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Positive treat-ment introduction

Let’s start with something new and fresh at the beginning of the New Year! Using positive reinforcement to facilitate equine healthcare is quite a new technique compared to the traditional methods of working with horse patients. But why not to add some treats to treatment?

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is technically one of the four quadrants of the operant conditioning.

In scientific terms, the word “positive” doesn’t refer to something “good” and “negative” doesn’t mean something “bad”. It simply means something added (positive) and something removed (negative).

So the positive reinforcement is the way of making the desired behaviour more likely to happen (reinforcing = making it stronger) by adding a pleasurable consequence (which is food in most of the cases but some horses may also enjoy scratching, for example).

Reward-based training

The animal training world gradually leaves training techniques based on correction and starts converting to force-free training based on positive reinforcement. Training horses through positive reinforcement is a relatively new technique but it brings amazing results.

Using rewards, we can now teach horses the behaviours that has been hard to teach with the pressure-and-release based training simply because it has been hard to explain our idea to the horse or it has been too stressful so the horse developed a defensive reaction to our cues.

It is especially helpful with the equine patients because we can literally teach them to participate in their treatment. We can teach them to stand still and to hold their head in a certain position for blood sampling, we can teach them to take the wormer voluntarily or we can prepare them for a specific procedure. (See the article about the no-restraint veterinary care.)

Using rewards is also a great way of retraining the difficult horse patients.

Clicker training

You have probably also heard about clicker training in association with using positive reinforcement. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for positive reinforcement or reward-based training. So what is it about?

A clicker is usually a small box with a piece of metal that makes a typical noise. Now there are many types of clickers available – some of them you can attach to your whip, target or your finger, there is also a clicker ring… There are also differences in the sound they make, so don’t hesitate to try more types to find out which one fits the best to you and your horse.

A clicker is a tool used as a marker for the correct response. It helps the horse connecting a behaviour with a reward. That’s why the sound of a clicker is also called the bridge signal – it makes the bridge between a behaviour and a reward.

Do we necessarily need a clicker? Surprisingly, the answer is NO. The bridge signal can be also a sound of a whistle, a specific word… Anyway, it must be something that the horse is able to distinguish easily and quickly.

Positive reinforcement for horse patients

What is the advantage of using positive reinforcement for the equine patients?

It’s not a surprise that most of the horses don’t like vets. OK, there are some horses who seem not to care because they don’t react to the vet procedures but generally speaking, I don’t think any horse enjoys being treated by a vet.

Since the main idea of my project is to make the veterinary care the least stressful experience for horses (which, at the same time, makes it less stressful and more safe for the owners and vets), I found practising the positive treat-ment a very effective way to achieve this goal.

Thinking of the main advantage of incorporating reward-based training into my practice and encouraging my client to use it, I found out four things that I appreciate the most:

  • Changing the horse’s associations with a vet
  • Encouraging the horse’s problem-solving ability (engaging the brain)
  • Increasing the patient’s compliance and cooperativeness
  • Low-stress retraining of the non-compliant patients

Changing the horse’s associations with a vet

The fact that many horses perform dangerous behaviour when a vet procedure is about to happen, is caused by making the association between the vet visit and pain, discomfort, force and stress they have experienced earlier.

Using positive reinforcement is a smart way of changing these associations replacing them with more pleasurable ones. It helps to build trust and relationship instead of fear and avoidance.

Encouraging the horse’s problem-solving ability

This is a relatively new concept as in the traditional horse training, there is not much of a space for the horse’s thinking, problem-solving and offering the behaviour.

What is it about? One of the prerequisites for the low-stress positive training is giving the horse choice and encouraging him to make his own decisions. The freedom to make a decision gives the horse the feeling of control over the situation and over his life which is a very strong reinforcer. It helps him to be more confident in thinking what behaviour could lead to the reward. Practically, you’ll get the think-before-you-flee response more often. 🙂

The point is to make the desired behaviour easier to perform and more reinforcing for the horse than the undesired one.

Increasing the patient’s compliance and cooperativeness

Using positive reinforcement-based training, the horse patients can be taught specific cooperative behaviours as mentioned earlier in this post. Cooperative veterinary care is still very rare in the field of equine medicine but is routinely being used in many ZOOs.

It helps reduce stress in animals, increase safety and also save money because the animals don’t have to be sedated on anaesthetized. For the same reasons, it is beneficial to have a cooperative horse patient as well.

Retraining of the non-compliant patients

Using the force-free reward-based training is a great way of retraining the equine patients who show some kind of unwanted behaviour associated with health care. Those horses are usually very well sensitized to the subtle signs indicating that the procedure they don’t like is about to be performed.

Behaviour modification plans based on positive reinforcement bring results quickly and without eliciting the defensive response.

Personally, I don’t use only and exclusively positive reinforcement when working with my patients. As I wrote in the previous article: correctly applied negative reinforcement is a quick and easy way to care for an equine patient without provoking an avoidance behaviour. On the other hand, positive reinforcement-based veterinary care empowers the horse to be an equal partner for dialogue.

So get your treats ready because in the next article we are going to start training the equine patient!

"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 >