Want to have a good relationship with your horse? Want to train him right? Want to stay safe on the ground and in the saddle? First things first: train yourself. Riders and handlers should all educate themselves in equine learning and apply that knowledge to their horse-human relationship. And ideally, that education should happen through specific training classes by equitation science professionals, according to the Italian equine learning research trio Paolo Baragli, Ph.D., Barbara Padalino, Ph.D., and Angelo Telatin, Ph.D. In their recent review on equine learning research, they looked at the different ways horses learn through training—mainly associative and non-associative learning. Associative learning is the process by which horses learn to associate a certain stimulus, or cue, with a specific action they can do to receive a reward, such as the removal of pressure or a bit of food. Non-associative learning is general habituation to certain things in their surroundings, like saddle pads and bits, or even plastic tarps and umbrellas. When horses get used to these things without fear reactions, they’ve had non-associative learning.

But poor knowledge of these learning processes can lead to disaster, they say. If we use too much pressure or have poor timing on pressure release, horses can have associative learning between a stimulus and pain or confusion—which can lead to unwanted behavior like kicking, bucking, rearing, biting, etc. As for non-associative learning, horses can become habituated to things we don’t want them to, like bit pressure.

To become better horsemen, we must learn more about the processes of how horses learn, according to these top equitation researchers. “This will lead to positive effects for all sports and activities in which the horse is employed (and) reduce the possibility of injuries for humans involved in the equestrian industry…,” they stated. Read their full, practical review (Ann Ist Super Sanita. 2015;51(1):40-51) online for free.