This article will supplement all the other articles. I have recently added positive reinforcement into my training program. All of these articles were written prior to this addition. I decided that instead of rewriting each one, my time would be better spent making videos. So, I did update most of the articles, however instead of adding in clicking and feeding into each one, I figured I could just write this explaining when to click and feed so that you can think about adding that while you read the articles.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is the addition of something positive to teach something. An example of this is going to work. You go to work all day knowing that at the end of the week you will get a paycheck. Since horses don’t can’t look that far into the future, we give them their paychecks almost immediately. These paychecks come in the form of a treat (I most often use grain or sugar, but you can use any horse treat that your horse enjoys). Lets face it, most of us would not go to work if we didn’t get a paycheck, or even if our paycheck isn’t that big, as it’s just not worth it. When you use positive reinforcement (also called clicker training) the horse learns that there is something more in it for him. With traditional training or natural horsemanship the horse is mainly trained using negative reinforcement. Just because the word negative is in negative reinforcement doesn’t mean that it is bad. This is merely a scientific term describing the subtraction of something in order to learn. In horse training, this thing that is being taken away is pressure. For example, if you want your horse to move forward you will squeeze your legs. When the horse moves forward at the pace you want you release the aid, the horse no longer feels pressure when he moves forward. I’ve found that horses want to work much harder when they know that a treat is coming. This is why I’ve decided to ad positive reinforcement into my program. I will still be using negative reinforcement as well, but the combination of both gives the horse twice as much motivation to cooperate with me.
How it Works and How to Start
Positive reinforcement is not just feeding your horse treats. You must have a bridge signal to tell the horse what he is doing right now is what you like and that he will get a treat for it. If you just feed your horse treats, the horse will not be able to connect a specific behavior with getting food. The bridge signal must be conditioned before you start using positive reinforcement.
When I start teaching a horse using positive reinforcement, I start by teaching how to take a treat, while at the same time conditioning the click as my bridge signal. I start by standing next to the horse’s left shoulder with my pack of grain. You can do this lesson at liberty or with a halter, but I recommend doing it with a halter and lead rope. Unless your horse is really pushy, then you can leave him loose in a stall or behind a fence and you can be on the other side of the fence until he understands the lesson and won’t push into you. Regardless of how you are positioned, the lesson is still the same. When the horse’s head is facing straight ahead or bent away from you click using a tongue click or a hand held clicker (I prefer the tongue click as it frees up my hands) then take a handful of grain out of your pocket or pack and reward. It is important that you feed the horse away from your body. If you feed your horse when he is close to you he will just get closer, and this is how you teach a horse to mug you. You must feed the horse with his head straight or held away from you, with your arm held straight out away from your body. Reward the horse if his head is bent away if the horse has a tendency to be pushy. Once he understands the head away, you can then start to reinforce when the horse’s head is straight. The opposite is true if your horse is very shy, you can reward him for having his head bent toward you at first, and then for keeping is straight once he is more confident. Make sure that you do this exercise on the right side of the horse as well.
It usually takes one to three lessons before the horse is conditioned to the click and understands what it means. You must be consistent if you plan to use positive reinforcement in your training program. You need to have food rewards with you all the time. Especially in the beginning, if you don’t have food on you then you aren’t going to be able to reward the horse, and if you click without feeding in the beginning the click will lose its meaning. Over time, you can definitely fade out the food and even get to the point where you don’t use it at all and that is the goal, but in the beginning it is important to reinforce consistently.
Incorporating Positive Reinforcement Into the Training
I am using positive and negative reinforcement together in my training. What this means for the rest of the article, videos, and training is that when the horse gives me the correct answer, I am going to click, (bridge signal that tells him what he is doing right now is what I like and he will soon be rewarded for it) release the pressure that I was using to ask the horse to do something (example: rein aid, leg squeeze, whip cue) at the same time. The click and the release are the same thing. But, I am doubling my chances of my horse understanding what I want by using both reinforcements. An example of this is when asking my horse to go forward. I ask by closing my legs on my horse’s sides, the horse goes forward into a walk in response to my cue. When that happens, I stop squeezing with my leg, and at the same time I click to tell him that going forward is what I wanted him to do. Then I feed the horse a handful of grain or a treat. You want to feed as soon as possible after your click at first to reinforce the click. Over time, the click itself acts as a positive reinforcer and you can feed less and eventually not at all. To add the positive reinforcement to the training in my previous training videos and articles, just add in the click when I say to release, and then feed; it’s that simple.
I like to use a fanny pack to carry my grain in. They are easy to use and I can ride with one without it getting in the way. I usually go through two packs in one training session with one horse. Feeding grain as a reward is very reinforcing, most horses love it, and grain is cheaper than treats, as well as easier to chew. It is a good idea to get two packs and have them both full at the beginning of each session. During the session pay attention to how much grain you have left, as you don’t want to run out before the end of your lesson. You also want to keep track of how much the horse is eating and adjust his feeding amounts accordingly. For example, on a training day my horses will get less at dinner time if I’m doing an afternoon session to account for the grain he has during the lesson, I do the same thing if I’m working in the morning. If the horse is not working one day then both his lunch and dinner would be slightly bigger since he is not having a training session, and therefore not eating again.
As far as using positive reinforcement while riding, the technique that I use for the groundwork is the same. When the horse responds to my cues, I add in a click at the same time as the release, and then I feed. Now how do I feed from the back of a horse? When I click most horses stop what they are doing and wait for the reward. This is totally fine as you want to reward in the beginning, then slowly fade it out over time. When the horse stops I will tap him on the shoulder to cue him to turn his head that direction and then I reach down and feed him. If the horse is anticipating the treat and turns his head to the left, I will instead tap him on the right shoulder and feed him there and vice versa, so that the horse isn’t choosing which side he gets fed on. I also like to feed more on the horse’s stiffer side, because I am basically practicing lateral flexion and can make the horse softer on his stiff side.
How Much and How Often?
In the beginning I feed for every click. Once the horse is doing a behavior consistently I fade out the clicks, until I don’t click at all. I also like to use good boy or girl as another reinforcer that tells the horse good job but keep going, unlike the click. I make these words positive reinforcers by saying them after the click and before I feed. The end goal is to give the horse a slight cue and the horse does the behavior without you having to click or feed at all. If the horse’s behavior starts to deteriorate, you can go back to clicking to reinforce him, but I don’t frequently have to do this. You can also feed your horse a jackpot which is a couple handfuls of grain or multiple treats, once he has tried a behavior that is getting closer to doing something that you have been struggling with. I don’t use these a lot but they are very powerful. An example is when I teach bridling. When the horse takes the bit in his mouth I click, put the bridle on, then feed a jackpot. After a couple of times of doing this the horse is reaching for the bridle on his own. You can use the jackpot in any situation to get your horse closer to your end goal. If that is rewarding the lazy horse when he moved forward of off a light leg aid, or when a hot horse slowed down on his own or relaxed, to a horse that is reluctant to trailer load and he finally puts one foot in.
The click just helps to clarify your communication with your horse. Negative reinforcement is good, but the lines of communication can be fussy sometimes, especially if you miss a moment where you should have released. The horse then will not try as hard. If you click at the wrong moment and don’t feed, the horse will try harder to figure out what behavior earned him a reward.