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Positive treat-ment: Getting started

Positive reinforcement-based equine health care is a great way of changing the unpleasant associations with the vet which the horse might have created during the earlier visits. Adding just a little bit of a reward-based training into the equine health care helps increase the cooperativeness of horse patients and the safety of vets and handlers.

Where can positive reinforcement be added?

Here are some suggestions about where to use positive treat-ment:

  • In the horse’s home environment (teaching specific behaviours; retraining difficult patients; making better associations with a vet)
  • In veterinary facilities (making the health care easier, safer and more professional; enrichment for the hospitalized patients)
  • In veterinary schools and universities (teaching the new generation of vets to be able to work with their patients without force)

Precautions

Using positive reinforcement successfully is more complex than giving the horse treats at the end of a procedure. Knowing the theory is essential.

Also, it is not the smartest thing to start loading the uncooperative, stressed horse with treats in the middle of the procedure after everything else has failed.

Always make sure that the food rewards which you are going to use, are suitable for horses. Take the horses’ health condition into account as well.

The change starts in our head

To be able to incorporate the positive reinforcement into our practice, we need to start thinking about horse behaviour in a slightly different way.

It requires seeing the step-by-step process to the final behaviour and making a concept of how the procedure will be done. And, of course, we need to be prepared that our plans can fall apart easily because sometimes it seems that horses haven’t studied the same materials as we have. 😉

In traditional horse handling (which is based on principles of negative reinforcement), we tend to concentrate more on correction of a behaviour which we don’t like. In this case, the information that we give the horse is: “Don’t do this” or “don’t repeat this behaviour because it leads to punishment”.

We don’t specify what behaviour should the horse do to avoid punishment which could increase his level of stress. (By which I don’t mean that correctly applied negative reinforcement is not useful! – more in this article)

On the other hand, the message of positive reinforcement is: “Do this” or “repeat this specific behaviour to earn the reward”. Using positive reinforcement, the horse learns which behaviour is appropriate for the situation.

It means that before we start with the procedure, we need to know what is the exact behaviour we want to see the horse doing. Whether it is standing still at a certain place, holding the head in a specific position or another way of participation in the treatment…

Then we have to figure out how to step-by-step progress to the final behaviour.

Positive reinforcement-based training does not automatically create a happy horse patient. It can also cause frustration (especially when the horse tries more behaviours in a row neither of which leads to reward). Some of the unwanted behaviours can be also trained this way. Probably the most common is searching through the pockets.

Many horse owners and vets would not use food rewards for horses just because there still persists a common thought that the horses become food-aggressive and more prone to bite. It can be true, especially when the horses are unintentionally trained to get access to treats this way.

This is why it is essential to teach the horse the table manners before you move on to train more specific behaviours (watch the video below ↓ ).

Getting started

Regardless of your role (whether you are a vet, an owner, a technician) and the purpose of training, during the initial training with the horse, you need to make one thing clear. For your own safety, it is very important to teach the horse when and how to take treats.

Table manners: First behaviour to work on

Teach the horse to wait for his rewards calmly with his head slightly turned away from you.

I recommend starting in protected contact where there is a barrier between the horse and human. The electric fence is not ideal as the horse may not want to get close to it or he may be eventually punished by the electric shock when he accidentally touches it. Stable door or solid fencing is much better.

Then move on to teach this behaviour in direct contact:

Another thing that needs to be clarified right at the beginning is a bridge signal (see the previous article to read more about a bridge signal). Specifically, what IS and what IS NOT a bridge signal. A bridge can be anything what the horse identify as a predictor of a reward. That’s why the CLICK (or another bridge you use) should always come before you move your hand to take a treat out of your treat bag.

In the video below, I practice more advanced table manners. I’m teaching the horse that putting my hand in a pocket or a treat bag simply doesn’t mean anything and he should not react to it.

First training sessions

You might have made plans already on how to teach your horse or your patient a certain behaviour. There are two more things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t ask for too much
  • Don’t make the training session too long

What is “too much” and what is “too long”? It’s individual for each horse. When introducing reward-based training to a horse, after setting the table manners, I usually start asking for a simple behavior that is natural to horses and I make the training session just a few minutes long.

To demonstrate it practically, I’d like to show you one “prehistoric” video that I’ve once made. In this video, I introduce positive reinforcement to a young mare. It’s our third session after the initial session of practicing table manners and the second session of teaching her standing still (simple, natural behaviour) consciously and voluntarily for grooming. Now I could ask her for standing a little longer as you see in the video.

Training a horse to stand still while being groomed is a good start also for one more reason: it gives you a time frame which helps you make the session short.

When the horses figure out that standing still is the behaviour leading to reward, many of them stand like a statue (they seem not to even breathe, as you see in the video). I recommend working on a more relaxed position after the horse gets the idea (note that at the end of the video I clicked and rewarded the mare for relaxation).

PS: Sorry for me not smiling in this video. First, it was recorded years ago and second, my concentration was probably too deep 😀 😀 😀

Take home message:

Remember

  • to keep the sessions short (5-10 minutes are enough for the beginning)
  • to break the task into very small steps
  • not to ask too much in a single session
  • to be sure that the horse knows the step 1 behaviour well before you move to step 2
  • that slow is fast, at the end
"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >