‘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).
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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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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 3 things for the horse:

  1. pressure is  ‘unpleasant’
  2. pressure is ‘neutral’ or
  3. pressure is ‘pleasant’.

It can also happen that the association with pressure changes due to the horses training.

_reinforcingscratch2Pleasant pressure

Examples of pressure that feel good are mutual grooming, rubbing against a fence or horses that are playfully pushing each other.

Unpleasant pressure

Pressure that is aversive can be a kick or a bite or being chased away from the herd.

Neutral pressure

Pressure can also be neutral in the beginning: it doesn’t give the horse a good or a bad feeling or it doesn’t have a good or bad association yet.

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. The light pressure in the beginning is ‘neutral’ and in order to teach them to yield I had to make it unpleasant so they learn to anticipate on only association (‘light, gentle touch will turn into aversive if I don’t 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- and 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’.

SAFE THE DATE: MARCH 6, 2019

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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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