The Downside To Positive Reinforcement
Updated: Feb 28
It's really easy to talk about everything training with positive reinforcement can do, how great it is, and how you'll never go back if you just give it a try. I've written blog article after blog article about how great positive reinforcement is, about how simple clicker training makes even the most complex behaviors, and how amazing it is for your relationship with your horse. In fact, any time you talk to any trainer, whether they train with positive reinforcement or not, you're likely to hear only the good things about what they do! Rarely will you hear them talk about what their training approach can't do. Well, here I am... I'm about to make a major business no no and tell you what clicker training can NOT do for you and your horse.
It can't make your horse feel better....
I know, this sounds like a no brainer, but here me out. With a lot of traditional forms of horse training (negative reinforcement and positive punishment, this includes natural horsemanship) there is a certain amount of "overriding" that training can do to suppress physical responses of pain from the horse. For example, lets say your saddle doesn't fit, your horse bucks because his saddle doesn't fit, you correct him by spurring him on or yanking his head up.. he stops bucking, and eventually with enough repetition and enough force he may stop expressing his pain all together. Your horse is still obviously experiencing pain, but punishment has temporarily suppressed the pain response and so in a way punishment can "override" pain and make the horse continue to obey.
Clicker training and training with exclusively positive reinforcement can not do that. In fact, unbeknownst to you, you may actually find out your horse has been in pain for some time when you stop training with more traditional methods. Suddenly when force, pressure, and punishment are no longer apart of the training repertoire your horse may begin to communicate his pain again.. hoping this time you'll listen.
Here are some ideas of possible pain causes..
poor saddle fit
unbalanced or long hooves
improperly fitting bridle or bit
heavy parasite load
muscle or immune diseases
liver or kidney problems
needing an adjustment
and so on..
Clicker Training is not fool proof, you will make mistakes....
Despite the amazing results I can almost guarantee you'll experience with positive reinforcement training, it's not as simple as it looks and it takes time to learn. Just like learning any other training "program" it requires practice, it requires help from a professional, and you will make mistakes! There will be issues you don't know how to address, how to fix, or even that you know you need to get better at. You need a second set of educated eyes. You are going to need help!
There is an immense amount of science and technique behind the use of positive reinforcement training. In fact, I bet you would be surprised by how technical and deep the science and practical application of clicker training goes. You can't just wield a handy couple dollar clicker, some treats in a pouch, and suddenly everything falls magically into place. Though.. I will admit, it does feel that way sometimes. ;)
The good news is that there's an every growing number of resources out there for you! Books, professional trainers that travel and do clinics, online training programs, Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and so much more.
It can not make your horse happy...
Clicker training also can't suppress behavioral outbursts that are linked to a lack of natural needs being met. This seems like a no brainer too, but you'd be surprised how many behavior problems are directly linked to an unnatural lifestyle that many horses are expected to live with and still be well behaved. Often times more traditional training approaches can suppress these behavioral reactions, but while positive reinforcement training can be used to condition more desirable behaviors it won't replace any major deficits in your horse's lifestyle.
So.. with that in mind... clicker training can NOT do these things...
feed your horse a natural and species appropriate diet
give them equine companionship
provide them with regular long turnouts and natural grazing
and so on..
On this same topic, and including the previous topic about mistakes, it can actually be pretty easy to make your horse unhappy using clicker training. Food anxiety sometimes shows up in horses when careful attention isn't paid to the horse's emotional state. (here are some excellent articles on this for reference until I can write more on this subject... article one, article two.)
It won't make your horse love you unconditionally...
Clicker training is not a cure all. And no, horses wont do what you want "just for the treats". While using a form of communication that involves rewarding behavior vs pressuring into a behavior or punishing a behavior is a great place to start, if your horse is in pain or your application is poor your horse may find you just as unappealing as before.
For example, lets say you've taken up riding with clicker training but your horse still doesn't seem to enjoy riding. There could be a variety of reasons such as poor saddle fit, but one that many do not consider is their own riding habits and equitation. You can have your saddle fit by a professional every six weeks and you could still be causing pain to your horse under saddle if you are a crooked rider or jerk on the reins every stride or ride stiff as a board. It's important to take all the variables into account when addressing behavior and training, not just whether you're using a clicker or using a whip.
Here are some other possible causes...
handler is anxious or nervous when handling horse
rider has poor equitation, or is crooked in the saddle
timing and application of clicker and rewards is poor
handler is inconsistent with their behavior and handling
the job/task/discipline is not suited to the horse's temperament or physical abilities
training tasks are not physically beneficial to the horse, and may even be harmful
Clicker training is not magic...
Though it may seem like it, clicker training isn't magic; it's science. It's just a different form of training using one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. Just like natural horsemanship uses primarily negative reinforcement and positive punishment, clicker training uses exclusively positive reinforcement. It's one way to shape a desired goal, to achieve the behaviors we want, and to communicate with the horse. Every step in training is a methodical process, much like every other kind of training. It takes consistency, patience, know how, and skill.
It's not a quick fix...
Clicker training (when done right) eliminates confusion, force, pressure, fear, and sets the horse up to really enjoy working with humans. That's something no other approach to horse training can offer, but it can't be rushed and it will not happen overnight.
In fact... positive reinforcement, in many cases, is the longer approach. It's not a quick fix for training issues or the fastest method for breaking in colts, but it's the approach that addresses the root of the behavior problems and creates confident willing horses.
Now... with all of that said...
The intention of this article wasn't to scare you away from using clicker training. Rather, to give you a realistic look at what training with positive reinforcement really looks like. My goal is never to sell you on a "method" or sell you "quick fixes", and I passionately dislike flashy sales tactics with fluffy idealistic wording to cover up the core science behind the training. Methods that push all horses through a rigid training program, a "one size fits all" program. At the end of the day these methods only cater to our desire for instant gratification, while simultaneously making us feel like we are actually doing the horse a favor... when often they do the exact opposite.
Instead, what I believe in is providing owners and handlers with the tools they need to approach horse training with a solid education so they can keep the horse's well being in mind. When I say things like "clicker training (when done right) eliminates confusion, force, pressure, fear, and sets the horse up to really enjoy working with humans!" it's because it's scientifically proven and absolutely true. It's not a fluffed up method, there are no fancy feel good words. There's no promised quick fixes or false claims, it's just science!
So, whether or not you choose to use positive reinforcement, I encourage you to remember this... At the end of the day.. it should be all about the horse. I mean, that's why we are horse lovers isn't it? Because we love horses? Don't let fluffy words and the promises of quick fixes hide the truth from you.