Behavioral, demographic, and management influences on equine responses to negative reinforcement

Kate Fenner, Rafael Freire, Andrew McLean, Paul McGreevy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the factors that influence horse learning is critical to ensure horse welfare and rider safety. In this study, data were obtained from horses (n = 96) training to step backward through a corridor in response to bit pressure. After training, learning ability was determined by the latency to step backward through the corridor when handled on the left and right reins. In addition, horse owners were questioned about each horse's management, training, behavior, and signalment (such as horse breed, age, and sex). Factors from these 4 broad domains were examined using a multiple logistic regression (MLR) model, following an information theoretic approach, for associations between horses’ behavioral attributes and their ability to learn the task. The MLR also included estimates of the rider's ability and experience as well as owner's perceptions of their horse's trainability and temperament. Results revealed several variables including explanatory variables that correlated significantly with rate of learning. Horses were faster at backing, a behavioral trait, when handled on the right side (t = 3.65; degrees of freedom = 94; P < 0.001) than the left side. Thoroughbred horses were slower at completing the tests than other breeds of horses when handled on the left side [linear model (LM), F1,48 = 4.5; P = 0.04] and right side (LM, F1,45 = 6.0; P = 0.02). Those in regular work, a training factor, did not learn faster than their unworked counterparts on the right rein but completed the task faster on the left rein (F1,44 = 5.47; P = 0.02). This may reflect differences in laterality and habituation effects. In contrast, more anxious horses were faster at completing the test when handled from the right rein (Spearman r = −0.22; P = 0.04). It is possible that these horses have an increased arousal level when interacting with handlers, resulting in more engagement with the lesson, accounting for the improved performance results. The findings of this study will help clarify how horse behavior, training, and management may influence learning and how their application may optimize learning outcomes. Future equine behavior assessment and research questionnaires should include items that assess these qualities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-17
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Veterinary Behavior
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2019


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