Can’t get your horse to load? Or does he paw the whole way to the show? Consider the risk factors for transport-related behavior problems researchers recently identified.
Is your horse a difficult loader when it comes to trailering? Have you tried offering him treats to get him in? What about a rope behind his hindquarters to “push” him in, or a whip tap to get him to move away from pressure?
If you have, that could actually be part of the problem.
Recent study results suggest that—contrary to popular belief—using positive reinforcement (giving treats) and/or using negative reinforcement (removing pressure you’ve applied) could actually make horses more likely to show unwanted behaviors before and while loading. These “transport-related behavior problems
” (TRBPs) can range from mild, like pawing, to dangerous, like kicking and biting. And they all reflect a poor welfare state due to the horse’s stress and anxiety, said Barbara Padalino, PhD, of the City University of Hong Kong (HKSAR), and the University Aldo Moro Department of Veterinary Medicine, in Bari, Italy.
“YouTube is full of ‘solutions’ to the behavior problems associated with trailering, but very few of them are grounded in science, and many would make the problem worse,” Padalino said.
In a study of more than 1,100 New Zealand horse owners, Padalino and colleagues noted distinct associations between trailer training styles and TRBP, she said. About 22% of owners had at least one horse with TRBP. And, she said, using negative reinforcement and positive punishment, using a whip or food for loading, and travelling in a straight-load (forward-facing) trailer increased the risk of TRBP.
“These results might sound surprising, but they make sense if you think about it,” Padalino said. “They have a lot to do with our own inability to master the techniques of operant conditioning (using positive and negative reinforcement as training tools) in trailering situations.”
She described the main problems with these techniques that lead to failure in transport conditions:
- Negative reinforcement is hard to do effective because we tend to get the timing wrong. “People frequently release the pressure accidentally when the horse moves the wrong way, sometimes because we think he ‘needs a break,’ but also because he’s just so much stronger than we are and can pull away from our pressure,” she said. “They can use all their strength when they’re stressed. And when it comes to pressure versus pressure, they’re going to win, and we’ll be ending up reinforcing the wrong behavior because they’ll get the ‘reward’ of the release.”
- Positive reinforcement can also become a victim of bad timing. “A lot of times we’re not actually using the food as positive reinforcement but as a sort of ‘bait’ to attract them,” said Padalino. “When we’ve tried everything, we sometimes tend to just get on the ramp and sort of beg them to come in, tempting them with treats. But that’s not working as positive reinforcement because the timing can get off as we hand out treats to entice them or hold off giving the treats even when they’ve shown some progress.” Biology could also play a role, she added, since some studies have shown that in high-stress situations, horses lose their food motivation. “They’d rather survive than eat,” she said.
- Positive punishment—adding an unpleasant force like the strike of a whip when the horse doesn’t do what we want it to do—can backfire because it creates a “bad feeling,” so to speak. “The horse is already stressed, and this punishment just adds to that stress, so that he begins to associate the trailer with compounding negative emotions,” said Padalino.
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- Forward-facing trailers can create a negative association for horses, as well, because, biomechanically, horses can maintain their balance better when traveling backwards. “If they keep losing their balance facing forward, and the only way to gain that balance in that position is to lift up the head and they can’t do it because they’re tied down so tightly, they’re going to remember that bad experience,” she said. “And that’s going to give them anxiety the next time they travel.” Traveling rear-facing, however, horses can use their hindquarters to better brace themselves during braking and turning.