New Study of Human/Horse Bonding: Horses Remember

From Discovery News, by Jennifer Viegas:


Horses not only remember people who have treated them well, they also understand words better than expected, research shows….

(click on link to read article)

Check it out, it’s an interesting read. The part in which test horses respond strongly and positively to handlers with food treats doesn’t surprise me.

After all, I respond strongly and more positively to people who have food treats!

It made me think about Tiny, the big draft horse that Lily rescued, and the problems he came with. Part of Tiny’s unconventional rehab program was to receive cookies from his rider after he executed a rider’s request, while she was still in the saddle.

In Tiny’s case, the request was: “walk, please”.

He’d been so over-used as a school horse that he completely shut down. Put a rider on his back, and he refused to move. Not an inch. He didn’t do one bad thing: no bucking, no whirling, no head tossing, no backing up, no rearing. He simply shut down, planted, and endured.

Lily, on a hunch, fully aware that this was considered very bad horsemanship, stuffed her pockets with cookies. When Tiny took his first step forward off her leg and stopped, she held out a cookie, which he politely reached around and took from her.

It was the beginning of every positive change for Tiny. Contrary to what we all expected, including Lily, Tiny did not train us to give him cookies before he’d do anything. He started trying to please, was rewarded, and tried harder. Instead of needing more and more cookies, he needed less and less, until he was simply getting a few at the end of the ride.

I don’t recommend this as a general training method, but it worked for Tiny.

Nice to read the science behind food rewards: how it syncs to horses trusting people, and creating a stronger emotional bond between horse and human.


I believe the Discovery article was written in reference to this paper, and the work, in France, of these scientists.  Click for abstract: Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus.

Paper is available for purchase, but not to read online in it’s entirety….

20 thoughts on “New Study of Human/Horse Bonding: Horses Remember

  1. I’m a big believer in rewards in general, whether it is treats or a scratch under the forelock or a little extra emphatic praise. Tucker’s a big believer too! Everything from getting on the trailer to lead changes has been taught to him using some form of reward.

    Love that picture of you and Tiny btw! He was amazing.

  2. Ro’s training did a complete 180 (in a good way) when we realized her problems stemmed from a lack of confidence and started focusing on what she was doing right instead of what she was doing wrong. And treats were a large part of that, especially early on, because they worked for her.

    I’ve thought about trying clicker training with her, as a more structured approach to what we’ve done already. But I’m kind of afraid I’d teach her to do something like identify a truck, and then I’d turn around and find she’d hotwired the brakes and gone for a joyride.

  3. I think food rewards have been given a bad name in horsemanship because of the “treat”. It is true that giving treats hilly-nilly will teach the horse to associate your pockets or hands with food and nothing else… No learning is going on except to become a pest.

    Training using a primary reinforcer like food is a whole other matter. I am glad to see this issue getting more and more press and I am glad us horse people are catching up with what the rest of the training and teaching professions have known for decades. I hope that giving food under saddle will soon lose it’s taboo in the mainstream horse population. I am tired of getting all the funny looks 😉

  4. Oh! I just got a new pony on Thursday. She is at a trainer 1 hr 20 min from home. I can’t go see her today, I have to go try and sell saddle pads. This is stressing me out. You make me want to see her NOW!

  5. I find the trick with training a horse is to discover what that particular horse regards as a reward. My first horse liked cookies…but after three or four cookies, she was done. Her favorite reward was a good scratching right in front of the withers! My second horse like verbal praise. He would do something difficult for me and then turn his head to indicate, “did you forget to say ‘good boy’, hmmmm?” and then I would remember and praise him. Fiddle LOVES cookies, and she’s the easiest to train, because cookies are cheap and easy to carry around. She learns much quicker than the others did, not because she’s smarter (she isn’t) but because she REALLY WANTS A COOKIE!

    And speaking of that, I’m hungry.

    1. Good point! (Who has the donut box? We need to eat while thinking about this. Fork it over? Thanks!)

      My first horse like to throw me as a reward, not sure that qualifies though? Since I no longer bounce, I’m happy Hudson is a foodie.

