Jackie Leftwich BSc MSc AMC MMCA FRCC (Animal)
Chiropractor [McTimoney/STR/IAVC] (Qualified to treat humans and animals)
Registered with GCC and RAMP
Telephone: 07738 110570
E-mail: info@watersidechiropractic.co.uk

How to Improve Your Horse’s Learning and Attention: a study of the effects of grooming or food rewards

March 23, 2014  |   Equine Chiropractic,Latest Posts   |     |   Comments Off

I have just come across this interesting article from Frontiers in Psychology on the effects of grooming or food rewards during training of horses.  The study looks at the visual attention of the horse towards its trainer; the hypothesis being that depending on whether food or grooming is used as a reward, this will determine the level of attention that the horse will direct towards the trainer and consequently, result in improved learning performances. The study revealed that the comparison of task related attention according to the type of reward used in positive reinforcement training revealed clear overall differences: along training days, horses showed a real increase of attention towards the trainer in the case of a food reward while no such enhancement of attention was observed for a tactile reward, i.e. grooming.  This then resulted in improved learning performances and the relationship of the horse with the trainer.  This is the abstract from Rochais C., Henry S., Sankey C. et al, recent study published February 2014 (see below for full citation)

As visual attention is an intrinsic part of social relationships, and because relationships are built on a succession of interactions, their establishment involves learning and attention. The emotional, rewarding or punishing, content can modulate selective attention.  In horses, the use of positive/negative reinforcement during training determines short and long-term human-horse relationships.  In a recent study in horses, where either food or withers’ grooming were used as a reward, it appeared that only the food-rewarded horses learned the task and show better relationship with humans.  In the present study, we hypothesized that this differential effect of grooming/food rewards on learning performances could be due to attentional processes. Monitoring, gazes and behaviors directed towards the trainer revealed that the use of a food reward (FR) as positive reinforcement increased horses‘ selective attention towards their trainer. Conversely, horses trained with grooming reward (GR) expressed more inattentive responses and did not show a decrease of “agitated” behavior. However, individual plotting of attention vs. rate of learning performances revealed a complex pattern. Thus, while all FR horses showed a “window” of attention related to faster learning performances, GR horses‘ pattern followed an almost normal curve where the extreme animals (i.e., highest and lowest attention) had the slowest learning performances. On the other hand, learning was influenced by attention: at the end of training, the more attentive horses had also better learning performances. This study, based on horses, contributes to the general debate on the place of attentional processes at the interface of emotion and cognition and opens new lines of thought about individual sensitivities (only individuals can tell what an appropriate reward is), attentional processes and learning.

So, the odd treat during training could well pay off, both in terms of your relationship with your horse and improving their attention span and resulting learning performance!  Just try to make it a healthy one!

Source:  Rochais C., Henry S., Sankey C., Nassur F., Góracka-Bruzda A., Hausberger M. (2014) Visual attention, an indicator of human-animal relationships? A study of domestic horses (Equus caballus) – Frontiers in Psychology, Feb: 13(5): 108

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