In a new study, German researchers have reported that repeating a new skill more than three times might be unnecessary repetition.
Horses can learn new tasks when people ask them to perform them as few as three times per session, twice a week (using negative reinforcement, or pressure release). Any additional repetitions make no difference in how well or fast they learn a new skill, said Uta König von Borstel, PhD, a researcher at the University of Giessen. König von Borstel spoke on behalf of her student Franziska Fröhlich, BSc, and their research team during the 2022 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Aug. 9-12 in Hartpury, U.K.
“Quite often we riders just base (how much training repetition we think horses need) on a feeling,” König von Borstel said. “But we could be wasting our time, and too much repetition might even cause boredom or frustration for the animals.”
The research team wanted to determine how much repetition horses need to learn a new skill. So they trained each of 20 horses to back up, lower the head, lift the hind legs, and turn the head for two days a week over six weeks. As a cue, they put pressure on parts of the body—such as the chest—and reinforced the correct behavior through release of that pressure (negative reinforcement). Each horse learned half the skills by practicing them three times per training session and half by practicing them six times per session.
The scientists evaluated the horses’ performance in each training session, giving them scores of 1 to 6 based on the quality of their responses to the cues, the amount of pressure needed to elicit responses, and the speed of the responses.
During the first training session, the horses performed slightly better when they’d repeated the task six times, König von Borstel said. But in all other sessions, all the way up to the 12th and final session, the horses performed just as well whether they’d repeated the task three or six times.
“For achieving a given level of performance after a couple of training sessions, time—and possibly frustration and/or boredom—may be saved by repeating a task only three times per training session,” König von Borstel said.
In the future she said she hopes research teams will investigate how different numbers of repetitions might affect horses’ ability to remember skills long term, how repetition encourages habit formation, and any welfare consequences.