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the power of positive

I subscribe to an email newsletter from The Horse that pops up in my inbox with almost annoying frequency. However, there’s always at least one or two articles of interest to me, on a good mix of topics ranging from health care to news to training. This week we have the ongoing Trexler abuse story, which smellshorsey has been covering, and also the situation in Romania, which Simply Marvelous recently wrote about and the Transylvanian Horseman lives daily.

The article that caught my eye, however, was a recent study lending credence to clicker-trainers everywhere:

Study Correlates Food Rewards with Positive Responses during Training

March 03 2008, Article # 11436

Young horses learn faster and have more positive interactions with humans when they receive food as a reward during training, according to a new study presented at the 34th Annual Equine Research Day held in Paris, France, on Feb. 28.

Yearlings that received grain pellets as compensation for appropriate reactions to vocal commands were up to 40% faster to acquire new skills than a control group of yearlings that received no rewards. The training primarily involved respecting the words “stop” and “stay” and remaining immobile while the trainer performed certain grooming tasks and veterinary procedures on the horse.

The article goes on to say:

On average, the reward group [those who were given food rewards] finished their training in 3.7 hours whereas the control group needed 5.2 hours to acquire the same tasks. “There wasn’t even any overlap,” Sankey explained. “The slowest horse in the reward group still learned faster than the fastest horse in the control group.”

This is a significant finding, because one of the long-held myths of horse training is that horses respond better to negative reinforcement operant conditioning (i.e. applying a source of discomfort, such as pressure, and removing it when the horse gives the correct response) than to positive reinforcement, such as a food reward. Clicker training, which utilizes food rewards, has been shown to quickly and effectively train horses (and other mammals) to do all kinds of things, but for some reason a large segment of the horse community still seems to view it with skepticism or scorn.

At this point, I feel a need to digress from the subject matter for just a moment to say this: There is no training method, no technique, no clinician, no author, no piece of equipment that is the Holy Grail of horse training. I am not saying that clicker training is the way to go and that anyone who uses negative reinforcement operant conditioning is ignorant, or anything of the sort. I use it myself, all the time. What I am saying, and will continue to say over and over again in this blog, is that people need to be open-minded. Be flexible and adaptable when working with your horse. Try new things, learn new ways of thinking and being, and go outside your comfort zone. We ask that of our horses and expect that they will honor our request but so often we will not do the same!

Side note: Also, for reasons I can’t quite figure out, people tend to lump clicker training in with Natural Horsemanship. Because the NH label gets bandied about so much without a clear definition, many people don’t even actually know what they’re referring to or where it came from or to whom it actually applies. In my opinion, clicker training is not an NH technique (although it shares many positive qualities with NH) because what we call NH today can be traced back to the methods of Tom Dorrance, Bill Dorrance, and Ray Hunt, and they were most certainly not using clicker training. However, the definition of NH is a subject for another post, and I will leave it at that with the suggestion that anyone interested in tracing the history of NH read The Revolution in Horsemanship by Dr. Robert Miller and Rick Lamb.)

Back on topic, it will be interesting to see what, if any, response this study generates in the American horse community, since the researchers are French. Will American researchers take the ball and run with it, or will this article slip quietly into the archives?

I hope that this kind of scientific finding will be a reference to be used when the nay-sayers and the tradition-bound try to tell us that their way is the only way. Then we can smile and use the power of positive when we say, “Have you read the latest research?”

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12 Responses

  1. I’m so glad that someone is doing some scientific horse training research! Thanks for posting this information. My horse trainer taught me her methods, and it was all pressure and release.


  2. NuzMuz,

    I use pressure and release much more than positive reinforcement. To my mind, it’s not practical to stuff Mojo with all the carrots it would take to get through one day of basics. I’ve been teaching him to fetch with clicker training and it takes an enormous amount of carrots each session. But I do like clicker training to give him something to think about, especially when it’s raining. 😉


  3. I hope the Romanian story continues to get coverage and people will write to the consulate or whatever it takes to apply enough pressure to change things there. A number of other blogs, including mine, have linked to his post. Hopefully the power of the blogosphere will help in this situation.

    It’s good to see that they’re doing some research about horse responses and food rewards. I’m not one of those people who believes that hand feeding horses encourages nipping or biting. I’m open to whatever works in a situation.


  4. EXCELLENT post JDP!

    Your Holy Grail comment got a round of applause from this corner of the equi-verse. For years Dear Husband and I have been trying to show that in our practice, and little by little, I think it is starting to have an effect.

    Keep it up! I love coming to this blog for your posts.


  5. thanks for this post. i have not been following the latest behavioral research as i should, and i am glad to have one of my favorite practices validated by some good science after all of these years! i recall being berated at a clinic for feeding my horse a treat to reinforce something new he had just learned. the trainer’s philosophy was that ‘cessation of punishment is the horse’s reward.’ i’m use some negative reinforcement as well, but that extreme was something i just couldn’t bring myself to accept, on either ethical or practical grounds. this study just confirms what i have been observing for years with the horses i have worked with.

    there was another study (i wish i could find the reference) that turned the whole notion that horses learn by endless repetition on it’s head. it found that horses learned faster and retained more by learning a task once, ending the session, and then being given a day off between sessions. i have found that, whereas the repetition theory creates robotic horses, this other approach keeps the horses’ minds flexible and active, which helps when the task needs to be modified (like turning a shoulder-in into a half-pass.)

    i agree too that there is no ‘holy grail’, and i love to experiment with a wide range of methods from across several disciplines and incorporate those elements that work for each individual horse. and, as a fan of the french school, this study shows that we can still learn a thing or two by also looking abroad for different perspectives… and keeping an open mind 🙂 thanks again for an interesting post.


