How often are you adjusting your training in order to make it easier for your horse? If you want to avoid frustration for your horse, I bet this is on your mind all the time! But…
You can make it easy the wrong way and the right way.
Read on to discover if you’ve fallen into the pitfall of doing it ‘for your horse’.
The biggest mistake you can make in positive reinforcement training is that you reinforce “not offering behaviour”. People do this often by ‘doing the behaviour for the horse’ in the hope the horse gets (copies) it.
Let me explain… This is a common pitfall I see many, many clicker trainers fall into. We often do this unconsciously because we still think like a traditional trainer. That’s what makes clicker training sometimes seems to give slower results. Or that it takes longer to teach a horse something new.
Fallacies in Horse Training
In traditional training (R-) you almost always ‘get’ the goal behaviour instantaneously: you give pressure and when your horse yields, you release.
You wiggle your training stick closer and closer and more forcefully, until your horse moves forward. Voila! You immediately get your end goal results: walk, trot or even canter within minutes.
It’s a fallacy to think we can use the same approach without force. We’ll show the horse what he needs to do and then click for it. If you’re one of those people, you’re not the only one. Go on YouTube and search for ‘reverse round pen’ and find dozens of clicker trainers that move as much or more(!) than their horses, when exercising their horses.
How to get movement with R+
The biggest difference is that in R+ (clicker training, positive reinforcement training) you only can reinforce the DESIRED behaviour when (or immediately after) it’s happening.
Therefor we need to get the behaviour first, so that we can offer the horse an appetitive to strengthen the behaviour. Something he wants to have and is willing to work for.
It’s a thinking mistake that when we tell the learner the right answer (trot), he’ll learn quicker. What you want to do is to help the horse figure out what you want and reinforce his decision to trot.
Teach your horse to move
Next time you teach your horse to walk, trot or canter or you’re watching someone teaching a horse to exercise with clicker training, pay close attention. Often, we want to make training easier by doing it for them, instead of teaching them to offer walk, trot and canter.
When a horse doesn’t start walking, trotting or cantering right away, people often try to ‘help’ their horse by showing them what they want. They move, their horse moves and click! They click the horse for walk, trot or canter, right?
Place yourself into your horse’s shoes
I can’t tell you how often I see people make the mistake to click for ‘following’ (a target or the trainer), instead of clicking for offering walk, trot or canter. That’s exactly what you’re teaching the horse if you do this: you’re teaching him to follow the target or trainer. And this becomes the cue!
It’s the opposite of what you want. It’s very similar to what people do in traditional training: teaching the horse to stay passive and re-act only of the trainer is doing something. To me “training” is teaching, not simply “reacting”. It will take a bit more effort in the beginning of the training, but it will pay off tenfold later on when your horse starts to enjoy his exercises!
Who is successful? You or your horse
If you think you don’t do this, or haven’t done this, watch your training videos. It might surprise you what you’ll discover, now you know what to look for.
It can be very obvious or it can be most subtle: You might be the one moving first, just before you click. So you can be successful! Think about that: who do you really want to be successful? You or your horse? Most people don’t realize that they are setting themselves up for a pitfall that is hard to climb out of.
If you want to teach your horse to move by himself (building distance) or for longer (duration) you’ll run into trouble if you’ve clicked too many times for ‘follow the trainer/target’. The pitfall is that we’ve done the behaviour for them (we or our target stick moved), so they haven’t learned to take initiative when it comes to moving. Now your horse simply thinks that he needs to do what you do, because that’s been clicked and reinforced. How to reverse it?
In other words; we haven’t taught our horse to ‘make the decision’ or to ‘take action’ to move forward. Instead, we’ve fallen into the pitfall to ‘let us trainers/our target sticks do the moving and our horses do the following’.
If that happens you’ve taught your horse to stay passive during exercise training. This mistake can slow down your future training tremendously.
Recovering from this pitfall
We can fall into this pitfall in training almost every behaviour: we push our horse gently over so that we can take his leg up (and click) instead of teaching our horse to lift his own leg. We’re touching their legs with a target, instead of setting our horses up so that they will touch the target (and lift their leg in the process!).
Instead of teaching the horse to move on his own, we (or our target) moved and we reinforced our horses to ‘follow’ , instead of offering trot. Sounds familiar? (Go here if you want to learn to teach your horse to offer movement)
When you know better, you can do better
Instead of training your horse to follow you, you can start teaching your horse to walk, trot and canter without you running in front of him with a target. Then you’re teaching what you actually want him to learn. That will be a skill that your horse will enjoy the rest of his life.
Offering the right baby step!
Instead of making the behaviour easier by ‘doing it for your horse’, you have to think about a solution to make it easier for your horse ‘to make the decision’ so he will offer the behaviour (walk, trot, canter). You can use a target or mats to help you. Just don’t let these training tools turn into crutches you can’t do without. These are just tools for training. Your cue needs to become your most important communication tool.
Overcoming fear of punishment
Keep in mind that this (making decisions and taking imitative in movement) often has been punished in the past if your horse has been traditionally trained. They are not supposed to make decisions on their own or start walking. Therefor we need to encourage our horses for the slightest try to ensure them that this is what we actually want in our setup.
Teach your horse to think
When you reinforce taking initiative and making decisions over and over, clicker training will go faster than ever. You’ll get better results and you get the engagement of your horse that makes working together so pleasurable and fun. Win-win.
Need help or have a question how you can teach your horse to listen to your cues? Come and join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy.
In the Academy I teach you the Principles of Clicker Training so that you can become an autonomous clicker trainer, enhance the friendship with your horse and do the things you really want to do with your horse.
HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy
If you want access to many DIY online clicker training courses, free Clicker Challenges and get weekly personal feedback on your training videos join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy.
Send in your application today (click the link) so you can enroll the next time the doors open. Only once a month I open the doors, and only for 2 days! Don’t miss the opportunity to join a select group of R+ enthusiasts!
Exercising Your Horse With R+
Interested in learning more? A few times a year I offer courses and teach equine clicker trainers to exercise their horses with positive reinforcement. Most courses are online with personal coaching and feedback in a group, so everyone gets the best results possible. Contact me and we’ll have a chat.
Sandra Poppema, BSc
Go-to person for online equine clicker training
Teaching horse people to make training a win-win and bond with their horse so they can enjoy their time together.