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Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus)


A central question in the interspecific human/animal relationship is how domestic animals perceive humans as a significant element of their environment. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that the use of positive or negative reinforcement in horse training may have consequences on the animals’ perception of humans, as a positive, negative or neutral element. Two groups of ponies were trained to walk backwards in response to a vocal order using either positive or negative reinforcement. Heart rate monitors and behavioural observations were used to assess the animals’ perception of humans on the short (just after training) and long (5 months later) terms. The results showed that the type of reinforcement had a major effect on the subsequent animals’ perception of familiar and unfamiliar humans. Negative reinforcement was rapidly associated with an increased emotional state, as revealed by heart rate measurements and behavioural observations (head movements and ears laid back position). Its use led the ponies to seek less contact with humans. On the contrary, ponies trained with positive reinforcement showed an increased interest in humans and sought contact after training. This is especially remarkable as it was reached in a maximum of 5 sessions of 1 to 3 min (i.e. 5 to 15 min) and had lasting effects (visible after 5 months). Even learning was positively influenced by positive reinforcement. Overall, horses seem capable of associating humans to particular experiences and display extended long-term memory abilities.

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    Training was performed by a skilled ethologist, well versed in learning theory and experienced in horse training (C. Sankey, woman, dark hair, see also Sankey et al. 2010) and moreover supervised by a 30 years experienced university teacher on learning rules (M-A Richard-Yris) and a research scientist with more than 30 years of experience in horse training (M. Hausberger).


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The authors are grateful to Mr. S. Gicqueau from the ‘‘Lycée agricole La Touche’’ in Ploermel and Mr. F. Reyé from the ‘‘CFA de Pommerit Jaudy’’ (France) for allowing us to use their ponies and facilities and all the staff for their help and understanding. We are grateful to Hélène Leroy, Anne Ouvrard and Xavier Comparé for their help filming the animals’ training. Thanks to Marine Grandgeorge who was the unfamiliar experimenter. Carol Sankey was supported by a PhD grant of the “Haras Nationaux” and the “Region Bretagne”. This study, which was funded by the COST of the “Haras Nationaux”, complies with the French laws concerning the use of animals in research.

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Correspondence to Carol Sankey.

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Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, M., Henry, S. et al. Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 13, 753–764 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-010-0326-9

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  • Perception of humans
  • Human/animal relationship
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Equus caballus