Stephen Budiansky's book The Nature of Horses delves into many areas of horse behavior and learning. In the previous post, Is Your Horse as Smart as a Guinea Pig, I touched on the horses ability of "learning to learn". We learned that consistency is crucial for horses mental well being and the reasons why.
Using the maze again to study how well a horse could actually problem solve , the studies that Budiansky writes about discovered one thing that most people have already known for years; Horses have excellent memories once something is learned, good or bad. In terms of real problem solving, surprisingly, they did not rank too well. Some of the species that did rank high in some of the tests that were done were dogs, raccoons, money and most carnivores (not sure what the correlation might be here but maybe part of the survival instincts necessary to catch elusive prey?)
Instead, what was confirmed was that horses are exceptionally good at making associations. I guess that makes sense;
I open the creaky door to the feed room shed, ears are perked up. I open the creaky door to the tack shed.. no response.
Our horses even know the sound of our truck coming back with the trailer from a day of riding, as opposed to the thousand other diesel trucks that go by… I guess Pavlov knew what he was talking about after all.
The book states that ability to make associations with actions or events relates to one thing; survival. Learning to move away from the dominant horse when his ears are laid back might be the difference between being able to continue to be able bodied or get injured…a kick is an unpleasant consequence.
So this begs the question of whether ability to learn coincides with the ability to be trained. The bottom line as Budiansky notes was simply this: "that much can be accomplished in training by ignoring incorrect responses". "A response to a stimulus that in neither rewarded not punished tends to disappear of it own accord".
This makes sense but I can't help but feel he missed something important. Budainsky discusses the scenario of when a trainer or rider is working with a horse who is shying at some imaginary object or , one corner of the arena, for example... The best way to deal with this , he says is to ignore it. Attempting to correct it through punishment may turn it into a bigger issue and sometimes even reward it. I would agree with that in most cases. As endurance riders teaching our horses to approach objects that look scary, cross water, go over bridges, etc is part of the job and we spend alot of time working our horses through these things so that in time they can approach things with confidence. What he doesn't mention though is what is the rider is doing with their own body; breath, seat, hands, legs, to reinforce the horse reacting. Often times, if a horse is spooking at the same place and the rider is anticipating this, the rider is subconsciously telling the horse with tension in the riders body, that there is something coming up that is going to be scary....9 times out of 10, the horse is going to be scared and respond in an unfavorable way. Most times, we may not even be conscious of what our bodies are doing but our horse is sensing it.. after all, they do feel flies...
So what do you think? Is it simple associations or do horse reason and problem solve? I have to admit, my gelding Rebel puts wide gaping holes in the research with his antics that Budiansky writes of. Share some of your experiences with your horses.
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