How to Use Games to Train your Horse

When we do a clinic, I like to incorporate a little consciousness-raising. I want people who interact with horses to understand what it’s like for ani­mals to be trained —to become sensitized to the horse’s point of view. For this purpose, we sometimes use “The Training Game,” which was used to teach new trainers at Sea World. It’s a powerful tool to demonstrate hands-on how it feels to learn through reward- versus removal-reinforcement.

Imagine being a stranger in a foreign land. No one speaks your lan­guage. You are powerless and unable to comprehend what is going on around you. Your very survival could depend on behaving in a specific way that can’t be explained to you because of differences in how you and these strangers communicate. Does this sound like the plot of the latest horror movie? This is the predicament, albeit somewhat overdramatized, that many horses experience during the training process.

Happy Horse

How we communicate the behavior we desire from our horses can mean the difference between a willing horse, happy to do his job, or a surly, antagonistic horse, grudgingly working only when forced. This game also serves to demonstrate some of the fundamentals of On Target Training. Once you learn about The Training Game, you’ll see how our techniques follow common sense and will be easy to keep using.

Just about everyone who has participated in The Training Game has found it to be quite enlightening. Here’s how it works. One or two people among the clinic group volunteer to be “trained.” They leave the room. Then, the rest of the group decides what behavior they want to teach the volunteer, aka “the new horse,” to do. It could be any simple behavior such as sitting on a chair, standing on one foot, or turning out the light.

When the volunteer returns to the group I take out a clicker to be used as a bridge-signal. I tell the volunteer that I will communicate only with this device, clicking to indicate when behavior is correct. The concept is like the guessing game we’ve all played as children, except that instead of using the word “warmer” to indicate good guesses, I communicate with the clicker to tell the “horse” she’s getting closer to the right “answer.”

In keeping with the concept of linking the sound of the clicker to something our human “horse” would like, I sometimes reinforce correct behavior with M & Ms or even money.

Let’s suppose that the behavior we decide to train our new “horse” is to stand on a chair. I use the sound of the click and a treat—reward-reinforcement—as the horse takes steps toward accomplishing the desired behavior. I ignore undesired behavior.

Let’s focus now on the question of how to train our “horse” to stand on a chair. The “horse” will probably come back into the room and wan­der about, trying to figure out what to do. At some point the “horse” will look toward the chair. I immediately click and reward to tell her she’s on the right track. Movement toward the chair would be even better but it’s unlikely that would happen right away. (Patience is part of The Training Game, just as it’s part of your regular training program.) I continue to click and reward for each small step toward the behavior we are training. Each of these small steps is a building block to the larger, finished behavior. The “horse” has no way of knowing during the process what the end goal is, but with reward-reinforcement, the process itself is enjoyable.

Each time our “horse” takes another step toward the desired behav­ior, we are saying in a clear and pleasant way that she is doing the right thing. This is textbook behavioral conditioning and it works because each time our “horse” is reinforced this way, it increases the likelihood that she will repeat the behavior that was reinforced. And so the process continues until we get the desired behavior. In this case, our volunteer will ulti­mately stand on the chair and the rest of the group will cheer. The train­ers are happy, the “horse” is happy, and the goal has been accomplished.

Once the volunteer has walked in the horse’s hooves, her awareness, and the group’s comprehension of the horse’s learning process is enhanced.

When I first started conducting clinics to teach On Target Training, I used to use removal-reinforcement in The Training Game. Training through removal-reinforcement creates quite a different picture, and while maintaining the goal of getting the volunteer to stand on a chair, the training approach is quite different. If I was the “horse” and you were the trainer, you might push or prod me toward the chair I was to stand on. Under the removal-reinforcement system, you would stop pushing when I went toward the chair myself. What is reinforcing under these cir­cumstances is the removal of the unpleasant sensation of prodding. So when you start pushing again, I have to figure out how to get you to stop. To avoid more poking, I must repeat the movement toward the chair.

When I was the “horse” during this removal-reinforcement training game, I found myself getting more and more annoyed by the process. I didn’t like being poked (even though it didn’t hurt) and prodded to be taught a behavior. In fact, I stopped doing it in my clinics because it cre­ated uncomfortable feelings of anger, apprehension, and frustration for the trainee and sometimes for the trainers too.

Train Horse Games

I’ve been the trainee or “horse” in both the reward- and removal-rein­forcement training games, and I found it to be a significant learning tool to experience both approaches. My thoughts and feelings during each process were remarkably different. During the removal-reinforcement train­ing game, I found myself putting a lot of effort into watching my “trainer’s” hands to avoid being poked along. Although I was moving forward, I was­n’t paying attention to figuring out what I was trying to accomplish. I was just trying to avoid the unpleasant sensation of being taught in this way. On the other hand, when reward-reinforcement was used, I concentrated on what I could do to be reinforced again. I remembered just what I was doing when I got reinforced and was eager to repeat the behavior.

Which way would you rather have your horse thinking during the training process? With reward-reinforcement, your horse will be eager to work for you and happy to build upon his training.

Filed Under: Pets & Animals


About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.

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