There is no species alive that is immune to the power of positive reinforcement. If you doubt me, go try it on your significant other or your kids! Think of something that you would like them to start doing more of or be better at and for the next couple weeks and I don’t want you to criticize them or correct them about it. Instead, purpose to praise them heavily when they do it at all! And when they do it a little better than normal, go buy that kid some ice cream or cook your significant other a very special meal and tell them it's for doing such a great job! I bet you anything you're going to start seeing a big change in how often and how well that action happens.
Every being on this planet lives for positive affirmation that their efforts were indeed correct. Whether it's a successful hunt (a positive outcome), getting an A+ on that math test, or landing that awesome promotion after working so hard these past couple years. If there isn't a positive outcome to all the hard work, or even the smallest actions, we will do the action with as minimal effort as possible or just not do it at all.
Horses are no different!
Positive reinforcement is a powerful form of training when working with horses, especially when combined with the clicker training tool (a marker sound) and a high value reinforcer (like food, but scratches are also an excellent reward). I'm not joking when I say that with a clicker and a bag full of treats, it feels like you can conquer the world! What used to take absolutely forever to teach a horse now takes a fraction of the time. What used to have to be trained with fear and intimidation now happens out of the horse's desire to earn something good! When they earn that something they really enjoy they are being positively affirmed that they did the right thing.
No more having to pressure, poke, prod, and punish a horse into doing this or that action. No whips, ropes, spurs, or harsh bits required! Sure, those things work... but when you really think about it, a horse working to avoid something (pain, pressure, punishment) is going to act a lot different than a horse working to earn something.
The best horse trainers in the world can use pain, pressure, and punishment to achieve what looks like a very motivated and responsive horse. A horse that will stop on a dime and perform at top levels. We know this can be done because it happens all the time! We use pain, pressure, and punishment to achieve outstanding athletes in every discipline. But my question to you is.. why are these horses doing it? Is it because they are really excited to earn that blue ribbon and that nice little pat at the end of a round? Or is it because they are afraid of the consequences of choosing not to do it.
Sure, the horse may not be actively afraid at this moment, but the process of training is a long road.. at some point during training there had to be pressure, pain, or punishment to motivate the horse to try harder, go bigger, get better. By the time a horse is "made" or "well trained" they have become conditioned to respond bigger and better to very slight pressure, very slight cues, very slight corrections, but that doesn't change the motivation.. The pressure still happened.
Don't get me wrong, not all corrections are bad. I wrote an article about corrections in horses training that you can read about later, and not all negative reinforcement training is bad.. mild and well timed negative reinforcement has as place, but that's not the focus of this article.
What I want to talk to you about here is an alternative way for training the horse. A type of training that offers a motivator that is pleasant and affirming to the horse. A motivator that will condition the horse to want to work, to want to try harder, to want to learn because there is a positive outcome instead of just to avoid a negative one! Positive reinforcement can achieve the same results in every area of training, but your horse will be happier and more willing.
Horses trained with exclusively positive reinforcement and without the fear of correction or pressure learn they have autonomy! The ability for the horse to choose yes or no, to opt to participate or to not participate, is huge. The horse having the freedom to choose is something that can not be duplicated by any other form of horse training, and is exclusive to free shaping with positive reinforcement. Even if you don't use positive reinforcement all the time, integrating brief sessions of exclusively positive reinforcement with absolutely no pressure and release (negative reinforcement) or corrections (positive punishment) can help really communicate to your horse that you value their voice, their choices, and their minds!
Because of the open communication, the autonomy, and the form of motivation changing, positive reinforcement can help you develop a stronger relationship with your horse. When your horse learns that you will no longer force them to "obey" through pain, pressure, and punishment, but instead you'll create an environment where it's fun and exciting to learn, they will look forward to being around you and working with and for you! Moments that used to be stressful or aggravating, like the horse refusing to be caught or being reluctant to move forward, start to change as the horse develops a new found desire to work with a human rather than avoid them.
The actual length of time it takes for your horse to learn something can shorten significantly! Often times horses will learn faster when the motivator changes from avoidance of something they dislike to earning something they like. Even without complete autonomy, the use of the clicker itself (of course followed by a positive reinforcer) is an extremely clear form of communication to the horse that helps eliminate confusion and miscommunication. Instead of relying on them understanding the release of a pressure, or the absence of correction/punishment, they now know exactly the right moment they did something right.
Positive reinforcement training doesn't just change the horse though. There are huge benefits for the handlers that really learn how to use clicker training and positive reinforcement. Some of these benefits are physical.. like learning to have better timing and lesson planning, but the biggest change for the handler I believe comes at an emotional level. The process of learning to use positive reinforcement and how it differs from negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment brings about a new sense of understanding for how an animal learns and communicates. Instead of becoming frustrated and angry with a horse for disobeying or being "disrespectful" you learn why a horse may act in an undesirable way.
Humans are so easily wrapped up in this idea of dominance/submission and a horse being "respectful" that we usually misunderstand what's really going on.. what the horse is really trying to tell us. Observational skills and emotion control become the foundation to a successful training session! Creativity, patience, better timing, and lesson planning become the keys to success!
There's no longer a need for this subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) made up power play struggle happening between horse and handler. Tug of war is a two man job! If the handler stops pulling, there will be no war. The handler is forced to use clearer, more effective, less forceful, positive forms of communication with the horse. Training a horse is no longer about making them obey, but inspiring them to want to work with you!
To put it simply, clicker training really brings about this sense of self critique rather than blaming the horse. It's no longer the horse's fault that they don't understand or perform. It's the handler's job to communicate better and create willingness in the horse.
From personal experience I've watched huge changes happen over and over again in horses when the training program changed. Horses that have gone from completely shut down and emotionless to bright and eager to learn! Horses that would take hours to catch out of the pasture, only to be lassoed and drug to the arena to be worked in a state of pure terror, change into being the first horse at the gate to greet the rider!
I've experienced horses that bite or kick with intention to harm becoming even child "safe" and happy willing partners. Rearing, bucking, bolting horses that can now be led around safely with a toddler on their back or trail ride out alone, but then turn around and be competitive in the show ring or a fun at liberty partner!
Horses really are so willing to please, it's such a shame we are so aggressive with their training and feel this need to suppress and control their every emotion, reaction, and need. Clicker training is not magic, it can be done poorly, and it doesn't happen over night.... but with a solid education, dedication, and some patience you may find yourself wondering how on earth you ever did it differently. I honestly can't imagine NOT using clicker training in my program now. The power of positive reinforcement is real.
If you would like to learn even more about clicker training, check out this article by Fair Horsemanship. There's even a 2 minute animated video to better explain how clicker training works!
If you would like to learn how to get started using clicker training check out my blog article "Getting Started With Clicker Training". There's also a video!
When just getting started, please be cautious combining negative reinforcement (-R) and positive reinforcement (+R). I suggest starting off with exclusively positive reinforcement using free shaping - like with training to touch a target as is explained in the getting started article.
I will write more on this later, but in the meantime here is an article written by Karen Pryor on the subject of cue poisoning - which can happen when -R and +R are combined - and another article with some thought provoking comments on combining -R and +R by Cathrine Bell