Clicker Training: How to start with a horse that is traditionally trained?

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.

Counterconditioning

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.

Ethics

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

 

What if… your horse doesn’t like arena work?

This is a common statement in the equestrian world: ‘I don’t ride dressage because my horse doesn’t like it’ or ‘I don’t use the arena because my horse hates it’ or… Who hasn’t heard this? Can you do something about it? Yes, you can!

Find the reason

First question I always ask people when they say this is:’Do you like to ride in the arena?’ When the rider says ‘no’ it is usually because it is hard to believe your horse enjoys riding in the arena if they don’t.

If the answer is ‘I know this because my horse refuses to go into the arena’ it is more likely that the horse indeed has a negative association with the arena.

What is associated with arena work?

If you don’t like to ride in the arena, you may have some negative associations with riding in the arena yourself. What happened? Did you fall off of your horse? Does it reminds you of shouting, angry instructors you have had in the past? Is it because you are ‘lumping’ (=making too big a steps and you set yourself and your horse up for failure) your building blocks in training and get frustrated or discouraged?

If the horse doesn’t want to go into the arena, what happened to him? Do you know? Do you think you can counter condition him?

Change associations

If it is about you, try to find out what it is you don’t like about the arena a_arena_work_hippologicnd why. If you were hurt due to a fall, try to take a step back in riding until you find your confidence back in the saddle. Find an instructor who is specialized in anxious riders. If you don’t know where to find one, search for an instructor with a Centered Riding or Murdoch method background. They can help you get your self-confidence back.

If riding in an arena is associated with instructors who seem never satisfied with little improvements, find some one else. You pay, you choose.

Is arena work associated with some frustration, desperation or feelings of anger? Maybe you were never taught you how to split your training goals properly into small steps to set you and your horse up for success. I can help you make a training plan.

Maybe you don’t have a goal in mind and that makes arena work feel purposeless. What are your dreams and how can you change them into goals?

Maybe you love trail riding more because you have the feeling that you are not training your horse and you don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations on the trail. Even if trail riding or endurance is your goal, you can still think of many exercises to do to prepared your horse properly.

Change your horses associations

If your horse doesn’t want to go into the arena or is a bit reluctant to enter, work on making his associations more positive. Just enter the arena to do things he enjoys. If your horse loves to be groomed, just groom him for a couple of weeks in the arena. Or just let him in for a roll. Find out what he likes and use that to your advantage!

_tricktraining_pedestal_hippologic

You can also make the work more attractive by using appetitives (adding rewards) in your training instead of using aversives (unpleasant things) in training. If you don’t know how to start using positive reinforcement start with something fun, like trick training.

I think in 99% of the cases it is not about the arena, I think it is about the associations a rider or horse have with the arena. You can change the associations and make it fun (again).

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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