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How Did You Get This Number?

by Anna Sochocky, Equi-Libris

In horses, the size and proportion of the cerebrum and cerebellum are reversed. Because a horse’s cerebellum is more developed as compared to its cerebrum, the “weight” of a horse’s neurological functions and skills rests with its physical attributes such as sight, hearing, taste, movement, and smell, all of which determine how a horse perceives its environment and, in the end, learns.

The predominant form of learning attained through classical conditioning is a method shared by humans and horses. Operant conditioning using a positive reinforcement or retracting negative consequences is an effective learning style for both horses and humans, as well.

Generalization teaches horses to transfer a behavior established under one stimulus to one of similar value or texture. The adaptive nature of this learning allows a horse or a rider to utilize a similar response in alike situations. Lesson horses rely on generalization to manage assorted riders at differential skill levels to determine what gait is being requested, for example. Generalization in the case of the lesson horse may be equated with latitude in decision-making; the horse has a menu of responses that he has been trained to use and chooses the most likely one from the cue requested.

Differences in learning protocols primarily reside in the extent of cognitive thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. For example, if a rider is learning the counter-canter movement for the first time, he or she will rely on already established skills at the canter by shortening the stride through limiting movement in the hips, engaging the abdominal muscles, and half-halting on the inside or outside rein to elicit straightness. By integrating knowledge already learned and retained and using this information to make decisions that result in more precise and timed movements is a skill of complexity a horse does not possess.

The progressive improvement of a horse’s skill results when the ability of a trainer or rider to integrate classical and operant conditioning, as well as capitalizing on the natural instincts of a horse to stay in motion and seek refuge from pain or injury. Learning to think like a horse requires the use of both sides of our brains and building a cognitive web between what we desire and what the horse is born to do.

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