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Fact Friday: difference between negative and positive reinforcement

Let’s start with explaining what positive and negative reinforcement is. Then I will share what was a real eye-opener for me about the difference between positive reinforcement (R+) and negative reinforcement (R-). It is not so much the obvious difference (the carrot or the stick-difference), it’s way cooler!

Definitions

Reinforcement (R): strengthening (a behaviour)

+ (plus): adding

– (minus): removing

Appetitive: something the animal really wants to have and values

Aversive: something the animal really wants to avoid or escape from

Positive reinforcement: use of an appetitive in order to make a behaviour stronger (reinforce the behaviour).

Negative reinforcement (R-): taking away an aversive in order to make a behaviour stronger (reinforce the behaviour).

reinforcement_hippologic

Positive reinforcement_positive_reinforcement_clicker_training_hippologic

 

In R+ trainers use mostly food rewards because food is of high value to the horse. In R+ the use of a marker signal (often a sound, eg a click) is used to communicate to the animal what behaviour the horse was reinforced for, not the moment of offering the appetitive. Clicker training is an example of positive reinforcement training.

 

Negative reinforcement

Traditional riding aids are based on R-

In R- trainers use mostly pressure to communicate. The moment of taking away the aversive is the way to communicate to the horse what behaviour the animal was reinforced for. Traditional training and natural horsemanship are based on negative reinforcement.

The difference between R+ and R-

It is not the food or the use of a marker in positive reinforcement that is the biggest difference. It is the way the horse responds in training that is the real difference.

In negative reinforcement it's the trainer that raises the criteria, 
in positive reinforcement it's the animal that raises the criteria.

 

In other words, in R- the horse will not offer behaviours spontaneously (because there is no reward involved for the animal).

The ‘release of pressure’ is not a reward: the horse will not offer ‘more behaviour’ in the hope of a more severe aversive ‘in order to earn a bigger sense of relieve’.

In R- the horse learns to avoid or prevent the aversive all together by anticipating his owners behaviour, but he will not actively seek ways to improve the behaviour since there is nothing in it for him if he does.

If the trainer wants to create more of a desired behaviour or better quality behaviour he uses an aversive to communicate that he wants something different now (raising criteria).

horse_eye_hippologic_clickertraining.jpg

In R+ the horse keeps actively looking for ways to earn the appetitive reinforcer by offering more of the desired behaviour. The horse learns he can influence the appearance of an appetitive by anticipating the behaviour. He will actively look for ways to earn the reinforcer and therefor will raise the criteria on his own by offering more of the desired behaviour.

The horse as individual

For me this way of approaching the difference between R- and R+ was a real eye-opener!

I suddenly realized that not everyone is looking for a horse that learns to think and comes up with solutions on his own!

Personally I think this is a tremendous asset in training animals. It can sometimes be a challenge to channel this motivation, but if you know how you can achieve spectacular results! It not only helps speed up training but it also benefits the relationship with the horse: he wants to train with you because there is something in it for him!

I also realize that this is exactly the same reason it can be such scary thought: a huge animal that thinks he is entitled to his own ideas (he is!). What if this is turned against the trainer? Then what? What if the horse decides not to cooperate… does that mean he doesn’t like you or your training? What if the horse ‘decides to let you down’?

What if… this is not the case at all? What if the horse mostly doesn’t cooperate because he simply doesn’t understand the question? Or he won’t do it because he is afraid? What if he is allowed (and encouraged) to communicate his concerns or fears? Would that benefit the relationship? I think it does!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe beauty of herd animals is that they are hard-wired to cooperate: the drive to work together in order to keep safe and survive is so strong they can’t ignore it. That’s the same reason we could domesticate them in the first place.

I think it is amazing to see how much horses put up with in order to cooperate. That’s the very same reason you can train them so well with negative reinforcement: their will to stay safe and survive is so strong.

Food for thought

Anyway this fact was food for thought for me. What about you? Are you afraid or delighted to let your horse raise the criteria and have a say in his training?

Remember: 
Negative reinforcement for the horse, is positive reinforcement 
for the trainer (the trainer gets what he wants: desired behaviour).

