Who’s in a better mood? Comparison of behavioral indicators in horses trained with negative or positive reinforcement

Traditionally, horses are trained using negative reinforcement (NR). Recently, methods integrating positive reinforcement (PR; e.g. clicker training) have become more common. This study aimed to compare the effect of NR and PR on horse affective states, using well known behavioral and physiological indicators. Over a 5-day period, 12 mares were trained for 15 min/day using either NR (n=6) or PR (n=6) to achieve various tasks: lead in hand, stop, back up, lowering the head, walk on a tarp and stand on a platform. PR horses were trained using the clicker method and learned to follow a target. NR horses were exposed to a gradual pressure intensity which was removed as soon as the expected response was shown. Shaping procedure was applied in both PR and NR. The horses’ behavior was analyzed visually from videos of the training, using a onezero sampling with 10 s intervals. Four parameters with 3 well-described descriptive levels were recorded: muscular tension (irritated; indifferent; motivated), ear position (backward; sideways; forward), attitude towards trainer (avoid contact; neutral; search contact), head position (low; middle; high). The proportion of occurrence for each parameter was calculated. Heart rate (HR) and its variability (RMSSD), respiration rate and skin temperature were recorded using a BioHarnessTM. Our results showed that during training, NR horses spent most of the time in an indifferent attitude (NR=69±2, PR=13±3, U=7, p<0.001). They also showed more irritated body tension, while PR horses expressed more motivated body tension. PR horses pointed their ears forward more often than NR horses (PR=42±2, NR=14±1, U=152, p<0.001).The latter had their ears backwards > half the time. PR horses were more likely to search contact with the trainer, whereas NR horses had a rather neutral attitude towards him. The physiological measures showed no differences between the groups. Behavioral observations suggested that horses trained with PR were in a more positive affective state than NR horses. Thus, the integration of PR in horse training may be beneficial for horse welfare. Layperson’s paragraph: While NR horses displayed a rather indifferent attitude towards the trainer, PR horses seemed to be in a more positive affective state.
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Subjects: equestrian sport behaviour psychic process psychic characteristics psychoregulation training feedback training method heart rate
Notations: technical sports social sciences
Published in: Embracing science to enhance equine welfare and horse-human interactions
Published: 2013
Pages: 51
Document types: congress proceedings
Language: English
Level: advanced