Remote-Controlled Cars Used to Study Round Pen Training

Round pen training isn't only effective with humans being the ones working the horses. According to Australian equitation scientists, even a remote-controlled car can create the same reactions in horses. And for them, this is cause for concern.

"Round pen training is said to rely on a human's ability to mimic another horse through the trainer's body language, but our research suggests that this may not be true," said Cathrynne Henshall, MSc candidate and professional trainer, under the supervision of Paul McGreevy, PhD, both researchers at the University of Sydney. "We were able to get similar results from an inanimate object--a toy car--which indicates that this training result relies on applying an aversive stimulus which elicits fear, and then rewarding horses by turning off the frightening stimulus."

Henshall presented the results of her study at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In other words, it's scaring the horses and then removing the frightening stimulus when they behave the way we want, through simple negative reinforcement, she said.

Henshall and her Italian co-researcher Barbara Padalino, PhD, of the University of Bari Veterinary School, taught 11 horses and ponies to follow a remote-controlled car. ("Most horses trained with 'join-up' (a commonly used round-pen training technique) already know how to follow a human when they are led," Henshall explained.) The horses were trained using positive reinforcement, meaning they were given food as a reward for following the car.

Once the horses were following the car, Henshall applied an adapted join-up technique with the car in the place of the human. The horses heard a warning signal (an electronic tone) for ten seconds, and then the car began to chase the horses around the pen, which caused them to react with a flight response.

If the horse stopped and turned to face the car ("avoidance" instead of "flight"), then the car would stop, and so would the warning signal. They would hear a different sound instead--what the researchers referred to as a "safety" signal. But if the horse moved away again, then the car and warning signal would start up again. These training sessions would last for a maximum of 90 seconds, Henshall said.

Nine of the 11 horses learned to react with "avoidance" within four sessions, and three of them would even approach the car while the safety signal was sounding, Henshall said.

But training was often associated with "strong" or even "aggressive" behaviors, Henshall said. "The horses who weren't scared of the car would frequently kick out at it and some even stomped on the car," she said, adding that four cars had to be used during the experiment due to damage by the horses.

"We believe the results of this research suggest that round pen training may rely on the offset of states of fear, anxiety, or fatigue to reinforce the target behavior of approaching and following the trainer," Henshall wrote in the comment of her YouTube video illustrating the study.

Henshall described her motivation as coming from her frequent observation of American horse training forums on the Internet, where she would very often see round pen training suggested as a way to resolve problems with horses.

"People would just say, 'Put it in a round pen and chase it,' and I struggled with the ethics of this," she said.

Even so, she defended her study as being a step towards improved care for horses.

"I certainly felt the ethical dilemma of deliberately frightening these horses, but that's the reality of what is going on in round pens around the world," she said. "If it means that people either chase their horses less or think more clearly about what they're doing so as to minimize that flight response, then this experiment will have ultimately resulted in better welfare for animals."

ISES President Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, equitation scientist and manager of the Australian Equine Behavior Centre in Broadford, Victoria, cautioned that Henshall's study was not an "attack" on 'join-up' or any other round-pen training techniques. "It just shows, though, how science can really illuminate the real causes of behaviors when they otherwise might delude us," he said.

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