Training: Food Rewards Are More Effective Than Physical Contact

Everybody loves a good back scratch, including your horse, right? Scratching of the withers has been scientifically proven to reduce a horse's heart rate, but a good scratch might not be enough to communicate to your horse that you're happy with what he's just learned and that you want him to do it again next time.

According to new research by French equitation scientists, presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on Aug. 2, rewarding horses with food, rather than physical contact, is most effective.

"Overall, it appears that scratching the withers may not be considered a primary positive reinforcement for horses," said Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes in western France. "In fact, some horses don't seem to like it much it at all."

In previous studies also described at, Sankey compared food rewards to negative reinforcement and food reward to no reinforcement at all; in both cases the horses' training programs were significantly improved when food reward was used. The food-rewarded horses also remembered the training longer and had friendlier contact with humans.

But now Sankey and her colleagues have addressed the question of which kind of positive reinforcement works better: physical contact—wither scratching—which is known to reduce heart rates (suggesting the horse enjoys it), or food (in this case, carrots). They put the question to the test by training 20 Konik horse yearlings to stand still on command. (This native Polish breed was chosen because the horses live in semi-natural family groups where they can benefit fully from social grooming and its implications within the herd.) "If grooming has any socially positive effect on horses, this would be the occasion to find out," Sankey said.

According to their results, grooming has very little positive effect. From the first day of training, the food-rewarded yearlings stood still longer, Sankey said. They also made faster progress over the six-day training period compared to the horses rewarded with wither scratching, whose progress eventually stagnated. The food-rewarded horses also were far more receptive to humans, standing closer to them and seeking physical contact, outside the training sessions.

"Scratching the withers could be perceived as positive by some horses, just not positive enough for training and bonding," said Sankey. In fact, social grooming might actually occur because of bonding and not the contrary, she added.

"It's better to consider scratching a secondary form of positive reinforcement, which must first be associated with a primary one, like food, to become rewarding," Sankey 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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