learning environments and have two contrasting dendritic fields.

The dendrites in the stalled horse’s brain might resemble a pruned tree with very few branches, while the dendrite connections in the mustang’s brain might look like a large fig bush with vast networks of branches.

Even though it may have never seen a human, the mustang would be the better learner. It’s able to use its expansive dendritic field as a network to utilize past experiences, make new connections, and more easily negotiate new challenges. Black refers horses that are able to do this—not just mustangs—as “special forces horses.”

These special forces horses are able to operate from the same place mentally as the mustangs. That is, they’re able to relate new experiences to past experiences, which gives them the sensitivity, desire, energy, and a to accomplish new tasks.

While this might be an extreme example, the principle is rather simple: by allowing our horses to find the right answer, rather than forcing it, we can create willing horses who will “learn to learn.”

Comfort zone departure

The thing about learning is that it can happen with or without our supervision.  We might think that we need to be present to drive home a lesson with our horse, like creek crossing or trailer loading. But, the truth of the matter is that learning often stems from a horse’s curiosity.

Take a creek crossing, for example. While some horses might walk across with no issue, others might avoid the creek like the Loch Ness Monster lying in wait, just under the surface.

Let’s imagine first how this might play out if the nervous horse is without human supervision. He might give the creek the hairy eyeball at first, or he may even take a drink while leaving his feet firmly planted on the bank. Suppose then that he stretches his neck out so that his nose drifts toward the middle of the creek so he’s able to explore.

Imagine now that his foot slips from its dry, land-loving position, splashing into the creek. The horse would likely startle and he would hop back to “safety.” After a moment, his curiosity would regenerate, and he’d eventually find himself inching across the creek.

Of course, this wouldn’t happen if he didn’t allow his curiosity to test his limits. In order for the learning to happen, the horse needed to be curious, pushing his comfort zone. Our horses learn when they become curious or in a slightly stressed, alert state.

When the curiosity is satisfied or the alertness retreats, the horse returns to what is called homeostasis (comfort, or the scientific term that means a neutral state) and is greeted with a dose of dopamine (a feel-good chemical commonly associated with licking and chewing that comes about when the horse has been relieved from stress).

Loving to learn

Horses, and humans, enjoy the dopamine hit that comes from learning. It’s like the best piece of chocolate money can buy, only free and without calories!

As riders, we can facilitate this natural learning process so that we ach