All animals, including humans and horses, respond to the same powerful principles of learning.
One of these principles, classical conditioning, is responsible for horses learning many things we don't mind them learning, but also many, many things we never want them to learn.
In order for classical conditioning to occur, a horse must experience the pairing of something 'neutral' with something that has meaning to the horse. For example, the sound of a chain being undone on a gate was previously neutral to a group of horses: it didn't cause the horses to feel any way in particular when they heard it. But then something changed; every time the horses heard that sound, it was paired with something that had meaning to the horses: gaining access to grass in the pasture. Pretty quickly, just the sound of the chain caused the horses to feel the same positive emotions they felt when actually gaining access to grass, causing them to walk towards the gate. It's important to note here that unlike another form of learning we will discuss next time, the horses didn't actually have to do anything active in order for this learning to occur. This association that was created was totally involuntary on their part.
Clearly, this sort of pairing isn't something we mind the horses learning. It actually plays to my advantage here as a horse owner, as I don't have to go and catch the horses one-by-one to turn them out on pasture. As you can see in this video clip, the sound of the chain being undone brings the horses to the pasture gate, as they anticipate eating the grass:
However, classical conditioning frequently results in involuntary pairings we don't want horses to learn. All of the horses I see who are nervous, or who have serious fears or phobias, or who dislike specific events or things in their environment ('triggers') are experiencing these issues as a result of classical conditioning. For example, needle phobic horses develop serious fears about needles or injections when the previously neutral needle is paired with a frightening experience while being handled for the injection. Under similar conditions in the future, the mere appearance of the needle or veterinarian results in the horse feeling frightened, which causes them to try and escape.
Once such pairings happen, unless work is done to specifically address the issue the horse's involuntary emotions when faced with the trigger won't change. They may likely even get worse. Resolving such issues takes concerted effort and, often, a considerable amount of time. Despite best efforts, even once a new, positive association has been created for the horse, these issues are at risk for relapse again in the future.
In light of this, when handling or training horses it is important for owners and trainers to be very aware about any involuntary associations being created. Training or handling methods that cause horses to feel fear or experience pain increase the likelihood of unwanted classical conditioning happening. If this occurs, classical conditioning can be used to change the horse's response to the trigger, creating a new, positive association.
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