Using reward to build a stronger relationship with your horse

Using reward to build a stronger relationship with your horse

There are many reasons why we love to ride and train our horses: for fun, to achieve the personal goals we set ourselves, for the social aspect... but one of the main reasons for most riders is because of the incredible relationship that we build with our horses. Traditionally, horse training uses much more negative reinforcement than positive reinforcement, but in this article we'd love to talk about why positive reinforcement is so beneficial in building strong bonds, and how you can use it in your training.

The difference between negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is not actually negative! It just means that an unpleasant or uncomfortable stimulus is taken away when the desired behaviour occurs. As horse trainers, we use negative reinforcement when we apply pressure on the bit to ask the horse to slow down, or apply leg pressure to change up a gait or increase the impulsion within the gait (as well as when we apply pressure with our seat, whip and spurs). This is why we use negative reinforcement a lot, as most of our aids are classified in that category.

Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, provides the horse with a reward when the desired behaviour has occurred. This could be with a pat, a kind word or some food. Another way to use positive reinforcement is by providing a signal as a reward, after the signal has been strongly associated with a motivating reward like food. This is the premise behind clicker training.

When is positive reinforcement used in horse training?

Traditionally, positive reinforcement is not used very much in horse training. There could be many reasons behind this, but one of them is that by sitting on the horse, we are able to use pressure of our legs, seat and reins to send clear signals about what we want our horse to do.

For other large animals which we want to train but where communication can't occur as close physically (for example, seals or dolphins), negative reinforcement is not an option as they can just swim away from unpleasant stimulus! So instead, positive reinforcement is used, usually in the form of clicker training.

Horse trainers for equestrian disciplines will rarely use positive reinforcement to actually train a movement or behaviour. Although most riders will pat their horse for a job well done, the actual cue is given and established through applying and removing pressure, not just by reward.

Liberty horse trainers operate a little bit differently, and many do use clicker training to teach tricks like bowing, rearing on command, etc. Even then, sometimes a combination of positive and negative reinforcement is used, for example by using pressure on a halter to lower the head before teaching a bow, or even using pressure from body language to move a horse around a space.

What are the benefits of positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is hugely beneficial in building a stronger relationship with your horse. When you train some behaviours using positive reinforcement, by removing physical pressure, you give the horse more choice about whether to comply with your request. This in turn builds trust between you, and not simply compliance due to lack of perceived choice.

Often, when training using positive reinforcement, horses will actually be eager to repeat the desired behaviour! For example, if you have taught them a trick, they might repeat the trick even when you don't ask for it, to see if you will reward them. Many times, after training using positive reinforcement, horses who previously didn't want to be caught in the field and were grumpy when getting tacked up will suddenly be waiting at the gate and interact during grooming and tacking up.

Positive reinforcement can also give you a lot of confidence as your horse's trainer, when you see how much your horse is enjoying the time they spend training and learning with you. Riders will often feel as though they have achieved a new level of connection with their horse.

How to use positive reinforcement as horse riders

If you haven't used positive reinforcement before, start simple! A good way to start is by teaching your horse an easy trick and using your horse's favourite treat as a reward. For example, you could teach your horse to lower their head on a cue. Your cue needs to be easy to distinguish from your every day movements, and something easily recognisable for your horse. Putting your hand above your head and gently lowering it down could be an option for this trick.

Then, without using any negative reinforcement (that means no pulling on the halter or leadrope), ask your horse to lower their head. A good way to entice them is with a treat! Make sure to do the gesture prior to asking them to lower their head with a treat, as the cue must always be done immediately prior to the desired behaviour, which is then followed by the reward. Gradually increase the time between your horse lowering their head, and giving them the reward. Eventually, don't give them the reward each time, but only occasionally (gradually space it more and more apart).

And there you have it, an easy way to train a handy "trick" (it's actually very handy for worming and plaiting!) using positive reinforcement. 

Usually, if you are going to train more complicated tricks, behaviours or movements, using clicker training (which doesn't necessarily need a clicker, but a very distinctive noise or voice signal for the horse) will be the best way to go. We will write an in-depth article about clicker training in our journal soon, so keep your eyes out for it!

In the meantime, we hope you can have a little play around with using reward for training, and let us know in the comments below what difference it makes to your relationship with your horse!

And of course... don't forget to give your horses treats "just because"!






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