Positively Fascinating Ways to Change Horse Behavior: Behavioral Analysis Research on Performance Horses

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


When training a horse to load a trailer, people often push and pull the horse, whack its butt with a broom, or worse. This sometimes works, because when the horse gets on the trailer it escapes this aversive stimulation. There is the potential and perhaps more likely alternative outcome though: the horse bucks and kicks a person, bites a person, or runs off – note, this also works to escape the aversive stimulation. For centuries horse training like this has developed largely through tradition and lore. Much of it has involved the use of aversive control techniques like the one described above to increase a desired behavior (negative reinforcement) or decrease an undesired behavior (punishment). These techniques can be problematic because, among other reasons, they put humans and horses at risk for injury and potentially teach the horse to learn to associate humans with aversive stimulation, making future training more difficult.

In recent decades, scientists have challenged some of these traditions and begun to develop new ways to train new behaviors and eliminate unwanted ones with carefully designed experiments. This research has shown that new desirable behaviors and old undesirable behaviors can be increased and decreased, respectively, with techniques that employ positive reinforcement—systematically rewarding the horse for engaging (or not engaging) in some behavior. These techniques have resulted in improved equine welfare and improved horse-human interaction. Much of this work has taken place in a field of Psychology known as Behavior Analysis.

Johnson Hall of Science at St. Lawrence University. Photos © Adam Hill, Ph.D.

In one study, Dawnery Ferguson and Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, researchers from the University of North Texas, trained five quarter horses to load on trailers using positive reinforcement. These horses were considered “problem loaders”—they would often refuse loading and had only been successfully loaded through the use of aversive stimulation. The researchers first trained the horses to approach a target for a food reward. This target was then moved to various locations inside the trailer. Eventually, all five horses loaded the trailer without the use of traditional aversive control techniques and, importantly, inappropriate behaviors (e.g., head tossing, freezing, rearing, etc.) were no longer observed during loading.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Positive reinforcement can also be used to decrease unwanted behaviors. Research that I have conducted with colleagues and students at West Virginia University and St. Lawrence University has focused on reducing stereotypic behaviors in horses. Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive, apparently functionless behaviors such as excessive chewing or cribbing, pawing, weaving, or pacing. These behaviors are rarely observed in free-ranging horses and are hard to explain and reduce because it is difficult to determine what causes or maintains them. In a study published in 2012 we successfully reduced biting and chewing of two performance horses. These horses would bite and chew equipment and people when they were on crossties. We reduced the behavior by positively reinforcing (providing food reward) the absence of biting and chewing. Eventually we were able to completely eliminate the behavior for long periods of time in both horses.

Research on horse behavior like that described above is rapidly increasing. Scientists are using experimental methodology to provide new and meaningful insights into the variables that control horse behavior and how to manipulate horse behavior in safe, effective, and positive ways.

Adam Fox, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at St. Lawrence University. He specializes in Behavior Analysis. You can contact him via email at afox@stlawu.edu. For more information on Behavior Analysis and Applied Animal Research go to animalbehavioranalysis.org.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.