Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Switching from natural horsemanship and traditional training approaches (with R- and P+ as the focus) to training with positive reinforcement wasn't a big struggle for me. After endless years of it always feeling like a battle with horses, I had FINALLY stumbled upon something that connected all the dots and changed horsemanship for me forever. I had found what I hadn't even realized I was looking for... With positive reinforcement it was no longer a "me against the horse" mentality, it was no longer a struggle, everything made sense, everything was so very clear and had purpose... and with that came an understanding of learning theory and HOW training actually worked! I suddenly realized there were reasons for everything the horse did, that the horse WAS communicating, that there WERE warning signs, that the horse WASN'T being rude or disrespectful... they were just being HORSES doing what they naturally do or had been taught to do. (imagine that, lol) What WAS difficult for me though, was giving up control. Believe it or not, you can still control your horse with a clicker and food. You can use clicker training to micro manage, manipulate, and control every aspect of what your horse does. Clicker training is SUCH a powerful training tool that it's very easy to continue to be power hungry and "in charge" with food in your pocket and a clicker in our hand. Clicker training does NOT automatically = liberty/autonomy/choice. Even after I had begun clicker training I was still fixated on getting results, making the horse do X Y Z. Food is a powerful motivator and it can be used as a form of control easily. It took me a long time to realize that though I had switched to a "kinder" form of control, I was still controlling. There was STILL an "or else" kind of suggestive undertone to the training.
With other training approaches... it's "or else... more pressure, or punishment is coming". With clicker training/positive reinforcement it can easily become an "or else... you don't get food" and even "or else, I'll add some pressure so you progress faster" That's not what I wanted though! I wanted my horse to WANT to participate in training, to know they had a choice, that they could walk away with no repercussions. But OH MY GOSH, giving up that control is SOOOO hard. When I would plan all day to do some targeting with my horse with my amazing clicker and lovely food and take a beautiful video of us... and then my horse would look at me with that "yeah right" look in their eye.. I would just get so frustrated! Or, I wouldn't get frustrated but I also wouldn't give them a choice. At the end of the day in some way or form I would get them to do something even somewhat close to my goal, even if they clearly we're saying no, so that I maintained control. "Force Light" as Hannah Branigan said in one of her podcasts. I think that explains it exactly... I'm not doing anything over the top "bad", and it doesn't even look like I'm forcing the horse to do anything.. but there's this suggestion to the horse that they STILL don't have a choice...
So how do we stop doing this? How do we give up control? WHY do we give up control? Training with positive reinforcement is fantastic, I mean... I'm a DIE HARD believer, clearly. But even without ropes and whips and chains and round pens, we can still be forcing our horses to respond in a certain way by acting in a way that communicates to the horse "or else".
"Or else".. no food .. We've made training *better*, more *enjoyable*, but in reality the horse still doesn't have a choice. UNLESS, we are aware of the power of certain motivators like food and pressure and do everything we can to *de-power* them in the horse's mind. By devaluing food, through offering alternative sources of food (such as a flake of hay underfoot/nearby, working on a grassy field, a pale of soaked pellets...) from what we have and only working with very very mild food, we can make it less important to the horse. This makes it so the horse is less likely to push their own limits or feel forced to say yes in order to get the food... since they have a bunch right at their feet for free... and the food the human has isn't really that much better. If the task you ask of them is beyond what they are willing to do, they just wont do it. They have a choice.
We also need to devalue food by making sure the horse has enough food! All day! Or at least only working with them after a meal. The further the gap between the last time a horse last grazed or ate the more power food rewards will have... Or the more tempting that precautionary flake of hay will distract the horse from training.
Also keep in mind it's not the quantity of food they eat but the length of time they are given to eat. Horses are designed to graze 17 or so hours a day and can't exactly tell how "full" they are, but they can tell how long they've been eating/grazing for and if they should be still actively eating. If you start working with a horse that hasn't been given the opportunity to eat like they are supposed to their seeking motivation is going to be on over drive, which means food will be even more powerful for them than a horse that's been grazing for the last however many hours.
(As a side note, this concept comes into play when working on grass. If you find your horse just won't pay attention to you when grass is around.. the grass may be too powerful of a draw if they've been restricted from grazing for them to want to engage with you.)
"Or else" I will add a little pressure to subtlety remind you that there's really not a choice... I pretended to "ask", but I'm really "telling". We can avoid this by.. not following up failed responses from the horse with insisting the horse give it another try or by resorting to physical manipulation of the horse. We have to remove increasing pressure/cues/or even pressure all together in some cases to show the horse they DO have a choice.
Some ways we can do this are by... Not walking after a horse that has walked away from you, the horse needs to know they can leave without being pursued and brought back. They clearly said "no", and by bringing them back we are saying "but you HAVE to say yes". When a horse is leading beside you and happens to go a step or two too far ahead of you, catch yourself before you reach out and "interrupt" that forward movement with a hand to their chest or pulling back on the lead. Instead, let the horse make the mistake... then set him back up to try again so that he's more likely to get the right answer and REWARD that! If your horse doesn't pick up their leg the first time you touch it, don't touch a little harder or apply a little pull up pressure to "encourage" them to pick it up.. just wait.. try again in a minute, with the same exact cue.. no increase in cue intensity. If they don't pick up their leg... it's time to problem solve and get creative. You may need to take your criteria way back and just look for a tiny weight shift, click then reward. Then a bigger shift, click then reward.. and so on. When your horse doesn't respond to your first "trot" cue, don't let yourself say "trot" a little louder or firmer or even again at all. Instead, pause, analyze the cause for the failed response, take a deep breath, try something else for a second that the horse CAN do, then try the trot cue again. You may have to get creative to help encourage a trot in a positive way, and you may even find out that your horse doesn't *actually* know their trot cue as well as you thought.. but don't *insist* your horse respond when and how you want just because you feel they *need* to. There are lots of ways we can subtly communicate to our horses that they don't actually have a choice... and there are lots of ways we can communicate they DO have a choice. We just have to be aware of what we are doing and when... and what those actions mean to the horse.
A question you can ask yourself is...
What am I doing when the horse responds in a way that I wasn't expecting or wanting? Is my response creating a negative outcome for the horse when it responds in that way?