Choosing the Tack
With R+ we can teach any behavior through targeting, shaping, capturing, and luring – then we can put any behavior we teach on ANY cue. I joke with my kids that we can have “rainbow ponies” who respond to the names of colors as cues. “Blue”=walk on, “Red”=stop, “Purple”=Turn right. It’s just a joke, this wouldn’t be practical or ideal, trying to remember everyone’s code would be a calamity to say the least.  But the truth is with the power of R+ communication we can assign anything we want to be the cue for any behavior. We can assign opening a door to be a cue to back up or we can use any array of sign language to communicate what we like.

So when we discuss tack choices it’s important we remember this. Our tack is just used as cues. These cues used with tack, should be just like verbal or visual cues, a promise to our horse that a reinforcer is coming. They should be cued once, they should be non-aversive, not a threat of an aversive, and they should communicate to the learner which behavior will receive a reward at this time. If you’re using traditional direct rein cues, opening your right rein should indicate to the horse that turning right will result in a reward, it will not result in the removal of an aversive (as no aversive was applied), nor will non-compliance result in an increase or repetition of the cue. If I verbally cue my horse to back up with a verbal cue “back” I don’t say “back, back, back, back” getting louder and more in their face until they do it. Rather I say “back” once and let them do it. It should be the same for our tactile cues. We should open the rein once, then allow them to perform the behavior. By prolonging or repeating the cue without the correct behavioral response, you are effectively unteaching (desensitizing) your cue.

Now I just mentioned, this cue is non-aversive. Opening the rein to the right should be non-aversive to your horse, so the relaxation of the rein should NOT warrant negative reinforcement. This is to say, without positive reinforcement training, the application of the rein cue does not warrant a response from the horse, the horse finds this tactile experience benign, neutral – this tactile cue is acceptable to be assigned as an R+ cue. If it does cause a negative reaction from the horse (pulling against the pressure, giving in to the pressure, or otherwise fidgeting to find relief) this tactile experience is Aversive to the horse and NOT appropriate to be used as an R+ cue.

If the horse finds the tactile experience aversive it is not appropriate to use this as an R+ cue, it will progressively poison your positive training as the aversive nature of the cue will contradict the positive outcome of compliance.

So now we transfer this information to our choice of tack. With R+ we can teach our horses to tolerate great discomfort. In times of vet procedures or emergency scenarios it’s vital the horse tolerates these and our R+ is used to help compensate for this discomfort. But our pleasurable experiences, riding, agility, driving, or any sort of training that is not necessary to the horse’s wellbeing, it would be unkind to mix aversives into the scenario. So when we chose tack and tools – choose the kindest option you have available.