As our earlier ‘Day in the Life’ post indicates, we welcomed our first two Priority to Positive® (PtP) student trainers, Cami and Jasmine, to the Via Nova team in August of 2021. Through classroom lectures and hands-on training with our horses and miniature herd, these two young women have excelled in grasping the power of positive reinforcement (R+) and how we apply it to traditional training via Priority to Positive® (PtP). Let’s take a glimpse into the journals they’ve been keeping over the last five months.

JasmineAdding a Positive Tool

Prior to coming to Via Nova, most of my experience working with horses was using a natural horsemanship method. Over the past four months, I have added positive reinforcement tools to my toolbox, which has opened up the opportunities I can offer to a horse that I am working with. The methods have shed new light on dealing with even the most basic behavioral difficulties.

In the past, if I had a horse that wouldn’t move forward while leading, my go-to would be to add increasing pressure with the lead rope until the horse moved forward, even a tiny amount, then releasing the pressure. If that didn’t work, I’d step into a position facing their shoulder to be able to send them forward by swinging the end of the lead rope toward their flank.

Now, I have the tools and ideas to reinforce walking forward on the lead using positive reinforcement. One option may be to work on leading at liberty and focusing on reinforcing right away when the horse steps with you. Another option would be to do a session of hand walking to or toward the area that worries them or is spooky, and then reinforcing when the horse steps with you.

Jasmine and curious Taz

Jasmine and Taz

In the past, I have worked with horses who have a lower range of motion in their hind legs. With one horse, I did my best to just be as gentle as possible when handling his hind legs, and we eventually reached an understanding that I wouldn’t intentionally hurt him. After that, he was fairly willing on most days to let me handle them. That process took a couple of months.

Here at Via Nova, I’ve been working with one of our school horses to be more comfortable with us picking up his back feet, which we’ve accomplished by standing at his back hip to elicit the behavior of picking up his back foot. Starting with quick and frequent reinforcement, I was able to increase the duration and also have him comfortable with me handling his foot gently. With clarity and consistent work, this process only took a few weeks!

I have enjoyed reflecting on the way I approach common difficulties with a more positive outlook and action plan. I often find myself thinking about how I could have carried out past situations with more clarity for the horse, but I am excited that I’ll be able to carry out my future interactions with a Priority to Positive® method!

Cami: A Complete Attitude Adjustment

There are so many aspects to switching over or starting to use positive reinforcement (R+) with your animals, but I think one of the biggest and most noticeable things is how your mindset changes.

Cami with Peter and Drake

Cami with Peter and Drake after riding

I began thinking about what I wanted the horses to do instead of what I didn’t want them to do. I started looking for other reasons I was getting behavior I didn’t want, such as the environment, pain, or other unseen reasons, and stopped labeling them as “bad,” “lazy,” or any other negative terms. I gained an understanding that all behavior has a reason, whether you’re aware of the reason or not. I discovered the childlike joy that came from being around horses again because they liked being around me, and I was no longer apprehensive about handling them.

Now that I’ve been given the opportunity to explore training with R+ full time, I’ve noticed even more changes. Not only is the way I interact with the horses different, but what I expect from them has changed, too. I used to want to keep going—whether I was riding, lunging, or doing groundwork—until I was satisfied and felt like we had worked “enough.” Here at Via Nova, an R+ training barn, the sessions instead are short and sweet. This keeps the horse interested and helps them feel successful and get the right answer more often.

So, my mindset has changed to be happier with “less” from my horses, although now I know that it actually means “more” to the horse, and we all leave feeling fulfilled.

I also feel more productive, based on different parameters. It used to be a good day for me if I rode a lot of horses, but now I’m happy if I just leave the horses I interacted with in a better place.

Even if a training session seems short and not very exciting, I can be sure that I made a little step towards a big goal and still leave feeling good.


Jasmine on target learning & TAGteach:

“We practiced handling a target in a few different situations. There are many steps to handling the target as clearly and confidently as possible. The way we go about practicing this is using a tag team approach. One person will call off each step for the other and “click” them when they do it well. This can be challenging, but it’s beneficial for improving the fluidity and clarity of the exercises before even working with a horse. It is harder than it looks. Horses notice every movement, so it is crucial that we simplify our body language as much as possible. Targets in training can provide clarity for horse and handler if done properly!”

Cami on classroom learning:

“We had a really interesting presentation on horse emotions called “No Bad Horses.” Amanda went over some brief neuroscience concepts, like Panksepp’s seven biological emotions in animals, trigger stacking and arousal, and how it affects performance. It was cool to see just how much we, as positive reinforcement trainers, think about our horses’ emotions on a daily basis. Whereas before, as traditional trainers, we would just write them off as being “naughty.” I also really like the idea of a “trust bank” in training, where we, as our horses’ partners, pay into this imaginary bank of trust in the horse with good, positive, and safe experiences, so that we can make a withdrawal if we need to in a situation, such as an emergency or a particularly difficult task.”

Reflecting and Perspective: 

It is so rewarding to see our Priority to Positive® students not only learn in the classroom, but to observe and practice in the “field.” As they grow as trainers and horsewomen, they are learning and experiencing how to prioritize positivity in their work.

An excellent way to welcome a new year—onward with positive perspectives!

Join us on the Journey… subscribe to our Newsletter here.