_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 coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both horse and human.
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free) or visit HippoLogic’s website.
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Debunking Myths: ‘The Whip is only an Extension of my Arm’

There are so many myths in the horse world it is hard to choose where to start debunking them. Since I have seen several advertisements on Facebook with videos of horses at liberty and instructors talking about ‘freedom’, ‘connection’, ‘positive training’ or ‘friendship’ while carrying a whip directing a horse with a swishing tail and a lot of tension in its body, I will start with the whip (it-is-an-extension-of-my-arm) myth.

‘The Whip is only an Extension of My Arm’

Equestrians say this and often they add ‘… but I don’t use it.’ Or they add ‘… I don’t use it to hit my horse‘ or ‘I only use it to get his attention‘ or ‘It is a useful tool in the right hands‘. We have all heard this and maybe even said it! I know I have said it many times and believed it too.

Motivation

Ní Dhuinn ImageryThat was before I understood the principles of motivation and learning.

There are only 2 ways all living beings are being motivated. 1) we are motivated to avoid pain/discomfort/unpleasant things (these are called ‘aversives’) and 2) we are motivated to get pleasure/wonderful things/things that make us feel good (these are called ‘appetitives’)

Your horses’ point of view

Unfortunately the horse just sees a whip. Or the stick.

Your horse has made an association with this tool based on his experience.

That is his motivation. I think I it is safe to generalize here and say the majority of horses have aversive associations with whips and training sticks. In other words: they have learned that they cause pain and want to avoid it by anticipating their behaviour. That is the real reason horses often do better when there is a whip nearby. They have learned how to avoid it.

_carrot_or_stick_hippologic

Your point of view

You can call it ‘carrot’ stick, but to the horse who knows perfectly what a carrot looks like, tastes like and smells like, your carrot stick is just a stick. With a string. And it is (or has been!) used to touch the horse, not only in a good, friendly way (to give scratches) but also often in aversive ways. That last part is the part we tend to forget when we say ‘It’s only an extension of my arm.’ That is the part that makes us feel uncomfortable as horse lovers: that we do use aversives to get our way.

Negative reinforcement

That is what negative reinforcement training is: taking away an aversive in order to strengthen a behaviour. The whip or stick is meant to (and used) to apply aversives with.

Aversive: something an animal actively wants to avoid or escape from

 

The Magic of Work at Liberty

Who hasn’t seen wonderful clinicians that work at liberty with one or more horses. Their horses seem to do everything s/he wants. They have that magical bond and offer to teach this to you too! If you look closely you see they are carrying a whip or a some kind of stick. Sometimes it is really thin or white. It is designed to be almost invisible to human eyes. Not to horses! They learned to watch those tools very closely and pay attention to those ‘extensions of arms’. Why? Because in training sessions they are often applied to give aversives with and the horse remembers! If you watch the body language of those horses closely you can see that it is that tool that gives the commands (‘Do this, or else…’) instead of giving cues with (‘Please do this, so you could earn an appetitive’)

Whips are made to use as aversive

Most horses have the experience that a whip is (has been) used (in the past) to apply aversives with. Yes, I mean inflicting pain or discomfort (No, I really mean pain. Whip yourself and you know what I am talking about).

By waving your whip or ‘just carrying’ it, your horse will anticipate this behaviour because of his learning curve, the association with the whip is based on his experience in the past: Whips can hurt. This is why riders can’t and won’t ride without it: they simply don’t get the same results.

Sorry to burst your bubble

Now you know why… I am so sorry to burst your bubble. When it happened to me I felt really guilty, but when you know better you can do better. I know you can do it, I could too.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

This is exactly why clinicians who work at liberty carry one or two whips in their hands while working at liberty with their horses. It is not magic and it is certainly not positive reinforcement: the horse can tell what is coming next if he does not obey the commands. There is no magic in at liberty work in natural horsemanship! It is science and it is based on negative reinforcement training.

Don’t let your other senses fool you

You are being fooled by the beautiful, emotional music in the videos/performances, your eyes are distracted by what your ears hear.

The music is purposely chosen to trigger wonderful emotions in you and is meant to distract your eyes from what they see: a horse that displays tension in the muscles, swishing its tail, stressed expression in their eyes. or horses that vent their tension on the horse next to them.

Tip

Watch your favorite video without sound and pay attention 
to the horses. What do you see? Does the horse look happy or tense? 
If you mimic his body language how does that make you feel?

 

Then there is often a voice-over or words to read in the video (also meant to distract your eyes from what the horses’ body language is telling). They use beautiful words like ‘connection’ or ‘harmony’, ‘partnership’, ‘friendship’, ‘love’ and so on. Words that play with our emotions and make us long for what we want: be accepted by our horse.

