I love food. I love food and I love to eat. I love everything about the act of consuming nutrients (even those that aren’t so nutritious). I love the look of food, the smell, obviously the taste, that feeling you get when you’re so full that you want to curl up and take a nap. I love it all (except maybe the cooking and cleaning, but that’s a tale for another post). The old saying goes, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and that definitely holds true for me. In fact, after a few weeks of talking and spending time together, a friend of a guy I had been seeing asked why things weren’t more serious between us, my reply was, “He hasn’t bought me dinner yet.” That night, I was taken to dinner and last week we tasted food for our upcoming wedding. I am wholly motivated by food. But can the same be said for our animals? Or dogs? Cats? Horses? Is the ‘carrot on a stick’ really the way to go, or is a good scratch behind the ears enough of a reward for Fido?
Food and Contact Bonding
We know that in forming relationships and bonds there are two things to consider; the food bond (which obviously is very strong for me) and the contact bond, the real bonding that occurs through physical contact. These ways of bonding are most evident when you look at an animal mother and her newborn. There is a lot of licking and nuzzling (contact bonding) and there is also the food bonding of nursing. So which is stronger? Studies have shown in humans and cats, tactile contact creates a true bond and we sometimes assume that since the taming and domesticating of animals involves so much physical contact that it is important to the bonds we form with our horses. Studies have shown that when horses are groomed, their heart rate decreases (and anyone who uses their horse as their therapist knows, the groomers heart rate decreases too; think of it as a Reverse-Umbrella Study). So is grooming enough of a positive reinforcement to train a horse?
French and Polish researchers collaborated to find out the answer. They took 20 Konik horses, a primitive breed originating directly from the wild Tarpan horse who were raised in semi-natural conditions for the first 1-2 years of life. Horses were then trained to respond to the command “reste” by remaining still for a given period of time. Essentially they were teaching these horses to ‘Stay.’ One group of horses was rewarded with food and the other group was rewarded by vigorous scratching on the withers, similar to the way horses groom each other in the wild. The researchers attempted to train the horses to ‘stay’ for longer and longer periods of time throughout the study. The training lasted for 6 days. The other portion of the experiment investigated the human-animal bond by placing a horse in an open space with a human standing stationary in the center. They measured the time it took the horse to approach the human and the total time the horse spent interacting with the person.
FR- Food Reward; GR-Groom Reward
Here’s what they found: Horses that were rewarded with food were far more successful at learning the task and reaching the highest level (1 minute of ‘staying’) with 9/10 horses completing the training. Only 4 of 10 horses that were rewarded with physical contact were able to stay for the full minute. Also, the food-rewarded horses had a much steeper learning curve than the other group. In fact, the learning curve of the ‘scratching’ horses plateaued after Day 2 and after that no improvement was seen. Now these results aren’t too surprising to me. Like I said, I love food and I would surely learn a task much quicker if I was offered cheesecake as opposed to a massage. What did surprise me was how food-rewards had an effect on the human-animal bond. When placed in a paddock with a motionless human, and no rewards were offered for any actions, horses that had been trained with treats approached the person much faster (less than 50 seconds) than the contact trained horses (nearly 3 ½ minutes!). These horses also spent much more time interacting with the human (2 minutes vs 30 seconds). Summarizing their study, the investigators said, “Using food rewards had beneficial effects on horses' attachment to humans and facilitated learning, whereas the tactile contact was clearly not perceived sufficiently positively, neither for bonding to occur, nor for enhancing learning.”
So there you have it. The quickest way to a horse’s heart IS through his stomach. I’ve always known that I have a special connection with the equine species, and now I know what it is, our love of food.
Now that being said, don’t go and throw out your brush box and buy a 50lb bag of carrots. There are still many benefits to physical contact with your horse, for both him and (maybe even more importantly) you. Spending time in close contact with your horses helps you learn more about them, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. The Umbrella Study
showed us that horses can read our silent cues, but the more time we spend in the barn and in the saddle, the better we will be at picking up our horses cues.
I also don’t want to promote feeding your horses hand-fulls of molasses covered treats every time he picks his hoof up to be picked out or stops when you say “whoa.” Many packaged horse treats are high in starches and sugars and can lead to carbohydrate overload which leads to a whole host of problems like colic and laminitis. Even buckets full of healthy treats like carrots and apples can be too much of a good thing and throw off the nutrient balance that your hay and grain provide. And sadly (as I have learned from a lifetime of balancing my love of food and my love of being able to see my toes) weight loss and gain is all about calories in and calories out. Obesity is becoming a huge problem in our horse population and diseases like Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance
have been directly linked to the increased incidence of laminitis and other medical ailments.
So keep on brushing and hugging your horses but remember, if you really want to get him to do something, try some treats (as long as its in moderation).