Many people use positive reinforcement with horses, instead of or as well as other forms of training (negative reinforcement, habituation, desensitisation, shaping, classical conditioning). As with all horse training it helps to understand the theory behind the method.
Research indicates that positive reinforcement may be more effective than negative reinforcement, and holds many benefits for equine well-being. Horses learn quicker, retain the learned tasks longer, experience less stress, react to humans more positively, and are able to generalize this training across trainers, novel tasks, and over long periods of time (Sankey, 2010). The benefits of positive reinforcement training can be huge, especially with horses suffering from trauma or deep mistrust of humans.
Horses are extremely motivated by food. Their brains are hard-wired for eating so it’s a HUGE motivator. When using food rewards in training you must know how to do it, or the horse may start pushing you around and trying to take the food. This is not a bad horse, just a very food motivated animal. There exists a misconception that feeding horses treats by hand will make them aggressive. However, if the horse is never reinforced for nuzzling or grabbing for treats, positive reinforcement can eliminate nippiness rather than induce it.
We can make a previously neutral stimulus such as ‘good girl’ or click (a secondary reinforcer) positive to the horse, by consistently pairing it with something intrinsically rewarding, food or a rub (a primary reinforcer). This is called Classical Conditioning. Establishing this association is always the first lesson in positive reinforcement training. The first thing you teach the horse is that to get the reward they must have their head turned away from you. Stand beside your horse and wait until they are calm with the head straight or turned away, give an audio cue such as ‘good girl/boy, click or whatever you want to use, then give the reward. Chances are your horse will immediately try and get more food. Again, wait until the head is turned away (you can help them find this with the lead rope if it takes a long time), give the audio cue then reward. Repeat until your horse has completely stopped trying to take the reward from you.
Now you can ask the horse to do something, such as touch a ball with their nose, when they do it give the audio cue, then the food reward. Never give the horse a reward when they ask for it. Never give the horse a reward for no reason. You ask them to do something; they do it and get rewarded. Give the audio signal exactly on the behaviour you want to train, follow up with the food. If the horse starts mugging you at any stage return to the head turned away lesson.
Make it easy for the horse to succeed. This provides more opportunities for reinforcing the desired response, minimizes confusion by reducing or eliminating the wrong response, and reliably establishes the new behaviour more efficiently.
Shape the behaviour you want in small increments. For example, if you want the horse to pick up a hoof - initially reward them for letting you touch the leg, then the foot, then lifting the hoof for two seconds, then ten seconds, then holding it up while you tap it, then holding it up while you clean it out. This is called shaping, we start with something the horse can achieve and gradually add on until we reach the behaviour we desire.
You will quickly see your horse anticipate their work eagerly and respond enthusiastically as you develop a stronger relationship with them and connect at an ever deeper level. Many people turn to positive reinforcement when they get ‘that horse’ that doesn’t respond to normal training methods or who is suffering from extreme trauma. But in reality all horses can benefit from having positive reinforcement training as part of their repertoire, and there is much to be learned by the human in the process too.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
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