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What is Reinforcement-Based Horse Training?

Have you seen people wearing a silly little pouch while they're training their horse? What's that funny sound they are making or are they using a strange device that clicks? Are they feeding their horses a constant stream of treats? Are they CRAZY?!

What the Heck are They Doing??

They are probably training their horses with positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the fancy scientific name for teaching behaviors by using rewards,, more specifically something appetitive or desirable, as motivators. It's actually a pretty simple concept: Do a thing...get a treat.

Okay, It's Not THAT Simple

Positive reinforcement is part of an operant conditioning matrix that consists of four quadrants. They are:

  1. Positive Reinforcement

  2. Negative Reinforcement

  3. Positive Punishment

  4. Negative Punishment

All four of these training models work to change behavior. The ones that "reinforce" make a behavior stronger or more likely to occur. The "punishers" make a behavior weaker or less likely to occur.

Focus on the Positive

The advantage to using positive reinforcement vs negative reinforcement or (gasp!) punishers, is that it WORKS (it's proven by scientific research baby!). Not only is it extremely effective, it is a very high-welfare way to communicate and interact with your horse. While using other methods can have an unpleasant impact on your horse's physical and emotional state, and our relationship with them, positive reinforcement strengthens our bond and actually improves the quality of your horse's life.

That's what makes is SO advantageous. It can be used with all horses too. It is particularly beneficial for horses that have been traumatized or abused. That's because the horse doesn't have to do anything it doesn't want to do. The horse gets to choose how the session goes. That is VERY empowering; there are no "bad consequences" for refusing or being defiant in positive reinforcement. Only good things happen when a desirable behavior is offered.

Actually, positive reinforcement is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using food to communicate with your horse, or any animal for that matter, effectively and compassionately. I'll blog and post videos about those other options too, but for now let's stick with the topic at hoof.

Oh, and those other quadrants I mentioned earlier? They have their place but they also have a higher probability of causing emotional, and even physical, harm. The punishers are the most likely to be damaging.

How Does Positive Reinforcement Work?

In general it works like this. Your horse does something you like. You make a clicking sound or some other distinct sound that "marks" the behavior. Then you feed your horse a small bit of food. Other rewards can be used, but food tends to be the most effective. In your horse's brain, neurons are firing in response to the experience that lay down pathways that create associations with the behavior and the food reward. This process makes the horse WANT to repeat the behavior again.

Getting Started

There is a process when it comes to using positive reinforcement. That begins with YOU! You need to learn how to implement positive reinforcement before you can ask your horse to do it well. Full disclosure: it takes skill, timing, and practice. My students do a lot of simulation runs to help get the mechanics down before they start "live work" with their horse.

Once you're comfortable with the mechanics of "marking" a behavior and delivering food, you and your horse will be well on your way enjoying this fun and effective way of communicating with one another. By the way, that's a big part of what positive reinforcement has to offer - a common language that bridges the communication gap between our inherently and profoundly different species.

First Lesson

Once you become a human vending machine for all intents and purposes, your horse needs to learn how to handle this amazing windfall. Some horses get pretty excited and thinks it's a free-for-all. That's one of the reasons a lot of people poo-poo positive reinforcement, because they say it will make horses bite, attack, become disrespectful, or uncontrollable. Nothing could be further from the truth. However a lot of people give up on positive reinforcement because their horse's behavior becomes unruly. That doesn't happen because it doesn't work. It happens because it wasn't implemented correctly.

It may seem really scary to try to use food around your horse, especially if she's excited or aggressive around food. Not to worry. Being calm and polite around food is the very first task every positive reinforcement-trained horse needs to learn. In other words, step one is to reinforce excellent manners around food.

Want to see positive reinforcement in action? Check out the videos on my Pure Joy Horsemanship YouTube channel.

So Many Benefits

In addition to motivating your horse to perform specific behaviors (and the sky is the limit when it comes to what you can teach using positive reinforcement), your horse will LOVE working with you and learning new things. In other words, this is a FABULOUS way to build and improve your relationship with your horse. No only that, your horse will learn faster and remember what she learned far better than if you use other teaching methods.

More importantly, your horse will be HAPPIER! Positive reinforcement increases enthusiasm, interest, and engagement in the work (also known as PLAY when you and your horse have fun learning together!) It also builds confidence, calmness, and a greater ability to handle stressful situations.

Want to give positive reinforcement a try? There's lot of information on the web about how to get started. I also offer in person and virtual coaching in positive reinforcement and a variety of other compassionate communication techniques. Give me a shout and GET POSITIVE!

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