Horse intelligence and learning ability
Published 12-27-2010 8:46 PM | Fernanda Camargo
It is important not to give horses human characteristics, but to understand their behavior from their perspective. What seems illogical to us, may be very logical to them. Attaching human emotions to horses impedes us from understanding their behavior.
It is of particular importance for us to not measure horses' intelligence and learning abilities based on the same way we measure humans'. Our brain is large in relation to our body, and the part of our brain that deals with reasoning and problem-solving is very well developed. A horse's brain is small in relation to its body, and horses learn by trial and error.
Good trainers use the horse's ability to learn by trial and error in their techniques. It is extremely important for trainers to be consistent so that every time a horse performs a maneuver, it is met by the same response from the trainer, whether a reward or a punishment.
An example of trial and error learning is when you start to teach a horse to back up from the ground. You pull the lead rope down and back in a way that it adds pressure to the horse's halter on its face. A horse that doesn't know what you asking of him may try to raise his head, walk forward, etc. He is trying to evade the pressure from the bridge of his nose. If you are doing it correctly, you will not release the pressure on the halter until the horse takes a step back. When he finally takes a step back, you should immediately release the pressure from the lead rope, which is the reward the horse is looking for. When you do that, you teach the horse that when you put pressure on his face you expect him to move backward. He tried different solutions (raising his head, moving forward, etc), he erred (you did not release the pressure) and he finally did what was demonstrated to be right by you, which was backing up. Do this a few times over and you will teach the horse to back up from the ground. I can stress it enough how important it is for you to be consistent with your horse. Inconsistency will lead to a badly behaved, immature and disrespectful horse.
Horses can learn certain tasks fairly quickly if trained properly. A horse will remember and respond to a cue indefinitely once it has been taught properly and thoroughly. A well trained horse should yield and move away from any pressure applied to its body. If you put a hand on his hip, he should move his hip away from you. An untrained horse will either ignore or lean into pressure. This can be very dangerous and can result in a person being crushed against a solid object.
It is through proper training that horses learn to yield to pressure cues. And it is through consistency and repetition that horses learn.