The assistant's trolley had a squeaky wheel and Pavlov began to notice that, after a while, the dogs started to salivate as soon as they heard the trolley squeaking down the hallway. Pavlov was fascinated by this phenomenon and he started to explore the psychology of expectation. He rang a bell before giving the dogs their meat and after a few repetitions dicovered that just the bell on its own would cause the dogs to salivate. What Pavlov had discovered we now know as classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning occurs when a previously meaningless stimulus (like a bell) becomes paired with a known response (like salivation). It explains why you feel happy when you smell the perfume of someone that you love, why you duck when you hear a loud noise, why your dog barks when he hears your car coming up the road and why your horse will trot across his paddock towards the sound of a carrot being snapped in half. Classically conditioned cues piggy back onto existing ones and can also piggy back on classically conditioned cues that are, in turn, piggy backing on existing responses. Each and everyone of us is a swirling hodge podge of classically conditioned cues and reponses that psychologists would refer to as antecedents, and this is part of what makes us such complex and interesting beings.
Classical conditioning is a big part of modern riding practice. The rider's seat, voice and weight aids are meaningful because of classical conditioning. They are previously meaningless cues that piggy back onto existing operantly conditioned responses. So, using the seat to make the horse go forwards before it offers clear and reliable responses from the leg, is very much like putting the cart before the horse. It is far better to train the basic responses correctly and then systematically train the seat using classical conditioning than try to reverse the order. Pavlov rang the bell before feeding the dogs – not the other way around.
Classical conditioning also explains why horses will respond to word cues. If you teach the horse to respond to the cue "back" and, if your training is correct, he will respond when the word is spoken. He almost definitely will not respond if you say, "Back... back... BACK you stupid animal!" The cue that he has learned is "back."
Bob Bailey is one of the world's most succesful animal trainers. He and his wife Marion Breland ran a business called Animal Behaviour Enterprises, training animals for all kinds of purposes from domestic to military. They trained over 15,000 individual animals and over 140 different species over many years. He is also one of the most articulate and logical training theorists ever, so when Bob Bailey talks about training, trainers listen. Bob says that animal trainers have Pavlov on their shoulder all the time. What he means is that the animal we are training has it's own past, instincts and a mind of its own. The responses that they have learned via classical conditioning might be strong enough to over-ride the training that they have received. It's a great caveat for horse trainers. The 600kg animal that we are training has an unknown wealth of antecedents – any of which could trigger the flight response.
Bob Bailey also said that trainers need to be mindful of the evolutionary baggage that the animal you are working with carries. In that way, horses have more baggage than Qantas – and most of it is related to the flight response. As Andrew McLean points out, the horse has the largest amygdala (the part of the brain that sorts through stimuli, determing which ones are scary and which aren't) out of all the large domesticated mammals. This makes him (the horse, that is, not Dr McLean) particularly good at running away. The horse is great at making connections between events, has a fantastic memory and an over-riding instinct to move his legs quickly when danger presents itself. Anything can become a cue for running away; the arena, noises, pressures, smells – the horse is happy to utilise all of his amazing senses to avoid situations that are frightening to him.
What I think this means to us, as trainers, is that we have to be really mindful that our horses don't practice running steps at any point in the training. We have to keep the stopping and slowing responses really clear and we have to obsess over self carriage at all stages of training. And I think it's also useful to remember that whatever discipline we practice, Pavlov is always along for the ride.