Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Food rewards work, who woulda thunk?

Training: Food Rewards Are More Effective Than Physical Contact

Everybody loves a good back scratch, including your horse, right? Scratching of the withers has been scientifically proven to reduce a horse's heart rate, but a good scratch might not be enough to communicate to your horse that you're happy with what he's just learned and that you want him to do it again next time.
According to new research by French equitation scientists, presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on Aug. 2, rewarding horses with food, rather than physical contact, is most effective.

"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 and had friendlier contact with humans.

But now Sankey and her colleagues have addressed the question of which kind of positive reinforcement works better: physical contact—wither scratching—which is known to reduce heart rates (suggesting the horse enjoys it), or food (in this case, carrots). They put the question to the test by training 20 Konik horse yearlings to stand still on command. (This native Polish breed was chosen because the horses live in semi-natural family groups where they can benefit fully from social grooming and its implications within the herd.) "If grooming has any socially positive effect on horses, this would be the occasion to find out," Sankey said.

According to their results, grooming has very little positive effect. From the first day of training, the food-rewarded yearlings stood still longer, Sankey said. They also made faster progress over the six-day training period compared to the horses rewarded with wither scratching, whose progress eventually stagnated. The food-rewarded horses also were far more receptive to humans, standing closer to them and seeking physical contact, outside the training sessions.

"Scratching the withers could be perceived as positive by some horses, just not positive enough for training and bonding," said Sankey. In fact, social grooming might actually occur because of bonding and not the contrary, she added.

"It's better to consider scratching a secondary form of positive reinforcement, which must first be associated with a primary one, like food, to become rewarding," Sankey said.

copied from TheHorse.com


  1. Hhmmmm. I can see how food can be a motivator (used it with my dogs), but once the desired behaviour is achieved, the horse is weaned off the treats, right? When I first got Gem he was very mouthy and pushy. His previous owner over-treated him (he was fat!) and he would pull at my clothing looking for food. I decided not to encourage this behaviour and I do not treat him except when he comes when called and after our lesson. My reward to him is scratching and "good boy", which I can also do when I am riding him. He is starting to recognize this positive reinforcement now. :-)

  2. You can back off the rewards once the horse understands what you want. In the beginning though, it's amazing how much faster they catch on when there's food involved.

    Disclaimer- this is all from my personal experience. Others might disagree, but for me and mine I'll stick with the food rewards.

  3. Our horses are so spoiled and are official treat monsters. We always use food rewards to let them know when the behavior we asked for is given correctly. Dusty was a mounting block nightmare. She'd go so far as to flip herself over to keep you from getting on, now with treat motivation you can mount her no problem. All of our herd gets a carrot or apple treat at night check. We don't have any mouthy, biting horses and we see no problem in doing the whole food reward thing. I've had horses come into the barn for rehabs that didn't even know what a carrot was, I always thought that was kind of sad. I guess I'm just a soft touch and they all know it too.

  4. Dusty used to flip over at the mounting block? That's scary. Good thing that food helped her move past that.

    I guess most people advise against treats because it makes horses mouthy. But it's not the treats that make the horse mouthy it's how you give them. A lot of beginning clicker training work is just concentrating on food delivery for that reason- you have to learn how to give treats to the horses without them developing bad habits.