Horse Learning Styles


Natural horsemanship and animal communication may be very different, but they’re both very useful tools when it comes to training and working with horses. For me, having both of these in my “tool belt” is a great combination, and many times they complement each other perfectly. These tools are particularly effective in understanding the different horse learning styles.

Learning style differs for each individual horse. In my experience, there are approximately 28 horse characters. Multiply that by the hundreds of different breeds, then add to the mix factors such as how each individual was raised and the environment in which he was trained, just to name a couple, and you begin to see that you have a lifelong journey ahead in determining the true nature of your horse.

X marks the spot
Sometimes my skill as a natural horsewoman is exactly what I need to understand how best to create the most effective training environment. For example, take my three-year old Spanish mustang, Excalibur (X for short).

To better understand where X was coming from, I decided to use a favorite horsemanship tool, the obstacle course. Setting up a simple course in the arena can be a great first step toward exploring your horse’s personality, character and learning style. Horses at liberty immediately display their true natures as they are free to make decisions, explore and express themselves. X only participated once in the obstacle course exercise; he found it intriguing at first, but quickly lost interest during the very first session. Before his turn came, he had the good fortune of watching other horses and their people throughout the day. Nickering to all passersby, he watched tentatively, occasionally pawing at the bar to show his interest and willingness to participate.

With a couple of years of handling, hiking, trick and natural horsemanship training under his belt, the obstacles came easily to X. When his turn came, he meandered through the course, touching all the items along the way, occasionally pawing at different things and at one point even picking up a tarp with his mouth. Inquisitive, relaxed, confident and comfortable would describe his mannerisms well.

Over the next 30 minutes , X revealed that :
1. He learned each task in just one completion. Although many horses learn through repetition, once is all it takes for some.
2. X learned through observation. Throughout the day, he watched other horses explore the arena with excitement, fearlessly approaching and successfully overcoming obstacles. Although he needed to experience the exercise for himself, X saw this as a place of joy by watching the body language and energetic fields of the other horses. Being situated just a few feet away from the arena, he had one of the best seats in the house.
3. He appreciated the time to touch unknown and extraordinary items. Through smell and touch, he was able to understand, digest the information and stay calm and relaxed. Horses have limited depth perception and so the chance to touch and explore texture, depth, sound, movement, etc., is imperative.

4. Choice was important. X would return to set “stations” either to view them from another angle or gain greater insights. He became more confident, enjoyed performing and often returned to a number of obstacles that intrigued him. Horses go “into” pressure, which means they will seek out what they often have the most fear of, thoroughly examining the nature of that being or object.
5. Overuse or prolonged exposure in the arena would become boring to X. Variety was paramount to his game. As X lost interest, he would wander off to the edge of the arena seeking grass to nibble. Keeping his interest would prove to be important to maintain a high level of learning.
6. Tons of praise influenced X’s decisions. From capturing the thought and releasing pressure, to moments of rest, neck rubs and a soothing and encouraging voice, X became motivated by my interaction.
7. Witnessing the try, asking vs. telling, and encouraging his creativity enhanced the session and solidified the lessons he learned. Now under saddle, X and I continue the journey of discovery. The lessons from that initial obstacle course still show themselves in all of his training. Instead of looking for disputes and challenges with a highly intelligent, courageous individual, I have chosen instead to create a training program that takes his individual character, learning style and needs into account. Each session needs to be a step ahead of X’s thoughts while understanding his natural desire to explore.

A talk with Oscar
Having all the natural horsemanship training in the world doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to solve every problem. This is where the art of animal communication can be a lifesaver. Through telepathy, another form of communication, I am able to talk directly to the horse. I see in pictures, a little movie or slide show of sorts, with a sense of what is happening, the emotions and the occasional word (spoken and written). It’s a language available to all of us if we can just quiet our minds enough to listen.

It is not uncommon for clients to call me with frustrating behavioral issues or learning challenges only to find out, after our communication session, that it was actually a misunderstanding, not a training problem.

This exact situation occurred when I received a call that Oscar, a racehorse, was not doing too well on the track. As I started our session, he began by describing his private home environment. He shared stories about his idyllic upbringing, very friendly family, and his horse/human relations. Oscar gave very specific details of past races he had run and how he felt about the sport itself. He also stated that he opened each race with enthusiasm, staying really close to the rest of the horses, then revealed why he would drop back from the pack. It wasn’t a training issue, jockey error or miscalculation. The problem was that Oscar just got tired. He didn’t have the stamina to continue.

Oscar went on to describe himself physically, including size, character, color and the under-developed muscles in his rear – muscles that are crucial to winning races. This caught my attention and I asked him to share his training regimen with me. Oscar showed me his homemade track. He explained that he did not take a rider, but instead was “ponied”, and the speed he gained while being led around was by no means sufficient to truly train for a race. Oscar said that 25 mph was as fast as he could run during the training. There was no way, in Oscar’s mind, that he could win with his current training program.

He then showed the specific saddle he carried as well as the new weight-bearing one he wanted to work with. He wanted the training to be intermittent and not consistent; what would help him would be a chance to “breeze” or gallop on the track. That way Oscar could compare his performance to others while gaining the speed and muscle needed. He even went so far as to mention a place a trailer ride away where they could access a local track and have the opportunity to stay the weekend. He had the heart and desire to win, he just couldn’t get his hooves on the right training tools.

What initially had been seen as a possible emotional, mental or physical stumbling block was simply an oversight in the training program. Oscar came forth with tremendous suggestions to help himself race and win! Without implementing the strength and speed training he needed, no amount of natural horsemanship training (and all the money spent on it) would have made a significant or immediate impact on solving the issue.

There’s an old saying that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So if you are struggling with a behavioral or learning issue with your horse and you can’t seem to correct it with the tools you have, don’t just assume the problem is impossible to solve…and don’t be afraid to go beyond what is familiar and comfortable to find the answer.


Anna Twinney is an internationally recognized Equine Specialist, Natural Horsemanship Clinician, Animal Communicator and Reiki Master. As the founder of the Reach Out to Horses® program, she remains on the cutting-edge of genuine, gentle communication techniques. For over a decade, Anna has been traveling the world teaching people of all disciplines how to work in the horse’s language and create a trust-based partnership with their horses. She has been featured on U.S. and international television, radio and podcast shows and regularly contributes to magazines. She can be heard each week on her own podcast show, “Reaching Out with Anna Twinney”, where she interviews partners and peers, legends and pioneers in the fields of equine behavior and training, animal communication, alternative healing methods and modalities, and more. For more information, visit reachouttohorses.com.

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