Magical bond

We all want that magical connection with our horses so badly that we want to see ‘the magic’, we want to believe what they are saying. We all want to hear that we too, can achieve this. We believe the ‘leadership’ and ‘friendship’ myths that they are selling us.

Then, after we bought the program, we refuse to see what it really is: negative reinforcement training. No place for the horse to have a say in their training whatsoever. If they do they get more aversives. Really sad actually because if you use positive reinforcement you can get all this and more!

Negative reinforcement for the horse is positive reinforcement for the trainer

We humans are heavily positively reinforced by the Oh’s and Ah’s and admiration from our friends at the barn or our instructor, so we carry on with it. It also gives us a powerful feeling that a horse -an animal 8-10 times our own size- obeys us.

On top of that, who wants to admit that they are forcing their horse to work at ‘liberty’?

This is what I use to say

‘No, no. It is An Extension Of My Arm’, I explained to every one when I changed my whip for a training stick. ‘I am just being a good leader’ and ‘I am mimicking the behaviour of the alpha horse or lead mare’ and so on. I believed it myself!

The more someone asked critical questions the more I repeated the marketing nonsense I bought into myself. That is called cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Listen to your Inner Wisdom

My heart…. my heart couldn’t be fooled by the smart marketing one-liners. It was that little voice in my heart that kept telling me ‘This is not friendship, this looks more like a dictatorship to me. It is not magic when the horse walks without tack, he really knows that if he runs away from you and your whip/stick that you will react with, more pressure, more running around than ever.’

The horse just chooses the smart choice: self-preservation. Being near the human simply means getting rid of the pressure when you work at liberty.

The myth debunked

Sorry, I was distracted and getting carried away, let’s get back to the whip myth.

I am not saying you are using it to apply aversives with, but in our world I don’t know any horse that has seen a whip but never has had an aversive encounter with it. None. Not even my own horse.

This what I am referring to: every horse in this world will encounter a whip as an aversive tool sooner or later in his life. Unless we all turn to 100% positive reinforcement! 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

A whip is simply designed to be used as an aversive tool! It is designed to inflict a lot of pain without causing a visible injury. Every equestrian who ever accidentally (or on purpose) has been whipped by herself or someone else knows what I am talking about: it hurts! Badly!

What equestrian has never been so frustrated that they used their whip to motivate their horse into the desired behaviour? In other words: when you get desperate you use your whip to hit! What equestrian has never used a whip to flick the horse with in case of emergency or to get out of a very dangerous situation? Yes, that is totally understandable. Horses remember those things, even years later! Even when you felt guilty or felt very sorry about it, the horse simply learned a lesson and will remember.

Lose the extension!

When you know better, you do better. Loose the ‘extension’ because it doesn’t benefit your relationship with your horse.

What happens

When you don’t carry a whip around you feel suddenly less powerful and maybe even very vulnerable. I know this is how I felt, when I decided to work without a whip or a training stick. Have you tried it? It makes you think about other ways, more creative and hopefully more friendly ways to ask your requests to your horse, your friend.

The reason that a horse responds to a whip ‘as extension of your arm’ is because it has been used as an aversive in the past. And it is still carrying this value. If it hasn’t, your horse wouldn’t respond as well to it.

The riders who claim to ‘only hold it-but don’t use it’ why are you carrying it?

Why is nobody using a peacock or ostrich feather as 
'extension of their arm' in training or riding?

People who claim they ‘don’t use the whip’ are still signalling a threat to the horse ‘behave or else…’ Why else would they carry such a useless device? Isn’t that distracting and interfering with the hand-rein-connection?

_whip-as-extension-of-arm-myth_hippologic

Does it make sense to you? Does it make sense to the horse?

Secret

If you need a tool to act only as an extension of your arm why not use something that is not designed to dispense aversives? Something that makes it even impossible to inflict pain, something long and soft like a peacock or ostrich feather? I tell you why: the feather does not have the same power as a whip or stick. As soon as your horse finds out that it is useless to dispense aversives with it will lose ‘its purpose as an extension of your arm’.

