Expanding the Window of Tolerance

The aim of good training is to expand the horse’s ‘window of tolerance‘ so the normal, every day stressors don’t bother him so much and there is room for his nervous system to take in and process unexpected or new experiences.

Horses are always moving between arousal states, from more aroused to less, and this often occurs within the window of tolerance so riders don’t often notice the process. But when these stimuli stack too high, they fill up the window and push the horse over the edge.

The rider’s reaction to that will either help to expand the window of tolerance, or push the horse farther above the threshold.

Growing the window can be done using three concepts: pendulation, titration, and self-regulation.

Pendulation

A pendulation is a swing or a cycle. It is returning to the point you started from. This tool to grow the window of tolerance requires patience. It takes time for the horse to return to a parasympathetic nervous state after being pushed up to or above the threshold of his window of tolerance and into a sympathetic state.

Adrenaline is the result of being pushed too far, and the half-life of adrenaline in the body is about 2.5 minutes. Allowing for a full pendulation of the horse’s nervous system then will take at least that long. Some wise old cowboys would call this ‘giving the horse some time to think’.

Trying to control the horse in a situation of high arousal can actually stack more stimuli up and push him over threshold. But this isn’t to say that you should leave your horse alone in a frightening situation. Backing off to where everyone was last comfortable, remaining calm, being reassuring, and waiting for signs of returning to a lower level of arousal is helpful. Being aware of stimulus stacking and trying to avoid stacking too high in the first place is even better. This takes time and practice.

Titration

Titration is a concept in where the balance is continuously adjusted by very tiny increments. In horse training, this is seen in progressing in a logical fashion through training, building in small steps through the training scale.

It can also be used when you start to see signs of stress responses in the horse. Consider what might be causing the response. Then use a tiny amount of that cause, not enough to make a response. Wait for pendulation and add a tiny bit more. In this way, the horse’s window of tolerance grows and expands through thoughtful training.

Self-regulation

This part is for the rider or trainer and not so much for the horse. Horses are actually quite good at self-regulation within their window of tolerance, which is why stress responses often seem out of the blue to riders.

Taking a step back from training when you feel yourself becoming annoyed can help to give clarity to the situation before you and your horse get pushed about threshold. It is better to take the time to grow the window than to risk narrowing it by doing the same old things in the same old way.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Recovery after Tension and Shock. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrilly. (2020) Growing your Horse’s Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, May-June.

The Window of Tolerance

When your horse jumps out of his skin because of the door in the arena that he sees every day, what is going on? Is he just being silly? Does he know better? If so, you’re justified in the frustration this situation produces. But frustration never trained a horse. Is there a more helpful way to look at this behaviour?

Behaviourally speaking there is a better explanation. Every horse has a ‘window of tolerance’. This window isn’t static, it can be expanded through training and it can also be narrowed by stress. Inside this window the horse can operate well. Each stimulus the horse is exposed to can fill up the window a bit, and as he responds to it or relaxes his level of arousal within the window goes up or down.

When this window is already almost full due to various small (or large) stressors like being alone, pain, a windy day, a sudden noise, or a new training concept, the arena door can become the tiny thing that pushes him out of his window of tolerance. This is called stimulus stacking.

Stimulus stacking means that by the time the arena door became the last straw, the horse had already done a lot of self-regulating of the previous stressors that were narrowing his window. It can seem like out-of-window behaviour comes out of the blue, but there are actually many signs of increasing stress that you may notice beforehand.

Signs that the horse is trying to self-regulate very mild stress include yawning, blinking, and shaking the head or body. More stress produces displacement behaviours like licking objects, pawing, rubbing the head and neck, and sniffing the ground but not eating. Finally stress signals appear, such as characteristics of the equine pain face, startling, and frequent pooping. Pushing through all of these signs takes you to the threshold of the window of tolerance and beyond.

What is beyond the window of tolerance? Fight, flight, or freeze. This is where the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. He is now beyond learning from the situation or responding to your cues.

This is why staying within the window of tolerance gets the most training work done. It is also desirable to grow the window of tolerance so the horse becomes more resilient to daily stressors and able to easily handle larger ones. Reading the horse’s body language and responding accordingly will help the horse to regulate his responses to the world around him, resulting in more relaxing and safer interactions between him and you!

