What’s Learning Theory? I’m Glad You Asked

I have recently been speaking to a lot of different people in the horse world. What seems to be a common factor is lack of understanding when it comes to learning theory. And no wonder! The information is out there, but it’s still not very easy to find. Especially when one is not looking for it! That’s why I decided to write a blog post about it.
The thing that is important to note, is that this is all science based. This is not something I make up, or twist around to suit my idea of what horse training should look like. This is thoroughly researched and tested, so in this point in time, there’s no arguing against it. It’s hard fact.

Now! What is learning theory? Learning theory is the knowledge of how animals learn. When I say animals, I mean ALL animals. And also certain (if not all) insects. Humans, dogs, fish, cats, kangaroos, butterflies, elefants, crocodiles and – you guessed it – horses!

When I say learn, I mean learning to act in a specific way to achieve or escape something. This can be a bit confusing – you’re probably not used to think of behavior in such a specific way. But I promise it will get easier to understand when I have explained the ways in which the animal learn.

There are four ways an animal can learn (in addition to one sneaky one). Period. There’s no other possible ways for an animal to learn something except these. We call them collectively the learning quadrant.

What the quadrants have in common, is that they are all dependent on motivation. You simply do not get behavior without motivation (you can also call it reason). Imagine if you’re on the couch. If you have no motivation to get up, you won’t get up.

Here are the four quadrants (I will explain them in detail further down):

  1. Positive Reinforcement (+R)
  2. Negative Reinforcement (-R)
  3. Positive Punishment (+P)
  4. Negative Punishment (-P)

That’s it.

Reinforcement strengthens behavior, punishment weakens behavior. And then there’s the positive or negative:

One should not think of positive and negative in a “good/bad” sort of way, but in an “add/subtract” sort of way.
Positive means adding something, negative means subtracting something.

This means that the quadrants can be explained thus:

  1. Adding something to strengthen behavior (+R)
  2. Subtracting something to strengthen behavior (-R)
  3. Adding something to weaken behavior (+P)
  4. Subtracting something to weaken behavior (-P)


Now that the quadrants are (hopefully) at least a bit more understandable, I’ll go into detail:

  • Positive Reinforcement:
    “Adding something to strengthen behavior (+R)”
    Positive reinforcement is the obtainment of something the animal values when the animal behaves in a certain way. For example:
    – A horse kicks a tree, an apple falls down, the horse gets the apple, and is more likely to kick the tree in the future.
    – I hold an object in my hand – the horse puts her nose on the object – I give the horse food – the horse is more likely to put her nose on the object in the future.
    – I wait for the horse to take a step forward – horse takes a step forward – horse gets some food – the horse is more likely to take a step forward in that situation in the future.
    – ETCThere are many ways to get behavior using this quadrant, but I won’t go into detail about them in this blog post.

    The good things about +R is that this triggers the horses brain to release happy hormones (endorphins). It also ensures that the horse associate both the training, environment and human with this feeling of happiness.
    Since the horse has these associations, she will be a VERY willing participant in training. She will often heighten her own criteria, do more than you asked for – because she loves the training!

  • Negative Reinforcement:
    “Subtracting something to strengthen behavior (-R)”
    When training with negative reinforcement, it’s important to note that in order for it to work, one has to first add an aversive stimulus (a stimulus the horse finds irritating/painful/uncomfortable etc). It is the removal of said stimulus that strengthens the behavior. So you add an aversive stimulus to the horse to prompt the horse to behave in a certain way, and when she does, you take the stimulus away. This is the most used quadrant in horse training today. For example:
    – A fly has landed on the horse – the horse finds the feeling of the fly on her skin irritating (a form for aversiveness) – the horse shakes the fly off – the horse is more likely to shake that body part when she feels a fly.
    – A rider adds pressure to the sides of the horse – the horse takes a sted forwards – the rider removes the pressure – the horse is more likely to move forwards when the rider adds pressure to her sides.
    – A rider pulls on the reins, which adds aversive pressure in the mouth/nose – the horse stops – the rider stops pulling – the horse is more likely to stop when the rider applies said pressure.What many seem to struggle with, is the fact that in order to prompt behavior this way, the stimulus HAS to be uncomfortable in some way. If it wasn’t, the horse would either ignore the stimulus (if it is neutral to her) or try to obtain the stimulus (if it is pleasant to her).
    What’s more, is that the horse will only do exactly what is necessary to escape the stimulus. To get any extra effort, you’d need to up the stimulus (make it more unpleasant) so the horse will react bigger/faster/etc.

