Does Target Training Help Reduce Horses' Stress?
Does your horse have a mini meltdown when you try to load him on the trailer? Or maybe he gets jittery when you walk him up to the mounting block. Depending on your horse’s personality, you might consider practicing target training prior to these types of high-stress situations.

Previous study results (Ferguson and Rosales-Ruiz 2001; Hendrisken et al. 2011) have shown that target training—using a clicker to cue the horse to touch an object with his nose, and then offering a food reward—is effective at reducing stress and avoidance behaviors in horses. But if you target train a horse in a low-stress environment, does that training transfer over once he’s placed in a high-stress situation, such as a veterinary clinic or a horse show?

Kelsey Wallach, an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, aimed to answer this question in a recent target training study. Co-author Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, research professor at the University of Puget Sound and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, presented the results at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In their study, Wallach and Foster employed 12 mares and geldings ages 4 through 19. Before doing any training, they observed each horse’s stress (e.g., tail swishing, ear flicking) and avoidance (e.g., barging, rearing) behaviors during mounting and trailer loading. They then clicker-trained the horses to follow a target in several low-stress contexts—a familiar round pen or small paddock. Foster said they modeled their training after behavior sequences used in trailer loading or at a mounting block (for example, taking multiple steps forward, backward, and standing quietly with the handler), and performed 10-minute training sessions with each horse three to four times a week. Every time a horse completed the chained behavior sequence correctly, he or she received a food reward (positive reinforcement).

After, on average, 13 training sessions (some horses needed as few as seven and others as many as 21, depending on their personalities; “Assertive, pushy, confident horses took longer to train,” said Foster.), Wallach tested the horses’ ability to perform the trained sequences during trailer loading and mounting. She said there were no significant differences in the horses’ stress levels and avoidance behaviors compared to before training.

[image imageid=”5434″ includeTitle=”false” includeSummary=”false”]There were no significant differences in the horses’ stress levels and avoidance behaviors before and after target training.[/image]

Also, “in the high-stress context none of the horses were able to complete the previously learned chained sequences,” she said. They could, however, follow the target when she broke the sequences down into simpler, individual steps. When Wallach simplified the sequences, the horses’ “stress and avoidance behaviors were significantly lower during both trailer loading and rider mounting,” she said. “Horses also made significantly fewer target-following errors.”

So while the horses’ ability to perform the target-trained sequences did not transfer over from a low-stress to a high-stress environment, practicing bits and pieces of what they learned did help reduce their stress levels in those situations.

Wallach and Foster concluded that target training can help calm horses in stressful situations and, thus, facilitate training in these scenarios.

“This message relates to the horse in the clinic who is distracted and nervous, and the owner says, ‘But he does it at home perfectly!’” said Foster. “Or the ‘Morning Glories’ in Thoroughbred racing that run beautifully during morning workouts, but fall apart during races. These horses have been trained in lower stress contexts, and that learning does not automatically transfer to the more stressful contexts.”