Horse Training Equipment with the Carrot or the Stick?

Horse training and the horse training equipment used for horse training has changed dramatically over the last 20-30 years. Because we understand what motivates different behaviors in horses so much better than we once did, much of the brute force of traditional horse training equipment has gone out of training.

Horse training and the horse training equipment used for horse training has changed dramatically over the last 20-30 years. Because we understand what motivates different behaviors in horses so much better than we once did, much of the brute force of traditional horse training equipment has gone out of training. Thank heavens!

But even while we strive to be kind and gentle, much of what we do to train our horses might still be considered “negative.” For example, you pull on the rein-which the horse would prefer you didn’t do-and when he responds by turning his head, you let go. Sure, it’s a relief when you release the pressure on his mouth, but it’s not exactly a “reward”-at least not in the same way that giving him a piece of carrot would be.

New evidence from the Equine Research Foundation in Aptos, California, suggests that maybe that carrot might produce better, faster results and make horses even more eager to learn. According to Evelyn B. Hanggi, M.S., Ph.D., an equine cognitive behaviorist, positive reinforcers such as praise, petting and food are powerful tools.

“Horses learn remarkably well when trained using positive reinforcers,” notes Dr. Hanggi. “Rewards teach a horse to give you a specific behavior to receive something good in return.”

For decades, such methods have been put to good use training many different species-from dolphins to dogs. Dr. Hanggi and her fellow researchers are hoping that the same type of rewards will find their way into the training repertoires of horse owners as well.

The Equine Research Foundation uses only positive reinforcement in its efforts to discover how horses learn. This research has been instrumental in debunking some of the old myths that horses aren’t smart, that they simply react instinctively to life, and that they don’t really have the ability to learn.

How Horses Learn
As horse enthusiasts, we commonly see and use a type of learning called “operant conditioning.” This type of learning teaches a horse to act in a particular way, either to get positive reinforcement (something he wants, like a carrot) or to get rid of negative reinforcement (something unpleasant, like that pesky leg cue).

The idea is to strengthen the connection in the horse’s mind between the action and the reinforcement, so you get the desired response when you use the same cue. For instance, your horse learns to extend his trot when he hears you clucking and feels you mildly squeezing his sides with your legs.

Operant conditioning is a horse training standard. It has been used since humans began working with horses. In fact, research and practical experience show that horses excel at this simple form of learning.

“The equine brain is marvelously evolved to learn different sorts of information in different ways,” says Andrew McLean, an Australian horse behavior expert and trainer.

Building Bridges

  • Give your horse credit for being the smart, adept learner that he is.
  • Use positive reinforcement, whether food, praise or petting, to help your horse learn better and faster.
  • Develop a “bridge,” a secondary reinforcer, to span the gap between your horse’s correct action and his reward.
  • At first, reinforce any effort in the right direction. Then become more selective about the actions you reward.
  • Condition and reinforce politeness and respect. Ignore or discourage any rude or pushy acts.
  • Be patient and consistent when applying these methods.

Using Negative Reinforcement
Perhaps the most common way we shape equine behavior today is by negative reinforcement. To mold our horses’ behaviors, we generally use some kind of pressure-the pull on the rein, the tap of a dressage whip, a squeeze with a leg. This pressure becomes the “negative stimulus” that our horses want to remove or avoid.

Negative reinforcement is used before a horse acts in a certain way; it then stops when the horse does the right thing. Most of us use negative reinforcers every time we work with our horses.

However, negative reinforcement should never be confused with punishment. Punishment is used after the horse has acted in what his rider or trainer would deem to be the “wrong” way. Equine behavior experts emphasize that punishment is always confusing and damaging to a horse. It should never be used as a training tool.

While the idea of using a “negative reinforcer” doesn’t sound all that great either, wise and caring trainers learn to refine negative reinforcement cues so the slightest pressure produces the desired behavior.

But what if you could produce these exact results by offering rewards rather than by applying, then removing, pressure? This is what positive reinforcement training is all about.

The Equine Research Foundation

The Equine Research Foundation is a nonprofit organization located in Aptos, California, where the focus is on equine learning abilities, behavior, training and care. The Foundation offers one- and two-week learning vacations and internships. Participants assist with research and learn about positive reinforcement training and bonding methods based on equine cognition, natural horsemanship and operant conditioning. ERF offers off-site clinics as well. For more information, visit the ERF at, e-mail [email protected], or call 831- 662-9577.

Understanding Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement training may be just the tool we need to give negative reinforcement a big boost in effectiveness and make both horse and rider feel good about what they’re accomplishing.

Why does positive reinforcement work?

“Have you ever noticed how quickly your horse learns to unlatch a gate, open a feed container, or dump his water bucket?” asks Dr. Hanggi. “He learns these things so well because he gets positively reinforced by having a basic need met,” she explains.

Horses values things like food, space, companionship, mental stimulation, and physical comfort. Horses quickly learn that by acting in a certain way, they get a reward that meets one of their basic desires.

When someone is first learning to use positive reinforcement techniques, food is probably the most effective and easiest reward to use. Most horses eagerly look forward to receiving a piece of carrot or a horse cookie when they respond in the right way. Scratching or praise can be added later when your horse might be more responsive to them.

