Bilateral Training Improves Performance, Welfare, Researchers Say

Congratulations, your horse has learned a new trick! Now, start all over again--this time on the other side.

That's right; it turns out if you want your horse to learn a trick or skill correctly, you're probably going to have to teach with cues that are visible to the horse from both sides of his head. According to new equitation science research, what a horse learns on his left side isn't necessarily learned on the right, and vice-versa.

"Training has long involved a traditional bias of handling from the left," said Lucy Webb, BSc, researcher in the department of life sciences at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, during the presentation of her work at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 31. "However, it is commonly accepted that horses will pass an object on one side, yet react as though it is novel when it is presented on the other side."

To test a horse's ability to recognize training cues from opposite views, she and colleague Guy Norton, senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin, taught head-movement tricks to horses with one eye covered. Within the field of vision that horses can only see with one eye, called the "monocular field," they were shown an object and were taught to nod their heads when they saw it. In the "binocular field"--the area of vision that can usually be seen by both eyes (when one is not covered--they were shown a different object and were taught to lift their heads when they saw it.

Once the horses had learned the tricks from one side, Webb and Norton covered the opposite eye and presented the same objects in the binocular field or the monocular field for that eye. The horses’ reactions were tested to see how well their learning transferred from one eye to the other.

Webb and Norton discovered that horses don't necessarily make the connection from one eye to the other; in fact, in the monocular field, they don’t make this connection at all, Webb said. The horses seemed to transfer learning much better in the binocular field, having more and faster responses to the cues.

"Bilateral training is vitally important, especially if working within the monocular field," Webb said. "Within this field there is no transfer of learned visual associations formed on one side of the animal. Behavior such as spooking can thus be better explained, (improving) both horse welfare and progress of training."

More results from their ongoing study will be available in the coming months, she said.

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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