Scientists have been studying how animals learn for 130 years, and yet horse riders can be slow to use what has been learned. Pavlov did his famous dog experiments in the 1890s. Skinner formulated his theories about operant conditioning from the 1930s. Operant conditioning is learning behaviour by different types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is essentially rewarding the behaviour with something the trainer adds. For example, a food reward can be given when the horse demonstrates the behaviour you want to train. Most horse training is based on negative reinforcement where the trainer removes something when the behaviour is shown.
This is otherwise known as pressure and release training. An aid to trot is given with the leg and when the horse trots the pressure of the leg is immediately withdrawn. The aid to stop is given by pressure with the rein, and when the horse stops the pressure is immediately released. So the horse learns that legs mean go and rein means stop. The rider can increase the pressure with the leg by squeezing, using the spur, kicking and then add more pressure with a light touch of the whip. If the whip is used as punishment that is not pressure release training.
I think all horse people are familiar with the principles of pressure release training even though they may not recognise that this is operant conditioning, or negative reinforcement. Of course, the timing of the release is really important, so the horse knows which behaviour the release is referring to. It can be easy for an inexperienced trainer to reinforce unwanted behaviour inadvertently, for example by taking pressure off when a horse does the wrong thing, such as gets nippy or threatens to rear. The horse threatens the rider, the rider releases the rein and the horse learns a good way to avoid work.
Increasingly, animal trainers are becoming interested in the principle of “LIMA” — Least Intrusive, Minimal Aversive training. The Intenational Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants recommends that “positive reinforcement should be the first line of teaching, training and behaviour change programme considered. Positive reinforcement is associated with the lowest incidence of aggression, attention seeking, avoidance and fear in learners.” Recent research has shown that young horses trained with positive reinforcement remember the lesson better six months later and choose to be closer to humans, compared with horses trained conventionally. They showed a preference for their trainer over other humans.
So how can we use positive reinforcement in our horse training? Essentially this means that you give your horse something he likes when he does the thing you want. You want your horse to stand still while you saddle him up? You give him a food reward when he stands still. If he is really restless it may take a while to see a moment when his legs are still, but as soon as they are, you reward him. Give him something he likes. A piece of carrot or a small amount of pellets. You don’t push him around or smack him for moving, you reward him for standing still. You can use a clicker to mark the behaviour you want so he can understand more easily what he is being rewarded for.
For example, he is moving around in the cross ties, maybe pawing with restlessness. Then for a moment he is still, maybe something catches his eye and he stops to look at it. So immediately when his legs are still, you click and offer a treat. You might just say “good boy” and scratch him in that favourite place he has. Most often that will be a scratch on the wither. After a few repetitions of the clicker or of saying “good boy” and scratching him or feeding him he will come to learn that the clicker or “good boy” marks the behaviour that you are wanting.
It is very easy to train him to put his head down to be bridled by using positive reinforcement, or to stand still to be mounted, or to step forwards into the horse float. You can use positive reinforcement to get him to accept a medicine paste, or an injection, or to lift his legs up, or to be caught.
You should use the principle of shaping the behaviour. This means that you start by rewarding any attempt at the behaviour that you want. He stands still for a moment, immediately you reward. As he starts to understand, then you reward him for sustaining the behaviour. We use the clicker to mark the behaviour we want to shape. While he stands still, we click and reward. We may continue to repeat the click and reward while he continues to stand still. This is different from using food as a bribe. When you use food as a bribe or a distraction, it goes more like he is restless in the cross ties so you feed him to keep him still. When you run out of treats, he paws the ground and is restless, so you bribe him with more feed. In effect he is training you to get him treats. You are positively reinforcing the restlessness and pawing. It is better to wait until he is still and then reward. If he gets restless you stop feeding him. You can add a verbal cue, “stand still” for example, before he stands. It won’t take him long to recognise the verbal command if you are quick to reward him when he does. Giving him food at the end of a ride after you have gotten off and loosened the girth and done a few other things is not positive reinforcement of the work sessions, as he will not understand what it was you thinking you are rewarding because he won’t associate the reward with his behaviour in the ride.