Send to

Choose Destination
Equine Vet J. 2006 Sep;38(5):439-43.

Training methods for horses: habituation to a frightening stimulus.

Author information

Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition, Tjele, Denmark.



Responses of horses in frightening situations are important for both equine and human safety. Considerable scientific interest has been shown in development of reactivity tests, but little effort has been dedicated to the development of appropriate training methods for reducing fearfulness.


To investigate which of 3 different training methods (habituation, desensitisation and counter-conditioning) was most effective in teaching horses to react calmly in a potentially frightening situation.


1) Horses are able to generalise about the test stimulus such that, once familiar with the test stimulus in one situation, it appears less frightening and elicits a reduced response even when the stimulus intensity is increased or the stimulus is presented differently; and 2) alternative methods such as desensitisation and counter-conditioning would be more efficient than a classic habituation approach.


Twenty-seven naive 2-year-old Danish Warmblood stallions were trained according to 3 different methods, based on classical learning theory: 1) horses (n = 9) were exposed to the full stimulus (a moving, white nylon bag, 1.2 x 0.75 m) in 5 daily training sessions until they met a predefined habituation criterion (habituation); 2) horses (n = 9) were introduced gradually to the stimulus and habituated to each step before the full stimulus was applied (desensitisation); 3) horses (n = 9) were trained to associate the stimulus with a positive reward before being exposed to the full stimulus (counter-conditioning). Each horse received 5 training sessions of 3 min per day. Heart rate and behavioural responses were recorded.


Horses trained with the desensitisation method showed fewer flight responses in total and needed fewer training sessions to learn to react calmly to test stimuli. Variations in heart rate persisted even when behavioural responses had ceased. In addition, all horses on the desensitisation method eventually habituated to the test stimulus whereas some horses on the other methods did not.


Desensitisation appeared to be the most effective training method for horses in frightening situations. Further research is needed in order to investigate the role of positive reinforcement, such as offering food, in the training of horses.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Wiley
Loading ...
Support Center