What the Heck Kind of Training Is This Anyway?

If you read my page about Attraction, or if you’ve read anything from my PaintingHorse site, you may say, “Sounds like this is Clicker Training” and then wonder why I’m not calling what I do Clicker Training.  I think a more correct term would be to say it’s Positive Reinforcement training, but wow, is that a loaded term.

Not many folks seem to know what Positive Reinforcement (R+) really means. If you read anything about its Operant Conditioning origins via B.F. Skinner, you may not remember if you did or not, because you may have fallen asleep. I know I did. By nature I’m attention deficit as well as dyslexic and even though I’m really familiar with all the terminology it still takes me a few cups of coffee to process this really great stuff.

I think the phrase Really Great Stuff is much easier to digest than Operant Conditioning. But a better way to begin understand the power of Positive Reinforcement is to understand this:

Create a situation where the horse moves towards what it wants,
rather than away from what it doesn’t want.

The reason why I’m not calling what I do Clicker Training, is that many Clicker Trainers use pressure (moving away from what it doesn’t want), and lots of it. I was at a Clicker Clinic and we were teaching my horse to back out of my space. I was taught to send energy down the lead rope. Then I was taught to send even more energy down the lead rope until all that energy reached my horses face in the form of a loud ‘whop’ under his jaw. When he moved backwards after the whop, he got clicked and then received a food reward. No biggie, right? But I still to this day remember the “Why’d you do that?” look on his face. I felt really bad that he felt so bad.

So with my young Clydesdale, Raleigh, I began an experiment. The day I got him I began teaching him to target an object. It was my dressage crop with a daisy yellow sponge duct taped to the whacking end. I love the irony. Instead of teaching him to move away with the crop, it becomes an object for him to follow. Anyhow, at 15 months old, he learned to target this sponge like it was magnetic. I found he could follow it forwards, backwards, right and left without the slightest bit of pressure.

I then began giving verbal cues according to what he was doing when he was following the sponge. Then I added touch cues, for right and left, only after he understood the verbal cue while targeting the sponge. My big experiment was to see if I could get him to back up without a whop in the face.

Lo and behold I could. I eventually added the wiggle of the rope to a verbal cue of back. This way if someone else handles him, they can simply wiggle the rope and he’ll back up. The cool part in my mind, is that the wiggle is not pressure, its a cue, like sign language to signal it’s time to back up. Lucky for humans that sign language is not taught with pressure. “Ouch, the letter A really hurts!”

The sad part, for the horse that was taught to back with a whop, years later he still pins his ears if I ask him to back by sending energy down the lead. I think it’s because his first impression of energy down the lead scared him and made him feel bad. Since then I’ve taught him to back through targeting and verbal cues and I get a happy response.

I’ve heard the saying, It’s not what your horse is doing but how it’s doing it that matters. I’d like to create a new phrase that says, It’s not what your horse is doing but how it was taught.

Was it taught with pressure or was it taught with attraction?

I wish I could fast forward into the future having started and trained 20 horses for 20 years to give you a full report of the outcome of training predominately with attraction. But for now, I have my young Clyde who is speaking volumes in praise of training this way. I have DaVinci, my horse recovering from Post Traumatic stress. I have my two Paso Finos that had prior training before me. I feel like I have a diverse group to learn from.

So what do I call this type of training? It could easily be called ‘Training While Smiling,’ or ‘Always Happy Training for Both Horse and Human.’ For now though, Training with Attraction seems to be the winner.

-cw

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4 thoughts on “What the Heck Kind of Training Is This Anyway?

  1. Hi! I recently found your website and am really enjoying! I share a lot of the same training ideas that you do.

    You said:

    “Not many folks seem to know what Positive Reinforcement (R+) really means.”

    The scary part is that people think they understand positive and negative reinforcement and often think they are using positive reinforcement with their horses. There was a really really interesting study done last year by Paul McGreevy and his colleagues in Australia. They sent out a survey to certified riding instructors in Australia asking them questions about pos. reinforcement and neg. reinforcement and which methods they used with their horses.
    Interestingly most of the instructors thought they knew the correct definition for these various concepts and thought they were using positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and very little punishment. However, most of them gave a definition of negative reinforcement for positive reinforcement, and many thought pressure/release was positive reinforcement. Also many were confused about primary vs. secondary/conditioned reinforcers.
    I find it can be so much harder to influence people’s perception when they already think they are doing the right thing.

    You also said:

    “The reason why I’m not calling what I do Clicker Training, is that many Clicker Trainers use pressure (moving away from what it doesn’t want), and lots of it. I was at a Clicker Clinic and we were teaching my horse to back out of my space. I was taught to send energy down the lead rope. Then I was taught to send even more energy down the lead rope until all that energy reached my horses face in the form of a loud ‘whop’ under his jaw. When he moved backwards after the whop, he got clicked and then received a food reward.”

    This makes me cringe. Who were you taking a clinic from, so I can make sure I avoid them in the future!?

