Teaching Old Ponies New Tricks: Positive Reinforcement Effective

What's best for teaching an old pony new tricks: The carrot or the whip?

New equine behavior research is pointing us to the carrot. According to results from a recent study in France, awarding horses for correct moves during training is more effective and has longer lasting results than coercing them with negative influences. It also strengthens the horse-human relationship generally.

The study, led by equine behaviorist Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes, involved 21 riding club ponies, aged 10 to 16. Sankey taught the ponies to back up on a vocal command ("Back") without the use of reins or lead lines. The ponies were free-standing in an arena with Sankey, who stood in front of them. If the ponies did not step backwards on the first try, she would tap her foot. One group of ponies received positive reinforcement (grain pellets) when they took a step backwards. The other group received negative reinforcement (a whip shaken in front of their heads) until they did not take a step backwards. Each pony was trained for one to three minutes each day for five days.

At the end of the five days, all the ponies had learned the command, but it took much longer for the negative reinforcement group to respond to the command. Every pony in the positive reinforcement group stepped backward by the second try, but that was only true for half the ponies in the negative reinforcement group.

Cardiac assessments of the ponies showed that the negative reinforcement ponies had significantly increased heart rates during and even before training, revealing anxiety. "It's clear that the ponies were anticipating a negative influence even before the training session started," Sankey said.

True to Sankey's other studies on equine behavior, the effects of positive and negative reinforcement during those five days stretched beyond than the training ring. When the ponies were loose in an open paddock at the end of the training period, the positive reinforcement ponies were much more likely to approach Sankey. They stayed close by her eight times longer than the negative reinforcement ponies did, even though before the training period started, all the ponies were equally friendly with people. Even five months later, the negative reinforcement ponies stayed away farther and longer, not only from Sankey but from other humans as well.

"Through these experiments it's obvious that there's no real advantage to using negative reinforcement when training horses and ponies," Sankey said. "But with positive reinforcement, there is much to be gained for everyone."

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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