Two Ways to use Positive Reinforcement Training for the Competitive Event Horse

Chelsea Canedy and Little Einstein. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Missed part one of Chelsea’s blog? Catch up here!

In my last blog, I wrote about how much more my eyes have been opened to positive reinforcement training and all of the ways that we can use the horse’s “happy hormones” in training instead of leveraging his fight or flight instinct alone.

While I think every person who trains horses should know that this exists, there’s a big caveat to r+ training: You CAN mess it up.

In fact, I think this is why r+ gets a bad rap sometimes – because we’ve all probably met a horse who was morphed into a total walk-all-over-you, crazed cookie monster after his owner started using “positive reinforcement” (or thought that’s what they were using, at least!).

Let’s talk about two important ground rules before we proceed: First, you must create significance to the clicker. Yes, food is a big part of the process too, but the clicker is the most precise tool in terms of timing. The clicker allows you to pinpoint the exact moment that the horse is behaving how you want, in a way that you simply cannot while fumbling around your pocket for treats.

Next, your first foray into r+ is setting polite boundaries. Your horse should learn to walk with space between you and him, next you, not in front of you, and to not reach into your space for treats. How do you achieve this? You reward him when he’s doing that precise combination of things all at the same time, and never when he’s pushing into your “invisible box”. You have to be very present and observant to catch that moment.

Now, let’s get to the real heart of this blog. How do I practically use this type of training in my competitive event horse? I think it’s important to hear about the practical applications of r+ training to understand how it can fit into your daily life with horses.

#1: Eliminating the Cross Tie Dance

My horse Albert can get a little edgy in the cross-ties when we’re somewhere new. He doesn’t do anything dramatic, but he does a lot more stepping forward, fidgeting, and learning ahead into the cross-ties than he does at home, simply because he’s not as relaxed. So, I want to not only teach him to stand still for my own sanity, but also that the cross-ties are a place to relax. That’s the beauty of r+ training.
In the past, when he moved, I’d stop his movement and put him back where I wanted him to stand, over and over, to get him to plant his feet. That’s great, but it doesn’t necessarily cue his body to relax, and it could be quite monotonous and laborious.
So, I tried it with r+. It took, kid you not, about 5 minutes, maybe less, before he was standing quite still, lowering his head, and looking soft and relaxed in his eye and jaw.
How’d I do it? Whenever he would take a step back from his leaning forward position in the cross ties, I’d click and give him a treat (note that he was already very familiar with the clicker and what it meant from some liberty leading sessions in a round pen). When he stood relaxed for one second, click and treat. Another couple of seconds, click and treat. And so on, until I could see him thinking of stepping forward, and then watch him choose to rock gently back and settle instead.
#2: Establishing a Relaxed Way of Going in Any Gait
Our connection with the horse’s mouth can still be a major part of our ridden work with them, but we can reinforce what we want with r+ training. This is where I love Shawna’s approach to r+: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Yes, you can still put your leg on. Yes, you can still take a feel of the reins. It doesn’t work against you because you’re still able to reward the horse with the clicker in the moments that feel just right in the ridden work.
With my horse Albert, as we progress in flatwork, I’ll use the example of reinforcing a nice, relaxed frame in the trot. Forward, soft in the mouth, up in the withers, pushing from behind – a nice working trot that would be appropriate for a dressage test. I can certainly get him there with my usual leg, hand, and seat aids, and then when he feels like a rockstar, I can click and treat.
This makes him want to find that way of going. It simply changes the tone of training – it feels more like a happy game than a serious, consequence-laden session. This gets the feel-good hormones going and I am combatting much less of his natural anxiety in his training – anxiety that would surely catch up to us at some point in his progress.
If you’d like to learn more about this method of training, Shawna Karrasch has lots of blogs and podcasts on the topic. Find her work here. She also appeared on the Equestrian Voices podcast (which I’ve also been a guest on!) to break down this approach.
Also, I’m hosting a clinic on the basics of R+ training at my farm in Wales, Maine on April 9. Sign up here!