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

In horse training, food is a more effective reward than grooming.

Is food or affection better as a reward in dog training? Photo shows a semi-wild brown Konik horse in a pasture
Photo: Ellen Beijers/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

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Sankey, C., Henry, S., Górecka-Bruzda, A., Richard-Yris, M. A., & Hausberger, M. (2010). The way to a man's heart is through his stomach: what about horses?. Plos one, 5(11), e15446.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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