It is the same with some dressage horses who will quickly learn that their rider won’t use their whip as soon as they are riding within the small white dressage ring fences. They become instantly dull to the leg aids because they know there will not be a ‘follow up’ with the whip. The rider is negatively punished by the use of the whip because it can cost points. The horse has learned that he is ‘safe from the whip’ in the dressage ring. Until that one day the rider gets so frustrated and decides to use the whip ‘really good’ to show the horse who’s boss in the ring….

Most people complain if they have to start carrying a whip or training stick during riding or training. Why not get rid of it if you don’t use it…

Or, admit the advantage of your whip. Not to me, to yourself. And to your horse (although your horse already knows why you really carry it). Be honest!

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free) or visit HippoLogic’s website.

Visit Ní Dhuinn Imagery on Facebook, she made the beautiful drawing of the ridden horse above.

Related post:

[Riding lessons] Why do kids start with a whip?

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

 

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 ‘unpleasant’, ‘neutral’ or ‘pleasant’. It can also happen that the association with pressure changes due to the horses training.

_reinforcingscratch2Examples of pressure that feel good are mutual grooming, rubbing against a fence or horses that are playfully pushing each other. Pressure that is aversive can be a kick or a bite or being chased away from the herd. Pressure can also be neutral in the beginning:it doesn’t give the horse a good or a bad feeling.

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.

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 &+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.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website and book your free intake consult!

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Peer pressure at the barn

One of the most underestimated challenges of positive reinforcement training can be… people in your environment.

It is a journey
The journey to switch from negative reinforcement (most traditional and natural horsemanship methods) to positive reinforcement training (clicker training, on target training) is instructive and beautiful.

It is not always a straight, fast or smooth road. It is often a winding, bumpy road with lots of ups and downs, but the views are astonishing. You will see many positive changes in your horse and your relationship.

On your journey you will learn how to think outside of the box, it will teach you to become more creative. It will teach you how to think in solutions instead of problems and it will alter the relationship with your horse in an extraordinarily beautiful way.

good relationship horse

Slowly you start using more and more rewards to reinforce your horse to do things for you. Then you might slowly stop using the tools that your horse experiences as aversive, like a whip, rope halter, training stick or spurs. So far so good, until… you encounter a hiccup.

Believe me when I tell you: this day will happen. Your horse doesn’t do what you ask him to do. You can’t figure out why or you can’t figure out a way to ask him differently so he will understand. You don’t have enough tools yet, so you don’t have an answer right away. That’s OK. It is OK to not know everything right away. What to do?

Back to default
It is perfectly normal to fall back to your old tools or habits of using pressure, force or even to inflict pain. Don’t blame yourself for it. Becoming aware is the first step in changing! Hooray!

If you are prepared for this day, and it will happen, you can just simply say to yourself. “Hey, you know what? I don’t know what to do. Let’s figure it out first. Let’s find help and try again another time.” Really, it is OK not to know what to do! And it is also OK to stop your training until you do know how to solve your training problem in a way that is acceptable for you and your horse”.

Remember what is most important
Choosing to make your horse your priority can be extremely hard to do. Especially when other people are watching you work. Imagine that the farrier has come to trim your horses’ feet. Your horse is afraid of the farrier or there is something else that causes your horse not to cooperate the way he normally does. It can be hard to listen to your horse and figure out the ‘why’. Your horse probably has a very good reason.

In most cases it is OK to say: “Sorry, my horse is not prepared enough yet. Let’s do this another time.” Do what you need to do in order to protect your relationship and the trust you have build with positive reinforcement. In Dutch we have a saying:
Trust arrives walking and departs riding. Which means that trust is hard to build and easy to loose.

Do you really want to risk your relationship with your horse so the farrier can do his/her job right now? It can be dangerous for everyone if the farrier is more a traditional person. Or would you rather choose to make sure the farrier and your horse are safe next time?

Sandra Poppema
For tailored advise, please visit my website

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Natural Horsemanship vs Clicker Training

What I really liked about the Natural Horsemanship method I followed in the late nineties, was the step-by-step program I bought. It was very practical because it described the horse behaviour in advance: I could expect this, this and this. Fan-tas-tic! I just had to follow the steps and boom! “Friendship” and “Partnership” where delivered.

Step-by-step program
When things didn’t work out the way the book described you could look up “pitfalls” and read where you skipped a step and what you had to work on. Great. It worked. Best thing of all, I didn’t have to think for myself anymore. It was all in the levels. If it really didn’t work out “I was just not ready for the next level”.

