A Writtle College graduate has gained second place in a prestigious UK and Ireland competition to find the Equine Thesis of the Year.
Rosie Foster, who has just graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Equine Breeding and Stud Management, was runner-up in the Eqvalan Duo Equine Thesis of the Year Award, run by the Royal Agricultural Society of England and sponsored by Merial Animal Health.
Her dissertation compared the effects of negative and positive reinforcement training in reducing horses’ fearfulness towards a novel stimulus, an umbrella.
Rosie, who was shortlisted with four other finalists, presented her thesis to a panel of judges and an audience of industry-based professionals at Stoneleigh Park, before being awarded second place and winning a cheque for £100 and a glass trophy.
The 21-year-old, from Walton-on-Thames, said: “I am immensely proud to have been shortlisted for this accolade.
“I studied the use of positive reinforcement training and looked at whether this can reduce horses’ stress and fear when they are presented with an object that they are not familiar with. I used an umbrella as, although it’s an everyday object in our eyes, it is something that can alarm horses, triggering their fright-or-flight response and increasing their stress levels.
“I chose this subject as it potentially has a major implication - horses’ fearful responses to novel situations are a crucial issue affecting both the safety of the horse and handler; the use of more sympathetic training methods may also help the horse to cope better in a stressful situation by moderating their reactions.
“Overall, my thesis found that positive reinforcement (PR) had significant effects on measureable behavioural and physiological parameters relating to stress, suggesting that, although it takes longer, PR may be beneficial in reducing fearfulness, particularly in regard to excessively nervous horses.”
Twelve female horses were used to establish differences between a PR method and an NR method in Rosie’s thesis. The sample included yearlings, three year olds and broodmares, which were randomly allocated to either the PR or NR group. PR subjects were target trained using primary and secondary reinforcers, whilst NR subjects responded to conventional pressure release methods. All horses were asked to walk past the novel object - the umbrella - under either PR or NR conditions and observations were taken on behaviour and time advancements, as well as heart rate data being recorded.
Rosie’s thesis found that heart rate was significantly higher (t = 3.29, P<0.05) in the NR group than PR at certain points of the trial, whereas there was a highly significant difference in total trial time between both groups (t =-5.17, P<0.01). These results indicate that although PR training methods may be more time consuming, their potentially stress-reducing benefits are in the interest of the horse’s welfare.
Rosie’s supervisor, Rosa Verwijs, Lecturer in Equine Behaviour and Nutrition Writtle College, congratulated her on her award, saying: “Rosie’s research demonstrates the importance of looking at alternative methods of training horses, and how it is possible to introduce more positive and welfare-friendly learning experiences in horses at a younger age. Writtle College is very proud of Rosie’s commitment to this project that resulted in her selection as a front-runner in undergraduate research in the UK and Ireland, as the competition from the other institutions was very high.”
Now in its 14th year, the Eqvalan Duo Equine Thesis of the Year competition is open to every agricultural and equine university and college in the country and, as a result, the standard and quality of entry is exceptionally high.