How, exactly, does a horse learn?
First, you must convey your intentions without words.
You must show them what you are asking without them becoming alarmed and going up into the Sympathetic Nervous System (or "X" as Sharon Wilsie of Horse Speak likes to call it). Once a horse escalates emotionally into "Fight or Flight" mode there can be NO learning.
The most effective way to teach your horse is through baby steps and then allowing the neurochemical process of learning to happen by pausing. This wait time is much longer than most people assume. It is now known that a horse can take between 1 to 3 minutes to completely process a thought and waiting 3 minutes for your horse to fully comprehend can seem like an eternity. You can, of course, rush the process but it usually ends up taking longer because the horse must be shown the process over and over- and might not ever get it.
When teaching a new idea to your horse, how do you build on the previous thought? They have no words to let you know they got the idea and can execute it. So how do you convey your intentions and let them know they are on the right track?
Your idea of what you're requesting from your horse may be very different than what they think you mean. If you keep asking for them to perform a certain task, and you up the pressure without the correct release, there is a good chance the horse will experience stress, will go up in their Sympathetic Nervous System and stop learning. ALL they are thinking is, "How do I get out of here to somewhere safe." When they get to this point, no amount of additional pressure will produce additional learning.
Operant Conditioning- Pressure & Release
When first introduced to a new cue or routine the release is the answer “Yes“. When you give them the release will tell them which behavior you are saying "Yes" to. In reality, the timing is just as important as the release. It must come immediately after the horse gives you the correct response. Too slow and they'll get confused and frustrated.
Communication with a horse begins as soon as they become aware that you are nearby- WAY before you enter the paddock, enter the stall or put the halter on. When they first see, smell or hear you, the pressure is already starting to build. The first thing we need to do is make sure they feel us in the release position (homeostasis) first. Then we can begin to learn.