A new way
The biggest struggle when I started clicker training in the late nineties was that there was no “method”, no step-by-step program to follow and few people to turn to for advice. There were only a few rules to follow: pinpoint the wanted behaviour with a bridge signal and let the bridge always be followed by a reward. The receiver determines the reward.

Not many experts available
The only source of knowledge that I had in the late nineties was an Yahoo email group. It was in English and this is not my first language, so that was a huge threshold to turn to for questions and advice. I was lucky to learn from someone who had followed a course about training sea mammals with positive reinforcement and that I had studied Learning theory during my bachelors in Animal Management. This made it much easier for me to understand the whole science behind positive reinforcement.

Outside the box
Not only did my clicker training journey come without a map and a clear road to follow, I had to learn to think outside the box. It was so completely different from all the things I had learned about _HippoLogic_thinkingOutOfTheBox_clickertraininghorses in the previous 25 years and at the same time it made so much sense emotionally: looking forward to earning a reward versus avoiding an aversive.

Times changed
I am glad to see that there is so much information available for passionate horse owners and riders who like to start training their horses with rewards. There are books, clinics and also a lot of instructors and horse trainers who are available all over the world. It is still a minority but who knows what happens in a few more years. Internet is one of the blessings in spreading information these days.

Sandra Poppema

What a relief: training horses without ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’

Positive reinforcement training or clicker training. This was not just “another method” to me. To me it was a completely different approach to training horses. I Secret of succes is ...was told, and I believed, that I had to “dominate” the horse otherwise he would dominate me, I had to be the “leader” to my horse and that horses “had to respect me” and I never could “let the horse win”, whatever that meant.

A step-by-step program
Then a  Natural Horsemanship method came along in my world. I was thrilled: finally a step-by-step- program that taught me “games” I could play with my horse, that sounded like fun. Yeey!

The voice in my heart
I wasn’t too happy with building up the “phases” and building more and more pressure on my pony until he moved away like it was described in the pocket books. I think I confused Sholto by starting with this NH method and clicker training tricks at the same time. Sholto tried to tell me in many ways that he didn’t agree with this “natural” training method, but the books said: “Don’t let him win“. So I kept going. I heard a little voice in my heart that said: “I don’t like this accumulating pressure thing“. I ignored that voice.

I practised my new Natural Horsemanship method with a many horses. I didn’t have a real passionate connection with these horses because I hardly knew them. I found it a lot easier to apply accumulating pressure on them, but this voice in my heart kept telling me that this wasn’t really “partnership” nor “friendship” and I didn’t create “harmony“.

Clicker training changed my pony’s attitude completely
Since my pony was about 20 years old, I decided to let the NH method go and take a lot more effort in researching information about the clicker training/positive reinforcement training. After all: he was already ‘old’ and he was not suppose to learn new tricks anyway. He surprised me by learning new things so much quicker as I added a marker signal wit reinforcements of his choice__collect_moments_hippologic instead of pressure. Wow, my old pony got really engaged in my training.He started to greet me with loud whinny’s and started cantering towards me in the pasture! What a difference!

Instead of “dominating” my pony and what just felt to me as forcing him into new behaviours with accumulating pressure I had to outsmart him with clicker training. Set it up for success, was very useful advice from the NH method. I still use that one, but now I set us up for success, both of us. Notonly me.

Learning another jargon
It was really difficult to “Set Sholto up for Success” because I hardly knew what I wanted and I didn’t have a training plan to follow. So I struggled along for a few years and gained lots of knowledge during this process. I didn’t know at that time that I could let go of terms regarding “dominance”, which apparently doesn’t even exist, inter species wise speaking. New studies have proven that horses make a lot of herd decisions in a democratic way. Which makes total sense.

I don’t want other people to struggle as much as I did, so I developed a step by step  training program over the past 15 years. I call it the Key Lessons, your key to Success in Positive Reinforcement training. Click on “Key Lessons” at the top of this page or put them into the search engine in the right to find out more about the Key Lessons.

I am so relieved that I now can be my horses teacher instead of his “herd leader”, be his friend instead of being “the dominant one” and just be his “human” instead of being his “alpha mare/stallion”.

Positive reinforcement training has been truly a wonderful journey. It is not “just another training method” it became a “life style”. It is truly the journey that counts, not the destination.

Read more: 5 Tips for Starting Clicker Training

Read more: Clicker Training 101: How to introduce Your Horse to the Click

_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 coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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