Positive reinforcement training is gaining some recognition in the competitive horse sport world, especially as more riders begin to see the benefit of groundwork and how it can bridge the gap to the ridden work. I recently took a clinic with Shawna Karrasch (who was interviewed on the Equestrian Voices Podcast here), widely regarded as a pioneer in r+ training for horses, and I left that experience feeling invigorated and excited about the possibilities that R+ training has for me, my horses, and my students.
I’ll start by saying that I’m not new to positive reinforcement training. While much of my ridden work has been more rooted in the traditional, pressure on/pressure off way of training horses (negative reinforcement, meaning the removal of pressure), R+ training has also been part of my approach to training horses, especially when breaking unwanted habits or helping horses cope with anxiety. However, it wasn’t until I spent time with Shawna that I truly realized the lengths that R+ training can go.
I realized that basically everything I’ve been doing with horses, I could also achieve through positive reinforcement training.
And why would I want to use R+ methods regularly? What I learned from Shawna is how this type of training elicits a totally different kind of chemical reaction in the horse’s brain and body. I gained a deeper understanding of how positive and negative reinforcement affect the neurological systems within a horse.
Horses have 4 main motivators: air, food, water, and sleep or rest. The desire for rest is what negative reinforcement relies on, as whenever pressure is removed and the horse gets a break. Food rewards have an equally useful effect on the horse’s understanding of what is being asked of them, but are often higher on the scale of motivation, so can be an even more powerful tool in the training process.
Explained simply, negative reinforcement (traditional training) utilizes the fight or flight instinct. Now, I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad, but it does rely on stress hormones to be effective, because it has to. That’s the whole gig - we add pressure that a horse wants to have removed as soon as possible, and then release that pressure when the horse exhibits the behavior we want. Positive reinforcement does the opposite - it triggers “happy hormones” and the ‘problem solving’ part of the brain. Everything is a puzzle to solve with a reward at the end.
Now, I would like to add the caveat that any type of training can be done poorly, including R+ training. Just because it feels warm and fuzzy to give your horse treats doesn’t mean you’re contributing positively to his training journey. But when done properly, R+ training allows you to methodically choose to activate “happy hormones” in your horse, which becomes a very rewarding choice for horse and handler. And at the same time, I totally believe that there is a respectful, proper and humane way to use pressure and release in training horses. I believe that the two methods can enhance one another.
Every person who trains horses should know that R+ exists, the science behind it, and how to correctly implement the basics of the work. The degree to which you use it is your prerogative, and is specific to the horse and the issues at hand.
In my next blog, I’m going to outline some practical ways that I incorporate R+ training. Stay tuned!
Photo by Sally Spickard