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8 Important Life Lessons I learned from Positive Reinforcement Horse Training

When I was a little girl learned quickly that I couldn’t boss around certain horses. I also learned that I liked it much better when I didn’t have to.

A few decades ago I learned about positive reinforcement (+R)  training and now, 17 years later I can truly say +R has become more of a lifestyle than just a training method for me.

One of the best reviews I received from a student is: You are always very supportive Sandra and make this feel like a safe place (the Facebook support group) to ask questions. Funny, but I’ve met a lot of R+ trainers who a very encouraging and positive with their horses but extremely critical of their human trainers. Sandra you walk and talk R+ in all areas – with horses and people.”

Here 8 of the most valuable lessons and my biggest ‘clicks’ (eye openers) positive reinforcement horse training taught me:

  1. The receiver determines the reinforcer, not the trainer, not teacher nor the parent. Once I learned to think from my horses’ point of view and what his motivation is, it became clear on why he did or didn’t want to do it. Same goes for humans.
  2. Envisioning my goals before I start, makes it easy to keep on track and go back on track once I get sidetracked. Not only my equestrian goals, but all my goals!
  3. Writing down my goals made it easier to find the right teachers. Studies prove that writing your goals down will make you see more opportunities because it puts your unconscious to work.
  4. Writing down my goals helped me into dividing them into achievable (baby) steps. Whenever I feel stuck, whether that is in life or in horse training I ask myself if I am ‘lumping’ (making the steps too big) and I usually do. Once I make my steps smaller I can be successful again. This one was a biggy!
  5. Different reinforcers have different values and values can change depending on the circumstances. It makes sense that once the receiver can predict when and what the reinforcer is, he can determine if he does or doesn’t want to do the behaviour.
  6. I learned to think out of the box, because I didn’t have ready-made solutions for a lot of challenges I ran into. It is an amazing helpful life skill! I love it!
  7. I changed my focus to what goes well and improves, rather than the things that doesn’t yet go the way I envisioned. I turned from a Negative Nancy into a Positive Polly
  8. When I started to focus on my method of training, instead of only focusing on the results of my training, three interesting things happened: 1) there was now something valuable in it for the horse which made it a huge win-win, 2) the results came much quicker, easier and were way more reliable and 3) the overall relationship with my horse improved tremendously! Wow! Win-win-win!

What are the most valuable life lessons you learned in training? Please share yours in the comments.

_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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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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10 Tools that changed my Training Approach (I)

What is so powerful about clicker training? Why does it work and what do you need to succeed?

Here are some of my favourite tools for training horses and how they changed my training approach to a much more horse friendly way of training.

1 Clicker or bridge sound_hondenclicker
The most powerful communication tool I ever had is the clicker. This simple device has had such a great impact on my life and on all of the horses I trained.

It is the concept of the clicker that is important and changed my whole training approach and philosophy. It changed my focus to what I want from what I don’t want. By focusing on what I want, I get more of it.

The click marks the exact behaviour and then a reward follows. In this way I can communicate very clearly to my horse what it is I want. He will try to do more of that behaviour and he will be rewarded again. I never reward him ‘for a good ride’ anymore, but I reward specifically for 1 perfect step of shoulder in. If my horse understands that it’s the shoulder in I reward for, he’ll give me more. When I ‘rewarded’ my horse after a ride by feeding him dinner it has never guaranteed me a better ride next time. He simply didn’t connect the food with the quality of the ride, he probably associated it with taking the saddle off.

If the horse doesn’t have to be afraid of punishment or aversives, the chances improve that he will try more behaviours which makes it easier to teach him more and more things. It encourages the creativity of the horse.

2 Reinforcers
_Hippologic_rewardbased training_receiver_determinesWhen I changed my focus from traditional training to working with rewards I was forced to think about the question ‘What is rewarding for my horse?’ If the reward is not reinforcing the behaviour you’re training it is useless as reward.

This resulted in observing my horse with new eyes. I started to pay more attention to his preferences: what kind of exercises/training did he like best? What treats did he eat first if I gave him a choice? What was his favourite scratching spot? I also noticed other things about him, like who were his friends in the pasture and where he stood in the herd hierarchy. I learned a lot since I started focusing on rewards and my horses’ opinions about them.

3 Timer
When I started using clicker training I trained with my pocket full of treats, but often I used a kitchen timer to make sure I didn’t over-train my horse.

I used 5 minute training blocks with breaks in between. I had never used a break in my training before! I used to train and train and train. My horse improved, I changed my criteria, my horse improved, I raise my criteria and so on, until my horse didn’t improve anymore. That often resulted in ending our rides with some frustration for both of us.

_time-your-training_hippologic

The timer made me much more aware of the improvements we made per session. Taking breaks also gave me the opportunity to reconsider my training approach if necessary. A break can also be a big reward, just a few minutes to relax.

In the break my horse can decide what he wants to do. If I work at liberty the breaks I give my horse can give me valuable information. Does he stay with me, does he walk off? What is he going to do in the break? If he is heading for the door, it is a sign that he’s had enough.

I still use a kitchen timer when I train new behaviours. ‘Less is more’ applies to training time. More training time does not necessarily result in better performance.

Read here part II

Read here part III

Read here part IV

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a reinforcer) or visit HippoLogic’s website and discover my online 8 week course Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Positive Reinforcement Horse Training.
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