Study Correlates Food Rewards with Positive Responses during Training

Young horses learn faster and have more positive interactions with humans when they receive food as a reward during training, according to a new study presented at the 34th Annual Equine Research Day held in Paris, France, on Feb. 28.

Yearlings that received grain pellets as compensation for appropriate reactions to vocal commands were up to 40% faster to acquire new skills than a control group of yearlings that received no rewards. The training primarily involved respecting the words "stop" and "stay" and remaining immobile while the trainer performed certain grooming tasks and veterinary procedures on the horse.

"What we're hoping to do is develop techniques which will allow us to obtain the animal's confidence in us, without using constraints," said Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes in western France, and co-author on the study. At the previous Research Day event, Sankey's team presented findings that force can result in a negative relationship between horses and humans.

yarling receives a treat during behavior study
COURTESY DR. CAROL SANKEY

A yearling in the study receives a food reward.

Sankey and her team devised a series of objectives that the yearlings in both the reward and the no-reward groups were expected to attain in a consecutive order. After learning to stop and stay by voice command only, each animal learned to wait patiently with the leadline draped over its neck while the trainer brushed it, picked its hooves, attached a surcingle, applied tendon boots, inserted a thermometer in its rectum, and finally applied a "vapor spray" (simulating applying fly spray or coat polish) over its coat. All eight colts and 15 fillies involved in the study received training individually for five minutes per day, five days per week, until the entire set of objectives was obtained. The amount of time to achieve each task and the totality of the tasks was recorded for both groups.

On average, the reward group finished their training in 3.7 hours whereas the control group needed 5.2 hours to acquire the same tasks. "There wasn't even any overlap," Sankey explained. "The slowest horse in the reward group still learned faster than the fastest horse in the control group."

Additionally, by the end of the training period, horses in the reward group were more likely to voluntarily approach the trainer and to remain at a closer distance to her than the control horses were. Sankey noted that the horses in the reward group displayed more behaviors considered positive by the researchers, including significantly more sniffing, exploration, and licking of the trainer. Horses in the control group were significantly more likely to bite, kick, or fall over during hoof cleaning.

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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