Adding Positive Reinforcement Communication to Bring More Clarity to Horsemanship
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Ohhh that feeling of "wishing that I knew then what I know now"*.
For years I've felt that I so wish I found the world of Natural Horsemanship years and years ago back when Daybreak, then Hawkeye and later when GiGi's mom, Snowie was a part of my life and family. We would have had much more mutually beneficial relationships.
And now in 2020, I feel that way again, but for a different reason.
Some background: my knowledge and teaching of natural horsemanship has been primarily "pressure and release" which I believe is a solid mindset as well as technique to make requests of horses. Ideally, it's to improve our communication with them. The goal is to always teach the horse to respond to the lightest possible aids which should be a rewarding and non-confrontational experience for ourselves and hopefully our horses too. To achieve this, the lightest of light aids is always offered first, potentially then followed by escalation. The timing of the escalation depends on the horse’s level of knowledge of the task requested. No matter when the horse responds, there’s always a huge release; timing being the most important aspect of when to escalate the pressure. Also, it’s SO VERY important to be quick in our timing of the release as well as to recognize and respond to the horse’s “try”.
When horses make requests of each other, they always warn, escalate, and release using body language, energy, and sometimes vocal cues. Natural horsemanship uses a language that is similar to horses’ communication with each other; it generally makes sense to horses as it’s comprised of pressure & release; fair escalation; body language; energy, etc.
Lately though, I started to ponder the idea that horse-to-horse communication and education probably revolves around what horses NEED to know to stay SAFE in their world. Yet, we as humans ask horses to do many other behaviors/movements that might not have to do with staying SAFE, for instance we may ask them to perform: dressage lateral movements; Spanish walk; sliding stops; jumping; pirouettes; playing with humans at liberty; trotting with impulsion (when the horse might be more interested in conserving energy), etc. These movements require extremely precise and consistent communication and a clear way to let the horse know that they’re on target to what you’re asking.
I had been noticing that my horse, Firenzé and some clients’ horses didn’t seem to know if they were totally correct in their responses to requests ….even though there’s always a big release; it seemed as if these horses were always wondering and worried. This seems to be particularly so in less confident horses. To help bring clarity to these horses, I do use vocal reinforcements that I learned from my mentor, Sylvia Zerbini like: “voilà” (you’re on the right track) and “brave” (good memory word: French word pronounced with rolled “r” sound…meaning nice, great job, etc). When communicating that they’re “getting it”, I also make sure my face matches that positivity (big smile) and my energy is matching too. But I just felt there might be a way to improve this situation particularly on very precise movements or behaviors. This being things like: bringing ears forward; picking up a leg on request (on the way to learning Spanish walk, or even the early stages of a piaffe); leg yield on-the-ground; etc.
Also, I noticed that certain behaviors (or tricks, if you will) would really get my horses excited (in a good way 😊). My horses would have a sparkle in their eye and were waiting with bated breath for me to give the signal or cue. I believe the reason for this is that when I taught my girls those particular moves, I became truly SUPER excited when they performed them well for the first time. I know they loved it when I did that…..and they liked feeling successful too. I know that consistency is the key and if I were to be perfect in duplicating my energy, vocal responses, and emotions each and every time, my horses would always be that excited about everything we do together. Although the timing and execution of that is not always so easy.
It seems my horses were telling me to search for another complementary methodology to help them feel more interested and more confident in what they were doing for me. This is particularly so with tasks that are difficult to express vocal validations fast enough to precisely connect the sound to the behavior requested.
So, I’ve began to take a look at various positive reinforcement strategies. First I started using my vocal responses more often and more consistently like “voilà” and “brave”….(but still appropriately for the applicable behavior).
Something else was still necessary to accurately pinpoint the EXACT moment of a certain behavior. I then discovered that “clicker training” might be the answer I was looking for. This positive reinforcement strategy could be combined with my regular training and quite possibly I could get improved responses from my horses and from my clients’ horses.
Even though it seems that positive reinforcement may not be something that horses utilize much with one another (except maybe from mother to foal), I thought ... well, it is what we do with young children sometimes, right? We offer rewards for good grades, etc. Why not give it a try!
We tend to think exclusively of “treats” when we think of positive reinforcement, but it can be anything that the horse values in any given moment, such as being left alone, scratches, “good memory words” (mentioned earlier) and yes, also….TREATS. When you think of it, in effect a “release” is positive reinforcement.
Fast forward to now (July 2020). I have been diving into “clicker training” and getting fantastic results. Horses are more motivated; they’re trying to perform because they’re anticipating getting that next “click”. The sparkle is back in their eyes much more often, if not all the time when they’re with me. Firenzé is also more confident with my increased usage of positive vocal validations as well as the use of the clicker in certain situations. She now has a clearer understanding of when she’s on the right track (or even when she’s not there yet). Plus, through use of more vocal acknowledgements and clicker usage, both of my horses in-the-saddle are better able to comprehend specific movements like: maintaining gait; moving a shoulder over; stepping under behind; lateral movements; and many other wonderful things.
What I love about the clicker specifically is that it gives me the opportunity to clearly and instantaneously “mark” the behavior or movement. It’s now possible for me to pinpoint the EXACT moment when my horse offered what I am looking for. The clicker is easier and faster than voice ….and faster than a release. However, the quick release must be present too!
For me, using a clicker in certain training situations has been an invaluable tool …. as training horses is all about “timing” (plus being fully focused and in-the-moment). The clicker allows me to be super fast and precise. Horses learn to love that "click" sound as it means a treat or another reward is coming PLUS they know they got it right and feel confident to try every time.
When the need is present for the horse and/or the human, I will be introducing “clicker training” to clients. However, I feel it’s key for the human to be fully committed to addressing and always attempting to improve their timing and awareness skills, not only for the clicker but also on their “releases”. Those who also have a solid awareness level and focus on reading their horse will have an idea about what their horse is thinking about doing next…..and hence, will have better timing overall.
I’m sure I’ll get that feeling again of "wishing that I knew then what I know now”. But the good news is that when that thought comes…..I know that I have been striving to get better and better in my relationship with my horses as well as my clients’ horses 😊
I so LOVE always searching to improve trust and communication with horses 🐴🐴
Kyle Van Splinter (Owner & Trainer)
* from the Rod Steward song: Ooh La La