Updated: Mar 31
When we first start learning about training with a positive reinforcement focus, It's REALLY easy to become wrapped up and feeling like we can't do anything else. We have at this point usually learned that pressure and release involves applying an aversive pressure/stimuli (sometimes this means just mildly annoying or unpleasant) to get the horse to do what we would like them to do. We learn that our horses are working to avoid the continuation or increasing of this aversive stimuli, and there is really nothing "magical" or more "natural" about it than any other training approach.
All horses learn, and pressure and release is just one way you can train behaviors.
Often we are tired of pestering or pressuring our horses into doing what we want, and sometimes even confused by the logic behind using pressure and release to get our horses to "trust" and "respect" us. Why do we send horses away to teach them to follow? If our horses "like" to jump and run, why do we need crops, whips, and to squeeze our legs harder? These things may just never have sat right with us. Or maybe it did at one point... but now we understand the science behind what's happening and we don't want that for our relationships with our horses.
We then learn that there's a way to work with horses where the horse can voluntarily participate in their training, and where we can create a pleasant association with training and towards us. A way of training where there is "something in it for the horse", and it's not such a one sided relationship. Our interest is peaked and we either dive in head first or we slowly begin to explore this world of positive reinforcement focused training.
Many people will jump headfirst into the deep end of this pool of positive reinforcement training, without even knowing if they can swim or not. If they have a flotation device (R+ training friends, a coach, lots of research under their belt, and are completely willing and happy to give up anything they've trained their horse to do traditionally - like riding) they will be just fine! But if they go in without preparation or a support system, they may find themselves drowning. (ESPECIALLY if they also take on some of the "sister" studies that often coincide with R+ training at the same time; holistic horse care, forage based diets, facial pain expressions, stress body language and calming signals, the five freedoms, etc.)
For awhile they may be able to tread water, and they may even find swimming just comes naturally so you never do drown... but I think for many people, they take on too much too quickly and feel paralyzed. Alone, uncertain, without help, and desperate to return to what feels safe and enjoyable.
This is what I think happens to a lot of equestrians. They dive in head first without help, preparation, or a gradual introduction, and then they feel paralyzed... they don't know how to be around their horses anymore, they don't feel like they can even touch their horses or pet them without doing something wrong. They begin to miss riding, miss their friends, feel confused and lost, question their life choices.. but they also know they could never "go back" now that they can "see" what they couldn't before. They would feel too guilty doing anything they used to do, or forcing our horse to do anything, so they do nothing. And so then slowly.. the joy of being around horses is lost.
And then their are people like me, who tip-toed very gingerly into the world of positive reinforcement, I was able to explore the training and gradually modify my view on horses and horsemanship as I was ready. I was able to continue to ride and work with horses with my traditional approach as I explored clicker training and using food in training with certain horses or with very specific horses. This allowed me to shape my behavior and mindset over time without feeling completely at a loss.
They way I did it came with some costs though! I spent a long time continuing to do everything I had done before, but just added a click and food. At the time this is what I knew, and I thought I was actually training with "all positive reinforcement", but I've since learned a LOT.
Because of this approach I was tempted to stop pushing myself to learn more and do more because it seemed like I was working and also because I didn't realized I was still using a lot of pressure and release. Thankfully, my nature is to never stall out. I'm of the mindset there the journey is never ending and there is no such thing as an "end" to learning. But mostly the reason for continuing on was due to my horses. There was always one horse at any given point poking holes in my "good enough" mental state.. pushing me to learn more and do more.
Some other costs presented later on as making slower progress than I could have made had I "cold turkey" switched over. Even now, I find that I'm having to re-train some behaviors that originally were taught with R-, then I "combo" trained with R- and R+, and now I'm going back and starting over with R+. The progress has been SO much slower than if I had just started all over with R+.. but I couldn't have known that at the time, I made the best decision I could at the time.
