Horse training has historically been performed using negative reinforcement, and I don’t expect that tradition to be changing any time soon. I encourage people to use positive reinforcement whenever possible, but I haven’t really given many examples of how to do so. Perhaps, it’s about time I got more specific.
Positive reinforcement training is also known as clicker training, because clickers are often used to give “secondary” reinforcement. The idea is that reinforcement must be immediate and getting a treat to an animal takes time, so the clicker is used to signal that the treat is coming. The instant that a desired behavior is performed, the trainer can click to signal the animal’s success, following the click up with the promised treat.
You don’t really HAVE to use a clicker for positive reinforcement training, but clickers are cheap and readily available at pet supply stores such as Petsmart. You begin by just clicking and feeding, until the horse clearly expects a treat when it hears the click. Then, the clicker has become a secondary reinforcer.
You don’t have to use commercial treats. I use pieces of carrot. You can also use handfuls of pellets. I would steer clear of using grain, but cubed hay would also work --- anything the horse likes that’s easy for you to carry. Hand feeding will not cause problems if you give the treat only if the horse takes it gently, but if you don’t want to hand feed, have a bucket available and throw the treat in there. When the horse has learned that the click means food, you are ready to begin clicker training.
Some commercial trainers look down on clicker training because it is used to teach tricks. Many people think that training horses to do tricks is a waste of time, but if it is properly done, it actually enriches the horse’s life. Once a horse learns how to learn (that is, learns to try different behaviors to see which ones get rewarded), it enjoys the challenge as much as it enjoys the treats. The training becomes a game that is fun for both you and the horse. It gives the horse mental stimulation, more control over its life, and lots of good treats. It gives you the satisfaction of a good relationship and some tangible accomplishments you can show off to your friends. Teaching tricks is easy, fun, and a win-win situation for both the horse and the trainer. However, there ARE other uses for positive reinforcement training, for those who don’t want to bother with tricks.
Examples of things that can easily be taught to horses using clicker training include picking up the feet, taking the bit, moving in response to pressure, standing at the mounting block, trailer loading, etc. These things can be taught with pure positive reinforcement or with a combination of the usual negative reinforcement methodology with positive reinforcement. It’s pretty much common sense, and many people may be doing something close to it already. The main difference may be just in following through with a timely reward to improve the horse’s response.
The easiest way to teach picking up feet is to use the usual negative reinforcement methodology to get the initial response. I just tap on the leg, rather than pinching the tendon. When the horse does what I want, the tapping stops (which is negative reinforcement). However, you should also give positive reinforcement at the same time --- click and then treat. The horse will pick up its foot much faster to get a treat than it does just to get away from the tapping. Eventually, my horses pick up their feet as soon as I bend over next to their legs (or even pick up the next foot as soon as I put one down). If you want to teach the command “foot”, you can use that approach as well.
This training goes REALLY quickly if the horse actually picks up its foot when you tap, but sometimes, it takes a few more steps. If the horse makes ANY move toward doing what you want, you should reward it. In other words, if all it does at first is shift its weight off that foot, reward it for that behavior. When it is reliably shifting its weight on command, then hold off on the reward until it goes one step further. That step might be actually lifting its foot, or it might just be tilting its foot or bending its knee a little. Each extra little step is rewarded until it becomes reliable, then you demand a little more, until eventually the horse figures out what you want. You can use negative reinforcement to force the horse to pick up its foot as the FIRST step, but I prefer to go positive as soon as possible --- as soon as the horse offers me ANY step on the way to picking up the foot.
Once the horse reliably picks up its feet, you can begin clicking only after the second foot, then after the third, then after all four. Most horses will maintain the behavior for just a treat at the end of the procedure. You can even do away with the clicker, and just directly treat the horse, and most horses will still connect the treat with the behavior. If the behavior degenerates, you just go back to the beginning to freshen it up again.
Because my horses are used to getting handheld treats, teaching them to take the bit is simply a matter of offering the bit and a treat at the same time. Their reward is literally simultaneous with taking the bit. They quickly begin reaching for the bit whenever they see it, and at that point, I begin giving them the treat after I’ve actually gotten them bridled. Sometimes, I don’t even bother with the treat. I think the horses associate the bit with being ridden, which means getting out and doing interesting things with me, so they actually look forward to being bridled.
