Turn every training and every ride in the best possible experience for human and horse! Win-Win!

How do you start positive reinforcement training with a horse that is already trained with negative reinforcement (traditional or natural horsemanship training)?

Start with a ‘clean slate’

I would suggest start with some exercises that are totally new to the horse. Choose exercises (and cues) the horse doesn’t know yet.

You should make sure it is a new exercise so the horse doesn’t have any negative or aversive association with it. Start introducing the marker (‘click’) or bridge signal and pair it with an appetitive (something the horse really appreciates, like a nice treat).

A good place to start are the key lessons. Most likely traditional and natural horsemanship schooled horses havenever done any targeting or mat training.

Work on these new exercises until your horse understands positive reinforcement and he feels safe enough to try out new behaviours or go explore new objects.

How to re-train a horse with positive reinforcement?

___clickertraining_hippologicOnce your horse understands he has a choice to cooperate or not, you can run into the problem that he says ‘no’ to your training ideas. That is not uncommon. They regain the power over their own body and training. They just love to say ‘no’ without being afraid of reprimands.

Often this is just a phase and the best thing you can do is listen to your horse and acknowledge his say. Use your creativity and find other ways to enjoy his company or find other exercises he does like.

Don’t mix -R and +R in one exercise

In order to keep it clear what your horse can expect from you, you should not mix negative (-R) and positive reinforcement (+R) in one and the same exercise.

If you use accumulating pressure to reinforce certain behaviour and than add an appetitive (treat) you can ‘poison’ your cue. The horse can’t be sure what to expect: more pressure or a treat. The appetitive is not really the reinforcer, taking away the aversive is (that came first). You want to avoid that your horse refuses treats after a while.

Once you decide  you want to change a part of your training to positive reinforcement you will realize that you have to countercondition the exercise.


There are many things you might want to re-train with positive reinforcement. For instance if your horse doesn’t want to trailer load (anymore) you might need to do some ‘counterconditioning’.

Definition:  Counterconditioning is a type of therapy based on the principles of classical conditioning that attempts to replace bad or unpleasant emotional responses to a stimulus with more pleasant, adaptive responses.

It can be a challenge, depending on the horses feelings about the exercise, to countercondition a behaviour. It depends on the horses (general) trust in humans, his history and the expertise of the trainer. It can be done. It is like’therapy’ for horses: they have to learn to overcome their fears and anxieties and learn to trust something positive is going to happen if they see a trailer.


I think you can almost countercondition everything. The pitfall however is that the horse is sometimes not only expressing his fear. If you countercondition a horses agressive behaviour when he is cinched: are you working on counterconditioning a learned response to the girth or are you (unconsciously) shutting his voice when he is expressing pain? Something to take into account when you retrain horses.

What is or was your biggest challenge in re-training a horse with clicker training?

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



Comments on: "Clicker Training: How to start with a horse that is traditionally trained?" (7)

  1. “If you use accumulating pressure to reinforce certain behaviour and than add an appetitive (treat) you can ‘poison’ your cue. The horse can’t be sure what to expect: more pressure or a treat. The appetitive is not really the reinforcer, taking away the aversive is (that came first). You want to avoid that your horse refuses treats after a while.”

    Hi Sandra, I’m wondering if there is some confusion in your statement above. Using signal pressure and removing that pressure simultaneously with the click, followed promptly by a treat, is what we do all the time unless we are free-shaping a behavior.

    It is never a choice between more pressure or a treat. At times we may need to increase the energy of a signal’s pressure, but it is not confusing to the horse if we then remove the pressure plus click&treat at the same time.

    Whenever we ask a horse to do something, we use pressure and release of pressure. If we also use clicker training, we are using +R on top of -R. It is not an ‘either/or’ situation.


    • Hi Herthajames,
      Thank you for your comment. What I mean with not mixing -R with +R is that aversives never should be mixed with appetitives in one and the same exercise in order not to poison your cue.

      Yes, in positive reinforcement training one can use pressure (or touch) as a cue, as long as it is not aversive (aversive is the key word here). If the behaviour is reinforced by the release it was aversive.

      In my opinion using more pressure to ‘clarify’ the cue (is that what you meant by ” we may need to increase the energy of a signal’s pressure”?) is changing the cue. There is also the pitfall of going to change the cue into an aversive.

      The difference between -R (using accumulating pressure/release to strengthen a behaviour) and using a pressure cue (by moulding or adding it at the end of a shaping process) is described in this post: https://hippologic.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/myth-monday-clicker-trainers-dont-use-pressure/

      If you have any questions please let me know.


      • “If the behaviour is reinforced by the release it was aversive.”

        Hi Sandra,
        The statement above is interesting. In my opinion, every time we use a cue or signal to communicate, it is pressure on the horse to do something (or nothing). If we use clicker training we simultaneously release the pressure (-R) and click (first reinforcement is the release). Then we provide the treat, which is what we add to the equation (+R). So we are always using both unless free-shaping.
        “Aversive”, like “reward” is the opinion of the recipient. Everyday human and animal life is full of aversives of all sorts.


  2. Hi Herthajames,

    That is the scientific definition of negative reinforcement.


  3. Interesting discussion, Sandra. Reinforcement is reinforcement. Whether it is release (getting the dishes done to release the pressure of them sitting there), and having a piece of chocolate as reward for doing the dishes – both are reinforcement. The pressures of holding down a job are rewarded with a salary or wage we can exchange for appetitives. We all learn with and cope with both every day. I know what you are trying to say,and I love free-shaping behaviors. However, I prefer my horse to be resilient enough to know how to respond (not react) to the various sorts of pressures people use with horses.


  4. Interesting, i love horseback riding, but i can not write that much about it, good for you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: