Research Article: Effects of pre-conditioning on behavior and physiology of horses during a standardised learning task

Date Published: March 30, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kate Fenner, Holly Webb, Melissa J. Starling, Rafael Freire, Petra Buckley, Paul D. McGreevy, Manabu Sakakibara.


Rein tension is used to apply pressure to control both ridden and unridden horses. The pressure is delivered by equipment such as the bit, which may restrict voluntary movement and cause changes in behavior and physiology. Managing the effects of such pressure on arousal level and behavioral indicators will optimise horse learning outcomes. This study examined the effect of training horses to turn away from bit pressure on cardiac outcomes and behavior (including responsiveness) over the course of eight trials in a standardised learning task. The experimental procedure consisted of a resting phase, treatment/control phase, standardised learning trials requiring the horses (n = 68) to step backwards in response to bit pressure and a recovery phase. As expected, heart rate increased (P = 0.028) when the handler applied rein tension during the treatment phase. The amount of rein tension required to elicit a response during treatment was higher on the left than the right rein (P = 0.009). Total rein tension required for trials reduced (P < 0.001) as they progressed, as did time taken (P < 0.001) and steps taken (P < 0.001). The incidence of head tossing decreased (P = 0.015) with the progression of the trials and was higher (P = 0.018) for the control horses than the treated horses. These results suggest that preparing the horses for the lesson and slightly raising their arousal levels, improved learning outcomes.

Partial Text

Training can be stressful for horses but little is known about how best to prepare them for effective learning. Some riders currently prepare their horses to be ridden by chasing them around the round pen [1] and lunging [2]. Unfortunately, these exercises are designed to tire, rather than to mentally engage, the horse and can possibly therefore compromise learning from the outset of the lesson. Human studies reveal that cognitive impairment results from both anxiety-induced increases in arousal level and exercise-induced fatigue [3]. While exercise-induced fatigue has been reported to produce both positive and detrimental cognitive effects [4], it is known that chasing the horse should always be avoided [5]. Inducing fear prior to learning is not commensurate with good training but is encouraged by some of the world’s most popular trainers [2].

The protocol and conduct of this study were approved by the Charles Sturt University Animal Care and Ethics Committee, New South Wales, Australia (ACEC protocol number 14/030).

To facilitate the production of safe riding horses, training that is consistent and adheres to learning theory is required [28]. 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. Developing easily accessible tools to assess the emotional state and arousal level [29] of the horse should optimize training, improve welfare and reduce wastage. An increase in heart rate can indicate increased arousal [30] as can behavioral parameters such as head tossing that, arguably, are easier to observe. This, together with appropriate reinforcement schedules (quantified by the use of rein tension meters to monitor the use of bit pressure and, more importantly, the release of such pressure) will help to define best practice in horse training.

A simple pre-conditioning pressure-release exercise was used to engage the horses in an operant locomotory task. The exercise significantly increased heart rate, indicative of a moderate increase in arousal. 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 treated horses exhibited significantly less head tossing than their untreated counterparts during the trial phase of the experiment. This suggests that engaging the horse prior to training may lay the foundation for a better learning experience.




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