Do the opposite of everything you’ve ever learned.

Whew!! That’s not easy 😛

But that’s essentially what we’re asking people to do when we encourage them to switch to using positive reinforcement. Becuase traditional and natural horsemanship techniques both rely on the use of Negative Reinforcement and punishment (pressure/release and using work/chasing as an aversive punishment). This is how anyone who grew up with horses was introduced to how to handle them. You pull when you want them to stop, you kick when you want them to go. Push the button, if they don’t listen, push it harder. Everything in horsemanship is based on the horse avoiding discomfort, working for relief/escape from the aversive the human was applying.

Positive Reinforcement training is the opposite of all that. We use seeking instead of avoiding. The horses chase/follow us rather than us chasing them. In order to do everything backwards we need to get really creative. We have to think about everything from the other perspective. If we want our horse to move away, we need to use things they can go towards to move them away. For this we use handheld targets on sticks or stationary targets on the opposite side. So for example, if we want them to move their shoulder away we will stand on one side and put a cone on the other. We’ll use our cue and send them to the cone, when they move their shoulder away we’ll click. This is opposite traditional where an aversive would be applied until the horse moved away.

This is the same with movement behaviors. Alot of times we get stuck with clicker training when we get on to ride. We go back to all our instincts, apply pressure to get what we want. I’m not sure why our brain forgets everything we learned on the ground, because horses learn the same on the ground as they do when we’re on their back 😛 They learn best with the same short, sweet sessions, clear criteria, careful timing (are you clicking for moving or stopping? the behavior or reaching the target?), and an appropriately high rate of reinforcement. And just like on the ground, the more you stop to reinforce, the more you get of that behavior! Yes it means you have to stop to feed often, just as often as on the ground – AT FIRST!!! Just like on the ground, when you’re shaping new behaviors it requires a fairly high rate of reinforcement. But as the behaviors are learned and you begin rotating throughout them and adding distance and duration your rate of reinforcement will become more comfortable.

When you ride traditionally you apply pressure and relieve the pressure continuously throughout the ride, everytime you want a behavior you must apply pressure and relieve the pressure. This is the same but equal opposite to positive reinforcement training. We apply the CUE that is non-aversive and then we reinforce (with a click + treat) when it’s done. The rate of reinforcement is the same with R- and R+, but how they’re created and reinforced is opposite.

When you switch to positive reinforcement it takes time to flip your own instincts and all the tools in your tool box upside down. Using sending to targets, following targets, shaping, capturing, and otherwise using seeking positive reinforcement vs. using aversive stimulation and release as negative reinforcement.

Remember though, Pavlov is always on your shoulder. This means classical conditioning is always happening. How your horse feels about you and your tools is based on how they are conditioned. Are YOU conditioned to predict discomfort, pain, annoyance, frustration? Or are YOU conditioned to predict good things? things that feel good?

Photo Credits Fed Up Fred

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