Round pen training isn’t only effective with humans being the ones working the horses. According to Australian equitation scientists, even a remote-controlled car can create the same reactions in horses. And for them, this is cause for concern.

"Round pen training is said to rely on a human’s ability to mimic another horse through the trainer’s body language, but our research suggests that this may not be true," said Cathrynne Henshall, MSc candidate and professional trainer, under the supervision of Paul McGreevy, PhD, both researchers at the University of Sydney. "We were able to get similar results from an inanimate object–a toy car–which indicates that this training result relies on applying an aversive stimulus which elicits fear, and then rewarding horses by turning off the frightening stimulus."

Henshall presented the results of her study at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In other words, it’s scaring the horses and then removing the frightening stimulus when they behave the way we want, through simple negative reinforcement, she said.

Henshall and her Italian co-researcher Barbara Padalino, PhD, of the University of Bari Veterinary School, taught 11 horses and ponies to follow a remote-controlled car. ("Most horses trained with ‘join-up’ (a commonly used round-pen training technique) already know how to follow a human when they are led," Henshall explained.) The horses were trained using positive reinforcement, meaning they were given food as a reward for following the car.