‘Rules’ vs ‘Principles’ in Horse Training (this might be eye-opening!)

When people learn to interact with horses it usually starts with riding lessons or they learn from a seasoned horse person. You’ll learn the ropes, which usually means the ‘rules’ of how things are done. Then one day, you discover that the rule doesn’t apply anymore… Why is that?

Why Rules Not Always Apply

Over the years you already might have learned some rules don’t work for you or the horses you work with. Why is that?

Why rules in horse training not always work

Because when you’re focused on the rule, you miss the principle behind the rule. That’s why it’s not working. Learn the Principle and you discover the Gold!

It’s like Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day (rule), if you teach him how to fish (principle) he’ll never be hungry.

What’s the Principle behind the Rule?

That’s what I’ve been working on the past 3 decades and that’s why I can lead others to success in horse training. I don’t work with rules, I teach clients principles. They are way more worth, because it sets them up for life!

Examples of Rules that Not Always Work

These are rules that apply to some or maybe even most horses, not to all horses!

1. Horses will work for carrots.

My horse Kyra was born in a nature reserve and foals learn to eat what moms and other herd members eat. In nature horses don’t feed on carrots because they don’t grow in their habitat! Kyra literally had to learn to eat carrots, apples and man-made treats. Foals who are born at a barn have already learned that what people feed you is edible.

So what would be a principle behind this rule? The principle is that the receiver determines the reward (read: appetitive).

Some horses like to work for carrots, others prefer grain, grass pellets or something else. As trainer you have to figure out what motivates your horse.

You know that not all horses can’t be lured out of the pasture with a carrot. The carrot is simply not appetitive enough in those cases. More principles could be at work why the horse won’t come and how to determine that, is a whole other topic.

Still people are asking on the Internet: ‘What treats are best for in clicker training?’ The answer is… it depends on the horse and the situation. Appetitives can change in value.

If clicker training doesn’t work, it’s because people don’t apply the Key principles of Learning and Motivation, they try to apply ‘rules’ ~ HippoLogic

The rule people hear is:

2. “Pressure-release will make the horse do what I want”.

Look at people that have trouble loading their horse into a trailer. They apply pressure, they apply release and still the horse is outside the trailer.

In training it’s about the timing (learning happens when the aversive stimulus is released) and also about the strength and direction of the aversive (if the trailer is more aversive than the applied pressure, the horse won’t go in) or if an appetitive stimulus outside the trailer is stronger than the applied pressure the horse won’t go in. It’s about how the learner experience the aversive stimulus.

When I started to figure out the principles at work behind every rule in horse training things changed quickly. My clients got better results and problems were solved quicker and with less struggle.

3. Heels down, hands low, back straight, chin up!

This is what I was taught in riding lessons for many, many years. It didn’t make me a good rider at all. These are rules, the principle behind it (that they never taught me in the riding school), is to sit in balance.

When I took Centered Riding lessons I learned how to sit in balance. I learned that balance starts at the position of my pelvis: tipping it slightly forward it created a hollow back, legs that went backwards, heels went up and hands that were moving very much in order to keep my balance.

When I had my pelvis slightly tipped backwards, I rode with a curved back, my legs were in chair seat (before my point of gravity) and my chin was down.

Only if I kept my pelvis in ‘neutral’ (this is where your balance starts!) I was able to keep my legs in the right position, my back straight and could move with my horse instead of being before or behind my horse’s movement.

Only when I keep my pelvis in ‘neutral’ I can move with my horse. I am balanced, my hands can become soft because I move them in the rhythm of the movement of my horse’s head instead of my own body. My legs become still (in relation to the horse flank movements) because I don’t need to squeeze them in order to keep my balance. I became confident because I felt safe! That’s when I became a good rider.

Now you can see why these rules started: heads up, back straight and so on. They want to solve the symptoms of an unbalanced rider. Unfortunately they don’t work (how many times have you heard them!?) because they don’t solve the problem (balance). The principle of riding does: where does balance in a rider start? Right, in the pelvis! And that’s why it’s called ‘centered’ riding.

Want to Learn More About the Key Principles of Positive Reinforcement?

I you want to know more about the Principles (HippoLogic’s Key Lessons), join me for a free webinar in which I explain the 4 Main Reasons People get Stuck in Clicker Training (and solutions).
Spoiler alert: I will talk about principles!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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What have People Told You About Clicker Training Your Horse?

