+R Training: Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Horse

+R Training: Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Horse

Young woman with two horses - +R training

Positive reinforcement (+R)  is a form of learning that occurs when a desired behavior is rewarded. It’s based on the idea that reinforced or rewarded behavior will be repeated out of want for a reward.

+R techniques are growing in popularity within the world of horse training. Such techniques can offer a fresh start for both you and your horse, especially if your horse has been in the hands of abusive trainers.

Instead of teaching a desired behavior through correction or pressure, which can evoke confusion and anxiety (even when that’s not your intention), +R lets you teach exclusively by rewarding the behavior you want.

With +R, your horse will no longer be performing in order to relieve the discomfort of pressure, but will act out of a desire to earn a reward. The horse will learn that they have autonomy and will become a much happier, healthier horse; they’ll begin to find real joy in working.

Getting Started

What you’ll need:

  • A clicker
  • Treats
  • A colorful target object
  • A horse (of course!)
  • Space to work in

Getting started is simple. Purchase a clicker and some treats you know your horse will enjoy. With this type of training, it’s highly important that the treat is desirable to the horse. Scratches and food treats are great rewards, but not every horse is highly motivated by scratches. You may need to use a combination of treats and positive physical contact.

You’ll also need to find an object to use as a target. This can be anything lying around your home or barn—pool noodles, safety cones or water bottles are great options. The brighter, the better!

You won’t need a large space to work in. It’s best to start in a stall or paddock, where your horse can be unrestricted instead of being tied. To ensure your safety, especially if you’ve never used treats around your horse, start your horse’s introduction to clicker training with a barrier (such as a fence or a stall door) in between you and the horse.

It’s perfectly normal for horses to get excited around treats, so don’t be alarmed if your horse wants to nose your pockets or your hands. This is why you start out with a barrier in between the two of you, to eliminate the need to correct. Your horse will learn that fishing for treats on your person will never be rewarded.

The time for teaching manners will come after your horse understands what the clicker means. To reduce food anxiety, work in an area where the horse has access to grass or hay and knows that they can leave at any time to eat. That way, they won’t feel bound to stay because you’re their only food source.

Introduction to the Clicker

You’ll want to begin with an easy activity in order to introduce the clicker. With your horse in their stall or paddock and a barrier in between the two of you, begin by attracting the horse’s attention. Hold the target out close to their nose and wait for them to sniff or touch it. Click as soon as they make the attempt, and then immediately provide a treat.

It’s important to always click before you treat, so the horse’s association is with the click and not with your movement to hand them a treat.

If you’re entirely new to +R and clicker training, you might be wondering why the clicker is necessary. Most +R trainers, to optimize effectiveness and improve timing, use a clicker to signal the moment the horse performs the wanted movement or behavior.

Signaling the exact moment the behavior occurs is imperative to the horse’s learning to repeat it. The sharp, clear sound of the clicker makes it a much more effective tool than vocal praises, such as “Yes!” or “Good!” because the sound is quick, easy to hear and can pinpoint an exact moment much more easily than a spoken word.

You’ll want to keep these early training sessions short, so your horse doesn’t get bored or frustrated. Five to 10 minutes is plenty of time to work on this first target activity. Once you feel your horse is starting to grasp the idea, take a break and let them process the new information.

Perform this activity with your horse a few more times throughout the day, and feel free to increase the challenge by holding the target farther out or to the side, or placing it on the ground.

During the early stages of training, it’s best to only treat after a click. To offer the treat to your horse, hold your arm away from your body. Make the horse take the treat where you want them to receive it; this way, they’ll learn good manners much more quickly.

Remember to never give your horse a treat if the horse is fishing for them. Take a step back, or as long as you’re safe, stand still and ask the horse to back up. You don’t need to reprimand their fishing behavior, since horses are naturally curious.

Part of the beauty of +R training is that it’ll allow your horse to be a horse (within the sphere of safety that you and the horse share). If your horse is corrected for every behavior that’s not exactly what you’re looking for, this could cause them to become frustrated or unresponsive.

Foundational Steps

Man training white horse in paddock with clicker - +R training
Note: This trainer’s target is white, but using a more colorful target is actually ideal.

Once your horse has a clear understanding of the target activity, you’ll be ready to move on. These next foundational steps are all about your safety and teaching good manners. If your horse is still too pushy about food, spend a little more time on target training with a barrier. Otherwise, you can begin to work in the same space as your horse.

Using the clicker to teach backing is a great next step. It’s a helpful skill when it comes to all aspects of working with and around horses. Asking your horse to back up when they’re closer to you than you’d like reinforces good manners, and it also keeps you safe during training, as well as when you’re simply walking from one place to another.

To begin teaching this activity, start with baby steps once again. Face your horse and stand beside them. Place your hand on their chest and, with the slightest amount of pressure, ask them to back up. Don’t push your horse, as this will cause them to brace or push back against you.

Following that, ask your horse to back up while you begin to take a step in the same direction—not to intimidate, but as a way of demonstrating what you’re requesting. Once they make the tiniest movement backward, even by taking a partial step or simply shifting their weight, click and treat.

It’s not important for your horse to back up 10 feet or even 2 feet at this time. You want them to know you’re happy with any effort!

Next, ask your horse to back up farther before you treat. Increase the challenge in stages, until you have your horse backing up with ease. Remember, it’s more effective to do short sessions and take it slow than to take things too far, too fast. If you find your horse is getting frustrated with a task, or not picking up on an activity, break it down into smaller steps. Simplify the process as much as possible.

Another simple yet important skill to teach with +R is “head down.” This will come in handy when you’re haltering or bridling your horse, especially if the horse is tall (and/or if you’re short, like me!).

The lowering of the head is also a calming position. A horse with their head held high is excited or possibly nervous, while a horse with a lowered head is typically calm and relaxed. If you can ask your horse to lower their head when they’re excited or nervous, though, this will calm the horse and bring their focus back to you.

To teach this exercise, stand beside your horse. Place your hand on their poll where the bridle band crosses, and ask them to lower their head. You can use a simple command, such as “Head down.” Just as with backing, reward the slightest effort the first few times, and then increase the challenge until your horse is putting their head exactly where you ask.

Work on other calming activities such as “head away” or just standing quietly, continuing to click and reward each time your horse shows good behavior.

Take your time during each session. It may take several days or even several weeks for your horse to catch onto a task. That’s OK! These building blocks will assure the safety and happiness of both you and your horse.

Where to Go From Here

Once you’re confident that your horse is comfortable with these steps, you’ll be ready to move on to whatever else you’d like to train your horse to do. If you’re in need of ideas about where to go from here, author and trainer Alexandra Kurland has two excellent books, The Click that Teaches and Clicker Training for Your Horse.

Remember, fun and creativity are also an important part of horse training. If you’re having fun, your horse will have fun, too!


image 2: Wikimedia Commons

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