Is This The Reason that You don’t Clicker Train Your Horse?

A common objective about clicker training horses is that ‘you have to carry a clicker and treats around all the time‘.

Is that what’s really holding you back or is it something else? Something fear based? Maybe you’re afraid your horse turns into a monster or becomes treat crazy and you don’t know how you would handle that.

‘You have to have treats on you all the time’

carrying treats in clicker training_hippologic_debunking myths_clickertrainingThat carrying treats and a clicker is a burden, is just a matter of perspective. Horse people are carrying tools around all the time. Most of them way heavier and bigger than a box clicker (which you can replace by a verbal marker or a tongue click) and a pocket full of treats. Think of whips (riding crops or lunge whips), training sticks or heavy lead ropes to name a few.

I have treats on me most of the time. I don’t always use the treats I carry, sometimes they just go stale… Yes, that can be yucky. Everyone who found a piece of forgotten fruit or carrot in their pockets a few weeks later can confirm that. That is a disadvantage of having treats on you…

Training Results from Positive Reinforcement are long lasting

Decades ago -when I was still carrying a whip and or “carrot” stick around- my results in training could deteriorate pretty quickly when I didn’t bring my tools (to threaten my horse into coercion). We all tried to ride without a crop, only to discover just carrying one helps, right?

_carrot_or_stick_hippologicOne huge advantage of positive reinforcement is that you teach the horse to choose to follow your cues. You make positive associations in training all the time.

Following cues turn into pleasant habits for the horse. After you trained the desired behaviour you fade out click and treats. Well trained clicker horses are used not to get treats all the time!

Once a behaviour is established and on cue you only reinforce the behaviour once in a while and that doesn’t even have to be with food. There are many ways you can reinforce a clicker savvy horse without a food reward. I find it very important to teach students the principles of learning and motivation and teach them to rely on their training skills and and not on a treat or a tool.

Afraid to loose control without training tools

I think one of the fear is that we think we loose control without treats in our pocket, but people who haven’t tried R+ or haven’t used it properly don’t realize the training is IN THE HORSE. Therefor you don’t need the treats and act like a dispenser. You don’t lose control without treats. You can fade out the clicks and treats. (Actually that is what you have to do in order to be successful in positive reinforcement training.)

Although it’s true you do have to reinforce once in a while after the behaviour is trained, but that goes for R- too. Traditional well trained horses still get whipped or kicked in their flanks once in while. Think of the many well trained horses that are ridden with spurs.

There always need to be a certain level of Reinforcement in order not to let the behaviour extinct. light-bulb-1926533_640

 

Carrying treats or a clicker is no different from carrying other reinforcing tools. They are different tools with the same goal: not to let the behaviour get extinct.

So don’t let a small box clicker or a pocket full of treats withhold you from a wonderful relationship with your horse and excellent results in training.

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Questions that may change the way you think about Horse Training

I loved horses as long as I can remember and according to my mom I saw horses everywhere. After years of asking my parents for a pony and riding lessons, I got riding lessons. I found a free lease pony just a block away. In the city! wasn’t that a wonderful coincidence that the only pony’s in the city were 500 meters away?

I loved my weekly riding lessons very much, but  I had many questions that no one could answer. Some of them I still haven’t found an answer to. Questions like:

1. How come spurs are meant for ‘refinement’ and ‘lighter’ cues?

sporenI still don’t understand it. If you look at spurs scientifically you know that if the point of pressure/surface decreases (spur versus leg), the pressure increases.

It does make sense that you don’t have to use as much pressure (if you choose to use pressure/release to communicate) with a spur than with your leg, but how does this ‘refine’ the aids for the horse?

How come the rider suddenly need to use more pressure when he gets more advanced?

2. Why do you have to learn to ride with ‘your seat’ if when you are advanced you get spurs?

The spurs are not attached to your seat but to the foot of the rider, a body part that you’ve been told for many years not to use on your horse. Honestly I have seen spurs more used on ‘lazy’, unresponsive horses than on sensitive, well trained horses that are willing to work for the rider.