In training my clients’ horses, this is what I aim to do—remain within the window of tolerance and grow it to produce a calm and relaxed horse that can cope well with the many stressors that come with a relationship with people.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Fight or Flight. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrily. (2020) The Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, March-April.

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.

Conclusions

Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.

References

Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991

Do Horses Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?

Few species are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror. Many species interpret the image in the mirror as that of a conspecific. Being able to form a concept of ‘self’ requires higher mental ability. Do horses have this ability?

There are three stages an animal has to pass in a mirror self recognition test before the final stage of testing where a mark is applied to the animal in a region only visible with the help of a mirror to see if the animal attempts to remove the mark. Prior to this, the animal must show social responses towards the mirror. Then the animal explores the mirror, including looking behind it. Finally, to get to the stage of testing involving the mark, the animal must repeatedly test the mirror by looking at parts of its body that it cannot typically see without the mirror, or performing repetitive behaviours such as sticking out the tongue or moving in and out of the mirror’s range like playing peek-a-boo.

A few years ago there was an open access pilot study (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176717) using four horses and a large mirror to see if the horses would pass these four stages and recognize that it was themselves reflected in the mirror. At that point, the results were inconclusive, with horses recognizing that the reflected image did not behave like another horse but showing inconclusive behaviours for the remaining parts of the test.

More recently another open access study was conducted (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01502-7) with more horses and different results. The mark was only used on the 11 horses (out of 14) that passed the first three stages of the testing as described above. A sham mark was used to ensure the horses were not detecting the mark through tactile means instead of actually seeing the coloured mark, and indeed most of the horses scratched more at the coloured mark than at the invisible one.

These results suggest that horses can develop an idea of self after some exploration of a mirror to satisfy themselves that it is not a conspecific. It is also possible that they recognized the mark on the face as unnatural and attempted to intentionally remove it.

Unfortunately, some reporters are touting this preliminary study with the headline that ‘horses worry about their looks,’ which is a sensational and inaccurate portrayal of the study results. Horses have previously been shown to be incapable of worrying about future events. Anxiety and stress are only triggered by context-specific memory. Reading the studies themselves, which are freely available, is much more accurate than reading reporters’ interpretations!

So don’t take my word for it either. Do some digging yourself, read the articles, and comment your thoughts and findings!

Better Riding=Better Relationship

A recent study examined how riders’ pelvic movement and balance on an exercise ball correlated with their riding ability and harmony with their horse and with their horses’ welfare while riding.

Three gymnastic ball exercises were evaluated, and two of them were found to be positively correlated with riders who moved best with their horses and whose horses expressed the least conflict behaviours. That means the riders who were better at those two exercises were better riders and caused their horses less confusion.

Get your exercise ball and give these a try:

  1. Sitting on an exercise ball with arms crossed in front of you, wrist to elbow, roll the pelvis from side to side without tipping your shoulders and without moving your feet. You’ll lift the right hip and lower the left, then lift the left and lower the right.
  2. In the same position on the ball, roll the ball in a circle with your pelvis, to the right and then to the left, controlling the motion of the ball throughout the circle. Again, maintain the feet flat on the ground and the upper body stable.

Riders whose performance of these exercises scored high also scored high for harmony with their horse while riding, and their horses worked at higher heart rates with fewer conflict behaviours. That means the horses were working more correctly with less confusion, which improves the relationship between horse and rider!

The third exercise examined was a balance exercise where riders were asked to extend their arms horizontally in front and then lift their feet off the ground, attempting to balance for 30 seconds. Interestingly, riders who scored well on this exercise showed a negative correlation with harmony while riding. The authors hypothesized that the different muscle contractions required for balancing in this position versus balancing in a riding position made the exercise unhelpful for riding. 

Uldahl, M; Christensen, J; Clayton, H. (2021) Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals 11:2, 453.

Better Relationship, Easier Handling: Effect of Training Method

A recent study investigated whether the human-horse bond could be considered ‘attachment’ by the scientific definition of the term. This involves security and comfort being derived from the relationship.

The relationship and attachment of dogs and cats to humans has been studied much more than that of horses, but this preliminary study with 12 horses is the starting place for more research in future.

Methods

The twelve horses were assessed before the training began in an arena with four novel objects and two unfamiliar humans. This assessed their fear responses to new situations and whether they found the presence of unfamiliar humans to be reassuring.

