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The application of learning theory in horse training

The full paper can be viewed here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159117300710

Andrew N. McLean,, Janne Winther Christensen


The millennia-old practices of horse training markedly predate and thus were isolated from the mid-twentieth century revelation of animal learning processes. From this standpoint, the progress made in the application and understanding of learning theory in horse training is reviewed including a discussion of how learning processes are employed or otherwise under-utilised in training. This review describes the process of habituation and the most commonly applied desensitisation techniques (systematic desensitisation, counter-conditioning, overshadowing, response prevention) and propose two additional techniques (approach conditioning and stimulus blending). The salience of different types of cues, the interaction of operant and classical conditioning and the impact of stress are also discussed.This paper also exposes the inflexibility and occasional inadequacy of the terminology of learning theory when translated from the research laboratory situation to the practical setting in horse training. While learning theory provides a rich toolbox for riders and trainers, the training process is subject to the simultaneous use of multiple learning processes. In addition, learning/behavioural outcomes and trained responses are not just the result of simple stimulus-response based interactions but are further shaped by arousal, affective and attachment states. More research is needed in these areas. For the field of equitation science to progress and to improve clarity and use of learning processes, changes in nomenclature are required. In particular, the use of the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ as descriptive labels in both reinforcement and punishment modalities are unacceptably misleading for everyday use. These labels inhibit the understanding and recognition of the learning processes that these terms supposedly represent, yet the learning processes they describe are vital for horse riders, handlers and trainers to understand. We therefore propose that these labels should be re-labelled more appropriately as ‘addition’ or ‘subtraction’ reinforcement/punishment. This would enlighten trainers on the correct application of learning theory, and safety and welfare benefits for people and horses would follow. Finally it is also proposed that the term ‘conflict theory’ be taken up in equitation science to facilitate diagnosis of training-related behaviour disorders and thus enable the emergence of improved training practices. The optimal use of learning theory should be established as a fundamental principle in equestrian education.© 2017 Published by