Why Won’t My Horse Go … Even for a Cookie?
Posted by Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, CHBC| The Horse Nov 15, 2018
Q.I thought my mare would be more responsive when I started training her with positive reinforcement, but she often plants her feet and refuses to move forward under saddle, and I end up having to use a lot of leg pressure. During groundwork she can be sluggish to respond and sometimes chooses not to participate. I believe her previous owners trained her with fairly harsh methods. Why isn’t she more eager to earn treats, and what can I do?
A.The use of positive reinforcement is recommended by a number of veterinary and animal training organizations (for example, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants). Horses trained with positive reinforcement are usually engaged and interested, but sometimes issues can be unmasked when a horse is motivated by a reward rather than by escape from pressure. When your mare refuses to move forward, she might be communicating that the value of the reinforcer is too low. Alternatively, despite your effort to create a positive training environment, she could be reacting to pain or a perceived threat. A bite of food might be appealing, but avoiding pain and discomfort is a stronger and more urgent motivator. When the training environment includes elements that both attract (food) and repulse (a perceived threat) the resulting motivational conflict can result in “behavioral quiescence” or inaction.
A few possible explanations for your horse’s sluggishness and refusal to move forward include: low reinforcement value, physical pain, a negative training history, uncertainty, and boredom. These are discussed further below.
Is the Value of the Reinforcer Too Low for the Horse?
In positive reinforcement training, the reinforcer should be valuable to the horse. In economic terms the reinforcer can be viewed as payment for behavior, which requires effort on the horse’s part. If the behavior is difficult and costly, or if the reinforcer value is low, the horse will be less motivated. When training a new behavior, it’s important to begin with a high rate of reinforcement that is gradually reduced. If the reinforcement rate drops too quickly and the horse isn’t adequately compensated for his effort, then he might lose interest or even become frustrated and aggressive.
Is Your Horse Experiencing Pain?
Given a choice, horses will avoid activities that cause pain. Pain can be missed when there isn’t obvious lameness or discomfort, and the horse might even be unfairly labeled as stubborn, lazy, or disrespectful. A recent study found that hungry rats would avoid pain rather than eat if pressing a lever for food caused pain.1 It logically follows that a horse would refuse to walk forward to avoid pain rather than suffering to get a bite of food. For this reason, a thorough veterinary examination is recommended whenever a horse is reluctant to participate in routine activities.
Does Your Horse Have a History of Unpleasant Training Experiences?
A horse’s past experiences can affect its future behavior. Despite your effort to create a positive and safe training environment, your horse could have memories of unpleasant past experiences in a similar situation, during similar activities, or with people in general that are affecting her behavior now. Don’t give up! Positive reinforcement will help build a trusting relationship, but in horses with a rough history you must be patient, persistent, and satisfied with small gains.
Is the Current Training Unfamiliar, Ambiguous, or Inconsistent?
Uncertainty and ambiguity are aversive to most mammals, and some horses are especially fearful of new things. Even when training with positive reinforcement, your horse might perceive unfamiliar sounds, sights, smells, and routines as potential threats that trigger fear. A horse that freezes in fear will be reluctant to move forward. Switching training methods can also create uncertainty. One reason is that a previously learned cue—such as applying leg pressure to move forward—might be absent, and without the cue the horse could decide to do nothing. Clear and consistent communication during training can help avoid some of these problems.
Is the Training Routine Monotonous and Uninteresting?
Your horse might be bored. Some bored animals seem apathetic and they are uninterested and slow to respond. Boredom is a potentially common but neglected animal welfare issue and a particular concern in stabled horses.2 An animal can become bored when he’s driven to explore and learn, but his environment is impoverished, the routine is monotonous, or the task is repetitive and either too easy or too challenging. To make the training sessions more interesting for your horse, change up the routine and avoid doing too many repetitions of the same thing.
Your horse’s personality will also influence how she reacts to pain, novelty, inconsistency, and boredom. For example, bold horses focus on and approach gains, tend to be more persistent when faced with a difficult task, and seek out novelty, perhaps because they also tend to be boredom prone. In contrast, shy horses are often risk-averse and seek security and safety. Given these individual differences in temperament, your horse might fall on the shy side of the bold-shy spectrum.
The handler can help mitigate behavior problems by adopting an interaction style that best matches the horse’s temperament. With bold horses who seek out rewards, an eager interaction style will be more effective. This would include fast, animated movement and forward leaning body positions. With risk-averse horses, a cautious interaction style will be more effective. This would include precise slower gestures and movements, as well as backward-leaning body positions.
We discussed several possible explanations for why a horse might be sluggish or reluctant to move forward in this article. An experienced trainer or behaviorist familiar with positive reinforcement training methods can help identify the most likely reasons and set up an effective and personalized behavior modification plan for your horse.
1Salcido, C.A., Harris Bozer, A.L., McNabb, C.T., & Fuchs, P.N. Assessing the aversive nature of pain with an operant approach/avoidance paradigm. Physiology & Behavior 189 (2018), 59-63.
2Burn, C.C. Bestial boredom: a biological perspective on animal boredom and suggestions for its scientific investigation. Animal Behaviour 130 (2017), 141-151.
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