    Since no one likes having unpleasant stimulus applied to them (horses no more than humans), this way of training won’t really release any happy hormones. Quite the contrary. It will actually trigger the horses brain to release stress hormones (adrenaline). Not necessarily a lot, that depends on the strength of the stimulus, and how aversive the horse finds it.

  • Positive Punishment:
    “Adding something to weaken behavior (+P)”
    This is the most common form of weakening behavior in horse training.
    The horse does something you don’t like, you apply some aversive stimulus, and the horse stops the behavior (maybe).
    What’s important to remember with this quadrant, is that the horse doesn’t learn that the behavior is bad. What the horse learns, is that the behavior is not safe in the presence of you. It also doesn’t tell the horse what to do, only what NOT to do in your presence.
    Also, the use of punishment ignores the reason behind the unwanted behavior. It doesn’t do anything to weaken the motivation behind the behavior. To put it simply: all it does is to mask the symptoms. Behaviors are symptoms/realizations of motivation.
    For example:
    – The horse threatens to kick – you hit it with a whip – the horse will be less likely to threaten to kick you in the future.
    – The horse starts running off with you – you yank on the reins to get it to stop – the horse is less likely to run off with you.
    Note that the motivation behind these unwanted behaviors is not addressed. The horse will still want to kick you, and run off with you. What tends to happen is this:
    The horse has been punished for threatening to kick. So instead of threatening, she jumps right to kicking.
    The horse has tried turning for home when out hacking, and has been punished for it. So instead of gently turning around and go home, she feels that her only choice left is to spin around and run. So you won’t get the chance to stop her.There is just no way of using punishment correctly and without side effects.
  • Negative Punishment:
    “Subtracting something to weaken behavior (-R)”
    Negative punishment is not used a lot in horse training. It is, however used in human training (with children etc) and dog training. Basically, the animal has something available to them that they find valuable. Attention, food, toys, company, the possibility of something good happening later (with children). Then the animal does something you don’t like, so you take that away from them.
    For example:
    – A dog is happy to see you, so it jumps up on you – you immediately turn around and walk away – the dog lost your attention when he jumped, so he’s less likely to jump up on you in the future.
    – A child does something you don’t like – you say “now we won’t go and get ice cream after all” – the child is less likely to do what resulted in this outcome in the future.
    – You are feeding your horse food – the horse does something you don’t like – you walk away and take the food with you – the horse is less likely to repeat the behavior that resulted in the food disappearing.As with positive punishment, this kind of punishment doesn’t deal with the reason behind the behavior, and doesn’t tell the animal what to do (only what not to do).
    In addition to this, using negative punishment will trigger a lot of frustration in the animal. Losing a valued resource is very frustrating!
  • The last way an animal can learn, is through extinction. This happens when a behavior no longer gets reinforced. If the horse kicks the tree, and an apple doesn’t fall down, the horse will first go through something called an extinction burst. This means that before the behavior gets extinct (stops happening), it will get stronger. The horse will kick the tree harder, more, on other spots etc. If an apple was to fall down now, it would reinforce this new, stronger version of the behavior. Next time the horse wants an apple, she would jump right to this. If, however, after enough effort the apple does not fall down, the behavior would go away completely.
    Same with negative reinforcement – if you apply pressure with a whip for instance, and keep applying the pressure no matter what the horse does, the horse will (in the end) stop reacting to the pressure. This is called flooding, but that’s another matter.


I think that’s enough brain feed for now, please contact me if you have any questions or would like to learn more. And check out this website for a lot more interesting articles!



Can’t Catch Your Horse?

I was sitting on the bus headed to a friend of mine when I started thinking about her living situation. Every time she leaves her apartment, she has to walk down six flights of stairs – and then she has to walk all the way back up when she comes home. It got me thinking that if I were in her situation, I would sort of dread leaving the house – because I would know that in order to get home again, I would need to walk all. those. steps. Call me lazy, but I don’t think anyone enjoys the sensation of feeling their life leave their body one flight at a time!

And then I thought – what if I lived at the bottom of ten flights of stairs! And had to walk alllll the way to the top before leaving my apartment. Now that would be even worse. I would have to really WANT to leave the house in order to bother doing it. I would definitely not do it to go buy a pack of noodles – maybe not even for a chocolate. My motivation (or what I gain for doing it) would need to be bigger than the dread.

