I subscribe to an email newsletter from The Horse that pops up in my inbox with almost annoying frequency. However, there’s always at least one or two articles of interest to me, on a good mix of topics ranging from health care to news to training. This week we have the ongoing Trexler abuse story, which smellshorsey has been covering, and also the situation in Romania, which Simply Marvelous recently wrote about and the Transylvanian Horseman lives daily.
The article that caught my eye, however, was a recent study lending credence to clicker-trainers everywhere:
March 03 2008, Article # 11436
Young horses learn faster and have more positive interactions with humans when they receive food as a reward during training, according to a new study presented at the 34th Annual Equine Research Day held in Paris, France, on Feb. 28.
Yearlings that received grain pellets as compensation for appropriate reactions to vocal commands were up to 40% faster to acquire new skills than a control group of yearlings that received no rewards. The training primarily involved respecting the words “stop” and “stay” and remaining immobile while the trainer performed certain grooming tasks and veterinary procedures on the horse.
The article goes on to say:
On average, the reward group [those who were given food rewards] finished their training in 3.7 hours whereas the control group needed 5.2 hours to acquire the same tasks. “There wasn’t even any overlap,” Sankey explained. “The slowest horse in the reward group still learned faster than the fastest horse in the control group.”
This is a significant finding, because one of the long-held myths of horse training is that horses respond better to negative reinforcement operant conditioning (i.e. applying a source of discomfort, such as pressure, and removing it when the horse gives the correct response) than to positive reinforcement, such as a food reward. Clicker training, which utilizes food rewards, has been shown to quickly and effectively train horses (and other mammals) to do all kinds of things, but for some reason a large segment of the horse community still seems to view it with skepticism or scorn.
At this point, I feel a need to digress from the subject matter for just a moment to say this: There is no training method, no technique, no clinician, no author, no piece of equipment that is the Holy Grail of horse training. I am not saying that clicker training is the way to go and that anyone who uses negative reinforcement operant conditioning is ignorant, or anything of the sort. I use it myself, all the time. What I am saying, and will continue to say over and over again in this blog, is that people need to be open-minded. Be flexible and adaptable when working with your horse. Try new things, learn new ways of thinking and being, and go outside your comfort zone. We ask that of our horses and expect that they will honor our request but so often we will not do the same!
Side note: Also, for reasons I can’t quite figure out, people tend to lump clicker training in with Natural Horsemanship. Because the NH label gets bandied about so much without a clear definition, many people don’t even actually know what they’re referring to or where it came from or to whom it actually applies. In my opinion, clicker training is not an NH technique (although it shares many positive qualities with NH) because what we call NH today can be traced back to the methods of Tom Dorrance, Bill Dorrance, and Ray Hunt, and they were most certainly not using clicker training. However, the definition of NH is a subject for another post, and I will leave it at that with the suggestion that anyone interested in tracing the history of NH read The Revolution in Horsemanship by Dr. Robert Miller and Rick Lamb.)
Back on topic, it will be interesting to see what, if any, response this study generates in the American horse community, since the researchers are French. Will American researchers take the ball and run with it, or will this article slip quietly into the archives?
I hope that this kind of scientific finding will be a reference to be used when the nay-sayers and the tradition-bound try to tell us that their way is the only way. Then we can smile and use the power of positive when we say, “Have you read the latest research?”