However, Dr. Hanggi also cautions that this type of training takes knowledge and skill, so the horse learns good manners along with new behaviors. The last thing you want to do is to create a rude and bossy “cookie monster.”

The good news is, horses can be taught to lead, load and lower their heads-even to cross water-using the reward system. You name it, you can probably teach it using petting, praise and food as an added incentive.

Constructing a Bridge
In order to use positive reinforcement most effectively, a secondary reinforcement, known in training jargon as a “bridge,” must also be established. The bridge spans the momentary gap between the time when a horse performs a correct action and when he receives his treat. It acts as a “right answer” cue.

Bridges can be whistles, clicks, buzzers, words-almost anything that you want, as long as it is distinct. It tells the horse immediately that he performed the right behavior and that his goody is on the way.

How does the horse understand the bridge?

If we consistently use the bridge each time we give the reward, the horse quickly learns to associate the two things, Dr. Hanggi explains.

“Although I may use a clicker during early training, later I prefer to use the word ‘good’ because I don’t like the restriction of having a clicker in my hand,” she noted. “And holding a whistle in my mouth, as I did when I was training seals and sea lions, isn’t the safest practice around horses.”

Movement Improvement
So how do we begin to teach our horses using positive reinforcement? Let’s say, for instance, you want to teach your horse to lift his foot and hold it up while you clean it.

The first step, according to Dr. Hanggi, is to look for the slightest movement your horse makes toward raising his foot and then to reward that movement. Backing him up a couple of steps will help you get him started in the right direction. When you signal him and he starts to raise a foot, you’ll give the bridge-your word of praise-immediately followed by the tidbit.

At this point, all the horse really understands is that when he does something, he gets a reward. Eagerly, he will start to try all sorts of behaviors looking for his goodie. But if you only reinforce the one movement you want-raising a foot-he will soon concentrate on this one behavior.

At first, you might get a foot lift that barely clears the ground, or is just a quick up-and-down movement. To encourage your horse to change this to a nicely raised foot, you will reinforce primarily those lifts that come closest to your goal, in other words, the ones that are of a desired height or duration.

When you hold off on the bridge, your horse will try many different behaviors looking for the reinforcer. One of these behaviors will be a better, higher, longer lift. Reinforcing that specific behavior immediately sends the message to your very smart horse that this is what you want.

“You want to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce other concurrent behaviors, such as tail swishing or ear-pinning,” notes Dr. Hanggi.

Remember, too, that this learning process will take quite a few trials, not just one or two.

“When I train new behaviors,” Dr. Hanngi explains, “I usually get a pretty decent result within about 10 minutes. I then improve on it, shape it, during short sessions for a few days.”

You might also need to relax your parameters for a moment and backtrack if the horse becomes confused.

The final step is to connect the behavior to a cue, such as a hand gesture or a word. In this situation, perhaps you’d use the word “foot.” Right before your horse lifts his foot, you say the cue word. This has to be done consistently. After you get good at this, you can almost sense what the horse will do next.

“Remember, though,” cautions Dr. Hanggi, “that it takes time and skill to get good at this.”

Until then, you can give the cue at the earliest moment of the lift. If you only reinforce him when he lifts his foot in response to that cue word, he will quickly make the connection that “foot” means to pick up his foot high and hold it there.

So, do you now become the walking grain bag or carrot keeper to get your horse to do what you want? Dr. Hanggi says no.

“Once the horse understands your cues, you can put him on a variable reinforcement schedule,” she says. That’s a fancy way of saying, instead of giving the horse a reward each and every time he responds correctly, you’ll reinforce the right behavior intermittently.

Dr. Hanggi has found that horses will work harder and respond more enthusiastically when rewards are not given on a predictable basis. Once a behavior is learned, food is faded out and only given occasionally, such as at the end of a training session, or even not at all. Eventually, the secondary reinforcer (that word of praise, for example) is reinforcement enough.

Clicker Training & More
Of course, there is still a mindset in the horse world that questions using food to reinforce desired behavior. If you train by reinforcing with food, do you then run the risk of having 1,000 pounds of pushy, irritating horse who is always looking for food and disrespecting your space?

Not only would this be annoying, it could be dangerous.

“When food reinforcement is involved, it is extremely important to know when to reinforce, when not to, and how to gradually fade out food so you’re not encumbered by it,” Dr. Hanggi says. “Do not confuse positive reinforcement training with treat-giving.”

The key is to reinforce only appropriate and correct behaviors, and to time the reinforcement precisely so that it’s most effective. Be careful not to reinforce undesirable behavior, such as biting or licking at your pockets or encroaching on your space. Conditioning horses to be polite is paramount. In fact, this is the first thing Dr. Hanggi and her associates teach participants who attend their positive reinforcement clinics.

For years, the dog world has been using positive reinforcement as a training tool. In fact, a whole discipline called “clicker training” has evolved, an adaptation of what has long been used with dolphins and whales. The metallic clicking sound made by a small, hand-held device is used as the bridge. The dog recognizes the click as a “good boy, that’s right” signal. Clicker training is also being used with horses, eliciting rave reviews from those involved.

Ultimately, we all want to be nice to our horses. By being able to thank them for performing in a way that we want, we both win. And as we progress with our positive reinforcement program, we will begin to see the value of working in a truly rewarding way with our perfect horses.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!