Training using positive reinforcement can be life-changing. Instead of being frustrated with what you don’t want, you focus on what you do want. Instead of thinking about stopping bad behavior, you build scenarios that allow for the good. You set a goal of an entire behavior, but then 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.
I first came across this perspective in this book: Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training 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. 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.
I’ve yet to read a positive reinforcement or clicker training book that is geared for horse people that I wholeheartedly recommend. Too often, the science is wrong, the understanding of horse nature is inaccurate, I disagree with the goals, or the lessons are inflexible and dogmatic. However, there are many books that are worth delving into.
- Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor
- Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals by Karen Pryor
- Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel by Virginia Morell
- Temple Grandin’s books are all thoughtful works; my favorite is Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
- Consequences drive how living beings learn, and The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World by Susan M. Schneider provides insight and a lot to think about.
- Lucy Rees is an ethologist who studies horses. Her most recent book, Horses in Company, is excellent. Filled with science and fascinating observations of horses in their most natural environment, Rees debunks the tropes of dominance and “moving their feet.”
- To delve deeply into horse umwelt, ethology and behavior, start with this textbook: Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists by Paul McGreevy.
- Not about training, but about logical thinking. Well worth reading. Placebos for Pets?: The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals. by Brennen McKenzie VMD.
Here are a few websites to follow:
- For more about Karen Pryor, go to her website.
- This podcast from the Animal Training Academy interviews trainers and others involved in the training community. It can be thought provoking and insightful.
- 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: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism, which was written by Martha Gabler, the parent of an autistic child, but is not limited to that experience.
- Mary Kitzmiller is a horse trainer who applies positive reinforcement to the world of competition horses. The best way to get to know her is through a once-a month podcast (usually the second Thursday) on the Horse Radio Network.
- A few years ago I would not have suggested following Warwick Schiller. However, he’s gone through a transformation and is no longer a stereotypical demanding cowboy. Sometimes he doesn’t quite get the science exact behind what he’s doing, but that’s okay because his techniques have evolved to be kind, thoughtful and effective. Watch his videos on YouTube from about 2020 onward, but don’t go back into his archives.