  6. Love the video of the horse piaffing. Too funny!

    The study you posted was interesting, thank you! Of course I wanted to know all the juicy details rather than generalizations, like how did they “gravitate” toward the trainer, how did they measure ability to understand words (i.e. was it really the words, or was it body language, tone of voice, etc.), but still, interesting study. I have gotten into the habit of talking to my boys quite a lot, like, “I’m going to put your halter on for dinner, ok?” or “Stand still for just one more moment so I can finish taking your blanket off and then you can go.” I don’t know what it is, but I find that saying things out loud, instead of just DOING an action, can make all the difference in the world about the horse’s response. I have the feeling this research is just scratching the surface…

  7. Heck, even arguably the best dressage rider in the world and the US coach use treats in training horses!
    (Yes, I was there cracking up with everyone else.)
    I have a rescue mare who I taught to go into a wash rack by letting her follow a trail of treats. She was terrified of confined spaces – even sticking her head into a feeder. That made it so when we wanted to move her, and she had been trailered once in her life when physically able to create any fuss, it just took a small amount of bribery and she walked in and stood like a pro. The third time – she walked directly onto the trailer with no hesitation. Removing the negative and emphasising the positive is just a great way to train because there’s no reason for horses to resist. Treats aren’t always the way – but so often can be, especially for a horse with emotional damage to whom pats on the neck and “good boy/good girl” aren’t seen as a reward.

    1. That’s what we’ve been dealing with regarding the horse I mentioned before. It seems like ALL the positive reinforcement in the world doesn’t do a ton for him. It’s like he doesn’t believe me. We’ve made SMALL progress getting him to walk SLOWLY, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to get. I came from the school of “give too many treats you’ll get a bad horse”. I agree, this is not something to take doing lightly, but this is a door that I’m excited to at least try to get him to walk through.

      1. And that’s the trick – positive reinforcement to a horse who has not been handled in a healthy way isn’t necessarily the same as it is to a horse who hasn’t been mistreated. Good luck, and good for you for doing your best for him!

  8. We are a horse rescue and I just read this above article. I have always worked with mostly thoroughbreds and other very forward moving horses. in 25 years, severely shutting down is something I’ve never had to deal with. Well, I have a rescue horse that does the EXACT EXACT same thing as Tiny. I never considered this method, but I simply cannot get him to progress. I have nothing to lose but try this. This article came at JUST the right time. I’m excited there may be a way to get to him. He’s so broken inside, it breaks my heart. He’s such a sweet soul and it’s easy to see he has suffered greatly in his life. I hope this works. Going to try it this week.

    1. Showering positive energy and reinforcement (IMO) can never go wrong. We just need too keep it coupled with strong horse-like boundaries that are also positive. This did not work miracles with Tiny quickly, but it DID work. He had been handled incorrectly by so many people (beginners, no malice) that he needed the consistency and dedication of one experienced person, Lily, who gave him room, but kept putting herself in his emotional line of sight. Ultimately, it took two years to fully gain his trust, and for him to be willing to stay connected. He started out being the horse the barn manager hated to deal with, and ended up stealing every single heart. His turn around was radical and delightful! Hang in there with your new guy, and good luck!

  9. Positive, reward-based training works on dogs, cats, chicken, orcas, brown bears, humans, and probably most species. No reason it shouldn’t work on a horse, even a traumatized horse. Eliminating punishment and working with positive reinforcement should work well with horses, and you can “fade out” the reward to very infrequent reinforcement–but do it slowly,

    I’m not at all surprised. why in the world should this be frowned on? Horses are not unique among mammals; they respond like everyone else. And they will have a closer bond with their human.

    1. I agree. I’m guessing it’s considered “bad horsemanship”, not because the idea is bad, but because horses are so smart. Sadly, I’ve inadvertently allowed myself to be trained by horses in the past, until I’m molded into the human they want: one who stuffs them with treats and wouldn’t dream of asking them to work.

      The problem is rarely the horse. It’s people like I used to be, who either aren’t as smart as their horses, aren’t paying attention, or don’t understand what they are reinforcing, that turn a positive reinforcement tool into “bad horsemanship”. Appropriate treat giving is a great training tool.

      It’s the human that has to learn/know how to do it correctly! 😉

      1. Ain’t that the truth–it’s the human that has to learn! :o)

        As others have pointed out, treats are not the only positive reinforcement you can use. I’ve only worked with dogs, but there are many non-food rewards, including a few minutes playing “tug” or fetchng, etc. Most dogs need more than praise. I guess treats are the most convenient reinforcement when you are riding, though!

    1. I’m delighted to see you! Kim, where have you been? Doing fun things, I hope! I’ll be checking out EH to see if you’re blogging again, that would be fantastic (for us). Oh my. Well….? I’m out of shape, my riding uh (thinking positive here) sucks less than it did a month ago, but I am good and happy. Lucky to have the life I’m living, that’s for sure. 😉

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