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Variations in the timing of reinforcement as a training technique for foals.

Warren-Smith, A.K., McLean, A.N., Nicol, H.I., McGreevy, P.D., 2005. Variations in the timing of reinforcement as a training technique for foals. Anthrozoös, 18 (3) 255-272.


Horses are used worldwide for a range of activities. Their usefulness and welfare in these pursuits are strongly influenced by their trainability, which may in turn be influenced by learning ability. Handling and riding horses can expose both handler and horse to a considerable risk of injury. This risk can be reduced by employing correct handling procedures that can facilitate learning in horses. As with all training, efficacy is influenced by consistency and timing. To determine the optimum timing of reinforcement, 16 unweaned naïve foals, that had previously undergone minimal human–animal interaction (i.e., not had a headcollar previously applied), of warmblood (WB; n = 6), thoroughbred (TB; n = 5) or warmblood x thoroughbred (WB x TB; n = 6) breeding were randomly assigned to three treatment groups for testing on ten training days at approximately 14-day intervals. Pressure applied to a headcollar via a lead rope was used as the stimulus for each foal to walk forward, and this was repeated until the foal had walked a distance of 8 m. The effects of three different latencies of negative reinforcement were evaluated by releasing the pressure either immediately: as the first foreleg step commenced (Treatment 1); when the second step of the forelegs was completed (Treatment 2) or when the fourth step of the forelegs was completed (Treatment 3). Each foal’s rate of learning was measured by the proportion of correct responses relative to the total number of responses performed. Behavioral responses exhibited (rears, strikes, head shakes, falls, sideways movement and hops) and the steps taken over the distance were also recorded.

Initially, the foals undergoing Treatment 1 appeared to learn more quickly than those foals undergoing Treatments 2 and 3, suggesting that Treatment 1 was associated with the greatest compliance and the quickest learning. However, the foals undergoing Treatment 3 ultimately achieved significantly (p < 0.001) more correct responses, suggesting that the longer delay of reinforcement (i.e., the longer duration of aversive stimulus) may enhance learning via the negative reinforcement inherent in lead training in foals. While some conflict behaviors were shown in all treatment groups, most were exhibited on training day 2. This was reflected in the analysis of composite behaviors performed, with training days 1 and 2 being different (p < 0.001) from training day 3, and training days 1–3 being different (p < 0.001) from training days 4–10. These changes indicate that learning occurred in all treatment groups.

The foals used in this study were sired by five different stallions. While the foals sired by stallion 2 (WB) performed significantly (p < 0.001) more correct responses, those foals sired by WB stallions were significantly (p < 0.001) less likely to perform correct responses when compared with those foals of TB or WB x TB breeding. Colts were significantly (p < 0.001) more likely to perform correct responses than were fillies.