Study: Post-Training Stress Detrimental to Equine Learning

Riders suspect horses training in stressful situations don't always retain.

Many riders suspect that horses training in stressful situations don’t always retain what they’ve learned. But researchers have recently found that the same is true when the stress comes after the training session. Recent studies by French behavior scientists have revealed that when it comes to helping your horse retain what he learns during training, you should aim to keep him as stress-free as possible—before, during, and after schooling.

“In practice, what we’re seeing is that we need to be paying very close attention to what horses experience just after a training session,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, researcher in the behavior science department of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Tours, France. “Our study shows that after a workout, horses are better off immediately returning to their regular environment with their stablemates or pasturemates.”

In the study, Lansade and her fellow researchers divided 49 Welsh ponies into three different stress groups: stressed before training, stressed after training, and not stressed at all. The stress was induced by loud noises and sudden movements, such as dogs barking, bells ringing, tarps waving, and water spraying. During the training session the ponies learned a basic task: to touch one of two traffic cones (the one pointed out by the handler) to get food. One week later, the team tested the ponies on how well they remembered what they had learned in training.

They determined the ponies that experienced stress after the learning session had a significantly harder time repeating the learned task than the other two groups, Lansade said. Additionally, animals that had been stressed before the learning process had more difficulty than those not stressed at all. And ponies with a basic temperament classification of 'fearfulness' (according to Lansade’s temperament tests) were affected most of all by that post-learning stress, she added.

“What we see here is that to make your training effective, you really need to avoid stressors after the training session,” Lansade said. “For example, don’t hose your horse off after training, if he doesn’t like that. Or avoid an intense grooming session or tying him up in a noisy area with lots of movement or loading him in a trailer. Even taking the horse on a trail ride after training can be a bad idea, if the horse encounters stressful situations along the way. And above all, avoid locking him up in a dark stall all alone, which is what some people do to make the horse ‘concentrate’ on what he’s just learned. That isolation will be very stressful and therefore counterproductive to his learning.”

Even so, sometimes stress after training—such as during competitions or training workshops away from home—is unavoidable. In those cases, Lansade said, it’s best to just keep stress to a minimum.

“Park your trailer far away from the arena loudspeaker and keep the environment around the horse calm,” she said. “Don’t shake out your material (such as saddle pads) in front of him … and don’t let people play ball near your trailer.”

Interestingly, Lansade’s research also revealed that horses that are stressed before training actually do learn well—the first time around. It’s what’s called “good stress,” Lansade said. Even so, that’s no reason to stress horses intentionally before training. Not only is it unethical, she said, but benefits are lost by the time the horse repeats the training. Horses stressed before a learning session still retain what they’ve learned less than horses that are not stressed at all, she noted.

“Above all, this research should show riders that it really is important to pay attention to things that might stress your horse,” Lansade concluded. “Lots of the things we do as riders, we do almost without thinking about their effects on our horses’ learning capacities. We really need to be protecting our horses from stress—especially those that have naturally fearful temperaments. And we need to be selectively choosing naturally calm horses for situations where certain kinds of stress just can’t be avoided.”

The study, "Stress Modulates Instrumental Learning Performances in Horses (Equus caballus) in Interaction with Temperament," was published in April in the open-access journal PLoS One. 

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.