Fact Friday: ‘Horses can learn to communicate their preferences about blanketing’

In a study done in Norway researchers taught 23 horses to communicate to their trainers if they wanted blankets (rugs) ‘put on’, ‘taken off’ or ‘unchanged’. The horses were taught 3 different symbols to express their choice. If they chose ‘unchanged’ they kept their blankets on if they wore one and didn’t get one on if they were already without blanket.

Let the horse speak for himself

I like the idea of asking a horse their opinion in training, which is why I like to use positive reinforcement. I think it is brilliant to conduct a study in which the horse is taught to communicate their opinion about blankets.

Set-up

All the horses were solely trained with positive reinforcement. They had to learn the meaning of three symbols and their consequences. Touching a white painted board with a black horizontal stripe meant ‘put blanket on’, a blank white board meant ‘no change’ and a white board with a black vertical bar on it meant ‘take blanket off’.

They were trained for two or three sessions per day, 5–7 days a week. Each session lasted about 5 minutes. The horses varied in age between 3 and 16 years. Some horses were cold-bloods, other were warm-blood horses. The speed of learning varied between the horses however all 23 horses learned to distinguished the symbols within 14 days of training.

Conclusion of the study

Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold. This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.

Find the study here.

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To blanket or not to blanket is a question you can teach your horse to answer himself.

I think it is really interesting to see what happens if we give our horses a choice and a clear way to communicate their choice to us. It prevents us from making an anthropomorphic choice for them, like ‘It is a cold, sunny  day, so I put this nice warm blanket on my horse’ or making guesses about their wishes.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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Fact Friday: Negative vs Positive Reinforcement Training for Rehabilitated Horses

Recently I started training the rescue horses at the BC SPCA. I was asked to help (re)train the horses with positive reinforcement, since that is my specialty.

Would my training benefit the rehabilitated horses in terms of welfare? Is negative reinforcement training better in terms of welfare or is a horse better off with positive reinforcement training? I found a possible answer in a study done at the University of Wales, UK.

Negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement

The aim of their study was to compare these training strategies (negative versus positive reinforcement) on equine behaviour and physiology as the first step in establishing an optimal rehabilitation approach (from a welfare perspective) for equids that have been subjected to chronic stress in the form of long-term neglect/cruelty.

They trained 16 ponies with basic tasks like trailer loading, lead by hand, traverse an obstacle course, etc. During training the  heart rate was monitored and ethograms were compiled. In addition each week an arena test was done. The training lasted for 7 weeks.

Significant difference

After all data was compiled there was a significant difference between the two methods. They found that ‘animals trained under a positive reinforcement schedule were morekyra06062009 004 motivated to participate in the training sessions and exhibited more exploratory or ‘trial and error’ type behaviours in novel situations/environments.’ (in comparison with the horses trained with negative reinforcement).

These results support my own experience with positive and negative reinforcement. The end result of the training may be similar but the experience for the horse is significantly different between positive and negative reinforcement.

To read the full paper go to: Negative versus positive reinforcement:  An evaluation of training strategies for rehabilitated horses, 2007, Lesly Innes, Sebastian McBride

Sandra Poppema
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