Can You Ride With R+?
Absolutely! Horses learn the same whether you're on their back or on the ground. Everything you teach on the ground with R+ is transferable to in the saddle, much the same as R- based training. The process through which you achieve the cues for riding does look different than R- though... unless you're combining both R- and R+ (more on that at the end) Understanding how to train a horse to be ridden with R+ vs R- goes back to understanding how operant conditioning works.. to understand the process through which cues are taught we have to understand how the horse learns those cues we teach them. For example, a walk on cue via a leg squeeze.. Traditionally, when teaching a horse to walk forward, you would start by gently squeezing with your legs and then a little firmer and then a little firmer until the horse took a step forward (or, alternatively, you'd just hold a consistent pressure until the horse took a step forward). Then you would immediately release the leg squeeze to confirm to the horse that taking a step forward was the right answer. Relief from the pressure tells the horse that was the response you wanted. This process would repeat until the horse learned that a leg squeeze means move forward, and you would repeat with the faster gates as well or with any ridden cue.. such as a leg yield etc. With a positive reinforcement focused training approach, while sitting on their back doing *nothing*, you would wait for the horse to take a step forward (or use a previously positive reinforcement trained lure/cue to trigger the movement forward - like a target or a walk on verbal cue), and then you would click/reward. The horse would hear the click and think "walking forward is the right answer" and begin to repeat taking steps forward. Once the walking forward steps are voluntarily being offered consistently you could begin to add your leg cue. In the beginning, that's gently touching their side after they've already started walking, click/reward/repeat a BUNCH. Then you'll start gradually moving the leg cue to closer to when the horse first starts walking, click/reward/repeat a BUNCH. And finally you'll start putting on your leg gently just before the horse starts walking, click/reward/repeat a BUNCH.
Then last but not least... you'll start ONLY rewarding the horse for when you've cued the horse with your leg and that's how you will put the walking forward on cue (aka stimulus control). The horse will learn that if they walk forward without a cue, there is no click/reward. However,If they walk forward after the cue, the click/reward will follow... and, we would also teach an alternative cue (such as whoa) to ask the horse to not offer walking forward. In the end, both the R- and the R+ trained horses will walk forward when they feel the leg cue, but the process to get there is very different.
I know the R+ way seems like it will take longer and be more complicated.. and to some degree you're right, but for a horse and human that are experienced in training with R+ this process actually goes very quick. There's also less risk of the horse feeling leg pressure and suddenly backing up, or taking off, etc (basically, less risk of a fearful reaction from the horse) because walking forward will have started off the horse's idea and everything from that point forward is their choice and just another opportunity for them to earn a reward. Where as with R- based training it's all about the horse seeking relief from the pressure, avoidance, and the pressure must continue until the horse has the correct response.. even if they are having a fear response.
Clearly R- training approaches DO work though, so I'm not claiming they are abuse or bad or ineffective, but there are downsides to training with R- when working with horses that have negative associations with riders and riding cues, and when working with highly reactive horses; which is where re-training with R+ comes in handy or training with R+ from the start to avoid those possible negative associations is worth considering. I hope to have a video of my own to share soon, but for now I have some by other R+ trainers and people that I would like to share to help give you a visual of the possibility of riding horses with R+ based training.
I do want to clarify that you do not have to ride tack-less or bitless to train with R+, but a lot of R+ focused trainers do chose to reduce/eliminate tack from their training because the horses either have negative associations with the tack or it's in effort to reduce the possible "accidental" slips back into using R- and P+ during training. Reins, whips, bits... they all "enable" already prone to over controlling humans (like myself) to manipulate the outcome of the training when what we want is for the horse to offer behaviors voluntarily and to have a choice.
So what about for the horses already trained to ride with R- but now you want to use R+?
This is a little more complicated because we have to recognize and accept that any cues that were trained previously with R- are likely to continue to be R- cues, even if now the pressure never increases and there's a click and reward that follows a successful response. In the horse's mind, with the history they have with that cue, their response to that cue is going to be pressure and release based most likely... UNLESS we can somehow successfully counter condition the cues over time to now be R+ cues.
The idea of counter conditioning cues isn't a clear one because it's all dependent on the horse and the consistency of application from the rider. We can never be absolutely sure why a horse is responding to a cue if it has R- history, but we can assume that with enough time and consistency and counter conditioning that there will be a point where the cue is no longer an R- cue.. but now an R+ cue. That's the working theory any way, there will be people that disagree with me.
For this to work though, it requires absolute consistency from the human. The human may never ever ever ever go back to increasing pressure and then release, and even repeating a cue more than once... as both of those cross into R- territory and will revert the cue back to responding out of avoidance. The horse will recognize the "or else" factor that's naturally occurring in R- training (see my article on this topic) and will feel they need to respond to get relief.
Alternatively you can just choose to start from scratch and train all new cues with R+ from the beginning, so we have no risk of the cues remaining R- cues. This may be an ideal option if the R- cues are causing extreme reactions such as shutting down, rearing, bucking, bolting, getting nervous/stress, teeth grinding, head tossing, kicking out, etc.
You can also pick and choose certain cues to re-train with R+.. but this may get messy and confusing to both the human and the horse in some cases. But I've personally had great results re-training forward and stop cues with all R+ (not mixing, new cues) and then maintaining directional rein cues as non-escalating R- cues with click/food after (so the suggested counter conditioning mentioned earlier).
I do believe though that it is possible over time to convert R- cues to R+ cues, it just requires patience, using the lightest possible pressure without increasing it or holding it for an extended period, and allowing your horse a choice to not respond.
Can I just continue riding with R- but add R+?
