What Positive Reinforcement Is and What It’s Not

Just A Title

I hear a lot of trainers throw around the title of positive reinforcement.  A lot of them incorrectly.  While the ideas are pretty straight forward and easy to understand, I find that most people get a little confused because they don’t understand behavior.  So lets give a quick review here but for more information read this on How Horses Learn.

I’ve used positive reinforcement in my training now for 7 years.  It is the basis for my reward based training method and I use it for everything from teaching a horse to load on the trailer, accepting clippers, backing and starting under saddle to flying changes.  Used correctly, it’s a great tool to add to your repertoire.  If more trainers understood the concepts they would be much more effective.

So what exactly is positive reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement is the addition of something rewarding in a response to a desired behavior that you would like to see increase.  What does that mean?  It means that immediately when your horse does what you want you give them a reward that is inherently rewarding.  This greatly increases the odds that the horse will do it again.  Once the horse learns that you are offering rewards for what they do, they quickly catch on and become faster at learning as time goes on.  I’ve seen horses first introduced take 15-30 minutes or so to get the idea but then grasp new concepts within 5 seconds in the future.

What’s inherently rewarding?

This is the first place that trainers usually mess up.  They don’t really know what is rewarding.  They think a pat on the neck or a “good boy” is a reward.  Well, not necessarily.  My horses do respond to verbal praise and to pats but they didn’t at first.  The reason they do now is because I always follow it up with something I know for sure they love, like food, freedom or their friends.

Positive Reinforcement is NOT release from pressure.

I use pressure and release in my training and riding.  It can be very effective.  Pairing it with rewards can be super effective.  Taking away pressure in response to the horse doing what you want is actually called negative reinforcement.  Don’t let the terms confuse you.  Just remember that if your are thinking that releasing all pressure is rewarding to your horse, you might be missing the boat.  Can releasing pressure train a horse?  Sure.  But when we think of rewards, we think of giving the horse something.  Can rest be rewarding.  Sure.  But often times, it’s not rewarding enough for me to consider it a positive reinforcement.

I have one such horse.  Release from pressure wasn’t enough.  Just thinking about training and learning was pressure to him.  However, once I started using rewards, his training really took off.  He started relaxing about the training because it was clearer to him what I wanted.  The food rewards said “yes, exactly that is what I want” and he said “oh, I can do that no problem.

I’ve also noticed it with young horses learning the first lessons of life.  They are quicker to learn when they get positive reinforcement.  Teddy, my yearling, had little exposure in the first 7 months of his life.  So when it came time to exposing him to the hose and bathing he was frantic to get away.  Within 10 minutes of introducing rewards anytime the hose was near him, he started to relax.  Within a few short lessons I was able to calmly hose him anywhere.  At no time did I have to force him to get over being hosed.  At no time did he feel the need to fight.  He realized that the hose went away when he stood still (negative reinforcement) and that he got a reward when he didn’t move away (positive reinforcement).  I will make a short video soon to demonstrate.  It’s so easy and it makes training so easy too.

Really Good Timing

The second place I see many trainers messing up is in the timing of their rewards.  The positive reinforcement has to be exactly when the horse exhibits the behavior.  Exactly.  If you wait 10, 20, 30 seconds it’s too late.  The horse is probably doing something else at that point and it confuses the picture for them.  So to be really clear to the horse, it’s got to be exact.

The Third Mistake

Finally, the next big mistake I see trainers make is in the delivery of the reward.  When critics start to bash positive reinforcement, it’s because of this.  They see a horse that has been lured and/or taught to nip or search pockets for food and they blame the technique instead of the trainer.  There are ways to train a horse and ways to deliver food rewards that discourage a horse that might become overly ambitious about “getting what you have”.  Let me also state, that we never lure.  If your are standing in the trailer with a bucket of feed, shaking it and hoping your horse enters the trailer, you are luring and totally missing what positive reinforcement is all about.

If you want to learn more about understanding how horses learn, how to train, how to ride effectively and how to use rewards in your training correctly, follow this blog, take a course or schedule a seminar with me today!