Preparing the horse to learn

Horse Health: A myriad of factors under the control of the human can affect the horse’s ability to develop

A horse’s relationship to other horses is of primary importance to a horse’s nature and psyche.

The Dorrance Brothers, Bill and his younger brother Tom are widely known for their eloquent and effective communication with horses.

They are often credited as the original forefounders of the modern-day revolution in horsemanship. The human/horse bond runs deep. Horses seek to appease or make peace with their domesticators and are willing learners. “Thought” leaders and “feel” leaders such as the Dorrance Brothers emphasized the importance of shaping the human’s perspective from an understanding of the horse’s perspective.

Tom Dorrance was often introduced at horsemanship clinics as “the master of zero to one.” This qualification is highly important when addressing the learning horse because there is an element of physical, emotional, social and mental preparation that is necessary for the horse to be a good learning candidate in relationship/s with the human.

Any school teacher will speak of the value of preparing the child to learn. A child well rested, well fed, with plenty of movement and playtime and from a stable family environment is better able to engage and thrive in the learning experience.

Giving a six-year-old boy a can of Coke, a Snickers candy bar and putting him in front of a television set for hours at a time will derail any effective teaching program not through any fault of the child.

Similarly the young horse that is being fed sugar-rich rations and has been socially isolated in a box stall with metered turnout time will be ill prepared to engage in a learning environment not through any fault of the horse.

Pain, fear, physical, emotional and mental distress and confusion are significant impediments to the learning aptitude of the horse. Whether the horse experiences these states as a result of husbandry, environmental or social factors or handling methods the ensuing activation of the fight, flight or freeze responses within the nervous system significantly interferes with the cortical functions or “thinking” parts of the horse’s brain, inevitably hindering meaningful learning. The human being does not learn well in fear or distress, nor does the horse.

The recognition and proper address of painful conditions are crucial to the willing equine student of all ages. Regardless of the nature of the pain i.e. dental, foot, musculoskeletal, back, digestive system or ill-fitting saddle, pain is pain and pain quickly diffuses any attempts at focused learning as the brain and body are engaged in taking care of the hurt.

Experiential learning is strongly wired into the neurology of the horse. Horses learn through their experiences and as such they take into entirety everything in their environment. Therefore everything matters to them in their present moment even the seemingly small and insignificant things like the new puppy, the change in weather, the twisted halter strap, the argument the handler had with their mother earlier that morning and so on.

It is not uncommon for the horse to present coping or adaptive strategies as a means to deal with the overwhelming circumstances from their perspective. These strategies can be misconstrued to be unwanted behaviours yet the horse could rarely have behaved any better or responded any differently with the predicament it had been placed in when seen through the lens of the horse.

Horses, like all sentiment beings including humans learn most efficiently in tranquil and familiar settings. The horse is in its best learning state when it is calm and content. Horses must be physically comfortable, emotionally content and mentally secure in their environment to be able to learn as effectively as their horsefolk hope them to learn. In order to facilitate smooth trouble-free relationships with horses and minimize behavioural wastage and/or the inconvenient horse the horse person must know and appreciate just what horses are.

A horse’s relationship to other horses is of primary importance to a horse’s nature and psyche. When given opportunity horses develop strong social bonds between individual horses and within groups of horses.

The horse/horse bond runs deep. Horses need other horses for security, comfort, and behavioural health. It appears that in order for a horse to have a healthy relationship with a human being the horse itself must have a healthy relationship with other horses. Appropriate socialization amongst horses in an open setting best prepares the horse to subsequently learn efficiently when exposed to human handlers.

The human handler is greatly advantaged when they allow horses to properly socialize through their growth phases to ensure that their horses grow up to be good horses first. Horses raised out of the herd context are vulnerable to behavioural insecurities later in life and one of the consequences of improper socialization is behavioural wastage.

The concept of sensible horse husbandry recognizes the value of a social environment and lands where horses will be provided with constant connection and communication with other horses. This sensibility will meet the horse’s essential need for locomotion and foraging behaviour to ensure healthy expression of behaviour and physiological health.

Locomotion is innate to the trickle feeding nature of this animal as it travels in search of forage. Movement is vital to healthy equine digestion, respiration, metabolism, hoof integrity, dental function, circulatory, musculoskeletal and nervous system functions. Without movement and constant forage ingestion horses become metabolically vulnerable and behavioural troubled.

They develop coping strategies to keep themselves and their jaws moving. Horses deprived of companions, forages, and freedom of movement are at risk to develop stereotypes, unwanted and unwelcome behaviours. These deprivations create struggles for the horse and leave them as poor learning candidates by any measure. It is unfortunate for the horse whenever these behaviours are wrongfully addressed as training issues rather than symptoms of mismanagement in an attempt to extinguish them.

Appropriate socialization of the horse and proper husbandry practices are powerful pieces of information and understanding necessary for horses to succeed in their learning endeavours.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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