Riders are usually vigilant in warming up their horses before competitions, but do they consider getting their horses in the right frame of mind before teaching them?
An Australian study suggests there may well be benefits.
Charles Sturt University researcher Kate Fenner and her colleagues set out to determine the effects of a pre-conditioning exercise on arousal levels and learning outcomes in horses.
Training can be stressful for horses, they said, but little was known about how best to prepare them for effective learning.
In all, 68 riding horses were used in the study.
Thirty-one of the horses were allocated to the treatment group, who were pre-conditioned with a negatively reinforced exercise known as “give-to-the-bit”. This is a simple pressure-release activity that was repeated for 8 minutes.
It involved the handler standing on one side of the horse, 50 centimeters from the neck, and applying tension to one rein, then releasing the tension when the horse turned its head to the side, towards the handler. The horse was cued to give to pressure three times on one side, then the handler moved to the other side to repeat the exercise.
Release of the pressure was the only reinforcement used. The horses were not verbally praised or touched by the handler.
In contrast, the 37 control horses were held for 8 minutes with the handler moving to the left and right side every minute, mimicking the movement of the handler in the pre-conditioning treatment.
The researchers, writing in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, said this pre-conditioning treatment was designed to engage the horse with the upcoming lesson.
“The purpose . . . was to achieve a moderately elevated, stable heart rate that was maintained throughout the pre-conditioning and subsequent trials, followed by a return to resting levels at the conclusion of the trial phase.
“It was hypothesized that the pre-conditioning would prepare the horses to respond appropriately to bit pressure and improve their performance in the trials that immediately followed.”
The results suggest this was the case.
The trial that followed for all the horses involved a fenced test corridor that was 5 metres long and 1.5 metres wide.
Randomly assigned handlers walked the horses to the head of the corridor and used left rein tension to teach the horse to move backwards along the passage. Rein tension was released each time the horse took a step back, with the process repeated until the horse exited the corridor backwards. The horse was then walked around and back into the corridor to repeat the exercise on the right rein.
This standardized learning task was repeated eight times for each horse.
Rein tensions were measured throughout the experiment, as were heart rate and behaviors.
The researchers found that the amount of rein tension required to get a response was significantly higher on the left rein than the right rein.
Total rein tension required during the trials reduced as they progressed, as did the time taken and the steps taken to exit the corridor.
As the trials progressed, horses tossed their heads less frequently in both the control group and the pre-conditioned group. However, the control horses tossed their heads significantly more than the treated horses.
“This suggests that engaging the horse prior to training may lay the foundation for a better learning experience,” they said.
All head-tossing occurred when tension was being applied to the reins, the researchers noted.
Heart rates during the trials phase were not significantly different between the groups, they reported, but the horses that undertook the pre-conditioning exercise had higher rates than those left to stand for eight minutes without having to give to the bit.
During the recovery phase, the heart rates of the pre-conditioned and control horses returned to their pre-trial resting rates.
“These results suggest that preparing the horses for the lesson and slightly raising their arousal levels, improved learning outcomes,” they said.
Discussing their findings, the study team said ideally, in any given lesson, the horse should learn the lesson in the fastest possible time with the least amount of associated stress, to produce a calm response.
In the study, horses had optimized their responses in several ways. They took fewer steps to complete the 5-metre transit for each trial, indicating that they were increasing their stride length as it progressed. They also completed the trials more quickly and with less rein pressure.
Head tossing also reduced in a stepwise manner as the trials progressed, suggesting a reduction in stress. However, this was not reflected in the cardiac responses until the recovery phase.
“Head tossing is seen as a conflict behavior that reduces perceived rideability and positive temperament traits in horses. Pre-conditioning the horses to respond to rein tension resulted in fewer head tossing incidents during the trials phase of the lesson,” they wrote.
They researchers said effective use of negative reinforcement depended on timing the release of the applied pressure, and the difference between a good and an average trainer manifested chiefly in that ability.
“The current findings, showing a significant reduction in the number of times horses tossed their heads as the trials progressed, indicate that horses learnt from the pre-conditioning exercise and that timing of the release was effective.”
They continued: “This study further supports the findings of others that bit pressure is aversive to horses.”
Fenner and her colleagues said the pre-conditioning pressure-release exercise was used in the treatment group to engage the horses in the task ahead. “The exercise significantly increased heart rate, indicative of a moderate increase in arousal,” they said.
“Both the treated and control horses had similarly raised heart rates during the trials and both returned to baseline rates immediately following the trials.
“Both groups learned to avoid bit pressure by stepping back with longer strides and moving more quickly across the course of the trials.”
The study team comprised Fenner, Rafael Freire and Petra Buckley, all from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga; and Holly Webb, Melissa Starling and Paul McGreevy, all from the University of Sydney.
Fenner K, Webb H, Starling MJ, Freire R, Buckley P, McGreevy PD (2017) Effects of pre-conditioning on behavior and physiology of horses during a standardised learning task. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0174313. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0174313