Also, progress in my own training was slower.. had I cold turkey switched over I probably would have been much further along in my skills of applying R+ training and the removal of old habits of coercion. Instead, it's taken me years! Where as some of my students are able to develop these skills within days/weeks/months if the environment and training program is set up for success.
Slowly making a transition like this can also lead to poisoning the R+ training! I've seen it time and time again, to the extremes where horses will stop taking food rewards all together and run when they see the treat pouch, because they know it predicts training they don't like.. training that doesn't allow for autonomy and choice because R- (and possibly P+) are involved too.
True choice, control, autonomy, consent, etc can really only come from training that has removed all punishing or aversive side effects for the learner if they were to make a mistake or not do what we want. This took much longer for me to be able to give my horses because I combined and gradually stepped into the R+ world.
Food anxiety, anxious behavior during training, delayed responses, poorer quality responses, subtle "coercion" fall out, and more were all other negative side effects of a gradual approach to switching over in the way I did it. (note on this at end of article)
That was okay! it was the journey I needed to take to get where I am now. And where I am now... will lead me to where I will be in the future. I have to be here before I can get there. But there is the key... you have to keep moving, learning, making progress, changing, seeking. Don't stall out. And maybe your journey will look different than mine, maybe you will come to different conclusions than me, and that's okay.
So, how about now, what are my recommendations for those exploring positive reinforcement focused training? Should you jump in head first into the deep end? Or should you start at the shallow end and work your way into the deep end?
I think that really depends. (how's that for a helpful answer ;)
For many people my recommendation is to start with one thing. Leave everything else "as is" and start training some new behaviors or re-train one old one. Experiment, learn, explore this one area. Teach your horse to target, but go out and ride on a nice hack later that day and don't feel guilty. You can look at other ways to improve your training in those areas, like switching to bit-less or learning how to use shaping plans with R-, but you don't have to give up these R- trained behaviors up right away (or ever really if you don't want). Your horse will greatly benefit from any interaction with R+ training. And as your ready, add in new behaviors.. eventually replacing old behaviors when the time comes!
This approach I think really can help you explore something new without paralyzing you, and also can help avoid the negative side effects of poisoning and such that I mentioned I experienced during my transition. I don't consider this a "combination" approach, but rather a way of isolating out training times that are with R+/consent , and the times that you're doing the way you've always done things. These things should be behaviors/time together that both you and your horse enjoy, but maybe now with some modifications.
If you are adequately prepared to take on this new challenge
Or, if you have a horse with significant trauma that is unable to cope with any kind of traditional pressure & release
And if you have a support team, a coach, and facility to do so at
It's so much fun in the deep end, and this may be just what you were looking for. You may find your whole world and your relationship with your horse changes overnight practically. It's AMAZING and I'm not making it up. You will have struggles, there will be a learning curve, and you will some days go "what have I gotten myself into", but really.. isn't that just part of being an equestrian at this point? (hahaha)
But really, half the time I look at the ten horses in my care right now and go "I'm crazy. What am I doing." And you know what? I go home and get on social media and see a massive draft horse being groomed and lead around by a little tiny kid and.... I want ANOTHER ONE! So really, we are already in the deep end, just embrace it. ;)
Regardless of the type of training you're focusing on, be comforted by the reality that there is no such thing as completely linear progress, there is no such thing as perfection and absolutes in the horse world, and there will always be set backs. So don't be disheartened if you hit a bump in the road. One way or another, even if it doesn't turn out the way you pictured it, you've got this!
**Side note** Some people DO successfully combine R- and R+, and I agree that I think it's often a dramatic improvement on a lot of horse training. So I'm not saying it's "bad", it's just not my preferred way. If you decide to combine R- and R+ and it's working well for you and your horse, then.. continue on and who knows.. maybe I'll change my mind one day down the road or you might, either way we will be faithfully pursuing to learn more and be the best horsemen and women we can be. And that's what's important.