Achieving my equestrian dreams, using horse friendly training methods. Sharing my experience with you

The statement that a horse only works for ‘the treat’ and ‘not for you’ is one that I have heard many times. In fact this is one of the most common arguments used by people who use negative reinforcement to train their horses.

 What motivates the horse: you or the food

I also prefer to think in terms of ‘motivation’ when I talk about horse training and horse behaviour: is the horse motivated to move away from something or avoid something (negative reinforcement, R-) or is he motivated by desire and wants to ‘move towards _carrot_or_stick_hippologicsomething he wants’ (positive reinforcement, R+)?

When people say ‘the horse only does it for the food’ are they afraid  of not being
‘respected by the horse’ for who they are? What is respect anyway? I don’t believe a horse respects a human the way people respect people. Most ‘respectful behaviours’ horses display in the human-horse relationship are either based on fear or simply on learned behaviours, see this post about respect.

If someone states: ‘The horse only does it for the food’, you could say the same thing for negative reinforcement: ‘He only does it to avoid something unpleasant’.

This is still not an explanation that the horse follows commands just ‘for the person’.

‘For the trainer’

I wonder how you could tell for sure that your horse is doing something ‘just for you’ and not for his own benefit (too)? That is  very altruistic. Isn’t that a very cocky assumption that your horse does everything you ask, just for you and not for himself? I agree it is very tempting to tell ourselves our horse loves us so much he would do anything just for us, but it is not realistic.

Here is a video from my horse and how she reacts when I call her [for my lovely email subscribers please click in the email to go to the post to see the video]:

Is it really altruism?

Altruism is if a horse does something only to benefit another being (increasing it’s reproductive succes) and he doesn’t increases his own fitness. Example: You want to take your horse out of the pasture for a ride. If he comes to you and leaves his horsey companions without hesitation. Is it really for you as a person (and nothing else) or is there something else (too) at the root of this behaviour?

Curiosity

Maybe he is just curious and wants to check you out (that could explain the approach, but not the part where he leaves his heard and comes with you, hence the halter).

I think the more important part is the learning process that had taken place. Either the horse was positively or negatively reinforced in the past to come with you.

Positive reinforcement

If R+ is his motivation to come to and with you: he was motivated in the past by the scratches, food, attention or something else that is desirable for him. You paired pleasant experiences with coming to you and following you out of the pasture. The horse doesn’t do it for you (only).

Negative reinforcement

If he was negatively reinforced to come with you he is motivated by the aversive that was taken away to teach him to approach and follow you. For instance chasing the horse around in the pasture until he lets him catch you. After a few times the horse has learned to ‘give up’ running away from you and let you catch him. He paired stopping an unpleasant experience (being chased) with getting haltered. The horse doesn’t do it for you.

The beauty of R+

When you introduce positive reinforcement to a horse, he understands quickly that (in most cases) food is involved. Because we don’t randomly ‘throw’ treats to them, but only provide treats after the marker or bridge signal, the horse quickly learns to pay attention to the click and not to the hand reaching for a treat.

The reinforcer in positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be food, it can be anything pleasant the horse wants to work for.

There is more to clicker training than just the food reward. The marker can also become very reinforcing, training in itself (solving ‘puzzles’ when teaching new behaviours or endorfines released by physical activity or ‘the possibility of hearing a click’) can become reinforcing and also other behaviours can become reinforcers for behaviours.

So the horse doesn’t have to work for us (clicker trainers), because we know that he will pair us with positive things in training. We don’t mind that he wants to work for a decent salary paid in clicks and reinforcers. We understand this.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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In a previous post a while ago I talked about How to start clicker training: introducing the clicker. Once your horse knows the click means a reward is on it’s way, you can start clicking for specific behaviours.

Targeting

_zw_touchtargetThe next lesson can be targeting. In targeting you ask the horse to touch an object with a body part. Usually we start with the nose. Later on you can also teach your horse to target with other body parts: the mouth for easy deworming, the hip for lateral work, the knee for Spanish walk and teach your horse to follow a moving target.

Choose a target that you won’t use in your daily routine, so your horse does not have a history with the object. You can make your own target stick with a floater attached to a bamboo stick, use a lid of some sort or a fly swatter.

Shaping plan

Make a step-by-step plan in your head (or better write it down) to the end behaviour. First start easy by clicking and rewarding for looking at the target, then moving towards the target and finally touching the target with the nose. It depends on the horse how many steps this process requires: some horses are not used to strange objects, others are curious and want to investigate it.

Functional key lesson

I call targeting a ‘key lesson’ in training because it is extremely functional. Once your horse can target you can use it for many purposes like getting your horse out of a Summer pasture.

