Lessons from the horse – adapting learning styles

Today I did a quick session of target training a cone, the intention was to do this with my Shetland but as the mare was in the enclosure she came to join in. I started to contemplate their different learning styles and how personality effects learning in all species as does the dynamics of the group (herd, pack, family, class, click)


They both understand the principle of clicker and target training but don’t train as regularly as I would like. The mare

(who took a long time to catch on, I thought she was never going to get it, but then I had a brain wave about how her fear could be holding her back, she obviously was worried about getting told off, I don’t know much of her past but she has always been happy for me to lay my hands anywhere but hold an object; even a grooming brush and its a different story. I tried showing her a target from behind a wooden fence with her at liberty in the field; she got it, the protective contact of the fence between us helped her feel safe to try something new and offer behaviours, we have never looked back and she now is first in line to train)

…went straight for the cone, regardless of whether it was static and I pointed to it or I had thrown it and then pointed. She is very curious yet highly strung and fearful, she clearly shows her intent to protect her family when intruders like straying dogs enter the field (I’m pretty sure she would stomp on them), she is however, not very good at standing still, where as the Shetland will stand and wait until I give him a hand signal to come, yet he is slower to go to the cone when it is away from me. He is much less reactive to fearful stimulus, in fact he is primarily frightened of people, not objects.

They are polar opposites in their approaches to learning and I believe this is, in part, because of their hierarchical positions (although horses do not have a linear hierarchy), the mare is generally the boss although she shares her status with the older gelding depending on the importance of the resource involved, but the Shetland is always subordinate. In order to train him efficiently he has to be removed from the other horses (as evidenced by today’s efforts to train them together) otherwise he hangs back and will not offer a behaviour as it increases the risk of having to compete with the mare.


I see her give him subtle looks sometimes and when I walked away today she charged at him, teeth bared. The more time you spend just sitting or moving with them, the more subtleties you notice and realise the importance of ensuring one on one human/horse bonding, so those always in subordinate positions have the opportunity to partake in enjoyable stimulus while feeling safe from being admonished. This can be related to other animals and children in a peer group setting where they might feel embarrassed to try or get involved for fear of failure humiliation or punishment from other children or adult in charge. It is crucial to consider everyone as individuals and adapt teaching methods appropriately.

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