Natural Horse World

Jargon Busting: Some Learning Theory Terms for Horse Owners.

by Greg Glendell

This article tries to explain some key terms used in leaning theory, as applied to training horses. 

Teaching young horses at liberty is easier if you understand learning theory.
Teaching young horses at liberty is easier if you understand learning theory.

Learning theory is the scientific explanation of how all animals, including humans, behave. It is not really a ‘method’ for training horses. Instead, it explains how the process of learning takes place, regardless of the methods used.

It is particularly relevant to teaching both new behaviours, and trying to avoid unwanted behaviours in animals.

In addition to this, all animals also have their own ‘language’, the body postures and sounds which each species uses to communicate with each other. With horses, this is very reliant on body posture, head height, and position of the ears. This ‘language’ can also be derived scientifically and is called the ethogram for the species.

Where horse owners and trainers have a good knowledge of both learning theory and the species’ ‘language’ they can work more effectively and more gently with their horses, reducing the need for forceful or aversive actions.

Sadly, most people who ride/train horses and offer advice on training methods are not familiar with learning theory, which can make things difficult for both riders and horses! Conventional, traditional methods and those using in ‘natural horsemanship’ tend to rely on the use of aversive stimuli for most training. The advocates of these methods also use colloquial language in trying to explain their methods.

While there are several technical terms used in Learning Theory, this is for a very good reason. Each of these terms has a precise meaning, explained below. This is in contrast to terms such as ‘discipline’, ‘respect’ and ‘trust’ which are words that can easily be misinterpreted and misunderstood. The main terms used in Learning Theory are:

  • Positive reinforcement (+R = rewarding with something desirable)

  • Negative reinforcement (-R = removing pressure)

  • Positive punishment (often referred to, informally merely as ‘punishment’)

  • Negative punishment (removing something the horse may like)

  • Habituation, Desensitisation, Shaping and Flooding.

Here are a few practical examples of how these relate to horse training.

Teaching your horse to accept the worming tube is easy with positive reinforcement (clicker training) and regular practice.
Teaching your horse to accept the worming tube is easy with positive reinforcement (clicker training) and regular practice.

Positive reinforcement. This is where a horse receives something it likes immediately after it has done a behaviour. Eg. The trainer asks the horse to ‘walk on’ and when it does, she gives the horse a piece of carrot, or scratches it on its withers.

If this is done many times, the horse learns to associate the phrase ‘walk on’ with the reward, and this gives the animal the incentive to do the behaviour when asked.

The behaviour is said to be reinforced; meaning it is more likely to occur each time the trainer says ‘walk on’.

Once a behaviour is patterned into the horse’s training programme, food rewards can be given less frequently and phased out.

Negative reinforcement. This is where a horse is subjected to an unpleasant or even painful stimulus, until it does the behaviour being asked of it, then the unpleasant stimulus is removed.

Sadly, this is how most horses are taught most of the time. Some trainers call this ‘pressure – release’. Eg. Exert pressure on the horse’s mouth via the reins, to stimulate it to slow down, stop, or turn. When it does, (and not before) the pressure is released.

Eventually, the horse learns to carry out the behaviour when the stimulus is given, in order to avoid pain and discomfort.

(Reinforcement = Letting the horse know they have done something you want.)

Positive punishment. This is the use of an aversive action by the trainer, after an unwanted behaviour by the horse. Eg. hitting a horse on the nose after being bitten by it or shouting at a horse or kicking it after it has kicked you.

Negative punishment. This is where the trainer removes opportunities for the horse to gain reinforcing ‘rewards’ for desired behaviours. Eg. Where, perhaps during training, a horse nudges you forcefully with its head, so you walk away leaving it unable to earn its rewards for a few minutes.

(Punishment = letting the horse know he has done something that you don’t want).

Some more important elements to know:

These horses have become habituated to the tarp above their hay feeder.
These horses have become habituated to the tarp above their hay feeder.


This is where the horse is exposed to something until it eventually realises that it is harmless. Eg. a balloon is placed in the horse’s yard. The horse may dislike, and even be fearful of the balloon, but eventually they may ‘get used to it.’


Typically this is where a horse is gradually and carefully exposed to an event or object that might cause fear, but the exposure is done at a distance and rate that does not induce fear. Eg. A balloon is placed a long way from a horse, and gradually moved closer over several hours, or days perhaps; but at a pace that does not induce fear.