  6. MiKael, Based on what’s happened with other new members of the EU over the years, I very much doubt that the Romanian government will change its mind and rescind the cart ban or revamp its highway plans. I still think it’s worth writing, but as with beautiful, remote places everywhere, it’s usually just a matter of time before our ‘culture’ comes in and creates all the problems we were trying to get away from. The problem is, we don’t really have anything to pressure the Romanian government with, whereas undoubtedly there are financial rewards for becoming part of the EU. And while I’m not a Marxist by any means, I do tend to agree that the place to look for causes is where the financial benefit lies. I think that spending our money to support “historical tourism” or “eco-tourism” in Romania will probably have a longer lasting effect. Unfortunately, our economy is such that I don’t see a whole lot of that happening at the moment, either.

    Mrs. Mom, Thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice to find other people on the same page. Your recent barefoot post kinda summed it up nicely. 😉

    JME, Welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I certainly enjoyed your input and I do also like your blog (will read more later). I have never agreed with the whole hand-feeding can make a horse nippy thing b/c I think you are talking about two separate issues – the feeding part and the body language part. You have to be very keen on setting boundaries if you’re going to hand-feed, because it’s the horse stepping into your space to get the treat that leads to the nipping, not the hand-feeding itself. My horse no longer gets hand-fed treats from me unless he is being rewarded for a behavior – the reason being that I don’t want him to think that he can get what he wants whenever with no effort on his part, and then expect him to clicker-train – but I do put his carrots in his feed tub, and he knows they’re from me. You see Grand Prix showjumpers rewarding their horses with a sugar cube after a clean round all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t call those horses disobedient. So again, I think it’s an individual thing.


  7. I have always given my horse a treat as a reward whenever I got the behavior I asked for and I see nothing wrong with it. They get their other treats in their feed tubs too. Glad there is finally some research being done so when I get lectures and head shakes in my direction, I can say it’s been researched and documented. I have never tried clicker training but I say if it works for you and your horse and you like it, do it. I have never thought of clicker training as a NH thing, just as another method that works for some people. I have to agree with everything you have said, I believe as you do that you must keep and open mind about everything and be flexible in your thinking, after all how can you learn anything if your mind is closed to new ideas. It is never too late to learn new things as long as they are good for you and your horse.


  8. I’ve started doing some clicker training with my horse, Siete, this winter, and the results have been really great. She enjoys it and learns what I’m asking her to do so quickly that it amazes me. Her mother, Silk, won’t have anything to do with it. So, I think that it depends on the horse’s personality whether this method of training is effective. What you are saying is so true – being open-minded and flexible leads to success not just in horse training but in all aspects of life. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.


  9. Victoria, Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoy clicker-training when it’s icky weather – it gives Mojo something to think about. But I don’t think I could train him for every part of his life with it – even though he loves to eat, he loses interest after about 15 minutes. I totally agree with you that it’s an individual thing – after all, we learn best through different methods, it only makes sense that our horses would, too.


  10. Very interesting. I’ve meant to try clicker training but haven’t gotten around to it. When I’ve used food as a reward in the past, the horses tend to get so pushy we lose the point of the training. It’s like they’ve never seen food before.

    I think all the training around here is done by the horses who are slowly but surely training me.

    You’re teaching your horse to fetch! That’s cool. Fetch what? And how do you get the idea in their brains to start with?

    You may have posted on that. If so, I’m sorry that I’ve missed it.


  11. GHM, You are always such the voice of reason: It is never too late to learn new things as long as they are good for you and your horse. I love that.

    Anne, One of the things with clicker training is that the horse learns that the food reward will only come as a result of the desired behavior, so they stop trying to get it at other times. Of course, that means they will sometimes offer the behavior when you haven’t asked for it, so be sure to train them for safe behaviors! (I know of a girl who clicker-trained her horse to rear…. Do I have to say more?)

    I am currently teaching Mojo to fetch his jollyball, and then I hope to expand that to catching frisbees. He already picks up things and hands them to me, but the idea of bringing them to me from a distance hasn’t ‘clicked’ yet, as we really haven’t practiced that. It does take breaking things down into very small steps and having patience.


  12. It’s great to see folks expanding their horizons! I have had +R in my horse training toolbox for about 10 years now. It is so powerful as a “highlighter”. This is why I believe that the horse does learn a lesson MUCH quicker. Of course I use -R (pressure and release) as well and by incorporating +R (I use a click sound I make with my mouth as the marker and hay stretcher pellets as reward) I can really “tell” the horse when they have achieved an increased level of performance! I have lots more info on my site for those who wish to see what I’m up to. http://www.eternalsunstable.com. I am very interested in more research in this area as I don’t believe there has been all that much done.



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