3. Why do you get twice as many bits when you are riding higher dressage?

dressage_bridleHow is more bits, less? How can more bits be ‘more refined’ or give ‘lighter cues’? When you start to ride, you learn that you have to ride with your seat, not with your reins. When you get ‘advanced’ you suddenly need two instead of one bit? How is that possible? The bits I am referring to is the curb bit with lever action in combination with a bradoon.

Again, I see that the more lever action you have on a bit the ‘lighter’ you can be as rider, but how does this make the horse better? How does this contribute to the ‘Happy Athlete’ so many people call a dressage/performance horse? I just don’t get it. Unless, it (horse riding) is not about the horse…

Speaking about athletes…. I
f you want your horse to be a Happy Athlete, don’t you want him to be truly happy? Don’t you want what is best for your horse?

4 Why do people call a dressage horse a ‘Happy Athlete’?

happyathlete_or not

They take away their freedom and lock them up 22 or 23 out of the 24 hours. How can that be a happy horse? I have only seen once in 40 years a ‘Happy Atlete’ in a pasture with other horses (Grand Prix level horse). Roomy group housing is #1 priority if you want to encourage natural behaviour and welfare. In other words: to make him happy. It is in the 3 important F’s: Freedom, Friends and Forage.

 

Speaking about forage: why don’t we give Happy Athletes a diet that is natural and suited for the horses digestive system? ‘Happy’ Athletes are usually given a starch rich (grains) and oil rich diet and without enough roughage (his natural diet). How can feeding  a horse something his body isn’t really adjusted to, make him feel good and happy?

Most of the ‘Happy Atletes’ I have seen (except for the ones I saw in The Netherlands in a field) suffer from all kinds of stereotypical behaviours. How are they ‘Happy’ Athletes?

What questions do you ask?

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologicSandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer online horse training courses to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that is FUN for both you and your horse.
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Debunking Myths: ‘The Whip is only an Extension of my Arm’

The Whip is Only an Extension Of My Arm

Click the link to go to the blog and read what I have to say about the myth ‘The Whip is only an extension of my arm’.

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Myth Monday: ‘With Clicker Training the Horse only does it for the Treats (not for 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.

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Myth Monday: ‘Treats in training and Respect don’t go well together’

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
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Myth Monday: Clicker Training doesn’t work for Prey Animals

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
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Myth Monday: ‘Clicker Trainers don’t use Pressure’

There is a huge misunderstanding about the word ‘pressure‘ in the horse world. I hear people who want to start positive reinforcement training but they hesitate: ‘How can I start clicker training my horse and don’t use any pressure? Isn’t that impossible?’ Yes, training a horse without pressure is impossible, but let me explain the difference between using pressure as cue and using pressure as reinforcer.

Definitions

Let’s discuss some definitions before I debunk the myth that +R trainers don’t use pressure.

What is ‘pressure’ according to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary:

Pressure (force): the force produced by pressing against something: air/blood/water pressure. Pressure is also the force that is put on a surface with reference to the area of the surface.

Pressure is per definition not ‘bad’.

Pressure can be 3 things for the horse:

  1. pressure is  ‘unpleasant’
  2. pressure is ‘neutral’ or
  3. pressure is ‘pleasant’.

It can also happen that the association with pressure changes due to the horses training.

_reinforcingscratch2Pleasant pressure

Examples of pressure that feel good are mutual grooming, rubbing against a fence or horses that are playfully pushing each other.

Unpleasant pressure

Pressure that is aversive can be a kick or a bite or being chased away from the herd.

Neutral pressure

Pressure can also be neutral in the beginning: it doesn’t give the horse a good or a bad feeling or it doesn’t have a good or bad association yet.

