Safety is very important to horses. While the most common horse training methods employ food or the release of pressure as a reward, it has recently been argued that safety is valuable enough to horses to be used by trainers as a resource during training to reduce fearfulness and increase learning uptake.
The goal of horse training is to reduce the expression of behaviour we don’t want and to draw out behaviour we do want, so that it is eventually offered on cue. Many behaviours that horses offer that we don’t like stem from fear. When a behaviour originating from fear is punished to make it less likely to occur again, negative emotions are likely to result, reducing effectiveness of training. Therefore, it is critical to understand fear responses in order to make better training decisions.
Fear responses are highly selected for because they promote survival. Fear is a kind of stress, and affects the animal’s behaviour in ways designed to make it easier to escape the situation. When fear is excessive or chronic, however, the physical cost of responding to the fear can affect health and behaviour. Animals may also react fearfully to things that do not pose an actual risk.
When a horse successfully escapes a fear-inducing stimulus (be that a plastic bag, a bush, or a rider), the behaviour that succeeded can be learned in a single trial, has the effect of reducing fear caused by the stimulus, and is resistant to being untrained. This suggests that the reduction in fear associated with performing an escape behaviour is highly reinforcing. Escape behaviour is in contrast to avoidance behaviour, where the animal receives warning about a fear-inducing stimulus and has the opportunity to avoid the stimulus by performing a behaviour.
In laboratory avoidance learning tests, when a ‘safety signal’ or neutral stimulus such as a light or a sound occurred when the animal had successfully avoided the fear-inducing stimulus, the test animals learned the avoidance behaviour much faster. The safety signal by itself reduced fear and held positive reinforcing properties. Once a stimulus becomes a safety signal, it rarely loses its meaning!
Other horses are probably the most common example of equine safety signals. Calm horses have the best effect, and silhouettes of relaxed or grazing horses have been shown to be recognized and greeted by horses. ‘Home’ is also likely to be a safety signal.
Reducing fearfulness should be a goal of horse training. It is possible that humans could also become a safety signal, depending on the horse’s previous experience of its handler specifically and people in general. The safety signal concept could be a better definition of the elusive notion of ‘trust’ in horse-human relationships.
If the horse’s trainer, handler, or owner can be perceived by the horse as a source of safety through consistent and careful training, learning could be enhanced and the risk of injury to horse and handler caused by a fear response could be greatly reduced.
McGreevy, P; Henshall, C; Starling, M; McLean, A; Boakes, R. (2014) The Importance of Safety Signals in Animal Handling and Training. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 9:382-387.