What’s the best way to motivate your horse? It’s not a pat on the neck or a scratch on the withers. It’s food. That’s right, food is the most effective way to tell your horse that he’s done a good job and to encourage him to do it again.
According to an article in TheHorse.com, French scientists presented research results at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on Aug. 2, that confirms that rewarding horses with food, rather than physical contact, works best.
“Overall, it appears that scratching the withers may not be considered a primary positive reinforcement for horses,” said Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes in western France. “In fact, some horses don’t seem to like it much it at all.”
In previous studies also described at TheHorse.com, Sankey compared food rewards to negative reinforcement and food reward to no reinforcement at all; in both cases the horses’ training programs were significantly improved when food reward was used. The food-rewarded horses also remembered the training longer.
In the latest research study, Sankey and her colleagues compared the results of rewarding training with physical contact (in this case wither scratching) or carrots by training 20 yearlings to stand still on command. Carrots proved to be far more effective — the horses rewarded by food learned more, learned faster, and related better to their trainers.
This is not a new idea. If you’ve ever been to Sea World you’ll see that the primary motivation for dolphins and whales comes in the form of huge containers of fish! These animal trainers use positive reinforcement almost exclusively.
I’ve found food to be an effective training technique with Freedom, too. Last June I wrote about using food to teach him to stand still at the checks during hunting (When Training Means Treats). In this case I used Alfalfa cubes, which I carried in my pocket. It took him NO time to figure out that when he stood still he got fed.
This technique also works for my dogs. One dog in particular can be very obtuse. In fact, I used to think he was stupid. The promise of a treat raises his IQ exponentially. So, maybe it’s time to break out those carrots or cubes again and start reinforcing good behavior. Maybe I can eliminate those temper tantrums when I have to ride away from a group, for instance. I’ll let you know!