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Happy Horse training!
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Happy Horse training!
Is that possible? Yes, it is! In my years working for the SPCA I trained many horses and barn animals with positive reinforcement (R+). Some horses needed to be rehabilitated mentally, some physically and some both.
I also taught employees and volunteers the basics of clicker training and together we trained the horses in order to make them more adoptable. These experiences helped me develop my own R+ training system and special tools that now help horse owners all over the world.
Many of the horses at the SPCA needed medication when they were brought in: deworming and other oral medication like anti-inflammatory pills or pain killers. Some animals needed eye ointments or other wound care.
Using positive reinforcement in such situations was a real benefit. With coercion you might get it done once or twice before the animal smartens up and it becomes a struggle. The small amount of training time you put in with clicker training before or during administering medication, saves you time and effort in the future.
Using positive reinforcement also means giving a horse a voice and a choice in training. These things help building trust and a positive relationship with the animal. This also contributes to a positive view about humans in general.
Whenever a horse or other animal escaped everybody stayed relaxed. There was no chasing or shooing the animal back into his habitat. We usually used food or a friend to bring them back or sometimes we were just being patient. I really liked that way of handling animals. No screaming, no panic and we never had to corner an escaped animal.
We always joked that they where in a spa. The horses didn’t have to work, they got to exercise themselves in the pasture and they all loved their clicker training sessions.
In 2019 I gave a presentation at the Dutch Clicker Conference 2.0 A New Way of Rehabilitating Horses in which I shared examples of rehabilitating horses with clicker training. I’ve seen many benefits the use of positive reinforcement brings.
By listening to your animal in training you can spot problems early on. When my own horse got sore hoofs I noticed right away that she wasn’t as forward as she usually was. Kyra normally is really cooperative and when she is not, I know I have to investigate what is going on. The vet told me she had EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome) and laminitis.
I used positive reinforcement to exercise Kyra despite her sore hoofs. I hand walked her on the road.
A year earlier I taught Kyra to graze and stop grazing on cue and therefor I didn’t need to worry about the juicy grass next to the road. Yes, this amazed me too since she was also on a restrictive diet.
Clicker training helped me to lift her feet (she didn’t want to lift her front hoof because it caused more pain in the other hoof she was standing on), helped me get her used to wearing hoof shoes and a grazing mask.
Some horses I worked with at the SPCA had stereotypical behaviours. Well suited environment (proper housing, management, care) in combination with clicker training helped greatly in diminishing those kind of behaviours.
I have seen horses that were weaving, cribbing or displayed other neurotic behaviour in training change. They stopped displaying their stereotypical behaviours in training and it greatly reduced altogether.
Although this is purely my experience I would love to see some research done on this. I think the horse world is ready to accept a broader view on positive reinforcement.
The more I work with R+, the more I see how much influence this kind of training really has on the animal. Positive reinforcement has more benefits than just training the desired behaviour. It can be a great way to reduce stress, restore and built trust and improve their welfare by offering the animal choices and ways to influence his environment.
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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
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.”
What are the most valuable life lessons you learned in training? Please share yours in the comments.
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.
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:
It can also happen that the association with pressure changes due to the horses training.
Examples 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 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.
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.
For 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.
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.
After 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).
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.
In 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.
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’.
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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
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.
When 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.
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.
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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