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Contrafreeloading and its place in Force-Free Horse Education

The most important aspect of Force-Free Horsemanship is that we intentionally provide our horses with more choices during training. One of the ways I personally provide more choice for the horse I'm working with is by ensuring there is equal or near equal value food available for free to the horse whenever possible.

This usually means I have a bowl of food or a pile of hay (depending on what food reinforcer I'm working with at the time) somewhere nearby that the horse can get without consequences or doing a task. For "free" so to speak.

This is where Contrafreeloading comes in!

"Contrafreeloading" is the phenomenon where, provided a task is not aversive, an animal will choose to "work" for their food rather than receive food for free. -Hence "contra"-freeloading.

Animal scientist Glen Jensen first studied the existence of this phenomenon in 1963 on rats. He found that if the rats were given the choice of free food in a bowl, or food from a dispenser that required the rat to press a foot pedal a set number of times, majority of them chose the dispenser over the free food. This experiment has since been replicated with a number of other animals, including dogs, birds, gerbils, bears, chimpanzees and more.

(hilarious fact, the one animal this hasn't held true for is the domesticated cat, which has been found to prefer the free food, over working for it)

The reasoning behind why this phenomenon exists is still being studied, some suggest it's because given the choice, learning new information is inherently rewarding for the animal, so long as the learning is not causing a certain level of discomfort. Others think it's simply a survival mechanism in the animal brain, drives them to learn potential sources of food in order to have that information on hand in the future.

Potentially both?

In whatever case, It certainly is a facinating observation. And for us as trainers, it's a wonderful and easy way to provide our horses alternative options, and to ensure that the horse never feels coerced or forced to participate, or endure discomforts due to a worry of missing out on food. As there's always food available for free to them!

To see this in action you can watch these two videos of my training with Titan, that demonstrate this beautifully!

You can see in the first video below, that there is a bowl of food right besides Titan, it is the same food I carry in my pouch. if he ever felt like he needed a break from the session for any reason, he is allowed to pause anytime and get food from this bowl instead of me. If he chooses to do this, I will simply pause, and wait until he joins me again.

In the second video, there is soaked timothy pellets in the red bucket as well as in the rubber tub. I am carrying the same food in my pouch.

So in conclusion, contrafreeloading is a fascinating phenomenon, and I personally love that it allows us to give our horses true choice. To me there's not much more genuine than a horse that chooses to walk away from free food, and instead learn new things with their human.

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