I think what makes certain horse trainers more successful than others is ‘communication’. To me the result of training is not the most important part. The most important component of horse training is the way the trainer got that result with the horse. In other words: the training method and the way it is communicated weighs more than the actual result, the behaviour.
#1 Listening to the horse
The more I learn about body language and natural behaviour of horses, the more clearly I see if the horse is stressed, anxious, troubled, in pain or skeptical about the things the rider or trainer asks him to do. That takes the joy out of watching horses perform without willingness and eagerness to work with their handler. That is the reason I avoid the main acts on horse events. I would rather talk to passionate horse owners who think the horse matters too or are looking for ways to find out if what they do is as enjoyable for the horse as it is for them.
#2 Bridge signal
When I started clicker training I didn’t realize that I had a powerful communication tool in my hand. The more positive reinforcement training I do, the more I realize that my bridge signal (the marker) functions as a very precise tool, like a scalpel. I can change the tiniest details in a behaviour to my desire. It communicates so clearly what it is I want from my horse, it is amazing that more people are not use it.
The bridge signal is the most important communication tool in working with rewards. The bridge signal marks exactly the behaviour the horse earned the reward for. Click: this is what I want. How more clear can you get?
The third very important pillar of training is the category of reinforcers a trainer uses.
If it is negative reinforcement, the horse learns basically through avoidance. The wanted behaviour is reinforced by avoiding an unpleasant stimulus. Negative reinforcement (-R) is sometimes referred to as avoidance learning. For example yielding for pressure. Even when the unpleasant stimulus changed to a very light cue or just a body movement of the trainer, the brain will still associate the cue with the way the behaviour was triggered, the aversive. This is the reason negative reinforcement works so well: one can fade out the aversive but it still works because of the association in the brain.
If the learning happens because the horse is getting something he wants, something pleasant that is added to reinforce the behaviour (positive reinforcement), he will try to earn another reward.
The association the trainer builds in the horse’s brain is a pleasant one. The horse will actively seek out behaviours that got him rewarded in the past. The trainer stimulates the intelligence and the creativity of the horse with rewards. These horses are offering new behaviours all the time. Something you will not see in seasoned -R trained horses.
This is the eagerness and the joy one can spot in a +R trained horse.
Spread the word
I see so many talented and knowledgeable clinicians, horse trainers and riding instructors out there, who could be even more successful if they would only use bridge signals in their training and lessons. The bridge signal marks the wanted behaviour in the horse, but it also clearly shows to the rider/handler what the instructor means.
I wish more people understood the importance of a bridge signal paired with a pleasant stimulus (reward). Of course it’s intertwined with understanding what the horse communicates back to you and the reinforcers that make it worthwhile for the horse.
I think the bridge signal is the best kept secret in horse training and I think it is time to reveal this powerful tool to every horse lover, rider, trainer and instructor.
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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.
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