Yes, but you won't be training/riding with R+. You'll be riding with R-, just like you have been, and then adding a little extra "cherry on top" in the form of a food reward or scratches following the relief of pressure and click (or no click).
This approach does seem to help motivate most horses to perform better and be more enthusiastic about riding/training, and this process in itself could counter condition riding/training a little for many horses, but it's important to remember the primary training is occurring through R-. You'll be squeezing and holding pressure or escalate pressure until the horse takes a step forward, then click and release pressure simultaneously, and then offer a food reward. First and foremost the horse will be seeking relief from the pressure, and the food will be a little extra incentive to respond quicker or better.
Adding a clicker and food rewards/scratches to R- training has been very .... controversial... among trainers and scientists alike.. recently more than ever. It's been debated and debated over whether you can truly "combine" reinforcers (dual reinforcement - negative and positive reinforcement), or if one outweighs the other, and what are the possible fall outs from combining.
There's opinions all over the board on this. I know trainers that absolutely flat out refuse to accept that "combining" is even possible or effective or humane, and then I know trainers that have tremendous success with "combining". Usually the later group desires to train with primarily R+, but because of limitations or the desire to offer a better alternative to horses than an exclusively R- and P+ based training program down the road, they choose to combine.
Really what I've seen it all come down to is though... the horse. Whether or not you can continue with R- and add a reward after, and whether or not you can counter condition a previously R- cue all comes down to the horse.
How does the horse feel about pressure? What are the horse's past experiences? Have they experienced escalating pressure that turns into P+? Or maybe it's been primarily P+ they've been experiencing and pressure to them means punishment is coming. AND, what kind of R- are we talking about? Are we talking about non-escalating or escalating pressure? Has the horse ever had a choice in it's training? Has the horse been listened to and respected? Also... are we risking poisoning cues by combining?
These are all answers that may dictate whether continuing to use mild non-escalating R- combined with a click and food reward after are going to be viable humane options for that horse or any horse.
"A poisoned cue is a discriminative stimulus (a cue) that is taught using both positive reinforcement and corrections. Usually once the behavior is well learned, the trainer no longer uses corrections and can maintain the behavior using just positive reinforcement.
The trainer may justify using a few corrections during teaching because she thinks it helps the animal learn faster or because she thinks it helps explain to the animal what he shouldn’t be doing. The trainer also may feel more comfortable using corrections because she only intends to use them during teaching – they won’t be used when the behavior is fully trained.
The problem with mixing positive reinforcement and corrections is that it can create some pretty detrimental side effects, including anxiety and uncertainty. This is because the animal is never completely sure if his behavior will be followed by reinforcement or a correction." - Mary Hunter (A Few Thoughts About Poisoned Cues)
"Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn. One of the most common cues to be poisoned is “come.” We frequently call our dogs, and then do unpleasant things to them. We call them and give them a bath. We call them and put them in their crates. We call them when they are studying the various aromas of the Great Outdoors and then make them come in where it is boring. Dogs are very smart and live their lives by the mantra “What’s in it for me?” They quickly learn that “come” equals unpleasant things. If coming to you is not more rewarding than the cool stuff outside, many dogs are going to run the other way." - Rebecca Lynch (Poisoned Cues; The Case of the Stubborn Dog)
An example of a poisoned cue for a horse might be, leading a horse to the arena or to a mounting block. If every time you approach the arena or mounting block it leads to being ridden, and the horse finds being ridden painful or stressful, they will begin to associate the mounting block and/or arena with being ridden and will work to avoid it.
Also, something like.. approaching a horse in a pasture with a halter on your arm. If the halter usually means that the horse is going to be taken away from it's companions or just turnout in general, they may see the halter itself as the predictor of a negative things; a poisoned cue.
With ridden work, or any time we are combining R+ with other types of training, we can run the risk of creating this same poisoned cue response as well.. and sometimes that's to the food rewards and clicker themselves. If you bring out the clicker and food rewards when ever you're going to go ride, and your horse finds riding stressful and maybe painful, the horse may begin to associate the clicker and food rewards with that stressful and painful experience. The horse will begin to not like clicker training and food rewards. Which is why... I typically recommend people separate R+ training sessions from R- and P+ training sessions... to avoid the potential mess and frustration this can cause.
At the end of the day though, for already established riding horses that do not have severe reactions to riding cues or having a rider on their back, I do believe transferring already known cues from R- to R+ IS possible. I also believe combining R- and R+ is possible as well, but not my ideal and possibly not the best option for the horse, but in most cases it seems a better option than just not giving R+ a try at all.
That's where I started, combining... and then transferring. It took a long time for me to figure out how to train without R- and my horses have been very forgiving along the way. I also saw a tremendous amount of improvement during that time, improvement that got me hooked on this whole positive reinforcement approach to horse training and took me deeper and deeper still.. until I could embrace training with solely R+ (or at least the desire to) and never look back.
So while yes, I would like to see everyone training and riding with exclusively R+ and clicker training, and YES it's absolutely possible, and yes I believe it's a better way to train and better for the horse... sometimes you have to start somewhere and build on that.
So with all of that said, I encourage you to take your first steps and not be afraid.. because you CAN ride with R+ , and you CAN start making changes for your horse and you right away. And be on the look out for more videos from me about riding with R+ in the near future. I'll update this post when they are available. In the meantime... here are some other resources on the subject to help you on your journey!
Getting Started Riding - Katie Bartlett
Clicking The First Rides - Alexandra Kurland
Riding With Clicker Training - Alexandra Kurland
Tips For Clicker Training From The Saddle - Sandra Poppema
Riding With Clicker Training - Spellbound Horses
Food Rewards From The Saddle - The Willing Equine
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