You’ve seen our first 2 principles:
Now you’re ready to:
Enhance Your Training Toolbox
In Principle 2, we explained that you want to Look for Your “YES!” and reward it. But you can’t say yes to a behavior that’s not occurring, can you? So how do we get our horse to offer a behavior we want in the first place?
We carefully consider how we can Create an Opportunity for the horse to obtain a reward. When we utilize positive reinforcement (R+), we trigger a horse’s natural seeking system. We tap into their curiosity and desire. Our R+ tools and skills—such as using targets, the reverse round pen, liberty leading, marker signals, counter-conditioning, behavior chains, and backchaining—may seem new and a bit challenging to learn at first, but they give us the means to create behavior we want without pressure, and then the opportunity to reinforce our “Yes.”
We can’t teach you all about how to use these tools and skills in one short article, but the principle Create Opportunity is intended to alert you to the R+ tools that exist and remind you of the reasons we use these tools. There are many creative ways, both on the ground and under saddle, that you can trigger and then reward the behavior you want through desire on the horse’s part. The more you learn about these tools and skills, particularly how to create the behaviors most equestrians want from their horses, the larger your Priority to Positive® training repertoire becomes.
Integrating these new tools into more typical training exercises such as cavaletti increases the possibilities for refining the behavior. And like many traditional tools used in training, such as side reins, most of our R+ tools are intended as early guides that are faded out as the desired behavior is learned fluently.
TWO KEY TOOLS
One of the early Priority to Positive® lessons we teach our horses is how to follow a target. The target is a tool that creates motion through the horse seeking for it.
For instance, we can use a target to create upward and downward transitions while teaching the horse to willingly respond to walk, trot, canter, and halt aids. We also can use a target for behaviors like trailer loading, lining up for mounting; going forward, slowing down or halting under saddle; free jumping, holding still for veterinary procedures, and so much more. By using a target, we can create behaviors at liberty without ropes, lines, reins, or pressure. The horse learns the behavior is an opportunity for reward.
As the horse learns to offer a behavior fluently, we can and want to fade the target away until our cue/aid alone triggers the behavior we want. (Read how we use a target to put a leg lift on cue.)
Let’s be honest, we all have body language we use to tell a horse when they’re doing something we don’t like. What we’ve been missing is how to tell your horse without words when they are doing something correctly. You can’t always acknowledge their effort at that moment—or can you?
We use a marker to communicate the message “You’re right!” to our horses. It’s a signal that marks a moment in time and helps a horse associate what they did at that moment with a coming reward. It bridges (connects) the time gap between behavior and reward, and is sometimes called a “bridge signal.”
If you go online and search “positive reinforcement training” you’ll find “clicker training.” This sometimes leads people to think it’s all about the clickers. But this marker signal can be anything the horse can perceive and you can produce consistently: a sound, a touch, or even a light bulb coming on. You can choose what to use as a marker as long as you teach it correctly. With correct and consistent conditioning, you can even use different markers in different contexts, such as a clicker at home and a touch on the withers at competition.