Horse Training and Behavior Principles

The underlying fundamental elements of the NLH training program are the application of the principles of pressure and release, and positive reinforcement in our training techniques; consistency and repetition in our training program; the continual pursuit of excellence in timing, feel, and balance in our techniques; and, the assessment of each horse as an individual in our program.

Training horses is about shaping behaviors; building cues for specific actions we want from the horse and discouraging behaviors or actions we don’t want. A horse begins to learn what we want them to do only by recognizing “cues” or specific signals that we apply to them as a request to perform a particular maneuver.

How Horses Learn
Horses are capable of learning in a variety of ways. Traditionally, horses learn by “conditioning”, that is, they learn by associating a particular behavior with a given ‘stimulus’ or pressure. Actually the horse learns from the release of pressure used to get the desired behavior. This is the way horses most often communicate naturally with each other and the method we use frequently to teach our horses many of the groundwork and riding maneuvers.

Horses use their bodies to create pressure towards other horses – they communicate through body language. This can be in the form of posture changes (pinning ears, stretched head and neck, baring teeth) as well as whole body movements (biting, kicking, moving towards or away from another horse).

Body language is used by one horse to pressure or motivate other horses to move. Once the horse achieves the desired movement from the other horse, he stops the pressure or specific body language used to get the movement. That release of pressure is perceived by the other horse as a reward and a recognition of having done the right thing. In this manner, the release of pressure becomes the reward for the desired behavior.

In this way, horses effectively communicate with each other by pressure and release through actions of body language. The NLH program uses this principle of learning to communicate what we want our horses to do, that is, to develop cues for specific actions.

Cues are nothing more than subtle forms of pressure applied through the use of our aids (body and training tools). A horse will recognize a cue only when the cue or ‘pressure’ is removed, in the form of a reward, after the horse gives the desired response. In this way, cues are ‘built’ for various behavior modifications and maneuvers.

By using our body language and the principles of pressure and release in our training techniques we effectively communicate with horses in the manner which is most familiar to them.

Through patience, exquisite timing, feel and balance, and consistency and repetition in the training program, the horse’s response to our cues becomes more precise and finessed and the communication between horse and handler becomes more clearly defined.

Importantly, by using this method of training, we show horses that we understand their language. So, we not only build their Performance by teaching them cues for specific maneuvers, but we also develop our leadership role which in turn develops the Partnership between horse and handler.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement
Another way that horses learn is by association of behaviors with positive or negative reinforcement without using pressure to stimulate a response. For example, a horse can be taught to pick up an object if, when he shows interest in the object, that behavior is rewarded with a treat. Eventually he may touch the object and later pick it up if that behavior is continually rewarded. This is an example of positive reinforcement to achieve a desired response by the horse.

Alternatively, if a horse bites another horse and gets kicked or bitten worse himself for doing it, that horse is not likely to bite the same horse again. He has learned to associate dominate behavior toward that horse with a negative outcome. Or stated differently, he has learned to become submissive toward that horse. This is an example of negative reinforcement to achieve a desired response.

Classical Conditioning
Horses can also learn by association through what is called ‘classical conditioning’. This means they can learn to associate an unrelated cue with something they do naturally or another learned behavior if that unrelated cue repeatedly happens at the same time as the behavior. For example, if I cue my horse for a leg extension on the ground by tapping his shoulder with a cue stick and at the same time I raise my leg (unrelated cue), eventually my horse will extend his leg when I raise my leg only, and I don’t have to tap him with the cue stick. He has learned, by association, a brand new cue for something that I previously taught him by a different way.

The NLH team believes that horses are amazing animals with often untapped learning potential. The beauty of the NLH Program is that it uses training techniques derived from each of the methods by which horses learn to produce the most broad-based, comprehensive and effective training experiences for your horse. The result is a program that keeps training fresh for your horses and always help them to reach their potential for learning in a natural and positive format.

Key Concepts for Successful Training:

Predator vs Prey Relationship
Horses don’t know right from wrong the way that people do. It’s important to keep that in mind when training horses because often people get frustrated when their horses don’t do what we want them to and they think that the horses are “misbehaving”.

Horses behave the way they do because that’s what they have learned to do naturally in the wild to survive, feel good, or play with their herd mates. Most behavior patterns from horses can be traced to a single fundamental point: horses are prey animals and subject to the fate induced by other predatory species. Simply put, they are a food source for predators and to survive must exhibit prey behavior which translates to flight or fight behavior. When confronted by predators, horses will first flee and secondarily fight if they cannot escape by running away.

Horses are either in ‘safe’ mode or ‘survival’ mode mentally. When they are in safe mode they are receptive to learning but when they switch to survival mode learning becomes secondary to them and they simply react to flee from what they perceive as dangerous. Even though wild horses have very few predators now and domesticated horses, likely none, the instinct to react remains very strong.

When we think horses are misbehaving they are usually exhibiting behaviors that stem from the predator-prey relationship. That is, they are overly sensitive or ‘reactive’ to their environment including what we may be asking of them. Horses are acutely aware of their surroundings, part of which includes our interactions with them – our body language. Sometimes they perceive our actions or tools as threatening to them and overreact.

