Why you shouldn’t pat your horse: How to use incentives wisely to enhance training

Have you ever given any thought to the ways in which you praise and reward your horse for excellent behaviour, and how this can affect how horses learn and act in the future?

Equine veterinary behaviourist Dr. Gemma Pearson, director of equine behaviour for The Horse Trust, explains that operant conditioning is a key component of training horses. “Horses learn to operate within their environment through operant conditioning, and it’s really important to how we train horses,” she says.

Positive reinforcement is the first component of operant conditioning.

The addition of anything to encourage behaviour, so that it is repeated over time, is what Gemma describes as “positive” in a mathematical sense. “This is the cornerstone of clicker training, but a clicker is not required.

The introduction of an innatory reinforcer—something the horse appreciates naturally—is crucial. Horses don’t especially like being stroked; they may equate it with a break, but it doesn’t really matter to them. Likewise, they don’t like being told they’re doing well. In contrast to how we have produced dogs, we have not bred horses to want to please us.

Therefore, we can utilise food, scratches, and caressing the horse as positive reinforcement. And we may utilise that to train desired behaviours both on foot and while mounted.

Negative reinforcement is operant conditioning’s polar opposite.

Negative doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a terrible thing, Gemma argues; you have to think of it mathematically. Perhaps we ought to term it reinforcement for removal instead,” suggests Gemma.

“This is fundamental to horse training. Negative or removal refers to taking away a cue after the horse responds correctly. If you want to teach a young horse to step forward, you can apply a light leg signal and release the pressure as soon as the horse starts to step forward. As a result, the horse comes to understand that moving forward is the behaviour required to relieve leg pressure.

“This provides the horse control over their environment; we refer to them as being able to operate in their environment because whenever pressure is applied, they are aware of the behaviour required to release it.

The horse can be asked to move forward using the legs, stopped or slowed down with the reins, and turned using a variety of various rein techniques. If we give them a cue, we release it as soon as the horse responds appropriately.

Gemma emphasises that sometimes it’s simple to unintentionally reinforce the wrong behaviour and that “you get the behaviour you reinforce, not the behaviour you want.”

Consider a difficult-to-worm horse as an illustration. When you press the wormer against the horse’s lips, the horse raises its head, which releases the pressure on the wormer’s lips and unintentionally reinforces that behaviour.

Horses don’t understand the concepts of winning and losing; they don’t have agendas, think they’re in charge, or anything similar, but you only get the behaviour you encourage, not the behaviour you want, according to Gemma.

Put the wormer on the horse’s cheek and remove it just as the animal turns its head away to remedy this situation. The horse’s lips are then gradually positioned closer to the wormer over time.

The horse is now beginning to realise, “Wow, this is unusual,” as Gemma describes. I used to have to hurl my head up in the air whenever my owner put the wormer to my lips, but now all I have to do is put my head down and rest, and the wormer disappears. They also maintain their composure and relax, making it simple for you to place the wormer in their mouth, and they appear happy as a result.

We remove the wormer’s syringe but also offer a click and a small amount of food to the horse for remaining calm and relaxed because we can speed up this learning by utilising positive reinforcement.

Punishment is the final component of operant conditioning. Punishment can be positive or additional—you add something, like beating the horse—or negative—you take something away, like food.

As Gemma points out, “I don’t think there’s really a need for punishment in horse training in this day and age because we know that horses aren’t inherently bad, we’ve frequently just unintentionally reinforced the incorrect behaviours, or there’s another motive involved, like pain.” “We should consider attempting to reinforce the behaviour that we do want rather than trying to stop the behaviour we don’t want, which takes us down the route of punishment.”

On episode 126 of The Horse & Hound Podcast, Gemma discusses rewards, consequences, and how horses learn. She also suggests watching the worry-free worming video from the British Equine Veterinary Association.


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