An Introduction to Using Positive Reinforcement with Horses

An Introduction to Using Positive Reinforcement with Horses

Curious about positive reinforcement training with your horse?

In my experience, positive reinforcement (often called R+ or +R for short) has improved my horse’s readiness and our relationship.

Using R+ makes our workouts fun and interesting. I think it’s a great way to have it in your toolbox when working with your horse!

In this post, I will walk you through the principles of R+ and how you can incorporate them into your training.

I’ll also share some examples of how it worked for me and address some common misconceptions. Let’s dive in…

What is R+ training?

Positive reinforcement training means using a reward (eg, treats, clicks, pats, praise) to encourage the desired behavior.

Because a reward increases the likelihood that the horse will repeat the behavior, it helps you shape the horse’s reactions.

You may be familiar with positive reinforcement in training other animals – especially dogs and dolphins. R+ has been an integral part of animal training for decades.

Clicks or whistles in R+ are often used as a bridge to another reward, but they are not required.

Here is a quick summary of how positive reinforcement fits in with other training approaches.

reinforcement and punishment

When describing horse training, the words affirmative and negative do not mean good and evil, as they often do in everyday life.

Instead, positivity in this case means that something has been added. Negative means that something is being taken away.

Affirmative can also be used to describe punishment, for example when something is added to discourage a behaviour.

Here are the four ways in which reinforcement and punishment can be used in training:

  • Positive reinforcement = when something is added to encourage the behavior
  • Positive Punishment = When something is added to discourage the behavior (also known as pressure to push and give up)
  • Negative reinforcement = when something is taken to encourage the behavior (also known as stress letting go and letting go)
  • Negative punishment = when something is taken to discourage the behavior

The most common technique for training horses is stress and relaxation. The trainer applies pressure (like pressing on a leg) and releases the pressure again when the desired behavior occurs (the horse moves faster).

In my experience, positive reinforcement can work wonderfully when used in conjunction with stress and relaxation.

Some R+ advocates only use positive reinforcement and do not use any form of pressure (positive punishment) in their training.

However, this is only a small percentage of people who use R+ in their horse training. Most of them are able to combine R+ as well as traditional stress and relaxation training with great success!

R + misunderstanding

There are many misconceptions about the use of positive reinforcement in horses. I will address some of the most important here.

Horses will bite if you feed them manually.

Some people believe that when hand fed, horses inevitably become agile and bite. But the way you feed them sweets will go a long way in preventing that from happening!

First, your horse needs to learn how to use his lips to take treats from his hand, not his teeth.

You can teach them to do this by offering your palm with your fist clenched.

Your horse may use its teeth first to try to get the treat, but it won’t get anything in your hand. If they are only using their lips, flip your hand and offer the treat in the palm of your hand.

You will quickly learn that teeth = not a cure and lips = a cure.

When they start using their teeth, even with a small bite, go back to the beginning and teach them that their lips are the only acceptable way to get a treat out of your hand.

Your horse will start raiding you for good things.

Once your horse knows it’s handling rewards during training, it can sniff out your pockets or wherever you keep rewards.

If you make a clear line that this is unacceptable and never encourage it by indulging in the horse’s demand for rewards, the ambush behavior will quickly stop.

But you have to be very present and mindful during exercise to prevent this from happening! I realize that I can be sloppy and give in to the horse’s desires if I am at all distracted or trying to talk to someone or multitask.

So make sure you set the limit and keep being the one who decides when the bonus is and you will have a horse that respects that and doesn’t try to get into your pockets or handle your bags.

Your horse expects a reward for everything it does.

Again, the way you structure your training session and your limitations will go a long way in preventing this from happening.

For example, let’s say your horse is performing a behavior you requested, such as: b – moving in a circle around you. You expect that she will keep spinning around you until you ask her to stop.

But she decides she’s running too long and deserves treatment, so she stops on her own and stares at you in anticipation (or even goes to you for a treat).

You can either give in and say “Oh, that was good enough” and reward them, or ask them to keep going in circles and make it clear that you are the one who decides when the activity ends and if/when it will be rewarded.

Again, you need to be very clear that you are the one deciding the reward. As long as this is clear and unambiguous, your horse will not expect any reward for something it deems due!

Another way to help with this is to use a special bag or pouch to carry the goodies. Indicates your horse that you are using rewards in this training session.

If you don’t wear the bag, they know they are expected to do what you ask without positive reinforcement.

When you mix up your sessions this way, they know that sometimes you use the treatment bag and sometimes you don’t. indeed! This will prevent them from always expecting rewards.

Treats are not healthy for a horse’s diet

You can definitely use food-based “treatments” as rewards in your R+ training which are still part of a normal, healthy diet.

For example, I use small alfalfa and alfalfa/timothy pellets as a reward when training my horses. I apply a little at a time, so don’t use more than a liter of hay pellets during a training session.

My horses absolutely love these treatments and they don’t add to any health issues.

I suggest consulting your vet for suggestions on a treat that is easy to hand feed, but part of a healthy diet for your horse.

Using the clicker in R + . training

Many people use a training device called a bridge or tag signal as part of their R+ training.

A bridge can be a sound similar to that made by a small click of the hand, or even a sound you make with your mouth, such as the clicking of your tongue.

When I started training R+, I loved using the tongue bang because it left my hands free for other things. I was easily able to make sounds while driving without having to hold the dial and my reins.

The idea of ​​the bridge is that it gives immediate feedback that the horse is performing the desired behavior. It can be difficult to immediately be rewarded with a reward, so the sound of the bridge will help make it clear to the horse that it is on the right track.

I started using tone with something very simple and natural, like my horse hitting his nose at a target.

For example, you can hold a target (many people aim for a piece of pond noodles at the end of a pole) and when the horse touches it with its nose, you click and reward with a bounty.

Do this a few times and your horse will quickly associate the sound with the reward.

Then you can use the click as a reward in other situations.

Little by little, you can start distributing candy and serving one with just a few clicks. You get to where you do something well only sometimes, because a click becomes a reward in itself.

Some people also use a phrase like “good boy” as a bridge. Just be careful that what you choose is not a sound or phrase you make in normal conversation or you will find that you are rewarding behavior you didn’t mean to!

Can you use R+ on all horses?

You might be wondering if there is any situation where R+ training isn’t a good idea.

I can only speak from my personal experience, but I worked with a horse that I decided not to use because it became aggressive.

If your horse has experienced feeding aggression in the past, you should definitely resolve this issue before using rewards as training rewards.

Aggression to resources, such as aggression to forage, can be caused by the way a horse is fed and how it is handled by its mates on pasture.

Round-the-clock access to food can help overcome food aggressiveness. Sometimes a horse is bullied by another horse that may not know how to live at peace with others because it lives abnormally (eg, separated from other horses). If the horse is constantly chased by forage, it can develop aggression against the resource.

So if your horse shows signs of aggression for your safety, don’t use rewards in training for your own safety. My forage aggression stopped completely after we removed the aggressive pasture mate and made sure he had access to 24/7 forage.

R + Training summary with horses

I hope this post gave you a useful overview of R+ training and addressed common questions and misunderstandings.

I love using R+ with my horses and feel it has improved our relationship and communication. They are happy to work with me because it is always a positive experience for them, whether it is fun or not.

If this is what you want to do with your horse, I highly recommend trying positive reinforcement training!

Here are some resources to help you if you’re just getting started with R+:

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button