“Overall, it appears that scratching the withers may not be considered a primary positive reinforcement for horses,” said Carol Sankey, from the University of Rennes in western France. “In fact, some horses don’t like it much at all.”
Wither scratching is known to reduce a horse’s heart rate and is therefore very good for calming a horse and reducing their anxiety, but is it the best form of positive reinforcement when training your horse?
In this study, 20 Konik yearlings were trained to stand still on command. According to the results, wither scratching had very little positive effect. From the first day of training, the food-rewarded yearlings stood still longer. They also made faster progress over the six-day training period compared to the horses rewarded with wither scratching, whose progress eventually stopped.
“It’s better to consider scratching a secondary form of positive reinforcement, which must first be associated with a primary one, like food, to become rewarding,” Sankey said.
Note: You should take care when using this in your training. If you use carrots or apples, cut them into long pieces not round disc shapes, which can choke a horse. Never feed these rewards just before you ask for physical exertion, such as jumping. Your horse could suck the food back into its lungs. At the Spanish Riding School the trainers use very small treats that are quickly eaten. Rewards should only be given if your horse correctly delivers the response that you want. Never give food rewards for bad behaviour or bad manners.