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How Horses Learn; the Tortoise & the Hare

Updated on January 7, 2015

Developing a young horse, or progressing a more experienced horse can be a complicated business. That does not mean what you need to teach him is complicated, but learning how to teach him in an effective way can be. This is because you, as the trainer, will need to work out the timing of what, when and how quickly you will introduce new ideas to a horse. You will need to recognise when you can ask for more and when he has given all that he can. Sometimes he will be a tortoise and sometimes he will be a hare.


The Tortoise & the Hare

Just in case you have not heard the story before, here is a short version. A tortoise and a hare set out on a race. The tortoise was slow & steady, he took methodical steps and made slow progress along the way. The hare was as fast as jack-flash and set off at a pace. The hare soon became peckish so he stopped and had a snack at the side of the road. After he had eaten he began to feel a little sleepy, he had worked hard so far so he curled up for a little sleep. As the hare slept the tortoise caught him up and even though the hare was a little disturbed in his sleep as the tortoise passed he wasn’t ready to wake yet so he turned over to sleep a little more. The tortoise carried along on his slow progress, rhythmically making his way towards the finish line. The hare snoozed on. He woke refreshed from his rest and set off again. As he turned the final corner and saw the tortoise breaking the finish line that he realised that he had not won, the tortoise had won!

Tortoise v Hare?

So the way to train is slow and steady, right? Well perhaps not. In fact, the hare has as much to tell us about horse training as the tortoise. If the race had been really short the hare would have won. And if it had been a little longer the hare would have won too. Where the tortoise was successful was in the race that he chose, it was exactly the right length for him to win. The hare was only a tad behind the tortoise and while it made for a good story there is a lesson to be learned in looking at the similarities between these two creatures.

Both the tortoise and the hare followed their own needs to reach their peak potential. The tortoise was never going to make great leaps forward. He had to use methodical steps to take him where he needed to go. The hare, on the other hand, could make great leaps forwards, but then he had to rest for a while. In truth there is a bit of tortoise & hare in all of us, and in all of our horses. Sometimes we need to take careful measured steps and while our progress may not be quick as we learn, we will reach our goal in the end. At other times we may make a huge leap in learning, in a day make changes that we never believed possible, but this is likely to be balanced by the need for a period of rest, so that we can process the changes and allow ourselves to make the most of what we have learnt.

a hare's leap

During re-schooling a horse afraid of jumping makes a big step forward when she chooses to jump calmly over a small log
During re-schooling a horse afraid of jumping makes a big step forward when she chooses to jump calmly over a small log | Source

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The difference between completing a task and making a change

It can help to start understanding your horses learning style by thinking of the changes that the horse makes, rather than the tasks he accomplishes. Here is an example:

Imagine your horse is very difficult to load and refuses to look at the horsebox or move towards it. During your training session he approached the ramp calmly, then reaches down and sniffs it. This is only a very small part of the task of loading into the horse box but your horse has made a big change in his attitude towards loading. This is a good opportunity to reward your horse, let him rest where he is then move him away from the trailer for a while.

Now imagine that you have a bold horse that is confident about new situations and has practice walking over poles and other ground objects. As he approaches the trailer for the first time he reaches down and sniff it. He has completed the same task as the first horse, but he has not made a change. In this case you can ask him to step up into the trailer and he can rest there. Once you have unloaded him you may want to load him again and practice putting up the breach bar and ramp, until he is happy and relaxed about the whole job.

Just remember that each horse is different and stay aware of your horses responses to what is going on.

How can you tell it is working?

All horses have different learning needs, so how do you know that you are offering new ideas to your horse in a way that works for them? While the physical indications that a horse is learning are still debated, in my experience I have found the following signs indicate that a horse is taking in and processing the information that you are giving them in a positive way.

  • Horse dips his head, or stands with his head low

  • Horse makes licking & chewing motions with his mouth

  • Horse blinks at an increased rate

  • Horse sighs or take big, deep breaths

  • Horse has a sleepy look in his eye

  • Horse yawns extravagantly

Signs that a horse is not responding so well can include:

  • Horse holds head high and fixed

  • Horse becomes tight in the jaw, clenching teeth

  • Horse holds nostrils tight and somewhat extended

  • Horse takes short shallow breaths or holds his breath

  • Horses eye becomes fixed, blinks less frequently

When is it time to stop. Any time your horse shows you positive signs that he is learning well can be a good time to stop. Even if it is only a few minutes into a session. This is where your knowledge of your horse as an individual is vital. You can carry on and do something more, you need to make a decision about what will work best for your horse. Are you in a period of taking small, steady tortoise steps forward or has he just made a huge change (even if what he has done was small) and needs a period of rest?

If your horse is having trouble, it may help to move back to something he is familiar with until he can relax and regain his confidence to learn something new.

tortoise steps

A young horse learns how to step up on to a low platform for the first time one step at a time
A young horse learns how to step up on to a low platform for the first time one step at a time | Source

The only finished horses are in heaven

While I was training in the US I was introduced to the term ‘finished horse’. This meant that the horse had completed all of his training. I was also warned that most great western trainers only considered a horse to be finished training after it has passed away. They feel that a horse continues to develop and change as long it lives.

So, whatever stage of training your horse is at give some thought to how your horse learns, when he is taking tortoise steps and when he is making a hare’s leap. Learn to guide your horse through his training so that together you reach your full potential.


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    • Justine Rumney profile image

      Justine Rumney 3 years ago from Kirkbride, Cumbria, United Kingdom

      Definitely interesting Pawpawwrites, just need to understand them to find that they are very gentle, often timid animals. Amazing companions and can be our true teachers, :)

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 3 years ago from Kansas

      I always found horses to be interesting, but somewhat intimidating.