Study Confirms Horses Respond to Negative Reinforcement

Researchers proved that horses can become “lighter” with proper negative reinforcement training.

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If we train our horses correctly, we should sense that they get “lighter” as training progresses. In other words, we should be able to execute cues with less force and get the same result. But until now, measuring that “lightness” has always just been a matter of “feeling,” so to speak: Danish researchers have put the science behind the feeling.

In order to accurately assess—and confirm—this development of lightness, Line Peerstrup Ahrendt, PhD, researcher in the department of Animal Science at Aarhus University in Tjele, used an algometer to measure the force of a cue in a basic pressure-release (negative reinforcement) training situation. Ahrendt presented her work at the 9th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science, held July 17-19 at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Negative reinforcement relies on the use of pressure and timely release of pressure to train horses. It’s only called “negative” in a mathematical sense because something (pressure) is taken away during the training process to reward the horse for a correct behavioral response.

“Most equine training is based on negative reinforcement, but there are actually very few scientific studies which have investigated horses’ ability to learn from it,” said Ahrendt. “And learning ability is often subjectively evaluated by experienced riders. So the development of a test which could evaluate horses’ ability to learn through negative reinforcement would give us a more objective method to evaluate equine learning ability and perhaps training ability

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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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