Reinforcement choices

From time to time someone will ask me about the need for continued use of reinforcement in their training program. Basically I think people tire of having to focus on their horse and what motivates the horse. They also might grow weary of carrying treats with them when they train.

My reply involves asking people to make a choice based on knowledge of theory as opposed to cultural horse norms. In the science of training there are two ways to maintain, or “reinforce”, a behavior. You are either going to add something that the horse likes or you are going to add an aversive and remove it when the horse complies. I’m talking about the difference between positive and negative reinforcement or in popular circles it might be seen as clicker training compared to pressure/release training.

One of the reasons behind the concern expressed with continuing to offer reinforcers is that people have some underlying misconceptions that behavior should become self-rewarding or the animal “should” enjoy doing his job. People make this assumption for a variety of reasons. One of the most deceptive is in the comparison to pressure techniques. You see,  the culturally familiar tool of habitually used pressure tends to make people forget it is still pressure. In other words as people, we’re used to seeing horses trained with pressure, so we just accept and assume than the horse enjoys the work if he’s not resisting.

When the horse begins to be light in his response, we even more easily forget that we are using the quadrant based on aversives or the threat of aversives and so therefore think we are not reinforcing a behavior with our lead, whip, rope or spur. It’s as if the behavior is just taking care of and maintaining itself.

By comparison, when we reach up and give the horse a bite of food, it takes conscious attention; it makes us more aware of the process and we might even perceive it is excessive in comparison to the often unconscious use of pressure when we are reinforcing a behavior that is in place.

With the act of using actual food, we might even be told we’re doing something “less” powerful or effective that with other methods.

If you want to do a little comparison on your own, go take a walk with your horse. Stroll out for 200 or maybe 300 yards and watch how many times your hand touches the lead rope in some sort of maneuver.

Do you use the lead rope to suggest that the horses turn? Do you use lead rope to suggest that he slow down? Even lightly, do you use a lead rope to suggest that the horse give you more space as he walks? Just watch your motions and observe them.

How many times do you touch that line in order to give the horse direction? Even the common “wand as an extension of my arm” mindset can play itself out as lots of subtle gestures that keep the horse in place or moving at the chosen speed.

In my journey with clicker training I approached this leading process very differently. My horses and horses owned by people I teach, have learned to shape (hands off) every aspect of the leading behavior. The horse learns to regulate his pace walking with us, not by pressure, but by being clicked and rewarded for regulating his own pace.

The horse learns to stop, back up, and perform yields of every kind. I also train transitions of walk, trot, and canter. The horses learn, through the use of the positive reinforcer, how to walk next to me comfortably and safely.

As the behavior matures I slowly vary the reinforcers for individual behaviors and I begin to have more behavior sequences. I also continue to train other behaviors that get reinforced more frequently. However, I still reinforce each individual behavior from time to time. As a result I can walk with my horse in a variety of situations with a variety of distractions, never touching the lead rope (usually we’re at liberty) and reaching up to reinforce the whole leading behavior with a bite of food once in a while.

So I would ask you to compare the differences in terms of choosing a reinforcer. On well-learned behaviors, I still reinforce with food. Yes, it takes conscious thought. In comparison I see continuous succession of prompting with pressure handlers.  I see a lot of subtle rope checks or use of those wands or whips. So I guess it’s a matter of how you want your horse to perceive the tools for strengthening a behavior.

That makes the choice easy for me.


About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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