Have you heard of Positive Reinforcement?

Equine learning, behavior and welfare studies.

Written by: Patricia Lincourt

Wili a Bay Holstiener gelding for lease with funny lip style

Updated: 11-6-2024

Published: 2-4-2024

Why clicker train your horse?

The science is complex and you could spend years studying animal behavior to develop a certified understanding of how the brain works in mammals. A combination of a lot of background reading, attending courses and practical hands-on experience have led us to the point of wanting to write down our experiences in practicing training horses with R+ methods in the hope that it encourages more people to want to find out more. We will go into more detail about why R+ works, but in our experience we find that often horses that are Clicker Trained are more motivated to work with you because of the scientific principles involved and the way Positive Reinforcement encourages learning and leads to behavioral outcomes. 

The methods can also help them regulate their emotions when they experience stress, excitement or fear. And training using these methods provides bonding time with your horse, as well as enrichment and the opportunity for them to problem solve situations and be rewarded as a result. For context we (Lincourt Stables) are based in central Los Angeles, with no access to turn out or safe trail riding so the horses spend a lot of time in the arena for exercise and enrichment through mental stimulation is very important.

Why does Clicker Training work?

Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture to get a brief understanding of how horses learn. This is where the science comes in and is a tiny insight into learning theory to hopefully whet your appetite! (Some of the terminology may be new but stick with us!) 

The principles of Learning Theory are important and can really help how you understand, ride and train your horse. Learning Theory also helps explain why Positive Reinforcement and therefore Clicker Training works with animals such as horses.

In simple terms, according to studies in neuroscience there are two main ways horses and other animals learn:

  1. Avoiding pain and danger. This could be anything that may lead your horse to injury or death. For example; heat, cold, predators, falls, cliffs, holes, etc. Which by the way, is the reason why your horse has a strong flight reflex and explains why they may suddenly spook at a plastic bag or react to noises. They have a strong instinct for self preservation whether you like it or not!
  2. The seeking system. Looking for things that sustain life and bring pleasure. For example, food, water, shelter, reproduction etc. This would include play and companionship. Horses are after all herd animals and prefer to be in company, so safety in numbers to protect against predators still runs strong in domesticated horses. The seeking system is where the R+ learning happens, and we want to keep the horse in this ‘seeking’ mode for the best results.

Positive Reinforcement encourages learning and leads to desired behavioral outcomes. - Rachel Kerr

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