When you tell people that you clicker train your horse you get (well meant) ‘advice’ not to do it. What makes me sad is that most often that advice is coming from people that:

1) Haven’t tried it and have zero experience in what the process is like.

They base their opinion on what they think would happen to them. Keep that in mind next time you hear a warning about positive reinforcement horse training. If it’s a warning, it’s based on fear or wanting to protect you (because they are fearing something bad will happen). The opposite is also true: if people are enthusiastic about it, it’s because they get amazing results and they would love to see you experience the same!

2) Have tried it and base their opinion on their experience. If you keep that in mind, you know how well that went… Just like when people want you to try it: it’s also based on their experience.

What have people told you about clicker training your horse?

I asked on my Facebook page. This is what people said they were told:

  • It doesn’t work with a particular breed, age, etc
  • You’re making a beggar out of your horse
  • Your horse only likes you because you have treats 
  • He’ll only do what you want so long as you have treats
  • I’m bribing my pony and teaching him to bite
  • Causes them to bite
  • It’s using bribery to get respect
  • Than horses will work only if we have food and they’ll become very dangerous

What have you heard about clicker training your horse? Share it in the comments below and ask yourself what the other person’s experiences are and what they fear.

How to handle critique?

Then there’s people who have no problem pointing out what’s wrong with your training, or worse, with your horse. It feels like an attack if you know you’re in the middle of a process or maybe even at the beginning and what they see is not the goal. It’s just a stepping stone.

We all go through that, no matter how well of a trainer you are: the start, middle and end of a training process all look different. So if someone base his or her opinion on what they see, it might not be on what you get at the end. You can explain that what they see now is not the end goal.

Another way is to hear people out. The secret of people is that they all want to talk about themselves. If someone is voicing their opinion about your way of training, simply ask “How would you do it?” That’s it. Let them talk…. You’ll be amazed what you’ll hear. It’s fun.

Happy Listening!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.

Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.

Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

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6 Things You Might Not Know About Clicker Training (4/6)

In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 4.

Some of these are common misunderstandings people have about clicker training while others are facts most equestrians don’t know at all.

The goal of this blog is to help more people understand how well positive reinforcement (R+) works in training our horses. I want every one to know that clicker training offers more great benefits besides training your goal behaviour. Positive side-effects you won’t get in negative reinforcement (R-) based training methods (traditional and natural horsemanship). I wish I had known these benefits earlier in life.

#4 Clicker training becomes soon all about the click and your questions (instead of the food)

While it might look like clicker training or positive reinforcement training is all about food (see part 1), that’s not the case.

People who don’t know the principles of learning and how animals make associations, can only ‘see’ what they know, if they watch positive reinforcement training.

They only see the differences compared to their own training.

Since they can’t ‘make’ anything out of the bridge signal (the click), their brains usually ignore it. They don’t ‘see’ it, because it has no meaning to them.

Instead they they focus on what they can see. What is different compared to what they know? The food! Therefor it is easy to think ‘Clicker training is all about the food’.

Food rewards in training

People try to find associations with ‘treats’ and ‘horses’. Usually that leads they to the association of mugging, pushy horses (kicking doors at feeding time, horses that put their nose into pockets with food), horses that will bite if hand-fed and other negative associations or myths.

The other thing they ‘see’ is what goes wrong in training. Their mind is focused on the mistakes the horse makes. We all know that what you focus on grows. Positive reinforcement training focuses on what goes well, so we create more of the good things we want.

The trainer is not a vending machine

HippoLogic clicker training is about the click

The click in clicker training is the Key to Success

In the beginning stages (introducing the click and teaching the association ‘click means an appetitive is coming’), the horse doesn’t yet understand the bridge signal and he will focus on the food.

That will only take a few short sessions. Soon they will figure out what lead to the appetitive: their own behaviour!

Right from the start I will teach horses that ‘moving away from the food’ leads to food. That improves the safety and it is called the HippoLogic Key Lesson Table Manners. Horses are very much like humans; we too have to be taught how to behave according to the etiquette.

Once the horse understands that, he will focus on the bridge signal, the click that marks the behaviour that lead to the food-reinforcer, and his own behaviour.

In that moment the horse understand that he has to pay attention 
to the click (not the food) in order to get the treat.

That is when the horse shifts his attention from the food to the marker signal. That is also when the food stops to be a distracting factor. That usually all happens in day 1.

Read the other articles in this series:

part 1 of 6 Things You Might Not Know About Clicker Training
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6

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Safe the date: December 1st, 2018

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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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