For people who don’t want to handfeed treats, you can just use the usual negative reinforcement to get the horse to take the bit, then click, then offer a treat from a bucket. Many horses will open their mouths eventually if you just keep pushing the bit against their teeth. Most of the rest will open their mouths if you just slip your finger or thumb between their lips in the space between the front and back teeth. It’s not necessary to try to force their mouths open, as I’ve seen so many people do. The important part is to be patient and to remember to click as the bit is going in, not after you’ve already bridled the horse. The reward is for taking the bit, and the result is a horse that opens its mouth for the bit as soon as it is presented, without you having to bang the bit on its teeth or use other such typical methods of bridling.
Teaching a horse to move in response to pressure is another combination of negative and positive reinforcement. You apply enough unpleasant pressure to get the horse to move, then click and treat. I usually apply pressure with a fingernail, and eventually, the horse will move. The fingernail is not enough pressure to make the horse want to push back, but it’s uncomfortable enough that the horse will eventually move. When it moves, it is rewarded by stopping the pressure (negative reinforcement) and a treat (positive reinforcement). The treat causes it to learn the behavior faster (and better) than it would with just negative reinforcement. Remember to reward ANY move toward doing what you want, even if the horse just leans away from you. Once it reliably leans, then ask it for (and reward it for) just a little more response, until it moves over for you when you just place your hand on its side. (My horses move over at just a hand motion.)
Many people have trouble getting their horses to cross one leg over another when asked to move sideways. That problem usually arises when horses are FORCED to move sideways, so they are concentrating more on the force than on moving. Horses that are taught to move voluntarily will usually cross their legs naturally, but if they don’t, you can actually teach them to do so by using the same stepwise approach discussed above. Ask the horse to move sideways and reward any approximation of crossing its legs. The first step might just be moving one leg slightly in front of the other. When that step is reliably performed, ask for just a little bit more. When the horse learns to cross its legs when you move it on the ground, it will easily transfer that knowledge to crossing its legs when you move it while riding.
To teach a horse to stand still at the mounting block, you just reward it for standing still at the mounting block. One way to do so is to position it, give it a command (“stand”), and reward it after it has stood there a moment. At first, “a moment” should be a very short time, so that the horse actually has a chance to get rewarded. When it is standing for a short time, you just lengthen the time it must stand still to get the treat, until it is standing long enough for you to get on its back. If it moves when it shouldn’t, you just reposition it and start the countdown over again. If you’re having trouble getting it to stand still long enough to get a treat, you’re asking for too much and need to shorten the time before you give it a reward.
You give the last reward after you’ve actually gotten on and before you move off. I handfeed that treat, too, but if you don’t want to handfeed, you can throw the treat on the ground. You may have to teach the horse to look for the treat, if you do things that way, but they’ll learn THAT trick very quickly. If your horse likes to have its withers scratched, you can also use scratching as a reward, so you can do away with the treat altogether.
Teaching trailer loading can also be done totally positively. You simply bring the horse up to the trailer and reward it for each step toward getting inside. However, a “step” may not be an actual step. If the horse lowers its head to sniff the trailer floor, it’s thinking about getting in, and it should be rewarded. Again, you want to reward ANY move toward doing what you want and just increase your demands little by little. You can use treats as lures to encourage the horse to move forward. Some people think luring is bad (and call it “bribing”), but in fact, it is just a way of communicating to the horse what you want it to do. I have never understood why people think it’s bad to indicate to a horse what you want and then reward it for doing what you’re asking.
Some horses (like my current pet) may have trouble figuring out how to step up into a trailer. Usually, they’ll figure it out if you are luring them with a good enough treat, but if not, you can put a foot in for them; reward them for keeping it there; and THEN use a lure. The trick is to be patient and to reward each LITTLE step forward. People who have trouble teaching loading are usually too impatient, or are failing to recognize and reward the LITTLE behaviors that show the horse is trying, or both. If you can’t read a horse well enough to recognize and reward each LITTLE step forward, then the easiest way to teach loading is to leave the trailer in the pasture with food in it (but be sure the trailer is stable enough not to move when the horse tries to get into it). Horses will eventually figure it out on their own. The food is positive reinforcement for getting in the trailer even if you aren’t there giving it to them.
If the only training you ever do is with negative reinforcement training, then your horse will come to associate you with negatives. I think we’d all prefer that our horses associate us with positives, so we should be using positive reinforcement whenever possible. If you try it, you’ll find that your horses respond to commands both more quickly and more willingly. Better responses and a better relationship are the human’s reward for using positive reinforcement. It’s definitely a win-win proposition. Why not try it?