🍂Positive Reinforcement in the Horse🍂

Hi All,

I have recently come back to uni and have now gone into my 3rd year! Not long to go now! I finished 2nd Year with a 1st which I was so happy about so I hope to keep it up again this year. This post is not an assignment but it is something that I am so interested in and wanted to write about so I hope you enjoy it 🙂

🍂Positive reinforcement (R+) training in the horse🍂

I’m sure you’ve all heard the sayings:

“Don’t give your horse treats, it’ll make him food aggressive/ he will mug you for food”
“Don’t give your horse’s treats, it’ll make them fat!”
“Horse’s are not dogs, you cannot treat them like pets”

Recently I have started to question why we use such different methods for training horses and training dogs. Dog training tends to involve positive reinforcement with the use of clicker training and feeding treats. When we give our dogs treats we dont expect them to become aggressive so why would our horses? If a horse is well fed and not being kept hungry, there is no reason why they would become aggressive over food. Once a reward becomes so frequently available there is also no reason why they would need to be aggressive. (I used to believe this as I thought Ellie was aggressive towards me when I used treats for training, now I can see that she was just frustrated as I would often withhold food even when she was doing as I asked 🤦‍♀️ Thankfully this is no longer the case as I reward at the correct)

Horse training primarily involves negative reinforcement. The majority of the time we apply pressure such as our leg when riding and when the horse responds we release the pressure 👏 Whilst this method of training works, the horse is not given a choice as to whether they want to participate in training. If they are not willing then this action is often followed up my positive punishment such as using a whip behind the leg to ‘reinforce our aids’. When I was younger this was the way that I was taught and I just assumed it was correct. However, I frequently remember being told I was “too nice to the horse” and to “give them a proper smack!”. I never felt comfortable doing this and would always feel guilty afterwards.

Now I see that there is another way of training horses which also provides enjoyment for them as well as us. This is through positive reinforcement and clicker training. Learning theory is science. It tells us the way that animals and humans learn. I’m sure a lot of you have herd of Pavlov’s dogs which used classical conditioning to obtain a response. Operant conditioning on the other hand involves four quadrants (see images below) If an animal is rewarded for a certain behavior then they are more likely to offer that behavior in the future. If they are punished for a behavior then they are less likely to exhibit this behavior for fear of an unwanted response. Positive reinforcement is exactly how we train our dogs and so there is no reason why horses cannot be trained in the same way. Horses CAN just be big pets if you want them to! They never asked to be ridden or be show-jumped to extreme heights, i’m sure the majority of horses would be happy simply wondering around in a field for the rest of they’re life! I think this is frequently forgotten and we lose enjoyment in our horses at times because of this. However, there is also nothing to say that horses can’t do these things and possibly perform even better with positive reinforcement. Think of Luca Moneta, also known as the ‘carrot man’ who provided his horse with a carrot after every jump at the pruissance at olympia 2013 and went on to win. It can be done 🙌🙌

I have just started to clicker train Ellie and I am amazed by her response. I always knew that she was a clever horse but her willingness to do what I ask has changed. She wants to participate in her work, whereas before she had a more ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Eventually I want to apply positive reinforcement to all aspects of her training but I am still learning and becoming more in tune with when the right time to click is etc.. Therefore, negative reinforcement still plays a role in our relationship at the moment. When I think back, I have used positive reinforcement ‘my way’ for a little while. I would never have been able to clip her last year which out feeding her an abundance of treats- I was positively reinforcing her all along!

With regards to horses getting fat, It is easy to use they’re normal feed as your food reward. If you feed some kind of pony nut or pelleted balancer then take this our of they’re daily ratio and use if for clicker training. Pelleted balancers are ideal as they are a small but tasty reward. Therefore, you wont be giving your horse anything ‘extra’ but you are just making they’re normal feed stretch further 😅.

This is a topic that I have recently become fascinated by and felt the need to share it with others. I hope you’ve found it interesting and would consider giving it a go with you own horses. Feel free to ask any questions  If you want to do any further reading then I highly recommend looking at The Willing Equine.

She is also on Instagram and YouTube and the things she can do with her horses are amazing!


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