The horses were then trained over a period of ten days for fifteen minutes by the same trainer in ten simple tasks including stepping forward, stopping, standing still, and moving either the shoulders or the hips sideways. One group of horses was trained this using only negative reinforcement (the removal of pressure to reinforce the correct response). The other two groups were trained with combined reinforcement, which is negative reinforcement combined with positive reinforcement (the addition of something pleasant as a reward for a correct response). One combined reinforcement group had food rewards, and the other had wither scratching as a reward.

A post training test was conducted with four new novel objects and two people near the objects. One of these people was unfamiliar, and the other was the horses’ trainer so that it could be assessed if the horse showed attachment behaviours towards the familiar person. The researchers also wanted to see if the method of training used affected the horses’ responses to novel objects.

Lastly, a handling test was conducted consisting of five challenging and potentially fear inducing situations that the horse was led through by an unfamiliar handler or by the trainer to investigate effect of training method and familiarity of the human on the horses’ reactions.

Results

The researchers were unable to find a difference between horse behaviour toward the trainer versus behaviour toward the stranger between the pre- and post-tests. Horses that were willing to investigate the novel objects in the pre- test did so also in the post-test. Their heart rates, however, were significantly lower in the post-test, indicative either of the horse getting used to the testing scenario, or perhaps showing an effect of correct training in producing relaxation, which has been demonstrated in other studies. During the handling test, there was no difference in measured behaviours when being handled by the trainer versus the stranger.

There is not enough evidence from this study to conclude that scientific attachment occurs between horses and humans, but the reasons for this may be several.

  • There were few training sessions. Horses may take longer to form an attachment than other species.
  • The horses were lesson horses. They were therefore frequently handled by many humans and may have generalized to consider all humans as positive.
  • This was a pilot study. There were only 12 horses used, which is a good start but further research is required.

Reference

Hartmann, E; Rehn, T; Christensen, JW; Nielsen, PP; and McGreevy, P. (2021) From the Horse’s Perspective: Investigating Attachment Behaviour and the Effect of Training Method on Fear Reactions and Ease of Handling—A Pilot Study. Animals 11: 457. Open Access: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/11/2/457

Is Your Horse Curious?

Is your horse (or the horse you ride, lease, borrow, love) curious? A new study shows that horses who are interested in new things and want to explore them actually learn better!

“Exploratory behaviour was unreinforced in the novel object tests and likely reflects the animal’s intrinsic motivation (i.e. curiosity), suggesting that this trait is favourable for learning performance.”

Coming up with ways to foster your horse’s curiosity could improve his whole outlook on life, including his interest in training.

“[these results] raise questions in relation to fostering of curiosity in animals and the impact that such manipulation may have on cognitive abilities.”

How can you foster your horse’s curiosity? I like to allow my horse to investigate things. When she looks worried about something, we stop and wait. Research shows that after about 13 seconds of observing something ‘scary’, horses become more willing to explore it. So we wait a bit, then I ask her to go a little closer. Soon she’s getting closer herself, sniffing or moving the object herself.

How do you enable your horse to be curious?

Christensen, J; Ahrendt, L; Malmkvist, J; and Nicol, C. (2021) Exploratory behaviour towards novel objects is associated with enhanced learning in young horses. Scientific Reports, 11:1428. Open access! Read the full article here: https://rdcu.be/cejm0

The Kinematics of Collection

Introduction

Collection done well is beautiful and powerful. But what is collection? What physically happens in the horse’s body to create a collected gait? 

The most common answers about what collection is come from the FEI rulebook. Collection is supposed to involve a shortening of the stride with a maintenance of energy in movement, increased flexion of the joints of the hindquarters, resulting in a lowering of the horse’s croup, and hind limbs that step farther forward under the horse, all of which are said to cause a weight shift from the front legs to the back legs.

Some of these claims are supported by studies of elite horse and rider movement in the collected gaits, but others are not. So what actually happens when a horse collects?

Shortening of the Stride

In examining collection of the walk (Clayton, 1995), trot (Clayton, 1994a), and canter (Clayton, 1994b), Clayton found that as collection increased, stride length decreased. The frequency of strides also decreased in walk and trot, but not as much. The stride length of piaffe is smaller than that of passage, and passage is smaller than that of the collected trot.

Flexion in the Joints of the Hindquarters

Increased flexion of the joints in the hind limbs, resulting in an almost crouching posture, has been found in some studies (Rhodin et al, 2018) and not found in others (Clayton, 1994a). It is likely that this factor of collection depends greatly on the degree of collection, with the greatest degree (piaffe) displaying the most flexion of the hindlimb joints. 

