Positive Reinforcement in Training

Willowtrail Wild Rose awaiting reward

Willowtrail Wild Rose awaiting reward

Right now I have four Fell Ponies in my largest paddock.  While in the past I’ve had as many as seven ponies there, even four provides plenty of excitement when it’s vitamin bucket time in the morning.  Managing the jostling for position in front of the proper bucket requires care to ensure the safety of all concerned.  It also provides opportunities for training.

Inevitably one pony finishes their vitamin bucket before the rest.  To keep that pony from stealing the bucket of another pony, I’ve devised a number of strategies over the years.  An article in the November 2012 issue of Equus magazine confirmed my experience that positive reinforcement can encourage preferred behavior.

The article summarized research that found that providing a food reward when desired behavior occurs, and then rewarding increasing durations of positive behavior, works with horses just as it does with humans and other species.  The study was done on horses that bit and chewed on lead ropes when tied or cross-tied.  The researchers were able to displace the chewing behavior by rewarding the horses with hay when they abstained  from chewing, getting the horses up to twenty minutes of preferred behavior over the course of several training sessions.   (1)

I always keep ‘treats’ in my pocket when with my ponies.  (The ‘treats’ are actually wafers of horse feed, but the ponies consider them treats, and they are much more economical than treats marketed as such, at just $17 for a 50# bag.)  I reward the fast-eating pony by throwing a treat into their empty bucket.  They then ask for another instead of wandering off to take over another bucket.  I let them stand for increasing intervals of time, until it only takes a treat or two to get all the way through vitamin feeding, with each pony getting all of the ration that I’ve individually prepared for them.  The photograph shows Willowtrail Wild Rose waiting to see if I’ll throw another treat in her bucket while another pony finishes his bucket nearby.

There are other examples of the findings of the study.  For instance, my friend Doc Hammill once described to me how he corrected ‘foot expressive’ behavior in one of his mares by delaying giving her her feed bucket until she consistently stood quietly.  With my ponies, I can shake a finger at them, asking them to back up, and then let them stand at a distance until asked to approach me again, increasing the length of time that they stand before coming back to me (not all ponies need a food reward to do this.)  This is helpful, for instance, when the pony is standing on something that I need to extract from under their foot.

I found the interpretation of the research in the Equus article interesting; it stated that positive reinforcement was quicker than punishment in discouraging unwanted behavior.  The research, however, didn’t compare the contrasting approaches to training.  Even the researchers stated advantages of positive reinforcement that their research didn’t address:  “We believe these techniques provide trainers with an option that is both effective and can improve the interaction and relationship they have with their horses.”  Though their research didn’t thoroughly support this statement, I nonetheless think their conclusion about improved relationships is accurate.  I’ve certainly seen that benefit.

1)      “When training, accentuate the positive,” Equus Issue 422, November 2012, p. 13.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013

About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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