Effective Rewards

Behaviour that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. This is how horses are trained. There are two kinds of reinforcers, primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers.

Primary reinforcers are valuable to the horse of themselves. Secondary reinforcers are rewarding only when they are consistently paired with a primary reinforcer. Let’s look at some examples.

Primary ReinforcersSecondary Reinforcers
Release of pressureThe ‘Click’ in clicker training
FoodVocal rewards (good boy)

Another commonly used method of reinforcing behaviour is petting or scratching the horse, often near the withers. This has been reported to lower the horse’s heart rate, and many horses appear to enjoy the scratch, closing their eyes, wiggling their lips, and extending their necks.

Is tactile reinforcement primary or secondary?

A 2010 study using 20 horses trained them to stand still at a vocal command for increasing duration up to a minute. Half were rewarded for correct responses with food and half were rewarded with vigorous wither scratching. The researchers tested the horses’ relationship to humans before and after the training, examining latency to approach a stationary person and how long the horse stayed close to them. They also looked at the horses’ ability to perform the learned behaviour after the training was over.

Interestingly, they found that the wither scratch group did not learn as well as the food reward group. They were unable to stand still for as long, and did not learn as fast. The food reward group also approached a stationary human faster after training and stayed closer for longer than the tactile reward group, though both groups had started out scoring the same for approach latency and time in proximity on the relationship tests.

The researchers suggested that tactile rewards may have been given too much credit, and that carefully used food rewards are more efficient in terms of both horse learning and relationship building.

Some horses really enjoy touch, but all of them seem to enjoy food! Learning how to use food well in training seems like a logical choice from the results of this study.

The study, The Way to a Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach: What About Horses? by Sankey, C; Henry, S; Górecka-Bruzda, A; Richard-Yris, M-A; and Hausberger, M was published by PLoS ONE in November 2010, Volume 5, Issue 11, and can be found for free online here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0015446

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