Prior research (Ferguson and Rosales-Ruiz 2001; Hendrisken et al. 2011) has shown that target training is an effective way to reduce stress and reduce avoidance behaviour in horses. In target training, you use the sound of a clicker as soon as a horse touches a certain object and then give him a food reward. But if you do target training with a horse in a stress-free environment, will it apply the training as soon as it is placed in a stressful situation, such as a vet visit or at a competition?
Kelsey Wallach, a student at the University of Washington, wanted to answer this question in a recent study on target training. Co-author Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, research professor at the University of Puget Sound and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, presented the results at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held August 6-9 in Vancouver, Canada.
In the study, Wallach and Foster used 12 mares and geldings between the ages of 4 and 19 years. Before they started training the horses, they observed their stress and avoidance behaviours during mounting and trailer loading. They then started to teach the horses using clicker training to follow a target in various low-stress situations, so in a familiar roundpen or small paddock. Foster said she adapted the training for behaviours required for trailer loading or mounting (such as taking a number of steps forward and backward, standing still for a while). The training sessions lasted 10 minutes per horse and each horse was trained three to four times a week. Each time the horse performed a behavioural sequence correctly, he or she received a food reward (positive reinforcement).
After an average of 13 training sessions (some horses needed 7 sessions while others needed 21, depending on their personality. “It took longer to train assertive, pushy and confident horses,” said Foster.), Wallach tested the horses’ ability to perform the trained behaviour sequence during trailer loading or mounting. She said there were no significant differences in the horses’ stress levels and avoidance behaviour compared to the situation before the target training.
“In the stressful situation, no horse was able to complete the learned behaviour sequence,” she said. However, the horses could follow the target if they narrowed down the behaviour sequence and asked for simple, single steps. When Wallach made the behaviour sequence easier, the stress and avoidance behaviours showed significantly less during both trailer loading and mounting. “The horses also made significantly fewer errors in target tracking,” she said.
Although a horse’s ability to perform a target-trained behavioural sequence did not transfer from a low-stress situation to a stressful situation, practicing sections they learned could help lower their stress level in those situations. Wallach and Foster concluded that target training can help calm horses in stressful situations and support training in these situations.
“This message concerns the horses whose owner says he is distracted and nervous during a clinic or competition, but is doing perfectly at home,” Foster says; “Or the race horses that run beautifully during their morning workouts, but fall apart completely during the races. These horses are trained in situations with as little stress as possible and what they have learned here they do not automatically take to the more stressful situations ”