I have trained horses with NH and traditional methods in the past. These methods use pressure as an aversive. Some horses don’t experience pressure as an aversive that they naturally want to avoid. Some horses (especially Fjorden horses, Halfingers and Friesians I worked with) need really strong pressure in order to learn to yield. The light pressure in the beginning is ‘neutral’ and in order to teach them to yield I had to make it unpleasant so they learn to anticipate on only association (‘light, gentle touch will turn into aversive if I don’t yield’).

Negative reinforcement (R-): A behaviour is strengthened by removing an unpleasant or painful (=aversive) stimulus.

Natural horsemanship & traditional training

In natural horsemanship and traditional methods it is this ‘pressure’ that makes the horse yield.

In traditional and natural horsemanship methods pressure is used in an accumulating way until it is aversive enough for the horse to yield. Then the pressure is released in order to make the wanted behaviour stronger.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAFor instance when a horse doesn’t respond to a light pressure of the riders legs (calf) to go forward, the rider builds up the pressure by squeezing harder or using his spurs. If that doesn’t work the leg aid is followed by a tap with the whip (which can be painful, try it on your own skin).

In this way the trainer teaches the horse to anticipate on the riders light leg aids. If the light leg aid isn’t aversive in the first place it is followed by more pressure until the horse moves forward. The light pressure of the leg becomes an aversive in itself: the horse has learned to associate the leg aid with an aversive to which he wants to anticipate with yielding. Which isn’t the case at all in positive reinforcement training.

Positive reinforcement (R+)A behaviour is strengthened by adding a pleasant (=appetitive) stimulus.

Positive reinforcement (clicker) training

In positive reinforcement training the desired behaviour is trained first. Only if the behaviour is established, a cue is added. The cue can be anything.

So in positive reinforcement training the trainer will teach the horse to move forward first and will use appetitives to reinforce the forward movement. The trainer can induce the forward movement in different ways, according to the situation (capturing, targeting, shaping or luring or moulding*). There is no use of pressure yet.

1_treatAfter the behaviour is established you add the cue. The behaviour already has a strong positive reinforcement history (going forward is strongly associated with pleasurable rewards). If the cue ‘light pressure of the calf’ is added to the forward movement, the rider is using pressure.

The pressure cue is only chosen if it is not aversive. If the leg pressure is considered aversive the trainer will either choose a different cue or can choose to counter condition the pressure cue first and make it neutral or change it to a pleasurable sensation before using it.

This cue will always has the same amount of pressure. If the horse isn’t responding to it, the pressure will not be accumulated. Why not? Because this changes the cue and therefor will not be understood by the horse (stronger leg pressure or a tap with the whip is not associated with going forward).

Differences in using pressure in R- and R+

In R- the pressure is used to teach a horse behaviours. The pressure is released to make the behaviour stronger. Therefore the pressure is associated with an aversive stimulus. If the cue wasn’t aversive, the horse wouldn’t have learned to yield/anticipate to it.

_cue_pressure_hippologicIn R+ the pressure cue is added only after the behaviour is established with pleasurable stimuli. The pressure is therefor not associated with an aversive. The pressure cue that is chosen is not aversive in itself and it is trained with appetitives.

Behaviours that are trained with pressure and release and then rewarded with a treat or scratch at the end, are not considered positive reinforcement.

Conclusion

Pressure can be aversive, neutral or appetitive.

It is the trainers responsibility to turn a neutral pressure or aversive pressure cue in a way that it is useful for communication and becomes appetitive (associated with something pleasurable). That can only be achieved with positive reinforcement, not with traditional or natural horsemanship methods.

My goal is not to avoid pressure, my goal is to understand what association the horse has with pressure and make it a pleasurable way to communicate.

*) Attention! With moulding behaviour pressure is used, but it is never aversive. If the pressure in moulding turns aversive it is not moulding anymore, but ‘forcing a behaviour’.

