‘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).
Spoiler alert: I will talk about principles!

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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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6 Things You Might Not Know About Clicker Training (2/6)

In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 2. Read also part 1 and part 3.

Some of these are common misunderstandings people have about clicker training while others are facts most equestrians don’t know at all.

The goal of this blog is to help more people understand how well positive reinforcement (R+) works in training our horses. I want every one to know that clicker training offers more great benefits besides training your goal behaviour. Positive side-effects you won’t get in negative reinforcement (R-) based training methods (traditional and natural horsemanship). I wish I had known these benefits earlier in life.

# 2: Clicker training will make you more resourceful

When using pressure-release in training and the horse doesn’t cooperate, the go-to strategy is to increase pressure until the horse does what you want. This is actually the only strategy I they taught me, when I was learning traditional and later on natural horsemanship training.

light-bulb-1926533_640When you decide to use less pressure-release in training and focus more on positive reinforcement, you give your horse a voice and a choice in training. Therefor you have to learn to listen what your horse is communicating to you if things don’t go as planned.

If you know the reason your horse does not follow your cue, you need to come up with a way to address his feelings or concerns first. It helps if you have knowledge about (natural) horse behaviour and natural needs horses have.

What if my horse doesn’t want to do what I want?

Depending to the cause of saying ‘No’ you can come up with another way, a new strategy to make it easier for your horse to say ‘Yes’ (without making something else more difficult!).

Possible causes of not cooperating are:

  • fear
  • something else is more reinforcing
  • something else is more urgent (e.g danger, internal processes like hunger, pain)
  • your horse doesn’t understand what he has to do
  • and so on.

Become resourceful

You have to come up with strategies that will be:

  1. Addressing the reason your horse said ‘No’ so he gets into learning mode again.
  2. Easier to understand (splitting behaviour and making a shaping plan)
  3. Worthwhile for your horse to participate (it’s the receiver that determines the reward, not the trainer!). You don’t want him to ‘zone out’ (and go into learned helplessness)
  4. Interesting and fun for your horse, so he will stay engaged

So you have to become very creative! That is the fun part of training animals!

When you allow your horse to say ‘no’ in training, you have to accept that ‘no’. Treat the ‘no’ for what it is: valuable feedback from your horse. It is ‘just information’. Information you can use to benefit you and your horse!

You have to find out why: What is causing your horse to say ‘No’?

If you figure that out, you listened to your horse. This helps you come up with a strategy to entice him to say ‘yes’, without forcing him.

clickertraining.ca

This skill -to think out of the box -is a very useful skill in all other situations in life. Get creative!

Read his body language

It can be as easy as recognizing that he is just tired. Simply ending the training session will give you more of the desired behaviour next time.

If it is mental fatigue, you can focus on a well known and established behaviour that take no thinking effort. And so on.

Tell me your story

Share your story (use the comment section at the bottom) about one time you had to come up with an alternative strategy. What did you do differently than you would have done traditionally?

we_listen_hippoloic_weclickWhat was the situation and what do you think caused your horses to say ‘No’ ? What solution did you come up with and what was the result? Do you think it benefited your relationship with your horse?

Stay tuned

Read the other articles in this series:

part 1 of 6 Things You Might Not Know About Clicker Training
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6

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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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“There is nothing wrong with Negative Reinforcement applied properly”

Said someone once to me. I didn’t say anything, but my body screamed: ‘Yes, there is….

Although I couldn’t explain in words why I felt that way, now I do. Since it was hard to catch it in words, it is a long explanation, so please get seated.

When I talk about horse training, I like to use the scientific definitions in order to keep the language as clear as possible and to avoid emotional and subjective projection. Let’s start with some definitions because this statement (“There is nothing wrong with R- applied properly”) is one that causes a lot of commotion among horse people. Continue reading