How your horse's personality can affect reinforcement training

How your horse’s personality can affect reinforcement training

Trainer and polocrosse player Matthew Hale discusses how understanding your horse’s response to reinforcement could improve the effectiveness of your training.

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is simply the name for the kind of training you work on with your horse during almost every session. By reinforcing some actions with aids, you’re encouraging these behaviours in your horse. Most equine training is based on negative reinforcement: the use of pressure and the timely release of pressure to train horses. It’s only called ‘negative’ in a mathematical sense, because something (pressure) is taken away during the training process to reward the horse for a correct behavioural response. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use positive reinforcement, too: giving your horse a treat when you see a behaviour you’d like to encourage is a simple way of doing this.

Insight to your horse’s inner world

Like most riders, you’ve probably encountered first hand just how much a horse’s personality affects the way he responds to reinforcement – and that the same methods might have very different results for horses with different dispositions.

Researchers at the French Institute for Horse and Riding have now developed personality tests that prove just that: horses’ personality traits can explain some of the differences we see in their behaviour and learning. And, the research team says, fearfulness (or lack thereof) seems to be the most significant factor.

For example, the French researchers found that a horse with a nervous disposition was better at learning new tasks in a calm environment (even if the task was reinforced with ‘negative’ reinforcement). However, if the horse was stressed by something other than the task – for example, separation from stablemates, a new environment, or loud noises – he was likely to not learn as effectively as non-fearful horses.

How you can use horse’s disposition during training

‘Nervous horses are generally looking for direction,’ says Matthew. ‘A nervous horse wouldn’t be a herd leader in the wild. Instead, he’d look for guidance from a leader and, in the case of horse-human interaction, he’ll look for guidance from his rider.’

So, if you’re handling a nervous horse, Matthew advises acting like a herd leader: ‘If you’re confident and reinforce your horse’s actions with confident aids, he’ll automatically feel as though his environment is calmer and will believe that everything is all right,’ he says.

In comparison, confident horses might not be as spooky or easily frightened, but they are also quicker to take control of a situation. This can be both good and bad. ‘You have to spend quite a lot of time convincing a non-fearful horse to accept your guidance,’ Matthew explains. ‘These bold horses often need more stimulation before they need your support, and are also more likely to argue against your opinion. So, to reinforce your commands with a non-fearful horse, you may need to use more dominant body language, such as a tall stance and strong eye contact,’ says Matthew.

Here, he shares his top tips and exercises for working with horses of all dispositions:

Five tips and exercises for working with nervous horses

  1. ‘It’s vital that you give a nervous horse clear aids and that he understands the basic instructions,’ Matthew says. Remember, in the study mentioned above, fearful horses learnt better from negative reinforcement (as long as the environment remained calm) – so don’t be afraid to give your horse clear directions. It’s important that he understands what you want from him, whether you’re riding him at a spooky fence or asking him to go through a puddle.
  2. Similarly, if you stay calm and confident in any situation, a more fearful horse will have faith in you as their leader and will believe that his environment is calmer, too. ‘Try to avoid him feeling like you’re not in control of the situation,’ Matthew says. ‘That’s when a fearful horse’s first instinct to take flight will usually kick in.’
  3. ‘Always ride a nervous horse forwards with your legs,’ Matthew recommends. ‘In a scary situation riders will often take their legs off and lift their hands, which sends signals to the horse that there is something to be frightened of. A confident rider will encourage the horse forwards by allowing with their hands and driving with their legs, subconsciously telling the horse that what he’s being asked to do is safe.’
  4. Repetition and gradual improvement are key reinforcement factors for a fearful horse. ‘For example, if a horse is nervous about jumping, start by working him on a circle over a pole that’s laid flat on the floor,’ says Matthew. ‘Then slowly raise one end of the pole and then the other, until eventually you’re jumping one foot, then two foot, and so on.’
  5. ‘When introducing a new and potentially fearful object, encourage your horse to “chase” it. Hold it in front of him, then move it away ahead of him so that he takes a step forwards towards it. Instead of being scared, he’ll start to feel in control if it moves away from him.’

And four tips and exercises for working with confident horses

  1. ‘A good exercise for a bold horse is to ride him through woods or around obstacles,’ says Matthew. ‘And, instead of allowing your horse to make all the decisions on which route to take around the trees or objects, make those decisions for him. This will put you in control, and will help to reinforce a non-fearful horse’s trust in you as a leader.’
  2. ‘To gain acceptance as the herd leader, you need to be able to move a confident horse’s feet, which is what the lead mare would do,’ advises Matthew. To reinforce this, stand at your horse’s shoulder, facing his hindquarters, and ask him to move his back feet away from you so that he crosses his hindlegs over. His head and front end should stay relatively still. This may take some practise; so devote five to 10 minutes of your usual training sessions to trying it out.
  3. ‘Always have a plan B in place. For example, if you’re asking your horse to walk over a sheet of tarpaulin, chances are that he’ll “argue” with your instruction and jump sideways to avoid it the first time you ask him. In this case, your plan B could be to walk your horse closer and closer to the tarpaulin, until he is walking over it. You want the horse to understand that by following your aids he’ll stay safe, and that your leadership can be trusted.’
  4. ‘Lastly, don’t be afraid to push your horse out of his comfort zone,’ Matthew says. ‘By putting him in a stressful situation and showing him that you can safely get him through it, you will build his confidence in you as a leader.’