Flooding. This is where a horse is unable to escape forceful training methods. It is ‘flooded’ with uncomfortable or even fearful stimuli. Much round-pen training relies on flooding: the horse is enclosed in a small pen and subjected to whatever the trainer tries to do with it; it has no option to ‘escape’ these actions. Many horses resort to submissive behaviours, (licking and chewing, with head dropped) as they experience the effects of flooding.


Gradual shaping can help a horse learn complex tasks like backing into a trailer at liberty.
Gradual shaping can help a horse learn complex tasks like backing into a trailer at liberty.

This is where a behaviour being taught is broken down into a set of simple stages, so the horse finds it easy to learn each stage, rather than being required to learn the whole behaviour at once. Eg. Teaching a horse, in hand, to turn on the forehand:

The trainer asks a horse to move one rear leg a few inches to one side, while not moving the front legs;

Next, the trainer asks the horse to move the same rear leg a full step to one side, while not moving the front legs;

Finally, the trainer asks the horse to move both rear legs to the same side while keeping the front legs still.

Shaping typically requires many very short training sessions and is often done over several days, even weeks, to get the horse to do the full behaviour.

Again, each small stage, when done by the horse, can be rewarded with food, scratching the withers or other itchy spot, verbal praise etc.

Shaping, combined with positive enforcement is a very powerful and ‘horse-friendly’ way of working with them during training.

Some additional training tips:

  1. Where possible, try to use positive reinforcement, desensitisation and shaping, as appropriate, when working with horses.

  2. Positive punishment should never be used regardless of what the horse has done. Horses are not ‘moral’ creatures, so cannot make intentional ‘mistakes’. Correction by punishment is inappropriate and can be counter-productive. It can have serious side effects particularly regarding the relationship between the punisher/trainer and the horse. The welfare of the horse is at risk, as can be the trainer’s safety. Where a horse fails to accept a request for a behaviour, repeat the request a few times. If this fails, go back to an earlier stage of training and retrain the horse.

  3. Use negative punishment only with care.

  4. Try to avoid enforced habituation.

  5. Try to ensure both you and the horse remain calm but attentive during training sessions. Do not work with a horse who is over-excited, fearful or nervous. Keep all training session brief; less than 10 minutes, and stop the training session immediately if the horse becomes excited, nervous or fearful. After a break of about 20 minutes, resume the session for another brief period, so long as the horse (and you) are calm..

  6. Negative reinforcement can be very useful when working with horses.  But it is important to remember is that it needs to be used with great care, since (like positive punishment) it can have serious side effects if used in unskilled hands. When using neg. reinf, it should be done for very brief periods only, and its application should be mild.

  7. When using neg. reinf, it should be done for very brief periods, and its application should be mild.

  8. Most ground work can be done using positive reinforcement (often with shaping). This can be combined with the use of verbal cues.  So later, when riding and asking for the same behaviour, the same verbal cue can be used first, then brief mild neg. reinf. if needed.  Most horses learn to associate the verbal cue with the behaviour being asked for after a few sessions, and this reduces the need for Negative Reinforcement.

With a better understanding of how horses learn you can teach and train them more effectively using the elements explained here, no matter what equestrian pursuit you are involved in.

For more information, search for scientifically-based articles using the phrase: “Learning theory horse training behaviour”

GreyglendellGreg Glendell works as a companion parrot behaviourist in the UK, and has written several books on bird care.

He keeps parrots and horses.  He has recently returned to riding and backed and trained his horse, ‘Harry’, using the same principles, based on learning theory for working with clients’ pet birds.  

Greg considers this is far more horse-friendly than conventional, forceful training methods. Harry is not involved in any competitive work, but is used mainly for long rides and camping trips in the UK.

For more information on Greg have a look at his website

3 thoughts on “Jargon Busting: Some Learning Theory Terms for Horse Owners.”

  1. I have A scarlet macaw A horse from the wild, and a dog. Animals are very loving. Horses are very smart. I think they are a lot like my big bird. I’m getting old, I wish I could live as long as they do. My bird is close to 20 years old. I wish I could give her to someone, a lot younger. She’s going to live to be 100.

    1. Cynthia

      You are lucky to have these beautiful animals in your life Tamara, and I hope you find the right person to look after your macaw. Maybe an animal sanctuary would take her/him as an alternative? We have a local wildlife park who just celebrated a sulphur crested cockatoo’s 100th birthday – he even got a letter from the Queen!

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