Photo: Janne Winther Christensen, PhD

Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.


Imagine the scenario: You're out on a trail ride and suddenly your horse spooks at, say, a scary-looking tree stump near your path. You have three choices:

  1. Encourage your horse (with your legs, voice, reins, crop, etc.) to move toward the stump to find out it's not so scary after all;
  2. Be patient, allowing the horse time to figure out that the stump really isn't so scary in his own time; or
  3. Turn around and go home (or take a different path) and flee that scary stump.

What do you choose to do, and what's best for your horse?

Danish equitation scientists recently investigated this question. They found that if you want to get past the stump, Choice 1 could be better for both you and the horse, even though it might be more stressful than Choice 2. Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, presented on the topic at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"Horse riding is a relatively dangerous sport, and habituation to new objects has been known to reduce the risk of accidents," said Winther Christensen, a research scientist at the faculty of agricultural sciences at Aarhus University in Tjele, Denmark. "If an animal avoids or escapes an object and can get away from it, that avoidance behavior gets reinforced, and the animal is likely to repeat the behavior. But also, studies in other species have shown that prevention of innate behavior (flight response) can lead to increased stress in the animal. So we wanted to find out what was best for horses."

Christensen and colleagues studied 22 Danish Warmblood geldings (aged two to three years old) separated into two groups learning to get accustomed to open umbrellas on the ground. Handlers encouraged each horse in one group to approach the umbrellas using negative reinforcement (in this case, pulling on the halter and lead line). Horses in the second group were released, one at a time, in the arena with the umbrellas and allowed to take their own time exploring them. On the following day, each horse from both groups was taken individually into the arena where he could find buckets of food next to the umbrellas. On both days, researchers evaluated the horses' heart rates and behaviors and recorded the time it took for them to approach the umbrellas and the food.

The negative reinforcement group showed much higher signs of stress (heart rate and behavior) than the other group on the first day, Winther Christensen said. But on the second day, they spent less time investigating their surroundings and approached the feed buckets faster than horses in the other group.

"A negative reinforced approach to the habituation of novel objects increases stress response during the first exposure, but it also appears to facilitate habituation to the objects," said Winther Christensen. "However, because the procedure does lead to a temporary increase in stress responses, it should be carefully managed."

Winther Christensen also cautioned that her results were specific to her study and might not apply to all scenarios. "It may be that a stimulus of a different intensity could give different results," she said. "In general there is a lack of knowledge of different habituation techniques, how effective they are, and how they affect horses."

Further studies are under way, she said.