What Positive Reinforcement Is and What It’s Not

Just A Title

I hear a lot of train­ers throw around the title of pos­i­tive rein­force­ment.  A lot of them incor­rect­ly.  While the ideas are pret­ty straight for­ward and easy to under­stand, I find that most peo­ple get a lit­tle con­fused because they don’t under­stand behav­ior.  So lets give a quick review here but for more infor­ma­tion read this on How Hors­es Learn.

I’ve used pos­i­tive rein­force­ment in my train­ing now for 7 years.  It is the basis for my reward based train­ing method and I use it for every­thing from teach­ing a horse to load on the trail­er, accept­ing clip­pers, back­ing and start­ing under sad­dle to fly­ing changes.  Used cor­rect­ly, it’s a great tool to add to your reper­toire.  If more train­ers under­stood the con­cepts they would be much more effec­tive.

So what exact­ly is pos­i­tive rein­force­ment.  Pos­i­tive rein­force­ment is the addi­tion of some­thing reward­ing in a response to a desired behav­ior that you would like to see increase.  What does that mean?  It means that imme­di­ate­ly when your horse does what you want you give them a reward that is inher­ent­ly reward­ing.  This great­ly increas­es the odds that the horse will do it again.  Once the horse learns that you are offer­ing rewards for what they do, they quick­ly catch on and become faster at learn­ing as time goes on.  I’ve seen hors­es first intro­duced take 15–30 min­utes or so to get the idea but then grasp new con­cepts with­in 5 sec­onds in the future.

What’s inherently rewarding?

This is the first place that train­ers usu­al­ly mess up.  They don’t real­ly know what is reward­ing.  They think a pat on the neck or a “good boy” is a reward.  Well, not nec­es­sar­i­ly.  My hors­es do respond to ver­bal praise and to pats but they didn’t at first.  The rea­son they do now is because I always fol­low it up with some­thing I know for sure they love, like food, free­dom or their friends.

Positive Reinforcement is NOT release from pressure.

I use pres­sure and release in my train­ing and rid­ing.  It can be very effec­tive.  Pair­ing it with rewards can be super effec­tive.  Tak­ing away pres­sure in response to the horse doing what you want is actu­al­ly called neg­a­tive rein­force­ment.  Don’t let the terms con­fuse you.  Just remem­ber that if your are think­ing that releas­ing all pres­sure is reward­ing to your horse, you might be miss­ing the boat.  Can releas­ing pres­sure train a horse?  Sure.  But when we think of rewards, we think of giv­ing the horse some­thing.  Can rest be reward­ing.  Sure.  But often times, it’s not reward­ing enough for me to con­sid­er it a pos­i­tive rein­force­ment.

I have one such horse.  Release from pres­sure wasn’t enough.  Just think­ing about train­ing and learn­ing was pres­sure to him.  How­ev­er, once I start­ed using rewards, his train­ing real­ly took off.  He start­ed relax­ing about the train­ing because it was clear­er to him what I want­ed.  The food rewards said “yes, exact­ly that is what I want” and he said “oh, I can do that no prob­lem.

I’ve also noticed it with young hors­es learn­ing the first lessons of life.  They are quick­er to learn when they get pos­i­tive rein­force­ment.  Ted­dy, my year­ling, had lit­tle expo­sure in the first 7 months of his life.  So when it came time to expos­ing him to the hose and bathing he was fran­tic to get away.  With­in 10 min­utes of intro­duc­ing rewards any­time the hose was near him, he start­ed to relax.  With­in a few short lessons I was able to calm­ly hose him any­where.  At no time did I have to force him to get over being hosed.  At no time did he feel the need to fight.  He real­ized that the hose went away when he stood still (neg­a­tive rein­force­ment) and that he got a reward when he didn’t move away (pos­i­tive rein­force­ment).  I will make a short video soon to demon­strate.  It’s so easy and it makes train­ing so easy too.

Really Good Timing

The sec­ond place I see many train­ers mess­ing up is in the tim­ing of their rewards.  The pos­i­tive rein­force­ment has to be exact­ly when the horse exhibits the behav­ior.  Exact­ly.  If you wait 10, 20, 30 sec­onds it’s too late.  The horse is prob­a­bly doing some­thing else at that point and it con­fus­es the pic­ture for them.  So to be real­ly clear to the horse, it’s got to be exact.

The Third Mistake

Final­ly, the next big mis­take I see train­ers make is in the deliv­ery of the reward.  When crit­ics start to bash pos­i­tive rein­force­ment, it’s because of this.  They see a horse that has been lured and/or taught to nip or search pock­ets for food and they blame the tech­nique instead of the train­er.  There are ways to train a horse and ways to deliv­er food rewards that dis­cour­age a horse that might become over­ly ambi­tious about “get­ting what you have”.  Let me also state, that we nev­er lure.  If your are stand­ing in the trail­er with a buck­et of feed, shak­ing it and hop­ing your horse enters the trail­er, you are lur­ing and total­ly miss­ing what pos­i­tive rein­force­ment is all about.

If you want to learn more about under­stand­ing how hors­es learn, how to train, how to ride effec­tive­ly and how to use rewards in your train­ing cor­rect­ly, fol­low this blog, take a course or sched­ule a sem­i­nar with me today!