Using food rewards, positive reinforcement training, with horses effectively is complicated. You need to think of your timing, your marker signal, your feeding position, your horses mental state… Contrary to popular belief, using food rewards in training is totally different than just giving a carrot at the end of a ride. In order for you to use food rewards effectively with your horse, you will need to read up about the learning theory. To teach horses anything, we must first understand how they learn. As with anything new you learn, it is important that you take time to study the theory behind it before you apply the practice. When using positive reinforcement and food rewards, you will become an expert in reading your horses mental state, learning about antecedent arrangements and setting up for success.
Learning with rewards is.. well, rewarding! When we train using positive reinforcement, the horse does not have to worry about punishment or about increasing pressure or about working through his fears. When positive reinforcement training is applied correctly, the horse feels happy, curious, safe and confident.
Once you have embarked on a journey of positive reinforcement, you start to see things differently. You soon forget about the need to punish your horse or to chase them around a round pen. You will start to understand that horses that are labelled “misbehaving” are mostly just scared, defensive or confused.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as just allowing the horse to eat his favorite food while the blood is drawn or while the wound is being cleaned. Other times a more systematic approach with counter conditioning is necessary, but it is surprising how quickly a horse learns to tolerate uncomfortable procedures when they are trained to participate voluntarily.
When your horse is learning by succeeding and his efforts are rewarded, they tend to try harder and be much more willing to participate. Positive reinforcement trainers never have the issue of not being able to catch their horse, quite the opposite usually!
The learning theory is the same across all species and it works for every animal. Should you ever need to train another animal, you can use your clicker, species appropriate treats and your skills to teach any animal you may come into contact with.
You will never be alone. Unlike the more traditional circles, positive reinforcement trainers actually support each other! We share videos, ideas and kind feedback in various groups and platforms over the internet. There are tons of free resources and plenty of paid opportunities for online or in person learning. Here in Portugal, the writer of this article runs a holiday destination for clicker trainers. Training horses in the sunshine, what could possibly be better?! Search “Country Quest Portugal” for more!