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From the regulation on horse welfare


§ 26. Training, demonstration, entertainment and competitions


Those who train animals and those who use animals for display, entertainment and competition as well as organizers of such activities must ensure that animals:


is able to carry out the activity without becoming exhausted or injured,



are not exposed to or are influenced by agents or treatment that could make the activity unacceptable in terms of animal welfare,



fear, injury or unnecessary stress and strain are not intentionally inflicted, and



not trained for or used in fights against other animals or against humans.



Knowledge of how learning works is important for the training of the horses to be as efficient, gentle and fun as possible.


Both animals and humans learn all the time, the consequences of our actions shape how we behave. A combination of evolution and learning creates the behavior of an individual. The ability to learn about the environment is the animals' ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world. By having knowledge of how learning works, we can shape the horse's environment so that we get the behavior we want. We can also use learning theory to analyze a situation in the case of unwanted behaviour, and thus get answers to what we must do to change the behaviour. If the behavior is learned, how did it happen? What desired consequences does the horse get, or what unwanted consequences does the horse avoid by the behaviour?


Learning about events in the environment around the individual and their effects is called associative learning. Associative learning is divided into two main groups; classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning means that two events are linked together. Pavlov's drooling dogs are the most famous example of this. In clicker training, a sound is used to signal to the horse that it just now did something right. This sound is linked to the reward that comes later, and allows us to mark a behavior at the right moment even if we cannot reward at exactly the right time. This gives us the opportunity to reinforce a moment. Another less desirable example of classical conditioning in horse training is when the hanger is connected to a highly unpleasant situation, and the hanger eventually produces a fear reaction in itself.


Operant conditioning is divided into positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. One or more of these four categories is the consequence of the horse's behavior, which in turn leads to learning. When we reward something the horse has done correctly, it is positive reinforcement. If we take away something the horse wants, it is a negative punishment.  Training using push and yield [fm2] is negative reinforcement. When we punish the horse after it has done something undesirable, it is positive punishment. Learning happens regardless of whether we want it or not, and it is the horse who decides whether something is reinforcement or punishment.


There are higher forms of learning, such as reasoning, social learning and teaching. These are forms that were previously seen as purely human characteristics, but which have now been found in several animal species. There is less research on these, and it is unknown whether they exist in horses or not, apart from social learning, which has been found in horses.


An individual learns a lot from his surroundings during his life, but there are also a number of things that are present from birth. Many species react with fear of predators without ever having been exposed to a predator. Other situations also create special reactions, such as pecking in birds in connection with food. These reactions, which are in the individuals from birth, provide an uneven basis for both the animal's behavior and learning. In horses, this includes herd and escape instincts. It is to some extent possible to unlearn these predisposed responses, but it takes much longer than unlearning learned responses. It is therefore important to have knowledge of behaviour, in addition to learning, for the training to be effective.


When we train horses, we should aim for the training to be as gentle as possible, while also being effective.

Learning with horses

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