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Good or Bad Learning? 'Same Diff' to Your Horse

Published: 2/16/2012
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Evidence-Based Horsemanship is a cowboy-scientist collaboration by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black. Learn more about the Mancos, Colorado seminar, November 18-20 by clicking here.

Read Part I, by Randy Rieman
Read Part II, What is EBH?

By Maddy Butcher

A horse's learning is often about relief from or release of pressure, also considered negative reinforcement. From a brain chemistry standpoint, this  feedback is linked to the release of a chemical or neurotransmitter called dopamine. In barnyard terms, we can think of dopamine release as tied to the relief of pressure. [The illustration, right, shows dopamine release in simplest terms and at brain cell level.]

Check out the EBH Seminar here.

In other words, horses want comfort and relief from pressure. They will seek out the dopamine release because, quite simply, it feels good to them.

If you’re sensitive, observant, patient, and able, you can take advantage of that specific proclivity. You can make your riding cues more and more subtle. You can create a refined, learning machine in your horse. At that point, your horse will perform incredible moves while you sit in the saddle making near-invisible adjustments.  And the crowd will roar.

But first, it’s crucial to better understand the horse’s learning process.

For starters, from the horse's perspective, there is no difference between good and bad learning.

We're not talking flying lead changes or piaffes here. Let’s take the much beloved task of trailer loading as an example:

The horse may load into a trailer and find a release of pressure as the trailer is closed up and he finds hay to eat. There may be a dopamine release and a learning moment here.

Alternatively, the horse may pull back, get away from its owner, find relief of pressure, and get a dopamine release. The “learning moment” might be more reinforced if he gets to graze.

Horses don’t discriminate between these good and bad learning moments. They will search for the dopamine release regardless of how humans interpret their actions.

Another aspect of learning related to dopamine release is a horse’s comfort level. A horse won’t learn much if he’s scared or really uncomfortable. Nor will the lesson hit home if he’s bored or over-drilled. It’s when you find a balance between these two ends of comfort that the best learning occurs.

As Martin Black writes:

“…When we get the balance just right, the horse can operate at a place where he is interested but not worried. The more he experiences operating in this place, the more he looks for this place because it feels good to him.”

Read more about negative reinforcement.

Check out the EBH Seminar here.

View Reader Comments:

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2/16/2012 Matt
Who knew? Thanks for the trailer scenarios. I'll never look at it the same way!
2/17/2012 Molly
I just take it for granted that my horses load well - BUT if I think about it, truly, I remember my intial issues. I couldn't load them by myself, One horse flipped over backwards getting out (heart in my you know where) - I was terrified of the whole process. What changed? - I honestly don't remember the one thing that made the difference, but I do know that I calmed down, became persistant, not aggresive and did repetative loading with lots of praise and good food. Now the one that flipped out backwards, self loads and stands like a charm, no panic attacks nothing - whew I am greatful. So yes, this all makes sense to me.

"Those who look down eventually get there" - Kip Rosenthal