It is said that this increased flexion causes the horse to lower the croup relative to the withers, so the back is sloped down and back. However, studies have not seen this happen in either the collected walk or trot (Rhodin et al, 2018), though again in a higher degree of collection such as the piaffe, lowering of the croup can occur.

Interestingly, an increased posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis at the lumbosacral junction does occur in the collected walk and trot, which lowers the dock (Rhodin et al, 2018). This could create the impression of a lowered croup for an observer.

Protraction of the Hind Limbs

Protraction is the reaching forward of the limb, and retraction is the pushing out behind. Increased protraction as an element of collection may be part myth. The horse does not actually step the hind leg any farther underneath the body, towards the forelimbs, than in a free gait. However, there is another effect of collection that may give the appearance of increased protraction of the hind limbs.

In the collected gaits, the horse down not retract the hindlimb as far as he would in a free or extended gait. This means the hind limb pushes off sooner relative to how far the limb has traveled, it does not stretch out behind the horse when pushing off for swing phase. The average protraction of the limb from start to finish of stance phase, then, does increase, but it is because of decreased retraction, not increased protraction.

Weight Shift to the Hind Limbs

Ground Reaction Force (GRF) is measured to determine whether the above biomechanical effects of collection actually cause the hind limbs to bear more weight than they would in a free gait.

There have been very few studies regarding this, however it seems that there is indeed some small shift of weight, also on a sliding scale with the degree of collection. From collected trot to passage, Clayton et al (2017) found that within a diagonal pair of legs, the hind leg bore proportionally more weight. In the collected trot, the forelimb of a pair bore about 58% of the weight, which was reduced to about 55% in the passage.

Three ways were found whereby a horse could shift weight into the hindlimb: I.) having the hindlimb in a diagonal pair contact the ground prior to the front limb, II.) adjusting how far forward and back each limb moves in swing and stance phases respectively, and III.) increasing muscular effort through the hindlimb to create more vertical movement.

Conclusion: What is Collection?

Collection involves a change in how the horse moves himself. It can be hard for the observer to see exactly what is going on in a collected gait, however. The major discrepancies between common equestrian thought and evidence from studies include: no actual increase in protraction of the hindlimbs, though average protraction is increased through less retraction; the suspension phase of collected gaits does not increase in duration, contrary to popular belief; and finally, the horse’s croup does not lower, rather a posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis could create this impression by lowering the dock.

The commonly cited weight shift from forehand to the haunches does in fact occur, partially (but not to a great extent) aided by an elevation of the horse’s poll. The stride length of the collected gaits is also much shorter than that of the free gaits.

Understanding what actually occurs in the horse’s body during collection is helpful for riders to influence their horse’s movement, knowing more accurately what changes they want the horse to make.

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References

Byström, A. (2019) The movement pattern of horse and rider in different degrees of collection. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. ISBN: 978-91-7760-383-2

Clayton, H. (1994a).Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, working, medium and extended trot in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal 26, 230-234.

Clayton, H. (1994b) Comparison of the collected, working, medium and extended canters. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl 17, 16-19.

Clayton, H. (1995) Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, medium, and extended walks in horses. American Journal of Veterinary Research 56, 849-852.

Clayton, H; Schamhardt, H; and Hobbs, S. (2017) Ground reaction forces of elite dressage horses in collected trot and passage. The Veterinary Journal 221, 30-33.

Does the Vet Like Seeing Your Horse?

Having the vet out for your horse isn’t an ideal scenario. Your horse is hurt, you’re stressed, it’s expensive, and now it’s going to take twice as long because the horse just won’t cooperate. Here’s how you can make the situation better for your horse, your vet, and yourself the next time your horse needs help.

The Problem

A recent study found that 95% of equine vets work with difficult horses at least monthly (Pearson et al, 2020). The kinds of dangerous behaviours they encounter, in order of prevalence, include: bargy or pushy horses; horses that won’t stand still or are needle-shy; head-shy or clipper-shy horses; horses that kick with a hind foot; horses that pull away; and horses that refuse to load. 81% of the vets surveyed had sustained at least one and up to thirty horse behaviour-related injuries in the past five years.

Whose Job is It?

