Learning Theory in Context

One of my greatest passions over the last twenty years has been putting learning theory into context for horse owners and trainers. What do I mean by this? Often over the years I’ve seen learning theory, and more specifically operant conditioning, being taught and applied in a very mechanical way. If we do x, it causes y. This is all very well, but it somewhat misses the point. The point is, how does the horse feel about x, or, for that matter, y. What is the motivation that underlies the behaviour? What aspects of the nervous system are we tapping into when we train? What hormones are released? What does this mean in terms of well-being, and therefore welfare?

We cannot afford to simply (and carelessly) apply operant conditioning in a mechanical way. More importantly, operant conditioning theory should not be taught to trainers without first of all teaching them about classical conditioning. And neither should be taught without also teaching about emotion, motivation, nervous system arousal and body language.

Last year I was delighted to be approached by the British Horse Society, of which I am a long standing member. They asked me to write a chapter on Learning Theory for their latest book, Complete Horsemanship, Volume Four. I took great pleasure in doing my best to explain learning theory in context (rather tricky with a word limit of 9000!). The book was published in December 2019 and this year I am delighted to be delivering Continuing Professional Development training days on the subject, the first of which is happening at Enniskillen College in just a few weeks time.

Not only does this count as CPD for BHS coaches, it is also accredited by Horse Sport Ireland and the Pony Club.

I think it is fantastic that coaches are turning their attention to having a better understanding of the theories that underlie their coaching. I appreciate that many excellent coaches already have a good implicit, or natural, understanding of this topic, however, by attending this day they will come away with an explicit understanding of how and why what they do works, how to better communicate that to their clients and a better understanding of why sometimes things don’t go to plan and why some horses just don’t seem to follow the rules.

If you are interested in attending, please contact Susan Spratt, susan.spratt@bhs.org.uk in order to book your place. I understand they are booking up fast, so don’t leave it too late!

If you like the sound of this or are interested in other training and coaching events or workshops for owners as well as professionals, please subscribe to this blog and I’ll keep you up to date.



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