SAFE THE DATE: MARCH 6, 2019

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a gift) or visit HippoLogic’s website and join my online course Ultimate Horse Training Formula in which you learn the Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Clicker Training.
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Myth Monday: the leader of the herd

Equestrians are told all the time: ‘Be the leader to your horse’. But how does one become a leader? By dominating your horse? Who is the leader in the herd? Is it the stallion or is it the alpha mare? Or is there another leader?

Odile Petit, PhD, of the University of Strasbourg, in Alsace, France says: ‘To really be a true leader, you need followers, and that’s true of horses as well as humans.’ Petit (2015) shows that it is not the most dominant horse that leads the herd, but it is the most sociable horse that initiates movement of the herd.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

This gives us a totally different perspective on the role of ‘herd leader’. It also changes our view of the role a dominant horse has in the herd if it comes to initiating movement and giving direction.

When I heard this the fist time it totally made sense that a herd movement is initiated in a more ‘democratic’ way. How does this new insight change the way we approach ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ in training situations?
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Are you inspired and interested in personal coaching or do you want to sign up for the next  online course ‘Set Your Equestrian Goals & Achieve them‘, please visit my website

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Myth Monday: Training with Food rewards causes pushy Horses

All positive reinforcement trainers have heard people say: ‘Training horses with food rewards makes them pushy’. Some people even state ‘dangerous‘ instead of pushy. Maybe you have said it yourself before you started using positive reinforcement (+R) to train your horse.

You get what you reinforce

In +R training you use a reward that reinforces the behaviour you want to train. The trainer uses a marker signal to mark the desired behaviour in order to communicate to the horse which behaviour he wants to see more of. Key is the marker signal.

What is mugging?

Mugging or other undesired behaviour around food or treats is just learned behaviour. If you understand how learning works, you see that mugging is caused (reinforced) by the trainer. Even if it wasn’t a professional trainer, but just a mom who wanted to give her daughters pony a carrot just because …. If the pony was sniffing her pocket or maybe just gave mom a little push with his nose and mom thinks: ‘Oh I forgot I had a treat in my pocket. Here you are, sweet pony. You are so smart.’_mugging_hippologic

If someone has rewarded a horse for sniffing his pockets, this behaviour was encouraged. Therefor the horse will repeat this behaviour. It leaded to a reward. The same goes for a horse that is pushing you around in order to get to the food. If he gets rewarded for pushing you around, you have ‘trained’ him to do so. Even if it was unconscious, for the horse it was not. He was the one that paid attention (Read more in my post What to do if your horse is mugging you.)

Teaching ‘polite behaviour’ around food

The same way you can encourage (read: train) a horse to mug or behave pushy, you can encourage him to behave ‘politely’ around food and treats. I put polite between quotation marks because it is not per definition an equine behaviour. It is a trained behaviour. Polite behaviour is one of my key lessons (the keys to success in +R training).

Just like children have to learn not to speak with food in their mouth and other polite behaviours, so must horses learn what behaviours we want to see and consider polite (and save). It’s the trainers task to spent time on these.

Mugging is a trainers’ fault

Since mugging is a learned behaviour one can re-train it by reinforcing the opposite behaviour more and ignoring the mugging. Horses are smart and they will learn quickly what behaviours will lead to rewards and what behaviours will not.

If the trainer understands the learning theory and the equine mind, mugging is easily prevented or changed.

Train desired behaviour instead

Just think about what the opposite behaviours of mugging look like and start reinforcing those.

  • The horse looks straight forward or slightly away when you reach into your pocket, instead of moving his nose towards your pocket.
  • The horse backs up a step when you are about to hand-feed him, instead of coming towards you to get the food.
  • The horse takes the treat gently off of your hand and uses his lips only,  instead of taking it with his teeth.
  • The horse stays out of your personal space instead of pushing you with his nose.
  • And so on.

So, when people state that using food rewards causes mugging, pushy, dangerous or other unwanted behaviour in horses I know they just don’t understand how learning occurs. That’s OK. They can learn, we just have to reinforce the desired behaviour (or thoughts).

