I mean reinforcer. Not ‘reward’. It just sounded better. 😉 There is a big difference, let’s take a look at the definitions:
A thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.
“the holiday was a reward for 40 years’ service with the company”
Synonyms: Recompense, prize, award, honor, decoration, bonus, premium, bounty, present, gift,
Recompense, pay, remunerate, make something worth someone’s while;
A stimulus (such as a appetitive or the removal of an aversive) that increases the probability of a desired response in operant conditioning by being applied or effected following the desired response.
The purpose of a reward is a gift (end of story), the purpose of a reinforcer is to stimulate behaviour! Big difference.
Determine a Reinforcer
First you need to know that it’s the receiver (horse) that determines the reinforcer, not the trainer!
Your horse will tell you if something was reinforcing.
There are only 3 possibilities:
- You get more behaviour: the appetitive or aversive was indeed reinforcing
- You see no difference in desired response:the trainer did not give an appetitive or aversive stimulus but a neutral stimulus
- You get less of the desired behaviour, your reinforcer was not a reinforcer but a punishment for the learner. The behaviour decreased.
Low value or high value reinforcers
Low value reinforcers will still increase desired behaviour (they are not neutral) but they don’t over excite or over arouse your horse. Your horse stays interested in your training and keeps paying attention to you.
High value reinforcers can help your horse to increase his own criteria of a certain behaviour because the value of the treat excites him.
The downside is that high value reinforcers can cause over excitement and/or overarousal. You want to avoid that because it will distract the animal from the behaviour you want him to offer.
Choosing the Right Value
In general you want to use the lowest value reinforcer possible, that still get you the desired behaviour. It’s still worth it for the horse.
Low value reinforcers will help keep your horse in ‘learning mode‘ and pay attention to the behaviour, not the food.
You can alternate low value reinforcers with higher value reinforcers or you can mix them to up the value and keep it interesting.
High value reinforcers can be well used when your horse is nervous, in pain or if something else (a distraction) is also highly reinforcing.
A better ‘pay’ can help him decide to offer the desired behaviour despite of his emotions or other attractive motivators that going on.
It can help your horse to choose to perform better if he knows a high value reinforcer will or might come his way.
Tips to Measure the Value
When your horse grabs the treat off of your hand, bites, moves his head very fast towards the hand that offers the treat or eats the treat very fast, the reinforcer is of high value. Other signs can be over excitement or arousal and concentrating on the food instead of the cues of the trainer.
When your horse sniffs the treat first or slowly eats it, it can be an indicator of a low value reinforcer. If your horse starts to refuse the treat during training it has lost it’s value and you need to stop the training session or switch to a higher value reinforcer.
If the quality of the desired behaviour will not increase (your horse doesn’t try other behaviours/increase criteria) your reinforcers aren’t high enough value.
When your horse stays engaged in your training, keep offering new behaviours and doesn’t show frustration or overarousal/overexcitement the balance of high/low value reinforcers is perfect. That might change over time or when your clicks get too predictable.
Behaviour is not static!
What are some low and high value reinforcers for your horse? How can you tell? Please share your stories in the comments and inspire us!
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Happy Horse training!