A well-trained horse has a good life and is welcome everywhere, so says Tom Roberts. The biggest kindness you can do for your horse is train him well. So, we need a range of tools in our toolbox to achieve the training goals we set.
But we equestrians tend to be quite conservative and keep doing what we have been taught to do by our mentors. People who are animal trainers outside of the equestrian field have been faster to embrace what has been learned from science about learning. Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) is now the dominant strategy to train animals in settings as diverse as research laboratories where an animal is trained to perform a research task, and in teaching laboratory animals to cope with research interventions. It is also used in zoos to train animals to voluntarily cooperate with veterinary procedures. If you need to put eyedrops in a giraffe, for instance, or trim the toenails of a rhinoceros, the zoo trainers will use positive reinforcement to teach the animal to want to cooperate. Modern zoos also use positive reinforcement to provide an enriched environment for captive animals.
There is a great deal of research supporting the welfare benefits of using PRT in zoos and research settings. Willingness to participate in PRT has even been shown to be an early indicator of veterinary problems in captive dolphins.
Equestrians are increasingly interested in the welfare of our horses. Indeed, the FEI states that the welfare of the horse is their top priority. Animal welfare has been studied extensively. The Five Domains Model identifies domains of welfare as:
- Physical environment
- Behavioural interactions
- Mental state
The 2020 revision of this document focuses on animal/human interaction in both its positive and negative welfare implications. Of course, animals can benefit from their interaction with humans. That is what we want. The Five Domains Model recommends that positive interaction with animals is more likely to result from “reward-focused training, the use of secondary reinforcers (e.g. clickers) and the use of subtle pressure cues and timely release of aversive stimuli”. This results in the animal being more likely to feel “calm, at ease, finds being bonded to humans rewarding”.
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has yet to take a position on PRT. So, what is positive reinforcement and what is the evidence that we should use it more?
Positive reinforcement is giving a reward after the behaviour you want, to encourage the behaviour that you want to train. The horse stands still in the cross ties – you then give him a carrot. You don’t give the carrot as a bribe or distraction to get him to stand still. When he stands still, he gets rewarded; but if he starts pawing or moving around, he does not get a carrot. Then when he next stands still, you give him the carrot which is the reward, the positive reinforcer.