Does Positive Reinforcement Actually Work?

Hell yes! Positive reinforcement works best when we create an environment that makes it 99% likely that the horse will do the thing we want of his own volition. Then we can wait for him to do the thing and click and reward him the exact moment that he does it.

When my horse realises he can make me dispense treats by doing ‘the thing’, well now, he is all over that shenanigans. He keeps on doing ‘the thing’, getting me to dispense treats over and over again - it's the best fun he’s had in ages. Meanwhile, I can gradually change the environment, or delay my click a bit, so that bit by bit ‘the thing’ that my horse is doing changes to be less like the behaviour we started with and more like what I want the final behaviour to be.

Like anything, there is a fair bit involved in doing it well, but essentially, when done well, it turns my horse into a volunteer. A horse who runs up when he sees me coming, who waits impatiently at the gate to be the ‘chosen one’ who gets to train, who willingly cooperates during a training session and doesn’t want to go back into the pasture with his friends at the end. No, I’m not joking!

"Essentially, when done well, it turns my horse into a volunteer."

So how does that work?

When I’m training with positive reinforcement, I want to be able to say ‘yes’ to my horse constantly. I want to be able to say: ‘yes that’s correct’, ‘yes that’s correct’, ‘yes that’s correct’. I really don’t want there to be any: ‘oops. That wasn’t quite what I wanted’, in the dialogue. So all the time I’m working hard to make sure my horse is always in a position to get the right answer.

The onus is on me to set up the environment to make it really, really likely that my horse is going to do what I want. Or at least an approximation of what I want, so I can say ‘yep, that’s a great place to start’, and then gradually build on that starting point to get the behaviour closer to what I want in the end, so I can say ‘yes, that’s more correct’, ‘yes that’s even more correct’.

From my horses’ perspective, he’s just getting told: ‘yes, you’re awesome’, ‘yes, you’re awesome’, ‘yes, you’re awesome’. Every time he gets told ‘yes’, he is getting a reward and from his perspective, the training is easy, it is fun, it is pleasurable, and likewise, being with me is easy, fun and pleasurable and that is what we want. That is the key! That is what makes positive reinforcement so different and one of the reasons why it builds such a great relationship between you and the horse.

© 2021 Sara Jackson


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