Why Won’t My Horse Go … Even for a Cookie?

Why won’t a horse participate in positive reinforcement training? A certified equine behaviorist breaks down a few possible explanations, including low reinforcement value, physical pain, and a negative training history, among others.
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positive reinforcement
A horse’s personality influences how he reacts to pain, novelty, inconsistency, and boredom. For example, bold horses focus on and approach gains, tend to be more persistent when faced with a difficult task, and seek out novelty, while shy horses are often risk-averse and seek security and safety. | Photo: iStock

Q.I thought my mare would be more responsive when I started training her with positive reinforcement, but she often plants her feet and refuses to move forward under saddle, and I end up having to use a lot of leg pressure. During groundwork she can be sluggish to respond and sometimes chooses not to participate. I believe her previous owners trained her with fairly harsh methods. Why isn’t she more eager to earn treats, and what can I do?

A.The use of positive reinforcement is recommended by a number of veterinary and animal training organizations (for example, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants). Horses trained with positive reinforcement are usually engaged and interested, but sometimes issues can be unmasked when a horse is motivated by a reward rather than by escape from pressure. When your mare refuses to move forward, she might be communicating that the value of the reinforcer is too low. Alternatively, despite your effort to create a positive training environment, she could be reacting to pain or a perceived threat. A bite of food might be appealing, but avoiding pain and discomfort is a stronger and more urgent motivator. When the training environment includes elements that both attract (food) and repulse (a perceived threat) the resulting motivational conflict can result in “behavioral quiescence” or inaction.

A few possible explanations for your horse’s sluggishness and refusal to move forward include: low reinforcement value, physical pain, a negative training history, uncertainty, and boredom. These are discussed further below

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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