How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Horse

Positive reinforcement training gives your horse a reason to work with you versus an excuse to avoid pain, stress, or punishment. Use these steps to successfully learn how!

When it comes to horse training, there are about as many “methods” as there are horse breeds. Most of these training routines get the job done, but at what cost? Positive reinforcement training gives your horse a reason to work with you versus an excuse to avoid pain, stress, or punishment. Use these steps to successfully use positive reinforcement to train your horse.

What is positive reinforcement horse training?

Horse training is usually a series of repetitive questions that you ask of your horse and their answers. Your guidance helps shape their responses into the desired behavior.  

For example, when teaching a horse to load into a trailer, you need to combine several horse skills. Your horse needs to lead unconditionally, feel safe in smaller spaces, and step up or navigate a ramp.  

Some training methods involve lunge lines around the rump, crops behind the horse, and even asking a horse to work and move their feet if they balk at loading. These techniques may work, but training with fear, coercion, and stressful exercise isn’t the best way. 

Now imagine a horse that wants to earn a reward. Their attention is on you, and they trust you. Positive reinforcement horse training removes the stress from your horse’s life and replaces it with a two-way conversation with you. Training is now fun and safe.  

When using positive reinforcement to load a horse, they know that praise, scratches, and even treats are available along the way. Leading up to the trailer earns a reward. Stepping on the trailer or ramp earns another reward. Fully loading earns another.  

Neither of these techniques creates grand prix level success overnight. But, positive reinforcement trains a horse through patience, kindness, and trusting interactions.  

What is clicker training?

Many horsepeople use a clicker to bridge the action and the reward. Making a small noise as the desired action is completed lets your horse know the job is done, and they can wait for a treat or pat. This bridge technique allows you to instantly notify your horse that he’s on the right track. Otherwise, you may fumble for a cookie, and then the reward comes after the action.  

Clicker training and positive reinforcement go hand in hand. Eventually, horses understand how to learn with these methods.  

Learn horse’s feedback and body language

As you work with your horse, both on the ground and in the saddle, their body language can help you communicate effectively. 

Horses use their entire bodies to “talk” to us, but we can’t see everything all the time! Adding video to your training sessions will give you hints about how they feel. While there are many ways to capture your practice sessions, you can also utilize Pivo Pod Active and our Horse Tracking to capture your session without having to think about it. Just simply set up your Pivo, choose your settings and record. 

As you review footage, look for ear movement. Of course, a horse’s ears typically point in the direction of a sight or sound. While training, the ears will help you determine what your horse is tuned into. Any fidgeting or tail swishing signals some tension, and stiffness and hesitancy indicate a bit of confusion. As you work on the same skills in the future, you can make adjustments for your horse’s benefit.

Some things to look for as you work with your horse and review training videos:
What is distracting to your horse?
What increases your horse’s relaxation?
What’s the reward that your horse likes the best?
How can you put actions together to train more complicated tasks?
What location or situation on the farm is best for your horse’s attention?

When you incorporate positive reinforcement into your horse’s life, they become willing partners. Horse training with positivity is free, interactive, kind, and fun!

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