Imagine living in this apartment. What feelings would you associate with leaving the house? With going through the door? With opening the door? With moving towards the door? With thinking about the door? You’ll probably not feel all warm and fuzzy and joyous.

“What has this got to do with not being able to catch my horse?!” Humor me for a minute, please.

If I asked you to do something really boring, exhausting, pointless or painful, and by doing so you would have to leave a party with your friends, how would you feel about it?

A horse is programmed to associate stuff with other stuff. This is how horses survive. It wouldn’t be very practical if the horse from time to time “forgot” that a predator is dangerous for example.
So your horse will make connections between things that happen, and the consequences those things produce. This is why he gladly gets “caught” in the evening when the horses are brought in for the night (he most certainly doesn’t want to be left alone, and there’s often a bucket of food waiting for him inside), but runs away when you try to catch him at other times.

SO! Lets say that every time you get your horse, you do stuff that he doesn’t really like. Stuff that is boring, exhausting, pointless or painful. Stuff the horse would NOT choose to do if given the chance. Is it strange to you that he doesn’t come running?

A lot of people try to fix this “problem” with treats. They go to the paddock while shaking a bucket of food. It might work the first time. But pretty soon the horse will come to associate the bucket of food with leaving the paddock, which is already loaded with negative emotions. This is what happens when you try to cover up the symptom and not deal with the problem. He might snatch the food, and run away before you get the halter on. Or he might start running at the sound of the bucket shaking. No matter what, it does NOT change how he feels about the situation of coming out of the paddock.


What is the problem? Motivation. The same problem as the many flights of stairs.
What if I told you you could remove the stairs? Would you feel better about leaving your apartment? I certainly would. So how do we remove the stairs from the horses perspective? By making it motivating and desirable to come with you out of the paddock!


By associate yourself with only good stuff, you can change your horses emotions – and when you change his emotions, he will change his behavior. It’s really that simple.

This change does not come over night, however. You may change your training to positive reinforcement, only do stuff your horse thinks is rewarding, and never put your horse in uncomfortable situations. Your horse may still be hesitant to come to you. I have a little anecdote on that actually!

When I was little, my mother used to give me and my siblings crushed vitamin pills mixed in with raspberry jam. It tasted like hell! Every morning it was jam with vitamins. To this day I can’t eat raspberry jam without thinking about that horrible taste, and I still sometimes “taste” the vitamins.

Changing emotion and association takes time and determination. But it is SO worth it!


Cones are a Girls Best Friend

Today we had 4 short empowerment sessions. We have added some duration, and I also started adding a smaaaaaall distraction while Frøya touched the cone. At this point, the movement I make should be so small that Frøya doesn’t react. She did react a little bit a few times, and her nose came off the cone. I stopped the movement, and waited until she touched the cone again. I think I’ll get duration solid first.

Here’s videos from all four sessions today!

The Magic Cone

We have now done 7 sessions of Empowerment Training, and it’s going great! During the last session yesterday, we were able to add a little duration to the targeting. I can count to 4 (very fast!) in my head, and Frøya will stay on/near the target. If you are interested in this lesson, don’t hesitate to contact someone from Horse Charming.
This lesson is perfect for desensitisation purposes; getting a “go ahead” signal when your horse wants you to start, and a “please stop” signal when your horse wants you to stop.

Here is our 7. session! I plan to upload the whole process on my YouTube channel.

A Walk in the Field

We are allowed to walk in the field now, before the farmer ploughs it. So today we went for a little walk at liberty! Frøya stayed with me, and it felt like it did last summer when we went for hacks in the woods. The other horses were on the other side of the fence, and when they started running away from us, Frøya wanted to run with them. So she did! I would never be able to compete with this. And it isn’t a goal for me. When the whole herd runs away, of course Frøya will want to join them. She is fine with moving away from them, but if they run away from her like that, it’s too much. She did however return to me when they stopped running!


We walked along the whole pasture, and ended up where the actual entrance to the pasture is (we snuck out of another gate at the end).

When she had eaten grass for a while, I went to get the big traffic cone we use for empowerment training. I put it down several meters from her, and waited to see if she wanted to come and do some training. And she came right away! ❤ The first time, she came over when she saw us. The second time, she needed another couple of minutes before coming; she had found a good spot of grass 😉 The cool thing is that she will be much more likely to hang out and train if she has a choice. If she felt like I was going to force her to come with me, she would stay well away from me, and avoid me. I certainly don't want that! Also, if she knows she can leave at any time, she will start thinking like this:

“hm, there’s my human and the magic cone. I want to eat grass, but I also want to participate in training. I might as well leave the grass and hang out with her, because I can leave whenever I want, and I’ll be able to eat more grass when we are done!” 

