Training Science Articles:
What is Clicker Training?
The Science Behind Learning
Creating Behavior
Eliminating Behavior
Stimulus Control
Building Behavior Chains
The ABCs of horse training
Stimulus Stacking
Dealing with Fear

Putting it into Practice, Ethically:
What is an Aversive?
Over-excited about Food?
Protective Contact
Control vs. Communication
Transition Troubles
Making it a Lifestyle
The Importance of Choice

Reinforcement and Bridge Signals

In order to teach a skill we need to inspire the behavior, reinforce it, add a cue, then (if you want or if the skill calls for it) put it on stimulus control. We already mentioned how to create the behavior [Creating Behavior].

Now your horse is doing the behavior, how do you reinforce it? Simply add something the horse values. There are primary reinforcers, things the animal always wants and/or needs, food, water, procreation. The easiest and safest of these to control is food. But we can also use Secondary reinforcers, these are things the animal has come to learn are wonderful. These include scratches, praise, and even behaviors that have been strongly reinforced. The difficulty with secondary reinforcers is that they may vary (good scratching spots may change daily or seasonally, praise and behaviors need to be well connected to a primary reinforcer before they become reinforcing themselves). Behaviors that become secondary reinforcers can then be used in behavior-chains [Building Behavior Chains].

The other trouble with reinforcers is they need to be timely - since we can't always deliver the reward while the behavior is in action how do we connect the exact micro moment of the behavior we liked, with the reward? The answer is a "bridge signal". This is a clear, unique audible or visual signal. Sound is easiest with horses (you might not always be in a position to display a visual marker). You can use a box clicker or a verbal bridge or anything you'd like, so long as it won't be mistaken and will be easily heard. To start you need to "charge" your bridge signal, simply bridging and rewarding again and again until the the connection is made. With horses you can usually do that at the same time as teaching a simple behavior, like standing calmly (facing forward - to ensure safety while working in the future).

This bridge becomes a marker that bridges the exact moment of the behavior to the reward that's soon to come. This buys us time to get out our food and deliver the treat. This enables us to have our timing down to the precise second, which really opens our doors.

One important aspect to keep in mind when using food rewards with horses is the importance of proper delivery. We want the horses to recieve the food without grabbing for it. To help them be successful with this we want to keep our treat delivery consistent. Always feed where the horse should be, if they've moved since the click, keep your hand closed and extend it to where the horse was at the click and open it there. It helps to feed a bit behind the horse's chin, shifting their weight slightly back to further instill the idea of space. We want the horse to feel assured their reward will come to them.