How Training Actually Works

We’re training our horses all of the time, influencing their future behavior whether we realize it or not. Callie Rae King breaks down the concept of “operant conditioning.”

Photos and story by Callie Rae King.

From Callie:

I have found that an effective way to understand training methods is to examine them through the framework of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the theory of how behavior is influenced and changed. It doesn’t just apply to horses but is also true for us, as well as dogs, cats, marine mammals, and most species with a conscious brain.

The science of operant conditioning is based on the theory that what happens as a result of an individual’s behavior will change that behavior. If something good happens, we do more of what we think caused that good thing to happen. Likewise, if something bad happens, we will avoid the action or behavior that we think brought on the bad result. It is a pretty simple way of operating, but we all do it, most of the time unconsciously. Although they obviously have a very different thinking process and different instinctual behaviors, our horses basically operate the same way.


In operant conditioning, these good or bad consequences are called reinforcements or punishments. A behavior will start to change when it is either reinforced or punished. Both reinforcement and punishments can be positive or negative. Positive and negative, in this context, don’t mean good or bad; instead, think of them in a mathematical sense. A positive reinforcement means something is added to reinforce a behavior. For example, a horse is given some grain when he goes on the trailer, or praised and scratched after he performs a nice leg yield. A negative reinforcement means that something undesirable is taken away, so this can refer to pressure and release. Pressure is applied to motivate a movement on the part of the horse, and when the horse performs that movement, the pressure is released, and that release is the reinforcement.

Punishments can also be negative or positive, those terms again referring to the addition or subtraction of something. A positive punishment means the punishment is added into the situation: For example, a biting horse gets his nose smacked, or a young horse pesters an older field mate and finally gets a swift kick and is driven away from the group. Negative punishment means that something desirable is taken away after an undesirable behavior. An example for this would be a horse that gets mouthy and nosy looking for treats, so the handler stops feeding the horse and walks away, effectively removing the good things (treats and attention) as a result of the horse’s undesirable behavior.

So why is this useful information? I have found it beneficial to understand how and why behavior changes, because this is the reason why we train in the first place – to change something about how our horses behave. It also becomes clear how we are all training our horses all the time, whether that is our intent or not. A horse that runs to the other side of his field to eat grass when his owner appears with a halter just gave himself a positive reinforcement (the grass) for being hard to catch.


If we look at challenging behaviors, such as the hard-to-catch horse I just mentioned, as well as consider new skills we are working on teaching our horses, it becomes clear that there is more than one way to achieve a training goal, and research (as well as common sense) has shown that reward based systems (positive reinforcement) can get better results with happier training subjects.

Here are two such studies shared by if you want to do further reading:

Study: Positive Reinforcement Aids Training

Training: Positive Reinforcement Improves Horse Memory

Comments? Questions? Put them below and I will see you there!


About Callie: I own and operate a small boarding and training facility in Chester County, Pa., where I love working with young horses and so-called “problem horses.” I enjoy learning from every horse I get to work with and always finding better ways to train and to teach my students. Writing is another passion for me, and I write two blogs. The first is CRK Training Blog, where I feature riding and training tips and interview other trainers and horse industry experts. The second blog is Happy Horse Reviews, where I share my thoughts on a variety of equestrian products. Thanks for taking the time to read my article!

Callie King


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