Study: Food Rewards Can Improve Horse Training

Study: Food Rewards Can Improve Horse Training

French researchers believe positive reinforcement with food rewards helps horses in training learn better, because the horses are paying more attention to their trainers.


Pay attention. Are you listening? Are you looking at me?

Maybe a nibble of feed will get your attention.

Positive reinforcement with food rewards appears to help horses in training learn better. French equine behavior researchers believe this is because the horses are paying more attention to their trainers.

“Our studies show that actions of a positive value induce an increase in the horse’s attention, not only toward a particular stimulus (e.g., food) but toward the entire situation,” said Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD candidate in the equine behavior department of the University of Rennes, in France. “Attention is a key element in the learning and memorization process (as shown by previous researchers); an increase in a horse’s attention can explain the increase in its training performance rates when using food rewards.”

Rochais presented her research at the 2013 French Equine Research Day held Feb. 28 in Paris.

Researchers have long known that positive reinforcement using a food reward yields faster and longer-lasting training results than does negative reinforcement (release of something negative, like pressure, not to be confused with punishment). The Rennes research team also previously compared food rewards to wither-scratching rewards and found that our equine friends really do learn better when they get a tasty treat than a scratch or rub.

But Rochais’ work brings us to a better understanding of why this happens. She explained that attention is the key to learning, and previous studies in humans and other animals have shown that where there's attention, there's also training. And when horses get food rewards, they pay closer attention.

In her study of 30 yearlings and 2-year-olds divided into different training groups (food rewards, wither-scratching rewards, and no rewards), Rochais and colleagues monitored signs of the horses’ attention: where they were looking, where they were pointing their ears, and how they curved their necks.

The team even watched the way the horses “investigated” their trainers, smelling them and gently nibbling on them. The horses in these studies had only had minimal contact with humans before the study, with no training.

Rochais found the food-reward group spent significantly more time than horses in the other two groups looking at the trainers, keeping at least one ear turned toward the trainers, and curving their necks toward the trainers. They also tended to show more interest in their trainers by exploring them with their noses and lips, Rochais said.

She said it's worth noting that the horses weren’t distracted by looking for food. On the contrary, she said, they showed significant restraint representing a clear case of solid learning. The trainers taught the horses to stand still on command (“Stay!”) for up to 60 seconds while they walked away from or around the horse. The horses quickly learned that if they did as told, they would receive the food reward faster than if they went searching for it somewhere on the trainer, Rochais said.

On the other hand, horses that were either not rewarded or rewarded with wither scratching tended to be more distracted by their environment, turning their attention to other sights and sounds away from the trainer, Rochais said. “These studies clearly show that the use of positive reinforcement (with food) is associated with an elevated attention level of the horse towards the trainer,” said Rochais. “He looks more at the trainer; he listens more to him or her (according to the direction the ears are pointed); and he seeks more contact with that person.

"By contrast, the absence of such reinforcement is associated with increased inattention towards the human," she concluded. "Furthermore, the use of touch (wither-scratching) does not induce any improvement whatsoever in the attention level of the horse towards the trainer, as horses rewarded with wither scratching appeared to show equivalent attention levels as those not rewarded at all.”

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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