No matter what she does, she wins!
And I win too, because this makes it much more likely that our training is successful.
There are lots of times where it is a good idea to train in an environment without grass, especially in the beginning when one has just started clicker training. Also, if the horse is easily distracted. It is always a good idea to train with as little distractions as possible, to set you and your horse up for success. I started empowerment training in a stall, with no distractions. I wouldn’t have started out there on the grass.

Happy Birthday Frøya!

Today my girl turns 4 years old! We celebrated with some training (see last blog post) and lots of scratches ❤
I have been Frøyas friend for 3.5 years now, and she will be mine forever! She has really turned into a very sweet, curious and friendly horse, not at all what she was like when I first met her xD As I remember it, it was almost impossible to approach her, and she was scared of the halter. Our journey has definitely been a bumpy ride – we have tried every horse training method there is, and did so called Natural Horsemanship (which is in no way natural) for a long time. Finally, in july 2015, we found positive reinforcement. We didn’t switch right away, and I almost gave it up because Frøya had so much anxiety around food that she was dangerous to be around. Not until we sought help from Max Easey (founder of Horse Charming), did we get onto the right track. Since that day (some day in november/december 2015) we have done strictly positive reinforcement, and we both love it. I would never go back to using aversives.

On this glorious day, I think it’s only right that I post a bunch of pictures from our time together!


It’s All About Empowerment

Since the clinic, we have practised targeting, bending and weight shift forwards and backwards. We have even taken a few steps on the circle, with me walking backwards in front of Frøya! I do this by first standing in front of her, then asking her to target my hand, then starting to walk backwards while cueing her to follow me. We got zero rushing, and she even listened when I asked her simultaneously to bend. On the left hand, she had a tendency to fall in on her inside shoulder. This was fixed when I asked her to bend by pointing behind her inside shoulder.

We’re not going to do this every day, I’m afraid her body will get sore and I’ll poison the exercises by asking her to perform them while being sore. But I’ll do som sessions every week.


Today we also started a very cool lesson, called Empowerment training! This is written by Max Easey, founder of Horse Charming.
It’s all about giving the horse the power to give consent to having things done to or with them, like husbandry stuff, medical stuff or anything really.
By teaching Frøya a clear “stop” signal that she can use when she wants me to stop or needs a break or finds something uncomfortable, she will get a lot more confident.

The finished behavior will be something like this: we stand near a big traffic cone. She will know from experience that when we are standing near this cone, I want to do something to or with her. If she is willing to let me do “whatever”, she will place her nose on top of the cone. If not, she will simply not touch it. Let’s say she is in the mood for some brushing. She touches the cone, and I start brushing. I reward her every now and then. Suddenly I brush her somewhere she doesn’t like, and so she takes her nose away from the cone. I stop brushing. When she is ready for another go, she will put her nose on the cone again. Etc.


This type of training ensures that she will never feel the need to do something drastic to make me stop what I’m doing. After all – horses who bite and kick and run off, are horses who have learned that nothing else works. From nature, horses are very good at giving plenty of warnings before actually doing something like that. But if people ignore those warnings time and time again, the horse will stop wiging warnings and go straight to biting, kicking or bolting.
A horse who has learned an easy way of making its human stop what (s)he’s doing, will be much more confident with letting the human do stuff. After all, it only takes a slight move of the head to stop the behavior.

I started training this today, did 3 very short sessions á 2 minutes with a little break in between each session. Being a very clicker savvy horse (means she knows very well what the click means and that she grasps behavior very fast), she understood that she was supposed to touch the cone right away. We spent two sessions only rewarding touching the cone, and then we tried to increase duration by one second. I have to be really quick, because she has a tendency to start exploring the cone if I’m not fast enough. I don’t think I’ll ever get her to keep her head perfectly still, nose on the cone; but as long as she has her nose right next to it and looks calm and relaxed, that will be fine. If I was to shape her to stand totally still, I’m afraid she won’t be able to relax and might even stop chewing or hold her breath. I certainly don’t want that. I want her to be engaged, but not at the expense of relaxation.


The plan is to film every session and put all of them up on youtube, I hope I’ll be able to start tomorrow!