Positive, Negative Reinforcement in Horse Training Compared

Training efficacy and stress levels were similar in the negative and positive reinforcement groups.
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Positive, Negative Reinforcement in Horse Training Compared
Training efficacy and stress levels were similar in the negative and positive reinforcement groups. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhart/The Horse
As the concept of positive reinforcement gains popularity, researchers are trying to confirm its effectiveness at a more baseline level. According to a group of Midwestern equitation scientists, training young horses to load into a trailer is equally effective and stressful whether they’re trained using positive or negative reinforcement.

“Both methods (positive and negative reinforcement) proved equally effective in young, inexperienced horses with limited prior experience to handling,” said Kristina Hiney, PhD, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, who described her study on the topic at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

In their experiment, Hiney and her fellow researchers taught eight yearlings and seven weanlings that had never been exposed to a trailer how to load into a stock trailer. To keep the stress level as low as possible and to avoid influence from environmental factors such as separation anxiety, the researchers used a trailer next to the horses’ pasture where they could stay close to their herdmates, Hiney said.

The team randomly divided each age group into a positive reinforcement group and a negative reinforcement group. They gave the positive reinforcement horses a food reward each time they stepped toward the trailer. They tapped the negative reinforcement horses lightly on their hindquarters with a whip until they stepped forward

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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