thinking horses - the only way!

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From: Gabby Harris <>
Date: 02/05/2014 06:46 (GMT+02:00)
Subject: thinking horses - the only way!

Training methods for horses: habituation to a frightening stimulus

J.W.Christensen, M.Rundgren & K.Olsson

(Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences)

Equine Vet J. (2006) 38: 439-443


Reasons for performing study: Responses of horses in
frightening situations are important for both equine and
human safety. Considerable scientific interest has been
shown in development of reactivity tests, but little effort has
been dedicated to the development of appropriate training
methods for reducing fearfulness.

Objectives: To inestigate which of 3 different training methods
(habituation, desensitisation and counter-conditioning) was
most effective in teaching horses to react calmly in a
potentially frightening situation.

Hypotheses: 1) Horses are able to generalise about the test
stimulus such that, once familiar withe the test stimulus in one
situation, it appears less frightening and elicits a reduced
response even when the stimulus intensity is increased or the
stimulus is presented differently; and 2) alternative methods
such a desensitisation and counter-conditioning would be
more efficient that a classic habituation approach.

Methods: Twenty-seven naive 2-year-old Danish Warmblood
stallions were trained according to 3 different methods, based
on classical learning theory: 1) horses (n=9) were exposed to
the full stimulus (a moving, white nylon bag, 1.2 x 0.75 m) in 5
daily training sessions until they met a prededined habituation
criterion (habituation); 2) horses (n=9) were introduced
gradually to the stimulus and habituated to each step before
the full stimulus was applied (desensitisation); 3) horses (n=9)
were trained to associate the stimulus with a positive reward
before being exposed to the full stimulus (counter-
conditioning). Each horse received 5 training sessions of 3 min
per day. Heart rate and behavioural responses were recorded.

Results: Horses trained with the desensitisation method
showed fewer flight responses in total and needed fewe
training sessions to learn to react calmly to test stimuli.
Variations in heart rate persisted even when behavioural
responses had ceased. In addition, all horses on the
desensitisation method eventually habituated to the test
stimulus whereas some horses on the other methods did not.

Conclusions and potential relevance: Desensitisation appeared
to be the most effective training method for horses in
frightening situations. Further research is needed in order to
investigate the role of positive reinforcement, such as
offering food, in the training of horses.



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