[Note to email subscribers: the embedded video below doesn’t show up in emails, please visit my blog to watch the video. Thanks.]

The target means a click can be earned. The click in itself is a reinforcer, but also the (maybe even high value) treat…. Kyra thinks that she should better come over and check it out. Nothing bad has ever happened targeting.

Please let me know how you use targeting in your training. I would love to share some ideas.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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Who hasn’t heard the statement that ‘if you train with treats (like in positive reinforcement), your horse doesn’t respect you, he will do it only for the food and not for you’. This is an interesting myth to debunk because there is so much to it.

‘Training with treats’

Not everyone who ‘trains with treats’ is using a marker or bridge signal (a click) or understands the importance of the timing of the food delivery.

The click indicates two things: it pinpoints the exact desired behaviour and it announces an appetitive.

If a trainer is not using a bridge/marker signal when rewarding the horse with food it can lead to confusion (Why did I get this? Was it random? Can I influence it?) and even frustration in the horse  (Why is there no food today? I expect food now). This can cause the horse to become very focused on the food, instead of the marker and the desired behaviour to display. This can cause all kinds of undesired or even dangerous behaviours.

_Myth_Monday_using_treats_no_respect_HippoLogic

When a horse doesn’t understand that he must pay attention to the marker and the associated behaviour in order to increase the likelihood of a click, he can display behaviours that he thinks influences the appearance of a food reward. Often that’s behaviour that occurred during or just happened a few seconds before the food was offered: sniffing the pockets of the trainer, stepping towards the handler (the food) or other -in our eyes- undesired or ‘disrespectful’ behaviour. This is caused by miscommunication or lack of knowledge or experience of the trainer and not ‘just a result of working with food rewards’.

What is ‘respect’?

This leads us to the next question: what is respect and can a horse display respect to another species? Or is what we call ‘respectful’ behaviour just something else?

Simple Definition of respect

  • a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.

  • a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way

  • a particular way of thinking about or looking at something

I think we should scrap the word ‘respect’ out of our vocabulary when we talk about the horse-human relationship. We, humans, can still respect the horse, but we have no way of knowing if ‘the horse feels admiration’ for us when he looks at us.

Respectful behaviour

What behaviours do we expect when we are talking about the horse must’ respect’ us? We  all know we can’t force respect, but why do so many trainers behave like they can?

Here are some ‘respectful’ behaviours:

  • the horse doesn’t step into our personal cirkel, unless invited
  • the horse respectfully follows all our cues
  • takes treats carefully/respectful from our hands (doesn’t grab the food)
  • waits ‘politely’ until the food is offered (doesn’t mug us)
  • stands when mounted or groomed
  • et cetera

I think these behaviours can all be  taught and are often more the result of training or a learning process in the horse than ‘a feeling or understanding [from the horse] that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way’.

If the horse is not behaving ‘respectful’ that is also the result of the learning curve in the horse. He simply has learned that stepping into your ‘personal circle’ or sniffing your pockets results in something he values (a scratching pole, getting attention, a pet or a treat).

The horse only works for the food, not for you

In the next episode of Myth Monday I will debunk the part of the myth that in clicker training it is only the food that motivates the horse. Stay tuned!

What myths about clicker training/ positive reinforcement have you heard?

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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It was 1999 when I heard about clicker training for horses. I knew dolphins were trained with a whistle and fish to reward them, but that was about everything I knew.  I decided to try it out with my 21 year old pony Sholto. I learned about learning theory during my study Animal Management, but no one could tell me how to start with Sholto. So I just started…

How I started clicker training

I can’t really remember what my thoughts were at the time, but I do remember I started with some really difficult trick training exercises: touching a skippy ball, Spanish walk and _classical bow_buiging_hippologica Classical bow. The skippy ball became a ‘target’ and it was really hard to change ‘touching’ the ball into pushing the ball. That didn’t take my pleasure away, though. The Classical bow was a coincidence and I was lucky to ‘capture’ that behaviour. I can’t recall how we got to a Spanish walk.

What I learned using R+

When I started clicker training I had no idea what impact it would have on my future and my whole training approach. The most remarkable changes (in hindsight) are:

  • I learned to ‘listen to my horse‘ by studying his body language
  • I learned a lot about learning theory.
  • I love to approach behaviour now as a matter of motivation: is the horse moving away from something or moving towards something? Is something else (than the ___clickertraining_hippologictraining/trainer) more enticing? By looking at the motivation of the horse, I can now skip the whole ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ discussion in training.
  • I learned to think out of the box and became more creative in training. I now have so many different ways to elicit behaviour and put it on cue.
  • Shaping. I learned the power of shaping, a wonderful tool in training.
  • Timing.
  • The power of using a marker to mark (a step towards) the desired behaviour.
  • Planning and the power of keeping a journal.

