Stay Positive

Using Positive Reinforcement to train your horse.

Each horse has their own limitations mentally and physically and each brings different history of past training to the mix. This MUST be taken into account.
E.G. A supple horse who is naive to the use of any (except the very mildest) aversives will show a very different response to the same stimuli in comparison to a stiff horse who has become irritated by too much pressure being used historically. A nervous but naive horse may show different again behavioural responses to the same stimuli.
Remember – all behaviours are born from emotions.

R+ is Positive Reinforcement – which means a “reinforcer” is added to change behaviour.
R- is Negative Reinforcement – which means a “reinforcer” is removed. (All NH Pressure/Release approaches are based on R- )
P+ is Positive Punishment – which means a “punisher” is added to change behaviour.
P- is Negative Punishment – which means “good thing” is taken away to punish.

The term “Clicker Training” does not mean you are demanded to use of a mechanical hand held clicking device, it can be still be termed as Clicker Training when a verbal bridging sound is used – but a mechanical clicker, whist initially cumbersome for you to hold, helps a lot with clarity and this is especially helpful (to both you and the horse)/when training a new or more complex behaviour.

If you are already experienced in using R+ this will make your horse more likely to be open minded to problem solving and less apprehensive about giving a “wrong” answer. If your horse has had a history of Pressure and Release/Negative Reinforcement Training, the horse will have a different view of what “Training” may be all about in comparison to a horse trained for many years using R+ and L.I.M.A. Principles. (Least Intrusive, Minimal Aversive).

I will assume that the horse has already understood the food fed from the hand protocol and so is not muggy, grabby or overstimulated by food rewards. Food is not the cause of muggy behaviour; it is caused by poor trainer discipline, but some horses have a history of mugging or food deprivation and this established pattern of behaviour needs specialist tailored approaches to change. Muggy or overstimulated horses may need some counter conditioning work or perhaps a few will need a slightly different approach with no food rewards used, using scratches, stroking, kind words and training breaks in the session instead – but these rewards are usually lower value reinforcers and will slow down learning response rates for most horses.

However, the speed of training is definitely NOT the most important thing.

The “Aversive” used should only ever be minimal – in my view – with no consequences for non compliance and all training should closely follow the L.I.M.A. Principles. An aversive is anything the horse works to avoid or move away from if they can. It does not have to be a physical touch. Smells, sights, sounds and some types of spaces can be aversives or distractors. If the horses behaviour shows you that your efforts at L.I.M.A. Principle application is still too aversive (or there is a perceived aversive or distractor present) and this is causing calming signals or escalating towards stress behaviours, then you must remember that it is the animal who defines the level of aversive.
Not all aversives are equal and not all aversives are obvious. A familiar stable could be considered a safe comfortable space for resting for one horse, but a terrifyingly aversive space to avoid at all costs for another. A long peacock feather could be used as a tickly and visual aversive stimulus which is unlikely to cause physical harm – but is still an aversive nevertheless.

If you want to learn more about the recognition of calming signals, stress behaviours and displacement activities, then I recommend that you read a book first published in 2018 by Rachaël Draaisma called “Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses”.

If a negative reinforcer (pressure and release) has been defined by the animal as being too strong, then the addition of a food reward after the release could risk creating a “poisoned cue”. The release of pressure is not a reward in itself. If someone even gently pushes or pulls you around just stopping doing that may be a relief, but stopping doing an action is not a reward in itself.

Use Shaping and shaping plans to get behaviours, as these break down complex tasks into easy doable stages, step by step – but don’t just aim to get behaviour at the expense of animals good emotional state. The movements must always be linked with good, calm and positive emotions too. Start with the big picture, then work on the details, one by one.

The Modern Principles of Shaping are as follows:
1. Be prepared before you start (notice and reward first try)
2. Ensure success at each step (make steps easy)
3. Train one criterion at a time
4. Relax criteria if something changes (environment etc)
5. If one door closes, find another (be flexible)
6. Keep training sessions continuous, (and short) continually working with animal
7. Go back to kindergarten if necessary
8. Keep your attention on the learner
9. Stay ahead of the learner. Skip forwards if learner can
10. Quit while you are ahead

Training should be fun for the animal. Sometimes it’s fun for the trainer for longer than it is for animal.

The animal does what you train – or whatever the animal finds most rewarding.
There is no need to repeat a behaviour 8000 times before it is learned.

Latency is the term used for the time delay between the request/cue/aid being applied and when the response is given. Latency that is longer than 2 seconds means animal doesn’t understand, or cannot respond either physically or mentally. So you may need to explain what you mean in another way. Accepting a long latency for too many sessions is a mistake.

