Why You Should Learn About Positive Reinforcement Even If You’re Not Going To Use It

There are a great many reasons why people scoff at the idea of clicker training horses. Popular beliefs range from the idea that hand feeding makes horses bite to the idea that horses need to be shown “who is boss” and have a strong herd leader in order to be happy.

There are a few reasons why you should learn about positive reinforcement though, even if you’re not going to use it.


Learn how the environment affects behavior

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who follows Natural Horsemanship or other more traditional training methods talk about how the environment affects behavior and subsequently their training success. On the contrary, the more common words that I hear when I see a horse thrown in to a noisy and distracting environment is, “Well, he has to learn”.

Well sure, that may very well be, but does he have to learn all of this right now, all at once?

If you think back to any time when you were learning something new, you will probably realize that your environment was crafted to be conducive to that learning.

Children learn the alphabet in carefully decorated classrooms that have everything to do with letters and learning. They don’t learn the alphabet in the cafeteria while the 1st graders are having lunch.

Gymnasts learn complex tumbling in a gymnastics-specific gym, on mats that are built up to maximize success and minimize injury. They don’t learn complex tumbling at a competition, on the tumbling floor.

When you begin learning how to use positive reinforcement in training, one of the first things you’ll learn about is how to set up your training environment to maximize your equine’s success. You’ll learn about training in a minimally distracting environment and how to gradually increase distractions as your equine progresses, until your equine can perform without fault in a high distraction environment. You’ll also learn how to set up your environment to minimize the opportunity for performing unwanted behaviors and maximize the likelihood of your equine performing the behaviors you want.


Learn about how consequences affect behavior

It seems like most people have an understanding of consequences when talking about reinforcing the wrong behaviors. For example, most people know that if you let a horse go while he’s struggling to pull away, that he will pull away even more the next time. Unfortunately, the understanding seems to end there.

As you learn about positive reinforcement, you will fine tune your understanding of consequences, good or bad. You will learn how quickly the consequence must occur for the animal to associate the consequence with the behavior. You’ll also learn how competing consequences can derail your training efforts.

For example, if your horse is pawing at the stable door while you’re preparing his food and you yell at your horse to stop, you may think that yelling at the horse to stop is the consequence that causes your horse to stop. It may even actually cause your horse to momentarily stop the pawing. Unfortunately, in most cases, the consequence of receiving food is the stronger consequence and results in the horse pawing even more after that pause and at subsequent meal times.

Improve your timing

Really good timing is one of the most important skills you need for any method of training. Because most popular training methods put such an emphasis on dominance and respect, the actual requirements of good training are lost.

The more you delve in to positive reinforcement, the more you’ll learn about the importance of timing and how even just a split second delay in your release of pressure or delivery of reinforcement can reinforce a completely different behavior than the one you were trying to get.

Learn how to break behavior down into learnable pieces

You hear it all the time, “Reward even the smallest of tries”, but how often do you actually put that in to action? When training with pressure and release, it’s easy to just keep adding the pressure until you get the goal behavior, so many people miss the fact that no real learning took place. This is why so many horse/human teams suffer from “Every day is like starting over and my horse doesn’t remember what he learned yesterday”.

Training with positive reinforcement relies on the animal’s offering of behavior. If you wait too long to deliver reinforcement, holding out for the goal behavior, things quickly fall apart and you get nothing but a frustrated horse and human. As your skills improve, you learn to recognize smaller and smaller slivers of behavior that you can reinforce and you’ll get your goal behavior faster through these successive approximations. It’s called shaping and it applies to all training methods, though you’re unlikely to hear mention of it in Natural Horsemanship or traditional training circles.

Learn about ALL behavior quadrants

Discussions about how horses learn, in groups of people that use traditional or Natural Horsemanship methods, usually center around the pressure and release model, along with dominance and herd leadership. The most popular opinion is that horses ONLY learn through pressure and release and that this is the ONLY method that horses use to communicate with each other.

It’s an interesting thing because on some level, people do understand that horses also learn through positive reinforcement and punishment, and they will allude to this when complaining about other people reinforcing unwanted behaviors or when describing a tactic to get a horse to stop doing something, like biting. However, no one seems to notice how often they contradict themselves by offering up this knowledge while still insisting that horse learn ONLY through pressure and release.

When you begin learning about positive reinforcement training, you’ll almost immediately learn that there are actually 4 quadrants that all animals, including humans, operate in. As you learn about positive reinforcement, you’ll also learn about the other 3 quadrants and you’ll be able to watch any training and know which quadrant the trainer is using, regardless of whether or not the trainer knows it.



Learning is ALWAYS a good thing

Learning about positive reinforcement training will take you on a journey  that you’re probably not expecting. You’ll learn more about behavior, learning theory, consequences, and timing, than you would learn studying all of the other training methods combined. With this knowledge, even if you decide to continue using your current training methods, your training will improve.