Much has changed in our understanding of horse behaviour. It used to be that the only perceived way to train horses was via punishment, which involved the rider telling the horse what not to do and suppressing what they didn’t want to happen.
Today, though, the ethical approach involves positive reinforcement, which, in a nutshell, is showing the horse what you do want through consequence and reward.
For this to work, however, rewards must be delivered consistently in all circumstances, and the best way to learn reinforcement methods is to train with an expert. Rewards delivered wrongly due to a lack of knowledge will lead to a confused horse.
Horses are like most humans in that they love food. Therefore a tasty treat is the perfect way to reward and reinforce good equine behavior. The horse also loves scratches on his withers. According to research, if you do this for two minutes you will also lower his heart rate.
Although patting is prevalent in the equestrian world to acknowledge good behaviour, the horse may not understand what you are trying to tell him.
Recent research at Nottingham Trent University proved that scratching is definitely more effective as a reward. It is, however, important that scratches are given immediately the horse behaves appropriately.
One of the ways horses learn is via operant conditioning, or trial and error. When they behave in the correct way, they are rewarded — with a treat or a scratch (positive reinforcement).
An example is a horse that failed to stop at road junctions now responding to the aids and halting and being presented with a treat.
Clicker training can form a part of positive reinforcement and it has long been a favourite with dog trainers. Basically, the clicker bridges or connects the horse behavior with the reward. The horse learns that, when he behaves well, the sound of the click means that a tasty treat is on its way.
A clicker gives a quick and consistent signal, as opposed to the rider’s voice, which might change depending on their mood. The method needs repetition and, again, it is advisable to attend a course to learn from an expert before trying this at home.
Negative reinforcement, another element of operant conditioning, may sound like a misnomer, but ‘negative’ refers to the removal of a stimulus the horse dislikes.
In training, this generally takes the form of pressure-release, for example applying your legs to make the horse move up into walk. As soon as he moves forward you remove or release that pressure. Good riding and training consists of using light cues that get lighter still over time.
This is the school of thought according to which doing something unpleasant to the horse, such as hitting him between the ears when he rears, will stop him displaying the bad behaviour in the future. In some instances, you can produce good behaviour in this way, but it has negative welfare implications.
Additionally, research has proved that horse behaviour reinforcement training is more successful in the long term. Positive punishment used on an already anxious horse will frighten him still further and can lead to a cycle of bad behaviour and sometimes aggression.
Just like parents of naughty children, in negative punishment, trainers remove something that the horse likes because of bad behaviour. It is rarely used, but a good example is when the horse pushes you for those treats in your pocket. If you don’t offer one, he will eventually back away.
Find out more about the way horses learn