Just what IS Positive Reinforcement Training?

Humans have been training horses for thousands of years. What’s so groundbreaking about Positive Reinforcement Training (R+)?

Let’s start with what R+ is and isn’t.

Positive Reinforcement Training for horses is not:

• Bribing

• Luring

• Natural Horsemanship

• Round penning

• Horse whispering

• Pressure and release

• Always riding without a bit

• Always using a clicker

• Tolerating bad or dangerous manners

• Just training “tricks”

So what IS Positive Reinforcement Training?  It is:

• Training based on the science of animal learning and behavior

• Training based on reward (R+; positive reinforcement) rather than pressure or punishment

• Using a bridge signal to communicate success (also called a “marker signal” or “tag”)

• Following the bridge signal predictably with a reward thus…

• Creating a mental association between the bridge signal and the coming reward

• Shaping behavior by rewarding successful increments toward the goal

• Creating a very precise means of communication between the trainer and the equine

That sounds really complicated and scientific-y! Don’t worry, here we explain more and you can also check out our online resources. 

Meanwhile, what’s a bridge signal?’

  • Starting with the ‘signal’ part—the signal is a means of communication.  It’s:
    • Unique (not common in the environment or background)
    • Something the trainer can produce with precise timing
    • Something the animal or learner can perceive  
    • Neutral, not punishing or rewarding in itself
  • Now, for the ‘bridge’ part.  A bridge signal:
    • Is paired by repetition with the expectation of a reward (also called conditioning)
    • Is given at the exact moment the desired behavior is occurring, marking the correct behavior
    • Bridges the time gap between that moment of behavior and delivering the reward
  • Common unique signals that trainers use, depending on the learner and environment are:
    • Clickers 
    • Whistles
    • Tongue pops
    • One-syllable words or sounds
    • Lights

A marine mammal trainer can’t throw a fish to a dolphin mid-leap to say, “I love that height!”  The whistle bridges the gap, and communicates to the dolphin what earned a reward.  A rider can’t easily hand a horse a slice of carrot mid-jump, so the rider’s bridge signal tells the horse “Good job tucking your forehand!” at the moment of effort.  Both the dolphin and the horse get their actual reward a few moments later.  And because of the bridge signal, both understand very clearly what action that reward is for.  

But hold on.  How does the horse know what the signal marked?  How did the dolphin know the signal was for height, instead of the direction of the leap?  How does the horse know that carrot slice is for a tight tuck during the jump, and not for holding its breath or lifting its head or looking at the next jump?

This is where the concept of shaping comes into positive reinforcement training.  Shaping is like a big game of Hotter-Colder, with the bridge signal wordlessly communicating Hotter and guiding toward the goal.  The horse won’t start out knowing what the bridge signal is marking.  It must guess.  It tries things. Some things work, getting hotter, so the learner tries them again.  Some don’t work, getting colder, until the learner abandons those. The timing of the applause is crucial.  We often play The Training Game to teach shaping to humans, using applause to wordlessly shape a behavior, anything from turning off a light switch to crawling backwards up stairs!

Bridging, rewards, shaping and timing. These are the basic concepts and skills that we use in positive reinforcement training to create an infinite variety of motivated behavior without force or pressure. 

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