How to train a horse with positive reinforcement

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How to train a horse using positive reinforcement - with Mitzi, Written by Journalist Megan Brownrigg.

Mitzi, one of our volunteers from the Netherlands, is one of those people who just knows how to be with horses. She is kind, patient, and has wisely realized that animals can be better company than humans! Despite spending her days poo picking, grooming and training horses, she will often also choose to spend her time off with our cast of four-legged characters– and they’re always happy to hang out with her. Recently I spent time with Mitzi learning how to train a horse using positive reinforcement, which is a more intuitive way of communicating with the animals using reward systems for good behaviour. The method is strongly backed up by science, and the best part is that the animals love it.

Mitzi explained to me how positive reinforcement differs from more traditional methods of training. She told me that a common misunderstanding is that "positive"; training is always good and that "negative"; training is always bad. Actually positive just means adding something to a situation, whereas negative means taking something away (like food or pressure). Something called ‘positive punishment;, in the form of physical pressure, is often used when training horses. This ‘punishment’ can be anything from hitting a horse if they do something "wrong";, to pulling at their mouth if you want them to come to a halt. In these scenarios, the negative reinforcement; is where you take the pressure away once you're happy with what the horse is doing. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment rely on each other to work, meaning that they aren’t the most gentle way to establish a respectful and quality relationship with an animal.

Which is why Mitzi is so keen to steer away from these methods. She argues that whilst punishment only shows a horse what it cannot do, positive reinforcement empowers them to learn great things that they can do. One encouraged behaviour for a horse might be approaching their trainer calmly in their paddock, for example.

This is the case with our loveable rogue, Fauno, at the refugio. He is still learning how to be around other horses, and sometimes he needs encouraging not to bite people over the fence or in his paddock! Our resident ‘bad boy’ might have even inspired his own set of safety cordons and bespoke public warning sign balanced on top of a wheelbarrow. But rather than punishing his troublesome behaviour, Mitzi spends time with Fauno to train him into how to behave more gently. She understands that his habits come from nervousness and stress rather than any aggression. Just look at his innocent little face:

We all need someone to teach us our social skills, and until now Faunos tendency to nip is just a result of him not having had someone to give him this time and love!
Observing Mitzi, I quickly notice that positive reinforcement is a slow and patient process. Its been just over two months so far that she has spent short bursts of time every day training with Fauno. She uses the combination of a clicker; sound and food to train him. When Fauno does what she wants, such as keeping a respectful distance from her, she clicks and gives him a treat. Over time, hes come to associate his good behaviour with the clicker sound and food.

Over more time, the praise will be enough of an incentive for Fauno to resist being boisterous. And over even more time, hopefully that calmness will become a learned behaviour which he and Mitzi wont have to think about!
A favourite quote of Mitzi's about this kind of training expresses its benefits really well:

"You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear. There will always be something that he fears more than you. But when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid."; (Antoine de Pluvinel 1555-1620)

Positive reinforcement training is about forging a strong relationship with an animal, so that they feel safe listening to you. Especially with the kind of animals we work with, this is invaluable. It can be the difference between an animal feeling continually isolated and moving with fear, and an animal who is able to fall in love with humans again after being neglected or mistreated.

There is a couple of basics that Mitzi has to think about when she's training like this. One is her timing! When using a clicker to validate an animal’s good behaviour, she has to click just at the right moment so that the animals know what is being rewarded. For instance, if Fauno turns his head away from Mitzi but she belatedly clicks as he turns it back into her space, she is  reinforcing the wrong behaviour: him crowding her. Equally, if she wants Fauno to walk towards her, Mitzi needs to click as he makes a step towards her, and not once he’s starting exploring another direction. It’s also important not to make the sessions too long, so that the animal never gets tired of their training sessions.

“It’s always a good idea to end on a high,” says Mitzi. Once she’s seen some significant progress in a session, she’ll often let the animal take a break until next time. And if it’s a bad day and progress isn’t happening, she’ll be accepting of that and focus on an easier task, rather than stubbornly persistent with a difficult objective. This way Mitzi and her students can always end on a good note!
Another of Mitzi’s tips is that the animal also has to feel that the ‘reinforcer’ is the right reinforcer. In simple terms, Mitzi has to work out if she's using the right treats! If she gives Fauno hay for his good behaviour, when he really fancies carrots, he's going to be less responsive. She's often mixing up the menu for the horses, depending on their daily palates! Which brings us onto another favourite quote of hers:
When I hear somebody talk about a horse or cow being stupid; I figure it’s a sure sign that the animal has somehow outfoxed them” (Tom Dorrance, True Unity: Willing Communication Between Horse &; Human)
Mitzi's biggest recommendation for positive reinforcement training is to take small steps and to be patient. If a horse doesn't immediately understand what she wants from them, she'll break her request down. For instance, when training our other lovely horse, Turbo, to leave his paddock, Mitzi started by encouraging him to make single steps in the direction of his gate. At the beginning of this process, Turbo didn’t fancy moving an inch. But a couple of weeks later, leaving his paddock became a much quicker task. These days, Turbo is happy to depart for a small adventure without much persuasion at all. Another top tip of Mitzi's is to consider increasing the rate of reinforcement (aka treats!) if an animal isn't responding to training. If you break down the bigger goal into smaller steps, it’s important to reward each little accomplishment.

When asked who her favourite horse to train is, Mitzi is torn. She loves the challenge of Fauno, and the journey that Turbo has taken, but the horse she eventually chooses is Eric.

"He's just such an enthusiastic student!" Mitzi laughs. Which is true, Eric is ALWAYS early for his lessons, trotting up to Mitzi as soon as she enters the paddock, even if it's not his turn to be trained. But a response like this is the joy of positive reinforcement training, because the horse looks forward to it.
“The best thing about training this way is watching how the horses enjoy learning, and part of that is them learning to trust you - which is an amazing process for them and for me, because it’s the kind of connection which is real and will last a long time,” Mitzi says.
Watch this space though, it's not just the horses this girl can train. This week, Mitzi was spotted training the chickens - and if possible they're even more keen than Eric!

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