Related post The Dangers of working with Food (rewards).

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Therese Keels commented on Facebook : “It does cause pushy horses! They push you to think faster, use your imagination more. They push you to observe more closely, to pay attention and be present. They push us to be kinder, more considerate and understanding. They push us to be better at being us. Take that kind of pushy any day. :-)”

Thank you, Therese for this wonderful comment! Love it!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons (3/5)

Often when I watch people ride I see struggle. I see a lot of frustration and it seems so difficult to learn how to ride. Truth is, that is is in the way riding is taught (in general), but it doesn’t have to be like this. Riding and learning to ride can be relatively easy and effortlessly if only these prerequisites were met. Riding certainly doesn’t have to be a struggle what it seem to be for most riders.

5 Things I would like to see more of in today’s riding lessons are:

  • Independent seat
  • Schoolmasters
  • Facts about horse behaviour
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Attention for the horses emotions

Facts about horse behaviour

If you are a horse behaviourist and you’re watching a riding lesson you hear a lot of nonsense about horse behaviour being taught to riders. I wish all instructors had to write at least one paper about natural horse behaviour before they are allowed to teach.

_Horse_behaviour_hippologicMost famous ones are the ‘be the leader’-myth and the ‘don’t let him win’-myth that refer to the idea of one alpha horse that makes all the decisions and is the dominant horse of the herd. There is no such thing in a herd. Yes, horses can behave dominant in certain situations, but decisions when to move and were to go are more based on a (part of the) group decision.

Instructors make riders believe that they have to ‘dominate’ the horse all the time. How? By being dominant in a way people are by using pain inflicting methods such as kicking the horse forward or using whips and spurs to make the horse obey. It just breaks my heart…

This is not only cruel to the horse but it is unnecessary too. I also think that most riders (who start riding because they love horses) are made insecure by behaving ‘dominant’. Horse lovers want to bond and connect with their horses.

The good news is: you can develop a friendship and still ride your horse safely. Horse lovers don’t like to inflict pain to horses, but they do so because they are taught to by the instructor, so they are acting against their own gut feeling. That’s never a good feeling.

Horses are highly social animals

The reason horses could be domesticated in the first place is because of their social structure. They depend on their herd members for survival and they are ‘hard-wired’ to work together.

If a horse doesn’t follow a cue there is always a reason:

 

  • They don’t understand the cue. All riders are different and not all riders give the exact same cues all the time.

 

  • Something else (danger or getting out of sight of a herd member) has a higher priority. They can simply have missed your cue because of that.

 

  • The behaviour has not been reinforced enough (they lack motivation) or
  • other behaviour is more reinforcing

 

  • The are physically unable (anymore). Maybe they have pain or are tired.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHorses don’t think in ‘winning or losing’ they act on ‘surviving or getting killed’. They spook because they are afraid, not because they are ‘out to get you’ or ‘want to avoid work’ or ‘are acting out’.

I wish riding instructors would explain more about the natural behaviour based on facts/scientific research to their students and not on century old hear-say.

Horses don’t have to be dominated in order to let them cooperate, they will cooperate freely if they benefit from it. Thankfully more and more people discover the power of the use of positive reinforcement training: it works extremely well and it gives the trainer a good feeling too.

More about positive reinforcement in the next article.

What myths have you heard in riding lessons that you wish are not being taught to riders? Please share.

Sandra Poppema, BSc.
Are you struggling with applying clicker training under saddle? Visit my website to book an online consult. I will be honoured to help you and your horse out. I’ve 2 decade experience with teaching equestrians to ride and train their horses in a horse-friendly way.

Read more in this series The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons

Part I: Independent seat
Part II: Schoolmasters
Part IV-a: Positive reinforcement (horses)
Part IV-b: Positive reinforcement (riders)
Part V: Attention for the horses emotions

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