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A collaborative group of researchers from around the globe evaluated the efficacy of using reinforcement of an alternative behavior (specifically a clicker and edible snacks as a reward for touching a target with their nose) to reduce unwanted behaviors (aggression, agitation, stereotypy) attributed to anxiety caused by separation of horses from their peers or a bonded conspecific.
The concept is instead of using punishment or a gradual desensitization approach, one teaches and rewards an alternative behavior (touching a target with the nose) requested by the handler as a substitute for the unwanted behaviors when separation anxiety occurs.
Four horses were used in the study. Each exhibited annoying or dangerous unwanted behaviors such as (head tossing or ramming) before the training. In every case, the horses quickly learned the substitute behavior (nose touching to a target after a verbal command), transferred this learned interaction to their owner and the intervention decreased the unwanted behaviors to near zero levels.
While clicker training by itself may not always be a solution for unwanted behavior, this study shows that along with teaching an alternative, substitute behavior it could be useful to reduce unwanted behaviors when horses are separated from their peers for procedures such as hoof care.
— Rybova V et al. Learning and Motivation 2022;78:101816