Your vet is the professional, but that doesn’t mean they are going to train your horse to accept veterinary intervention. They need to get their job done, preferably without injury to themselves or further injury to the horse. The vets’ go-to method of getting the job done in this study was chemical restraint, with 99% of the vets placing it at the top of their list of useful restraint methods. Physical restraint came next, with everything from nose and neck twitches to bits, bridles, and holding up a leg (Pearson et al, 2020). Physical restraint can cause undue stress or injury to the horse, sometimes making the intervention even harder next time (McGreevy et al, 2018), and chemical restraint (sedation) can be expensive.

Unfortunately, methods of behaviour modification such as positive and negative reinforcement and overshadowing that encourage the horse to engage in the process and leave the horse more relaxed and better behaved for the next intervention (McLean, 2008), fell to the bottom of the list (Pearson et al, 2020). Only 7 and 8% of the vets considered negative reinforcement or overshadowing respectively to be very or fairly useful, and 50% considered negative reinforcement to be unhelpful or even useless! 67% had never heard of or did not understand overshadowing.

Clearly, if your vet is to find your horse a pleasure to work with rather than the cause of yet another injury, there is some work to do. It starts with how horses learn.

Your Part of The Solution

A horse is said to be under ‘stimulus control’ when the handler’s cues are responded to consistently, regardless of what is happening in the environment (McGreevy, 2010). Impossible, you say. Horses are horses. Stimulus control in a familiar environment is certainly possible, however, and with further training in different contexts, it becomes easier to control the horse even in a new or frightening situation, because the training is more consolidated. If, on the other hand, there is no training and the horse simply follows the handler if he feels like it, there is no base to fall back on when it is needed, such as in an emergency situation.

Applying learning theory to your horse’s ground training (and ridden training too) will create a horse that can calmly and promptly respond to light pressure cues, preventing some of the most common behaviours that veterinarians come up against, particularly barging, not standing, kicking, pulling away, and refusing to load.

The other common difficult behaviours are linked to a stimulus, like a needle, the clippers, or a trailer and are often found only in a veterinary context. These are the behaviours where overshadowing and combined reinforcement are most useful, provided the handler and veterinarian know how to apply them. Becoming familiar yourself with how your horse learns will set you up to be able to train him consistently so the foundation is there when you need it.

Your Vet’s Part of the Solution

There was an association seen in the study between the vet’s years of experience and the prevalence of unwanted behaviour he met with. More than half of the unwanted behaviours reduced in frequency based on the vet’s increasing experience. There are a few potential reasons for this.

First, more experienced vets have learned the hard way which handling methods tend to work safely and which do not (Pearson et al, 2020). These vets essentially learn about learning theory on the job. A second reason may be an increased willingness to turn to restraint methods earlier in the visit. Finally, vets consistently experiencing dangerous behaviours from their patients may leave the equine sector.

Gaining experience comes from being willing to learn. Once you’ve done your part in training your horse and learning about how you can help your horse learn and behave using learning theory, share with your vet. Although 79% of the surveyed vets thought they had a decent understanding of learning theory, only 10% were able to answer 5 out of the 6 test questions correctly. 46% reported receiving no training in learning theory (Pearson et al, 2020).

So, take your horse’s part. Instead of allowing potentially damaging physical restraint like an ear twitch for an injection, ask if you could use a page from learning theory’s book instead. Explain the method you’d like to use, and demonstrate your part if possible to show the horse can do it and you can handle it safely. 

Being an advocate for proper understanding and use of the horse’s learning processes can only help to create a positive experience for you, your vet, and your horse.

References

McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science, Wiley- Blackwell, Oxon. 

McGreevy, P., Berger, J., de Brauwere, N., Doherty, O., Harrison, A., Fiedler, J., Jones, C., McDonnell, S., McLean, A., Nakonechny, L., Nicol, C., Preshaw, L., Thomson, P., Tzioumis, V., Webster, J., Wolfensohn, S., Yeates, J., Jones, B., 2018. Using the five domains model to assess the adverse impacts of husbandry, veterinary, and equitation interventions on horse welfare. Animals 8, 41.

McLean, A. (2008) Overshadowing: A Silver Lining to a Dark Cloud in Horse Training. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11:3, 236-248.

Pearson, G; Reardon, R; Keen, J; and Waran, N. (2020) Difficult horses—prevalence, approaches to management of and understanding of how they develop by equine veterinarians. Equine Veterinary Education. Open access: doi: 10.1111/eve.13354

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