Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Is Food or Affection Better as a Reward in Horse Training?

A brown Konik horse in a green pasture in rural Poland
Several recent studies have found that food is a better reward than petting or praise when training dogs. But what about horses? A new study led by Carol Sankey at the University of Rennes 1 in France investigates whether food is also the way to a horse’s heart.

Twenty horses took part in the study. They were Konik horses, a primitive breed in Poland (pictured). Twelve of the horses were raised in typical domestic conditions, while the remaining eight were raised in a forest reserve in semi-natural conditions. At the time of the study, all of the horses were between 1 and 2 years old, and live in stables. 

The horses were taught a ‘stay’ command starting at 5s and increasing gradually up to 60s if they progressed that far. Training took place for 5 minutes a day over a six-day period, and was conducted in the middle of the stables. Loudspeakers playing white noise were used to ensure that the other horses in the stables could not hear the training take place. After each training session, the horses were taken to a paddock and given time to run around.

Ten of the horses were in a ‘food reward’ group. They were given a piece of carrot each time they correctly responded to the trainer’s instruction. The other ten horses were in a ‘grooming reward’ group. If they responded correctly, the trainer scratched them three times on the withers.

The horses in the food reward group learned the stay command significantly faster than the horses in the grooming reward group. While 90% of the horses trained with food were able to stay for a minute at the end of training, only 40% of the horses trained with grooming could do this. In fact the mean duration of a stay for the grooming-reward horses was 32 seconds.

What happened is that while the grooming-reward horses made progress in the first two days, after this the rate of progress stalled. On the other hand, horses rewarded with food made the most progress in the first three days, but still continued to improve after that.

The scientists also conducted a test to see if the type of reward affected how much time a horse would spend in close proximity to the trainer. This is called a “motionless human test.” Before the training, there was no difference between the two groups of horses. After training, those in the food reward group approached the trainer more quickly, and spent more time near her, than those in the grooming group.

This study shows that for horses, just as with dogs, training is better facilitated by food; physical touch does not produce the same results.

The authors point out that food also plays an important role in human relationships, saying “Don’t we also say that little gifts keep friendship warm? Is there a better little gift than a box of sweets or chocolates to make a lover’s heart melt or fill a grandmother with joy?”

What kind of foodie gifts do you like to receive?

Reference
Sankey, C, Henry, S, Górecka-Bruzda, A, Richard-Yris, M-A, & Hausberger, M (2013). The way to a man's heart is through his stomach: What about horses? PLoS ONE, 5 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015446

2 comments:

  1. So glad people are catching on to positive reward training with animals.

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  2. This pretty much puts Monty Roberts back in his place, thankfully. I'm referring to a comment he's made so many times; "Using treats to reward a horse in training is very poor horsemanship". No, Mr. Roberts, horses don't understand your tough love theory, and as 45 years as a compassionate trainer, I've only VERY RARELY had a horse bite me...and because I understood her behavior in just learning to accept treats, this particular action by her was a pure accident, and the bite wasn't painful at all.....additionally, she never repeated that single accidental "bite". Heather Mills / HawkFeather Equine Performance Horses

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