Horses are likely the most reactive species of all. But, they are also the easiest animals to de-sensitize to things because they have learned the value in conserving energy-if they didn’t quickly become desensitized to things that are really NOT a threat to them, they would be running all of the time!

Desensitizing vs Sensitizing
When we’re training horses, the goal is to teach horses to stay in safe mode so that they can learn more and more. This is achieved by de-sensitizing them to things that they would normally perceive as fearful and to think before they react.

De-sensitizing is means of building the horse’s confidence. It’s a concept built into the training process that teaches horses how to deal with threatening things and situations. It’s a process that continues throughout the horses training until they can understand and apply the concepts to new situations they encounter.

At first horses will overreact to objects or situations by moving and trying to run from them (performing in survival mode), but the process of desensitizing teaches them that as soon as they stop overreacting to reevaluate the situation (stand still and switch to safe mode), they will be rewarded. They are rewarded by complete removal of the perceived threat.

By using this systematic approach to desensitizing, horses learn to be less reactive to many things, more confident, and to stay in safe mode longer and longer where they are receptive to learning. As horses build the safe mode mentality it soon outweighs the survival mode mentality in most everything we do with our horses and allows us to excel in the training process.

We don’t want to ‘over’ desensitize our horses though to the point that they become dull and listless. Our goal is to desensitize to make horses safe to be around but save some of the natural energy and spunk to excel at performing.

Some horses are naturally under-reactive to things and this can interfere with training because they don’t want to give us the energy or forward motion that is needed to excel at the maneuvers. In this case, horses need to be energized or motivated to react. We accomplish this by teaching them to move or become more responsive to our cues by following the ‘Rule of 3’.

The “Rule of 3” means that when pressure is applied to request a specific move by the horse, that pressure will be incrementally increased in “steps of 3” until we actually “bite” the horse or make contact with him as another horse would if asking him to move out of his space. Consistency in using the “Rule of 3” soon teaches the horse that he must be responsible for his own actions but gives him a clear and concise means by which to react.

Timing, Feel and Balance
At first, horses really don’t know that they are in training. They are aware of our body language toward them and every time they feel ‘pressure’ from us they will respond by moving or reacting in an attempt to ‘escape’ that feeling of pressure. But, they don’t actually know that you are asking something specific of them and they don’t automatically know basic obedience, manners, etc. This has to be taught to them.

In order for training to take place, in order for the horse to understand that we are asking him for specific maneuvers, we must perfect the art of timing, feel and balance in our approach to training. This is a lifetime quest and the better you become at these elements in the training program, the more efficiently your horse will learn.

For example, a key element essential to the success of training is the ability of the trainer to recognize even the slightest effort or “try” by the horse to respond to our cues correctly, and to reward the horse immediately for that effort. Precise timing of the reward (release of pressure) is essential. This will leave a lasting impression on the horse and the understanding that his action was correct and it will make getting the desired response easier the next time you ask for it.

If when you ask your horse for something he does not understand and you feel as though he is misbehaving, likely we are either not asking him correctly or we’re asking him in a way that is sending him into survival mode. It’s important that we are able to feel or read how the horse is responding to the lesson so that we know how to modify the approach to make it work for that horse. Every lesson should set the horse up for success; it must be broken down into as simple a version as possible initially so that it becomes easy for the horse to understand and he will make an honest attempt at trying to find the right answer.

Each lesson should start with a concept, a very simple and direct approach to what you want the horse to do. Then allow time for the horse to let it sink in. This can take a couple of minutes or a day depending on where the horse is in the training, the type of horse your working with or other specific circumstances. Consistency and repetition in the training techniques will ensure that the horse learns what you are teaching him. Consistency and repetition in your everyday interactions with your horse will ultimately create the possibilities you’re looking for.

Timing, Feel AND Balance…You’ve heard it, others have said it, and great trainers LIVE by it…but, what does it really mean?

Timing can be release of pressure at a precise moment in response to a horse’s try or it can mean that ‘now’ is not the time to introduce a new concept to a horse…it can mean back off sooner than later or it can mean raise the bar to challenge your horse to a higher level of learning. Feel can be knowing the precise amount of slack to leave in the reins or it can describe what you know is coming next in response from the horse…it can be realizing where that horse is underneath you as his feet hit the ground or it can be knowing that one wrong move can get you killed. Balance can be the difference between why I can make it happen and my student can’t seem to pull it off…or it can simply mean mix up the routine for your horse. It can be why one horse and rider exude cadence and rhythm and why another pair seems to have irreconcilable differences.

“Each of these, Timing, Feel and Balance, is such a basic element for sound and successful training and so intricately intertwined, yet can barely be defined at the risk of reducing their true meaning.  The deliberate and honest attempt at masterful execution of each in a day’s work with your horse is what truly separates good trainers from great ones.”

-Suzanne Myers

Next Level Horsemanship™
Improve Your Horse. Improve Your Life.