The oft-quoted aphorism of Etienne Beudant, “Ask for much, be content with little, and reward often,” always works when you’re training horses.
Now, we’re on the way to finding out why, courtesy of some fruit flies. Sex-starved ones at that. It’s all a little roundabout and quite racy and it might sound like a tenuous connection at best, but stick with me…
Scientists at the University of California conducted an interesting experiment consisted of two groups of male fruit flies. The first group was put in a box with female fruit flies who were interested in hooking up. The second group was put in with an already satiated group of female fruit flies, who showed no interest in their male counterparts.
Afterwards, the two groups of male fruit flies were offered a choice of two meals — one with alcohol and one without. The males who had hooked up avoided the alcohol, while the other males, according to the BBC news, “went on a comparative bender.”
Where’s the science in all this, you might ask, and what does it have to do with horses? The answer is neuropeptide F (NPF).
The scientists in charge of the experiment found that the mating male fruit flies had high levels of NPF and the fruit flies who went on the bender had lowered levels. The scientists hypothesized that NPF levels serve as a kind of “molecular signature” to experience.
With that in mind, they manipulated the levels of NPF in the fruit flies’ brains and found out that elevated levels caused the fruit flies to act like the mating males and lowered levels led the fruit flies to act like they were at their first frat party.
Dr. Shohat-Ophir, who led the study, came to this conclusion: “What this leads us to think is that the fly brain — and presumably also other animals’ and human brains — have some kind of a system to control their level of internal reward, that once the internal reward level is down-regulated it will be followed by behavior that will restore it back.” Or, in plain English, that if life doesn’t give you a reward, you’ll go out and seek it yourself, because what keeps you in balance is the reward itself, and that’s part of your physical makeup. Or, at least, that’s the way I interpret it.
So if you want your horse to come to you and not run away with his herd, if you want him to be polite instead of dive into your pocket, if you want him to go when you put your leg on rather than rest or run, and if you want his NPF to stay on an even keel, keep those rewards coming. Often. Because he’s an animal, you’re going to have to be clear about what you’re rewarding, whether you do so with a pat or a click-and-treat or a “good boy.”
But there are rewards for your rewards, according to Troy Zars of the University of Missouri. Responding to the fruit fly sex and drug scene, Zars suggests that the research links “a rewarding social interaction with a lasting change in behavior.” Which makes it even more important — and rewarding — for those of us training horses.