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The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation.

McGreevy, P.D., McLean, A.N., 2007. The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2, 108-118.


By definition, ethology is primarily the scientific study of animal behavior, especially as it occurs in a natural environment; applied ethology being the study of animal behavior in the human domain. The terms equine ethology and ethological training are becoming commonplace in the equestrian domain, yet they seem to be used with a conspicuous lack of clarity and with no mention of learning theory. Most of what we do to train horses runs counter to their innate preferences. This article summarizes the ethological challenges encountered by working horses and considers the merits and limitations of ethological solutions. It also questions the use of terms such as “alpha” and “leader” and examines aspects of learning theory, equine cognition, and ethology as applied to horse training and clinical behavior modification. We propose 7 training principles that optimally account for the horse’s ethological and learning abilities and maintain maximal responsivity in the trained horse. These principles can be summarized as: (1) use learning theory appropriately; (2) train easy-to-discriminate signals; (3) train and subsequently elicit responses singularly; (4) train only one response per signal; (5) train all responses to be initiated and subsequently completed within a consistent structure; (6) train persistence of current operantly conditioned responses; and (7) avoid and disassociate flight responses. Adherence to these principles and incorporating them into all horse training methodologies should accelerate training success, reduce behavioral wastage of horses, and improve safety for both humans and horses.