Defined simply, when you ADD a positive reinforcer to a training situation, you look to see if the behavior INCREASES, at which point you can say the thing you added was reinforcing.
However, don’t be fooled. You are training your horse all the time, even if you don’t think you are. Many things can be reinforcing behavior in your horse’s life, so we need to look at many levels when analyzing behavior.
Positive reinforcers vary, depending on the species.
Dogs love food
Dogs love play (usually)
Horses love food
Horses love food
Horses love scratching (sometimes)
Horses love food
Food is often used because it’s quick, easily delivered, and considered a Primary reinforcer.
You can “condition” a reinforcer. Scratching can be made into a stronger reinforcer by pairing it with food. ANYTHING can be made stronger by pairing it with food. Even applause. This trick is knowing how to condition it.
Since reinforcement is in the eye of the recipient, you can train with anything the horse wants, but I caution you to see if the behavior is strengthened or is repeating with your reinforcer. If not, you might need to re-considered what you’re using as reinforcement. You also might want to re-read that sentence, it’s important.
Here’s another way to look at it. If an animal does something in an effort to get what he wants, and is successful, then chances are he’ll have learned from his experience and try it again. That is an inherent learning process built into all species.
Here are some other thoughts on reinforcers.
AUDITION YOUR FOOD REINFORCERS BEFORE USING THEM WITH A CLICK.
Sounds self-evident, but some people try to start training with a food they haven’t tested to see if it is something the horse likes. In contrast, some people actually place many different types of food reinforcers in front of a horse to see what the horse chooses first!
1. ONCE I TRAIN A BEHAVIOR USING POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT I CAN FADE OUT THE TREATS.
As trainers we rely on the fact that behavior is strengthened by what follows it.
In order to maintain a behavior, a primary reinforcer is required at least once in awhile. It depends on the horse and what behavior you’re maintaining. If you’re maintaining the behavior of being groomed, you may not need to reinforce much. If it’s a medical procedure, you might need a really high rate of reinforcement.
There is a complete and thorough way to vary your reinforcers if you want to take the time to learn the process. If you are at all new to the process, if you want to train a horse with a positive reinforcement, many advocate continuing with the food reinforcers.
2. USING TREATS AROUND MY HORSE WILL MAKE HIM BITE.
Using food without training food handling protocols may increase biting. That can happen even if the only time you feed the horse is once or twice a day.
Food reinforcers are effective. People are using them in a huge variety of circumstances including zoos, marine mammal shows and advanced dog training. Using food for training a horse is a newer technique and I will forever be grateful to the pioneers of this technique. However, people need to learn how to use this tool just like they need to learn ANY tool.
Food is a resource a horse will fight to control. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see this; just look at a herd in the paddock and watch. If you add food as a training tool you need to learn how to use it EFFECTIVELY.
The good news is horses can learn safe and easy behaviors to work around food. It DOES take some knowledge to make that happen. If you are new to the process, LEARN from other people and research how to achieve a good working relationship with your horse around food.
3. THE ONLY THING MY HORSE WILL WORK FOR IS FOOD.
It takes skill to learn to train with naturally occurring reinforcers. Hey, it takes skill to learn to successfully train with FOOD! However, if you start to explore the science behind the training you will learn tools that make this technology even MORE exciting.