Are you proficient in the art of attaboy? Do you consistently reinforce the behavior and responses you want in your horse, in order to get more of them?
If so, you’re taking advantage of the most powerful training tool there is. But if you’re like many well-meaning riders, you may not be using rewards consciously or often enough to gain their full benefit in shaping your horse’s behavior.
In this article, we’re going to help you understand why you should use rewards to maximum benefit, and how to go about it. We’ve gathered insights and tips from a range of equine experts. They’ll explain the difference between the various types of behavior reinforcements, and tell you why reinforcement trumps punishment as a behavior modifier.
They’ll also provide specific examples of the kinds of rewards they’ve found most appreciated by horses, including some innovative strategies that may surprise you.
Armed with this information, you can put together your own super-high- gain “equine incentive program.”
Positive? Negative? Huh?
For starters, let’s clear up some confusion. Many people think negative reinforcement means punishment, whereas positive reinforcement means reward.
Not so, explains Robert M. Miller, DVM, in his new book Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands. “Both negative reinforcement (the removing of discomfort, such as leg or rein pressure) and positive reinforcement (the adding of comfort, such as pleasurable stroking) are rewards,” notes Dr. Miller. “Most learned behaviors in horses are the result of reinforcement—a reward that is given consistently after a behavior occurs until the behavior becomes a conditioned response.”
Both positive reinforcement (adding a good thing) and negative reinforcement (removing an unpleasant one) are more effective in molding your horse’s behavior than punishment is. That’s because training horses is much like raising children: It’s better to explain clearly what you want, then reward the tiniest positive effort, than to demand obedience and then punish resistance. Though punishment has a place (as when your horse shows aggressive behavior toward you), it’s not a good training tool in general (see “The Carrot vs. The Stick,” page X).
Some traditional trainers use negative reinforcement exclusively and get good results, though it might be argued that the best traditional trainers use both negative and positive reinforcement. Most natural-horsemanship-oriented trainers routinely use a combination of both types of rewards.
In negative reinforcement, the “reward” is usually the cessation of the pressure you applied to ask for a response. For it to be effective, however, the cessation must come immediately after your horse responds. When your horse takes that first step backward in response to rein pressure, a brief, instantaneous softening of the reins tells him, “That’s right!”
But if you keep the pressure on all the way through the back-up, releasing it only after your horse has stopped, he won’t get a clear association between his response and the reward. That means he’ll never learn to be light to your rein cue.
Clinician John Lyons says timing is indeed the key to specificity.
“If I said to you, ‘That was a phenomenal paragraph you wrote awhile back,’ without being more specific, you wouldn’t know what I was praising you for,” he explains. “Similarly, your release of rein or leg pressure must be perfectly timed. When it is, it’s a clear ‘yes!’ to a specific thing your horse has done.”
Reining champion and clinician Stacy Westfall says it’s the sensitive, multiple, well-timed releases of pressure that make it OK to seek top performance from your horse.
“So many people are afraid to apply the pressure needed to ask their horses to do something,” she observes. “But there should be a ‘conversation’ of pressure and release during any maneuver—a spin, for example. Ask, horse responds, release a little...then ask, horse responds, release a little. You’ll have varying degrees of pressure throughout a maneuver, and it all works if your softenings and releases are properly timed to reinforce the responses you want.”