I truly believe that I wouldn’t have grown so much as a horse trainer if it wasn’t for positive reinforcement. One of the best changes is that I learned to focus on what goes well instead of what went wrong! A change that bears fruit in all facets of my life!

How about you?

What are your most remarkable changes since you started using positive reinforcement for your horse? How did clicker training influenced you as trainer, horse lover or in your personal life?

Sandra Poppema

Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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What do you do after a stressful day: are you going to ride or not? Enjoy my video.

 

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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In a study done in Norway researchers taught 23 horses to communicate to their trainers if they wanted blankets (rugs) ‘put on’, ‘taken off’ or ‘unchanged’. The horses were taught 3 different symbols to express their choice. If they chose ‘unchanged’ they kept their blankets on if they wore one and didn’t get one on if they were already without blanket.

Let the horse speak for himself

I like the idea of asking a horse their opinion in training, which is why I like to use positive reinforcement. I think it is brilliant to conduct a study in which the horse is taught to communicate their opinion about blankets.

Set-up

All the horses were solely trained with positive reinforcement. They had to learn the meaning of three symbols and their consequences. Touching a white painted board with a black horizontal stripe meant ‘put blanket on’, a blank white board meant ‘no change’ and a white board with a black vertical bar on it meant ‘take blanket off’.

They were trained for two or three sessions per day, 5–7 days a week. Each session lasted about 5 minutes. The horses varied in age between 3 and 16 years. Some horses were cold-bloods, other were warm-blood horses. The speed of learning varied between the horses however all 23 horses learned to distinguished the symbols within 14 days of training.

Conclusion of the study

Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold. This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.

Find the study here.

_winter_hippologic.jpg

To blanket or not to blanket is a question you can teach your horse to answer himself.

I think it is really interesting to see what happens if we give our horses a choice and a clear way to communicate their choice to us. It prevents us from making an anthropomorphic choice for them, like ‘It is a cold, sunny  day, so I put this nice warm blanket on my horse’ or making guesses about their wishes.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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Only recently I heard about this persistent myth. It is a myth that is frequently shared amongst dog trainers and in the marine mammal world.

The idea behind this myth is that predators are used to ‘working hard’ in order to get food while prey animals (herbivores), like horses, don’t have to work for their food. ‘The most valuable thing for a prey animal is safety and comfort’ and therefor positive reinforcement training with food rewards don’t work. Who else has heard this?

Prey animals

Well, first of all not all prey animals are herbivores. Prey animals are hunted by other animals for food, but that doesn’t mean they are not predators themselves. An animal can be a predator and a prey animal for other species at the same time. According to Shawna Karrash an expert in training marine mammals, all marine mammals, except orcas, are prey animals.

In the marine mammal world positive reinforcement training is used successfully for decades to train prey animals (dolphins, seals etc) to perform.

‘Prey animals don’t understand rewards’

Myth: rewarding in training works with predators because that’s how their world functions : they work hard (chase the rabbit) and then are rewarded for their efforts (eat the rabbit). But the most valuable thing for a prey animal is comfort, so you can’t base your training on rewards because they wouldn’t understand, it’s not how they view the world.

In the video below you can see some of Kyra’s behaviours that I trained with 100% positive reinforcement.

Herbivores

Horses are herbivores and don’t need to hunt for their food. The argument that ‘therefor herbivores cannot be trained well with positive reinforcement’ is a sophism. Positive reinforcement (adding appetitives in order to reinforce behaviour) works just as well for herbivores as it does for predators.

All animals, including prey animals, herbivores and even roundworms can learn and respond to stimuli from their environment. They all learn to avoid aversives (unpleasant stimuli) and learn what to do in order to receive appetitives (pleasant stimuli). It is simply a survival mechanism.

Besides that, even herbivores do have to do something in order to eat: they have to walk to a stream or lake in order to find water, a herd has to move if they eat all the grass in the area and they have to search for special medicinal herbs or salt in order to self medicate.

Food rewards

While positive reinforcement or clicker training is usually associated with training with food rewards it doesn’t have to be food to motivate the animal in training. A trainer can use everything as appetitive as long as the horse wants to receive it.

It is the receiver (the horse) who determines if something is worthwhile to receive and he wants more of. It is the trainers job to find out what it is and to observe if the behaviour is really getting stronger by the reward he is offering.

What myths or arguments have you heard that clicker training won’t work for horses? Let me know in the comments.

 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERASandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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