• Adele Shaw

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

  • teeth

  • unbalanced or long hooves

  • improperly fitting bridle or bit

  • general illness

  • heavy parasite load 

  • unbalanced diet

  • muscle or immune diseases

  • liver or kidney problems

  • muscular pain

  • arthritic pain

  • 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..