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.