BLM Mustang, Gringo, raises by a verbal cue
Treat others as you wish to be treated. We are taught from our youth to apply this with our peers. As a positive reinforcement trainer, I also apply this to my horses. Like many of you, I did not come from a show home, filled with lessons and forgiving “bombproof” ponies. I entered the competition arena for the first time as an adult and have been surrounded by a community that shares my desire for relationship over reward─ forgoing ribbons for a sincere, unmeasured, unjudged relationship with a horse.
From first glance my daily interactions with my herd may resemble a circus act or perhaps just a waste of time. Surely all my hours could have been better invested in teaching a rollback, a barrel pattern, or plain old riding. But working at liberty fulfills me. It is my own personal test of communication, softness and willingness that enhances my day-to-day life with my equines. Entwining positive reinforcement into my training regimen has made this possible by embracing the power of motivation and freedom.
WORKING AT LIBERTY
So what do I mean when I mention horses at liberty? This would be my conversation with a horse while off line, the ultimate test of willingness and focus. He is free in an arena (or fenced area) as I give out requests and he fulfills them. Pretend your horse is on an invisible lead line and have him walk, trot, or go through an obstacle course. Continue to challenge him and request that he self-load in the trailer. You will find these exercises aren’t useless but will actually enhance your communication and relationship with your horse.
THE POSITIVE APPROACH
Initial impressions may be that positive reinforcement training is purely about spoiling your horse while negative reinforcement must be equivalent to abuse. Neither is true. Positive reinforcement would be a favorable outcome (to the horse) after a certain behavior is displayed, hence making it more likely to reoccur. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something unfavorable. Then there is punishment, the presentation of an adverse outcome that decreases the behavior it followed.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
A clicker is an excellent tool for marking behaviors while using the more positive method. Verbal cues are also an option. The use of rewards can even be used to discourage mugging you for treats.
Put your horse in his stall, or on the other side of a fence and face him head on. This allows you to control the space between you. Most likely, he will be wanting to reach out and investigate you. Ignore him and even step away if you feel he begins to invade. He will learn this is not a rewarding behavior. As soon as your horse looks away from you, even if he’s distracted, click and reward immediately. Soon he will connect the association of click/reward and realize what he is doing to cause the click. Before you know it, every time you approach him with treats, he’ll point his nose away to earn it.
Your imagination is the limit as to how many other ways you can apply this method whether it be tricks, games, or problem solving. You will discover a whole new language between you and your horse along with a strong desire to participate on his part. This is a force-free approach that allows him to choose the outcome, making everything a training opportunity. Such as the distracted moment in the example above, you captured the behavior and used it for your gain. Try clicking the next time he lies down and apply a cue!
The frequency of the reward actually declines as the horse begins to piece together different behaviors. A click and reward for the extension of a leg, will eventually only be rewarded when taking an extended stride under saddle. This would be an example of shaping a behavior, gradually rewarding small efforts to create a final result.
I often receive the same question after a demo: “What are you giving them to make them do that?” In my case, the answer is a small ration of pelleted feed, the same that they will be receiving for dinner afterwards whether they choose to perform or not. Keep in mind that a reward can also be a satisfying scratch on a sweet spot. Take time to know your horse to reveal what pleases him.
A FINAL NOTE
Horses are individuals and it is safe to say some respond to certain learning styles different than others. Positive reinforcement is only another tool to add to your toolbox, understanding that there is not one way to achieve the same result. The only fail proof way to go is having an open mind, a trusting relationship, and listening to your horse.
Lauryn Zepeda is a positive reinforcement trainer and trick trainer. She competes in freestyles, makeover events, performs demos at events and holds “Clicks of Confidence” clinics. Her website is www.ClicksofConfidence.com