Training using positive reinforcement can be life-changing. Instead of looking at what you don’t want, you focus on the what you do. Instead of stopping bad behavior, you build scenarios that allow for the good. Instead of being frustrated that you aren’t getting the whole behavior, you break it down into a series of small successes. I like to say: the slower you go, the faster you get there. This can be a paradigm change. You’ll likely need more than this website to understand it fully. The best explanation of this perspective is the book Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. Don’t be put off by the title, it’s not a dog training book, although it was adopted by dog lovers everywhere to bring rewards and kindness to their training. Dog trainers were the first to widely adopt and publicize what is now called clicker training. For an explanation of clicker training, read this page, which is at clickertraining.com – a business begun by Karen Pryor. I don’t use 100% clicker training with horses, but I do use the behavioral science it is founded on, and I bring a reward-based perspective to all of the training that I do.
Training a horse requires you to understand not only the science that drives all behavior, but also the nature of the animal. To this end, there are several other books worth delving into. I recommend all of Karen Pryor’s books, especially Reaching the Animal Mind. Another worthwhile read is Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel by Virginia Morell which provides insight into animal congnition. Temple Grandin’s books are all thoughtful works; my favorite is Animals Make Us Human.
TAGteach is an application of positive reinforcement training designed to be used with people. I apply TAGteach in my interactions with people. See the TAGteach website for an explanation of this offshoot of Karen Pryor’s work. For now, the best explanation in book form is Chaos to Calm, which was written by Martha Gabler, the parent of an autistic child, but is not limited to that experience. I’d like to see riding instructors use TAGteach – lessons would be calmer, nicer and more productive!
I’ve yet to read a positive reinforcement or clicker training book that is geared for horse people that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Too often, the science is wrong, the understanding of horse nature is inaccurate, or I disagree with the goals, or it is too inflexible and dogmatic. However, there are a couple of websites that I endorse:
- For horse ethology, go to Wild Equus
- For behavior and training, read what Dr. Helen Spence has to say.
- Lauren Fraser is a behaviorist who specializes in horses. Read her blog at Goodhorsemanship.
- Justine Harrison is an IAABC certified animal behaviorist and writes about horse ethology in a way that is accurate and not polarizing.
- Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer, behaviorist, and someone who really gets the science behind the training. She’s also an excellent writer. Her blog is often applicable to my work with horses. Read it.
- I learn a lot from trainers who work with unusual species, from giraffes to alligators. This podcast from the Animal Training Academy is worth listening to, and it’s fun!