Previously learned responses can block new ones

Give the animal more control. Control empowers the animal. Empowerment builds confidence. Confidence builds stability.

Build a good trust account.

Keep all aversives to barely perceptible levels

Do remember that so called quick fixes and use of force will have future or immediate consequences that will impact badly on both the horse and the trainer.


General advice

Click and reward generously for every try and very especially notice and reward well for the first tentative try.

Look for 1 criterion at first – (train for the “big picture” – the overall concept initially, then work on the details, one by one).

End sessions before horse gets bored, mentally tired or frustrated by too many repeats. Better to do 3 x 10 minute sessions than 1 x 30 minute session.

If the horse cannot seem to understand, relax the horse in the best way you know, change your location perhaps, then retry. If this fails, then another method can be chosen to best fit the particular horses mental or physical blocks, or it may be a good idea to go back to kindergarten and work on something your horse already feels confident about and understands well.

The horse chooses the rate of progression during learning. Too fast or too slow can both cause problems in training. Every horse is intrinsically different, but the same horse may vary depending on which movement you are trying to teach, or due to hormones, the weather patterns or some unknown newly acquired stiffness.

Never punish mistakes. To “mark” mistakes (a non-reward marker) you can say “almost” or “ not now” or “whoopsie” or “ uh oh” or “nearly” to mark the mistakes rather than using the word “NO” which can tend to be said too strongly.

Do not use ever stronger and stronger aversives to try to educate your horse, as this is akin to shouting louder and louder in English at a non English speaking human student. Using stronger aversives when your horse doesn’t understand you will only frighten the horse and they will not understand you better. Find another way to explain what you want to teach. You need to learn ten different ways to teach every 1 action you want the horse to make.

Video yourself; you may not be doing what you think you are doing! (It might look better than it felt, or it might look different to how you remember).

Positively Reinforce any behaviour you want to see again.
Ignore behaviour you would not like to see any more.

Reinforcers are not working if the behaviour does not change.

Punishment doesn’t work to stop behaviour. It is even more useless when used by a human on an animal and causes many more problems than it tries to solve. Horse on horse punishment timing is better timed and usually (but not always) is delivered at the right level and has a suitable and understandable species appropriate style. Human on horse timing is rarely perfect and is often delivered using an unsuitable and confusing style.

Intrinsic motivation will arise from using extrinsic motivators initially (extrinsic motivators will be the rewards that you add) but over time, as the horses skill and understanding improves, confidence and proficiency with the movement itself will become intrinsically reinforcing. Competence breeds confidence. The horse will like to show his or her amazing skills off just for their own sakes and will not need to be positively reinforced so much by adding the food reward, but this may take weeks, months or years, depending on how difficult the horse finds the movement. It is still a very good idea to add an intermittent reward even for a well rehearsed and well understood behaviour from time to time.

Look for a sense of pride growing in the horse while working with you. Dull, compliant obedience is not what I personally want to see, I want my horses to feel proud and empowered and not just obedient, and definitely never defeated or conflicted. A horse who whickers softly to you while maintaining calmness of attitude during a movement is a horse who is recognising their own great achievements. (N.B. Some horses may whicker excitedly due to over arousal, which is not what I mean here). Look closely for the horses facial expressions and body language – look especially in their eyes and faces. Horses have 17 facial expressions.

Do the training. Wishing won’t get you anywhere. It is very good to study theory, but the study of theory without gaining the skill during practice – ideally with a variety of different horses – creates an empty shell.

Walk the talk. Be open to changing what you think and do, as if you think and do the same you will get the same.
Don’t expect it to be easy or that quick fixes will work to train your horse.

It is not usually the horse who is the limiting factor during training.

Always choose a trainer who can demonstrate with horses they have trained from an early age themselves or rehabbed older horses that they are indeed walking the talk that you want to learn.


Search google for the Bent Branderup website for details about books and streamable video tuition which you can buy with beautifully photographed and filmed high quality information, coming direct from a modern master and his accredited trainers on a number of training topics. It is just not possible to learn everything about this subtle and physical skill from books or videos and not all approaches to working horses from the ground are the same. Even the similar off shoots of AAoR have very significant differences. The Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup is unique in the quality of the experience and knowledge delivered by all of the accredited trainers. They are all utterly non scripted and each trainer offers their own view point rather than the cloned, corporate response approach.

Search Google for Shawna Karrasch website as this will provide some very helpful resources for learning more about R+ Training. She is a really wonderful inspirational teacher.

Search Google for Ben Harts website and tap into his gentle, self searching wisdom. He also can help you with creating shaping plans too, which are wonderfully helpful

In this time of lock down and limited opportunities to learn or teach directly, I also offer video tuition too, either live streaming via Skype or by pre recorded video analysis. I find it works very well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *