McLean, A., McGreevy, P.D., 2006. Reducing wastage in the trained horse – principles that arise from learning theory. Proceedings of the 2nd ISES Symposium, Milan, Italy.
Direct evidence suggests that the horse was domesticated at around the end of the 2nd millennium BC. Since that time the horse has been used as a vehicle of war, as a form of transport, as a draught animal in agriculture and, more recently, for leisure and sporting pursuits. Unsurprisingly, techniques from various methodologies for training horses have been developed and passed down the generations. By way of example, the first literary work on horse training was Hippike, a treatise written by Xenophon over two millennia ago. Because of the historical successes of these methodologies, it is likely that they embrace much of the horse’s cognitive abilities, ethogram and learning modalities. More recently, the publication of alarmingly high wastage rates in horses between the ages of 2 and 7 years have led to the suggestion that such wastage arises from inappropriate training and/or management. Therefore, there is good reason to doubt that extant training methodologies fully align with the horse’s cognitive abilities, ethogram and learning modalities. This theoretical paper examines aspects of equine cognition, learning theory and ethology as applied to horse training. Ten training principles have emerged that optimally account for the horse’s ethological and learning abilities.
These principles can be summarised as:
- Use learning theory appropriately
- Train easy-to-discriminate signals
- Train and subsequently elicit responses singularly
- Train only one response per signal
- Train multiple signals per response consecutively
- Train all responses to be initiated and subsequently completed within consistent time-frames
- Train persistence of current operantly conditioned responses and test regularly
- Avoid and disassociate flight responses as appropriate
- Avoid punishment
It is proposed that adherence to these principles should result in reduced wastage of the trained horse and that these should be incorporated into all horse training methodologies.