Why I’m OK With Combining Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This evening I read a post on HippoLogic titled “The Difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement” by Sandra Poppema.  It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts on this subject. After explaining (accurately) the scientific difference Sandra goes on to make her case for R+ being a better approach than R- for training horses leading to a conclusion that R- should be avoided. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a huge advocate for positive reinforcement.  I hand feed a LOT of food while training horses – much to the chagrin of many ‘never hand feed’ traditionalists.  However, I don’t necessarily agree the R- is something to be avoided. In her post, Sandra states, “The ‘release of pressure’ is not a reward: the horse will not offer ‘more behaviour’ in the hope of a more severe aversive ‘in order to earn a bigger sense of relieve’.” I take some issue with this because that isn’t how it works when done well.  I will explain. This anti- negative reinforcement mind set assumes that the horse is not actively engaging in the training.  He works only to avoid aversives and does the minimum to stay out of trouble.  I will grant that many horses do seem to be operating like that.  However, it doesn’t need to be like that. The way that I learned horsemanship assumes and cultivates a mentally engaged horse.  For the engaged horse discovers that there is, in fact, something in it for him.  Like us, horses appreciate being acknowledged.  Horses are intelligent, curious, and are wired to want to get along.  As such they appreciate and seek...

The Importance of a Balanced Mouth

I talk a lot about setting a horse up for success.  You could go back and read this article on My Secret Weapon for a reminder.  In that article I talk about seeing the little things and how they add up for the better or worse! Horses are remarkably quick studies.  They are also designed to want to get along.  In Mary Hunter’s kind review of my book she quoted one of my favorite sayings:  “If the horse knew what you wanted and was confident that he was able to do it, he’d BE doing it.”  So, if it seems like your training issues just never seem to get resolved you need to look at the bigger picture.  It is truly mind boggling sometimes how little it takes to block a horse from being able to cooperate with us. It could be your equitation is the source of the block and I see that a LOT in my teaching. But that isn’t the source I wanted to talk about today. Since moving to East Tennessee three years ago I’ve been without the support system that I had access to up north.  This included quality dental care among other things.  I’ve been having the local vet (who I do like as a vet) float my horse’s teeth.  I would have preferred an equine dental specialist but finding someone who would come to this area was a challenge.  So, this was on my radar but not until recently did the stars align to get the person I was looking for to me. For the last couple of years I’ve been encountering...

My Book Gets a Shout-Out

Mary Hunter, over at stalecheerios.com, wrote up a really lovely review of my book on her website.  I so appreciate when people really ‘get’ the message.  Here’s a quote from Mary’s review: “Sharon Foley’s underlying philosophy is that the “horse would be doing what was asked of him if only he were clear about what was wanted and was confident that he could do it.” Our horses aren’t trying to be brats or challenge us or make us angry. However, they often don’t understand what we want or why they should be doing what we are asking. The goal of good training should be clear and precise communication between horse and rider. In Getting to Yes, Sharon Foley shows us how to break training down into small steps and show our horses exactly what we are asking. By doing this we can build a mindset where we work with the horse, rather than against him, and help the horse be right every step of the way.” Thank you, Mary, for the your kind...

In Memory of Roxi – May 10, 1998 to August 10, 2010

This week we lost our beloved Shepherd, Roxi, at age 12.  I wrote this for her. There is a hole in the Universe where you used to be. I go through my day tripping over the impressions you left in my routine. Like a photograph negative I see the outline of you. But it is not you. At the door. Under the coffee table. At my feet under my desk. I get out of bed – late because you didn’t make me get up. I wander aimlessly in the morning thinking there is something I’m supposed to be doing. You would have told me. You knew our every move.  Time to go out.  Time to eat.  Time for pop tart. We were so predictable.  So trainable. I know with time the tide will wash over your footprints. Soon the movement of the Universe will fill in those holes. Too soon routines without you will feel normal. But I’m not ready to let you go. I leave your dish with three bits of kibble from that Tuesday morning where you left it. I leave your nose prints on the windows unwashed. The dog hair un-vacuumed. We want you back home. But not like this, in a metal box with the inscription “Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge”. by Sharon...

Prelude to a Scratch (Solving a Problem with Hoof Handling)

I bought Libby for my non-rider husband and she came to me as a 25 year old with some age-related issues:  arthritis, sore hocks, and lameness in her left spavin.  Yet she impressed me by making a ten hour trailer ride from northern Ohio and trusting me enough to follow a stranger (me) off that trailer (in the dark) and into her new stall.  In the glaring light of day I could see she needed the attention of a good farrier before I could even consider riding her, so all I asked of her in the beginning was to stand still for grooming.  She stood well enough for grooming, but resisted picking up her feet.  I persisted, and was twice bitten on the calf when I tried to pick up her right fore.  A more experienced horsewoman would have known that Libby was saying “OUCH!” but it took me a bit longer to figure it all out. Over our next four years together Libby grew to love grooming and scratching but was always, no matter what, difficult when it came to lifting her front feet.  We went through several farriers (the ones that bullied her and used a twitch were never called again) and by now I had figured out that she was in pain but even a dose or two of anti-inflammatory prior to the farrier visit wasn’t enough to allow her to easily hold those feet up for trimming. We also weren’t able to ride her because of her physical limitations so she became a companion horse.  One day she slipped and fell in a wet pasture and the ensuing...

