Researchers Study Escape and Avoidance in Horse Training

Editor's note: This article is part of's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We might be hearing more and more about "negative reinforcement," "positive reinforcement," and other trendy terms in horse training, but according to an Australian equitation scientist, we would also do well to apply more frequently researched psychological terms--specifically, "escape and avoidance"--because that's exactly what much of horse training is.

"There are literally thousands of studies out there on escape and avoidance, on everything from fish to humans and everything in between--including horses," said Cathrynne Henshall, MSc candidate and professional trainer, under the supervision of Paul McGreevy, PhD, both researchers at the University of Sydney. Henshall presented research on the topic at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A common kind of escape-and-avoidance study uses electric shocks on laboratory animals, who at first escape the shock by running away and then learn how to avoid it altogether, Henshall said. "Subjects learn to recognize the cues which predict the onset of an aversive experience," she said during her presentation.

Horse training is much the same, in that horses at first experience an "aversive" (unpleasant) experience which they escape--by moving away from pressure, for example, or moving away from a person in a round pen, she said. Horses are quickly conditioned to recognize cues that help prevent them from having the aversive experience at all (avoidance).

"Given the choice, horses are going to prefer to avoid an aversive experience rather than have to escape one," Henshall said. "If that aversive event is frightening, then the performance of the avoidance response allows the animal to also prevent the fear that's been conditioned to that particular cue."

In the case of round pen training, Henshall said, the avoidance conditioning is very clear. We can see it in the horse's "following behavior," she said.

"The horse is following something that has given it a huge fright, basically," said Henshall.

Armed with what psychological research can teach us about escape and avoidance, horse trainers can improve their training techniques to benefit horse welfare, Henshall said. Trainers can shift from escape to avoidance, which would allow them to "reduce the actual frequency, duration, and intensity of aversive pressures and experiences that we apply to a horse to modify their behavior."

A good example of this is "seat cues" on the ridden horse, according to Henshall. "If we apply a seat cue just before using the reins for slow or stop, the seat cue becomes a kind of warning signal that pressure is about to be applied to the horse's mouth by the bit and reins," she said. "The horse usually learns pretty quickly that if it stops or slows to the seat cue, it can avoid experiencing the unpleasant pressure on its mouth."

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