Behind The Scenes: Training the Budweiser Horses

They're working on verbal commands.
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They're working on verbal commands.

As we get closer to the Super Bowl, we all get hit with lots of videos of old Budweiser Clydesdale commercials. I’m not complaining. I’m more partial to the funny ones, but I love the ones that tug at your hear, too.

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Not long ago, I came across one that I can't get out of my head. Maybe you’ve seen it, too, as it’s appearing everywhere on Facebook. It's not a real commercial. It's the training of the horses, a behind-the-scenes look, and I'll share the link below. 

Here's what struck me: First, the horses were performing on verbal commands that my dog would be hard-pressed to mimic. Second, the horses were given treats for doing a good job. Well-timed treats. Not just willy-nilly treats, like most of us do. They also got lots of vocal words of encouragement and job well done. It was motivating, but not entirely new to me.

Many years ago, after tiring of the horses playing musical stalls before I got each one in the right place at night, I came up with the idea of a target treat in their feed tub. 

I started by putting a treat in every stall to first make them want to go in the stalls and not just play in the aisle. That worked well, but it didn't take long for the first horse in the barn to figure out she could get at least one extra treat if she hurried.

The plan was tweaked recently, so that they only get a treat if they go in their own stall. (I have to be really, really quick on my feet, though.) And dear Kelsey, who thought it was a blast to scamper around Sally's stall first, now goes straight to her stall. She knows already; I know she does because she'll glance at Sally's stall but walk right by to her own. In a short time, I'm sure Paz and Sally will follow suit. 

As riding increases with better weather this year, I'm going to revamp my training a little, keeping treats with me while I ride and rewarding my horse for doing a good job. Yes, stop what I'm doing, give her a break and give her a treat. For example, if she gets three steps of a perfect shoulder-in, she gets a treat. Obviously, I will have to experiment a bit, because you don't want to disrupt the flow either. 

I'm sure the Peanut Gallery is going to have a field day with this idea, especially the traditionalists, but it seems to me that animals, like people, respond best to positive reinforcement and encouragement. With positive reinforcement, you create a relationship, which is what we all want or should want. 

I think training should be heavily positive reinforcement, using neutral reinforcement (basically no reaction) for failed attempts. Save the negative reinforcement for dangerous behaviors, like biting or kicking.

Positive reinforcement includes your voice, a soft pat or stroke, and relief from the work itself, such as a walk on a long rein or an impromptu trail ride. Figure out what your horse likes best, and use it for the biggest achievements. 

Now, here's the Budweiser training video link. Do you think part of this talented trainer's secret is positive reinforcement through voice and treats?

Budweiser training video