    On thing I’ve heard several times now from top notch trainers is that there’s a difference between clicker training and training with a clicker. I think this subtlety is lost on most people, but it seems that you understand it. True clicker training is about relying on positive motivation. However, many people these days seem to think if they’re holding a clicker, then they’re doing positive training! Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    I heard Steve Martin, a well known trainer of free-flight birds speak last Friday at a conference put on for animal trainers/clicker trainers/operant conditioners.

    He trains zoo trainers and one of the most interesting things he discussed was that often the clicker is not charged enough, and the animal ends up relying on subtle body movements from the trainer, rather than the clicker itself. So, the tiger isn’t really listening for the clicker, but watching for the trainer to shift his weight slightly before he grabs a treat from his pouch. Often, he said, he takes all the clickers away from the zoo trainers and makes them try to train without them. The ones who were training well before, almost always can train at the same level with the same amount of success without the clicker. Steve White also trains most of his free flight birds w/o a clicker just because he doesn’t have enough hands for the clicker when training birds!

    I think the real beauty of the clicker is that it teaches the trainer how to start seeing behavior. It improves the trainer’s timing and reinforcement schedule, because they start realizing exactly what behavior they are rewarding.

    So, I think there are people who train using attraction and positive reinforcement. Some of them are using clickers, others aren’t.

    There are a far greater number of people who train using pressure and release or even punishment. Some of who combine these techniques with positive reinforcement. Some of these use a clicker and then the world, and sometimes they themselves, assume they’re training with positive methods, which they’re not.

    You would probably be interested in some of the work being done by Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and his grad students at the University of North Texas. They recently did a study where they trained dogs one command using just positive reinforcement and also taught the dog the same command, but with a different cue, using positive and negative reinforcement. In the first case, the dog performed the behavior faster, with more energy and enthusiasm and with a wagging tail the entire time. In the second case, the dog was sluggish, took far longer to learn the behavior, didn’t wag it’s tail, etc.
    They have not done follow-up studies out of concern for the animals.

    However, I think there’s a lot of danger in people thinking they can combine attraction training and pressure/release, and thinking they can obtain the same bond and results that they would get using attraction only.

    oops. I just realized how very long this comment was.

    But I’m very much enjoying reading through your blog. And by the way, your comics are absolutely wonderful!

    cheers,

    Mary H.
    http://stalecheerios.com/blog

    • Your post is great. I love long comments. What you have to share is like a breath of fresh air for me.

      I think the jargon of Operant Conditioning with all the types of reinforcement and timing, and ratios can get really confusing, especially if anyone is the least bit attention deficit and dyslexic like me. I think this may be the reason attraction based training with horses has been dormant for so long.

      What I’m finding is that it’s actually easier than pressure/release work. And in my mind sooo much safer. My aging bones like that part. The safety part comes in because the horse is never put on the defensive, it never has a reason to act out in response to something that makes it uncomfortable. The whole design of this type of training is to engage the horse’s mind in a dialogue that asks the horse, “What motivates you to want to do what I want, without first making you feel irritated or pressured?”

      Right now the focus of my backyard research is on the proportion of time the horses spend in an attraction based mode vs. pressure based. So far it’s heavily weighted on the attraction based side. When I do see pressure, it’s usually over who gets the best pile of hay.

      There are still times where I will use pressure. It’s usually when I haven’t had enough coffee, where I’m absent mindedly doling out hay unaware of where all the horses are standing. Then one horse will bite at another sending it running in my general direction. This is where a stomp, or wave of my arms comes in handy.

      Instead, I’m training all the horses to stand on their marks, before I give hay, so they know where to stand and stay. I’m making the right choice wonderful, and the wrong choice (to bite a buddy), nonexistent. I set everyone up to win. Me included. I don’t get run over, nor do I have to use pressure to prevent getting run over.

      What you said about the bond obtained using attraction only is phenomenal. When you think about it, if a person is always making their horse move away with pressure, how does that heighten its desire to want to interact with you? I do think if the proportion of interactions with your horses are based on attraction, it will certainly enhance any results. In my experience it makes the horse really willing and interested. I think too it enjoys having the motivation in front, as it moving toward a target, than from behind, moving away from a tap or wave. It mixes things up a bit.

      Thanks again!

      -cw

  2. “What I’m finding is that it’s actually easier than pressure/release work. And in my mind sooo much safer. My aging bones like that part. The safety part comes in because the horse is never put on the defensive, it never has a reason to act out in response to something that makes it uncomfortable. The whole design of this type of training is to engage the horse’s mind in a dialogue that asks the horse, “What motivates you to want to do what I want, without first making you feel irritated or pressured?”

    I’m finding this too.

    It’s safer, because I never have to fight with the horse.

    Also it’s loads faster, because the horse actively wants to be part of the learning process. As well, I think the behaviors taught are much stronger and longer lasting since the horse chooses to learn them, instead of being forced.

  3. I think the main reason it works so well is that it mimics the predominant nature of the mare/foal relationship.

    I’m so glad you’re experiencing this ease of being with a horse. I think it’s the way it should be. 🙂

    -cw

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