The Learning Theory Revolution. The 2020 Edit.

On 18th February 2015 I wrote this and published it on my old blog ( I thought it was just as relevant today and probably of interest to quite a few of you. Better still, I now have an online course available that covers the points that I make here. The link is at the end of this post 😁.

Over the last fifteen to twenty years my views on the application of learning theory to horse training have evolved considerably. I first formally studied learning theory in the first year of my Psychology degree nearly twenty (!) years ago. Prior to that, having an interest in dog and horse training, I had been reading about it in an informal way for years, and applying it to the animals in my care. For example, teaching my pet dog to sit, lie down and recall for a food reward or praise. Or, when I was 16, I had a mare (the kind, gentle Sammy) who had had a bad accident jumping and had developed a tendency to rush her fences. Using a very gentle, quiet approach, I taught her firstly to walk over poles on the ground in hand, with plenty of praise, then built up in gradual stages to jumping on the lunge and then to me being able to calmly ride her over poles and small fences. In explicit, formal terms at that stage I knew nothing about learning theory, but informally, implicitly, I understood it pretty well. In fact, when I first studied it in my degree, it was taught in such a dry, theoretical manner, that I didn’t immediately make the jump to recognising how it applied to animals. When I did, which was when I was working full time with horses, having just graduated, I’d say I still understood how to apply it to what I was already doing at a pretty shallow level. And it wasn’t until I began teaching it as part of the undergraduate lab classes that I taught when I was starting my PhD a few years later that I would say I really began to understand it at a deeper level.

To me, this is a journey that all trainers go on. Most begin training before they are taught about learning theory. They learn, on the job, an implicit understanding of how to motivate their chosen species. There’s a great deal of trial and error involved for both animal and trainer. Good trainers are those that are good at learning from their errors. In fact, they may not even be particularly consciously aware of what they do and don’t do, they quickly reach the stage of ‘unconscious competence’- they know how to do it, but couldn’t necessarily easily teach someone else to do what they do, because it is so ‘natural’ to them. I guess to a degree this is the stage I was at as a teenager. I could get good results from horses and dogs, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate what needed doing, or why, I just ‘knew’.

Then, as an enthusiastic new graduate, I began to understand the mechanics of both operant and classical conditioning, but I was still missing the key factor, which was the emotional state of the animal. So, even though I was a proponent of the use of appetitives in training, I failed to fully appreciate the impact of aversive stimuli. I guess at the time I was probably experiencing a reasonable degree of cognitive dissonance, given that I was working full time on a conventional yard, teaching, schooling and working my way through my BHS exams. The framework for horse training that I was used to and had been brought up with was based primarily on the use of aversive stimuli, with minimal appetitives. I knew I wasn’t comfortable with it, and my newly acquired theoretical understanding was helping to explain the reasons behind that discomfort. But I was still struggling to work out the alternative possibilities- with no clear route mapped out for me, I felt like I didn’t really fit in. I was still reconciling my practical experience with the theory. It took the arrival, a year later, of my highly sensitive and neurotic mare, Geri, to really drive that point home.

Over the following years, I felt like I really began to understand learning theory in an applied way. I could see the relationship between emotional state and behaviour, and understand how that motivated and shaped behaviour. I also could see how easily associations could form. Most importantly, I could articulate and explain what I was doing in practical and theoretical terms, so I could help others to understand their horses behaviour. However I think the most significant thing I realised at that time was the practical importance of classical conditioning, and how, although our conscious focus might be on operant conditioning, the nature of classical conditioning meant that it was an intrinsic part of each training interaction.

As I said, this is a journey that so many trainers who have studied learning theory in an academic way will recognise. For me, the more I taught learning theory, on all levels, from horse owners to postgraduate students, the more I could see how it applied to everyday life. Not in a reductionist, simplistic way, but as an interactive part of the bigger picture.

It seems to me that the biggest mistake that any one can make is to focus on how we can use an understanding of learning theory to help us manipulate behaviour, particularly when that focus is on operant conditioning and neglects classical conditioning. All that seems to happen at that level is that people get hung up about ‘which quadrant’ of operant conditioning they are training with. They argue about reinforcement versus punishment, and the pros and cons of each, without recognising that the bigger picture is about the emotional balance of the individual. Yes, training can be manipulative. I guess by definition training is manipulation of behaviour. But it doesn’t have to be manipulative in a ‘using’, ‘devious’ kind of way. It could, and should, be communication, a two way thing. But the point I want to make is that we should be using our understanding of learning theory to help us be better observers, to help us better understand why we do what we do. The thing is, whether we understand the theory or not, we are all doing it! We are all, always, creating and changing behaviour through our own behaviour. Because, just like gravity, learning is always there.

So our choice is: Be aware of learning theory and use that awareness to help us understand how and why we act as we do, and also at times knowingly use that to deliberately change behaviour OR be ignorant of learning theory, but still carry on learning and influencing learning. Either way, behaviour gets influenced and changed, but in the case of ignorance, particularly if it is combined with an inability to recognise the emotional state of the animal, there is potential for ‘accidental’ damage or stress. Ignorance also means it is harder to understand why things might be happening and most importantly makes it difficult to predict what might happen next.

We cannot afford to be too simplistic when we talk about learning. Just like gravity, it is always there whether we like it or not. This makes it impossible to be completely in control or manipulative…. There are too many factors at play.

In summary, I believe it is important for horse trainers to understand operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
I believe it is important to recognise the significance of classical conditioning.

I believe it is essential to be able to recognise the emotional state of the animal we are working with.

Finally I believe we should focus more on observing and predicting behaviour and less on manipulating behaviour.

Training needs to be a two way conversation, not a lecture.

We need to understand that learning is much more complex than just talking about how behaviour is reinforced or punished by stimuli that we control.

We need to realise that there are many factors beyond our control that shape the individual. If we get too hung up on the simple, mechanical, view, then the complex, living, breathing, organic being that is the horse will leave us for dust.

Edit on Wednesday 20th May 2020: If you enjoyed reading this post, you may be interested in my online course, very affordable and highly informative. For more information go to 

To follow my more up to date blog and for further detail on me and my work, go to 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s