You are training your horse every time you handle him, regardless of whether you are formally training him or not. A horse learns by experience; when he's handled and ridden correctly, he becomes a well-trained and well-behaved companion. On the flip side, a horse handled badly will quickly learn to behave like a menace.
Innate Behavior Versus Learned Behavior
Horses demonstrate both innate behaviors and learned behaviors. Innate behaviors are instinctual -- they don't have to be taught. Innate behaviors include walking, breathing and eating, among many others that vary by species and even breed. Learned behaviors are taught, either intentionally or through horses' own life experiences. For example, young horses don't automatically know to walk to the gate at feeding time, but they will quickly learn that being at the gate in the early morning will lead to a meal.
Learning From Horses
Horses begin learning the day they are born. Young foals will observe how their mothers react to humans and quickly adapt. Foals with friendly, social dams are more likely to accept early human contact than those whose first experiences with people involve nervous, fearful dams who are trying to escape, passively encouraging their foals to react in the same manner. Meanwhile, when weanlings are turned out with older horses, the older horses teach them how to mind their manners amongst herd members. Young horses who misbehave and offend older horses will quickly be corrected in the form of either bites or kicks. The resulting pain teaches young horses lessons they are not likely to forget.
Learning From People
Your young horse learns how to behave around people by following the cues he picks up from his handlers. Good, consistent handling teaches a young horse to be respectful and responsive to human requests. A horse learns what to expect from your daily routine, then figures out how to modify his own behavior to maximize the rewards he gets. For instance, a horse might try to come in first to eat or might lower his heads to accept a halter or a bridle. A horse does not instinctively come to the gate when a human walks up to it carrying a halter. The horse come to the gate because he has learned that coming to the gate benefits him with food and attention.
Bad Learned Behaviors
The downside of learned behavior patterns are that bad behaviors can be learned just as quickly as good ones. A horse who is constantly allowed to get away with less-than-desirable behaviors will think misbehavior is acceptable and normal. He may react poorly when he is reprimanded for his behaviors. A problem horse is typically created by consistent bad handling or by the horse experiencing discomfort when being handled.
Jen Davis has been writing since 2004. She has served as a newspaper reporter and her freelance articles have appeared in magazines such as "Horses Incorporated," "The Paisley Pony" and "Alabama Living." Davis earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication with a concentration in journalism from Berry College in Rome, Ga.