Grass – The Carpet of Motivation

I wrote this article several years ago.  It had gotten lost in the shuffle of updating my website.  Unfortunately the video that had gone along with it is among the missing.  But, here is the article anyway.   –Sharon Here in New England one of the things I really miss in the winter is the ability to ride outside on grass.  Or, as we like to call it, the ‘Carpet of Motivation’.  The reason it has earned that name is because of all the food rewards we’ve offered—and we’ve used just about every possible treat under the sun—none have the reinforcing impact of grazing.  I started the practice a few years ago and have since introduced several horses to it with excellent results.  The rule is let the horses tell us what they find reinforcing.  The horses tell us grazing is good! Getting Started The first thing you have to do is explain to your horse how the Grazing Game works.  Before starting your horse should already be familiar with the clicker, targeting, head lowering, and backing. Begin on the ground with the horse in a halter and lead rope and let him lower his head to take a few bites of grass, then ask him to raise his head by following your feel.  Click for any response, even a momentary hesitation in chewing.  Then let him graze again.  Just a few bites, then ask him to lift his head.  Click for reply then let him graze. If your horse doesn’t respond to your request to lift his head don’t jerk it up.  There are there several ways to illicit...

Finding what motivates a change

This week I worked with Libby, a 30 year old Quarter Horse mare, for the first time. Libby and her owner, Kirsten, were referred to me by Libby’s massage therapist, Heather Davis. Libby suffers from some lameness due to injury and hard use (before Kirsten). Not surprisingly as a result she holds her body very tightly. The massage therapy has helped Libby but Heather believed that if Libby could become more mentally relaxed that it would help her body to relax as well. This is where I come in. Kirsten had started a little bit of target training with Libby before I arrived. I was curious to see how Libby responded to this. Did she ‘get’ it? Was she willing to work for food? How hard? With all of Libby’s prior history I had a feeling that this sort of free shaping work might be too big a leap for her. So I decided to go into the stall with her and work on some basic lessons in feel…. look at me, follow me, turn… on the lead rope. As always my first objective is to capture the horse’s interest and cooperation. With some experimentation I discovered that Libby loved…LOVED…scritchies. Particularly in the udder area. This was, for her, way better than food. So, I began to click and scritch rather than click and feed. Historically, Libby would only put up with any kind of handling (like for trimming) for only a short time. Then she would begin to fuss and struggle making the whole procedure unpleasant for everyone involved. I saw this happen when we opened the stall...

Thoughts on Softness and Breathing on the Trail

Editor’s Note: Laurie Grann is a dear friend and a most excellent horse woman.  She recently participated in a week long clinic with Mark Rashid.  She wrote up her thoughts about how she is working his ideas into her every day riding.  The result is what follows.  Perhaps if we are all very nice to her she will contribute again! Today, my sister and I went on a 14 mile ride–2 loops of about 7 miles each.  The first loop was mostly flat and good footing and took us 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The second loop was climbing and lots of rock and ledge.  Quite challenging so there was lots of walking.  That loop took 2 hours. So plenty of saddle time to think about all the concepts and doors Mark Rashid showed me. I guess I can sum it up to 2 major areas:   Starting with softness and Breathing. On starting with softness, I need to start with a thought and offer that as my first cue and remain soft inside and outside.   Mark would say, from your inside to the horse’s inside.   I just never thought to start that far down the scale.  I could get work on just a thought before but always with a lot of preparation that involved aiding and sometimes quite strongly. My mare, Dulcie, had a real strong desire to go forward on this ride so I had to monitor my thoughts carefully!   If I said to myself, “well maybe we should trot now,”  hup, there we were trotting along.   Very neat.   Also getting into the canter  was...

Of Life and Horses by Ann Nyberg Bradley

I have “known” Ann Bradley (in the cyber-sense) for many years. I’ve always felt in her a kindred spirit, a person of like mind. So, it is no surprise, really, for me to be writing now that I nodded my way through her book, “Of Life and Horses: The Nature of the Horse.” I expected to enjoy the book and I did! This is not a book about training horses in the sense of providing “how-to’s”. This book is about enlightenment and perspective. It comes from her lifetime with horses which started with an attitude of “show him who’s boss” and evolved into one of harmony and unity. To quote her introduction: Much of the way we interact with horses is dependent upon perception, and perception is always versatile. Merely looking at another from a different point of view will change one’s perception, and thereby one’s feelings, and thereby one’s intentions, and thereby one’s actions, and thereby change the entire interactions with the other being. Like me, Ann, does not subscribe to the typical “dominance model” of horsemanship so often seen in the world. Throughout the book she encourages us to see things from the horse’s point of view and challenges us to work with the horse’s nature for a better outcome for all. If you like Mark Rashid’s books, you’ll enjoy Ann Bradley’s, “Of Life and Horses: The Nature of the Horse” as well. If you would like to read it, you’ll find it under Horsemanship in my Book...

Changing Habits One Step at a Time

On a recent visit my client, Nell, told me about an interview she listened to with Dr. David Bresler.  FYI,  David E. Bresler, PhD, LAc is a neuroscientist, board certified acupuncturist and health psychologist, author, and educator best known for his pioneering work with people in chronic pain.  Anyway, during the interview much of the conversation was about strategies for changing habits that are really hard to break, like smoking or addictive eating.  Call me “not surprised” to hear him talk about the best way to change behavior is to 1) set yourself up for success and 2) be rewarded for the new behavior. He gave the example of a rat in a maze.  The rat knows the way to the reward very well as a result of many repetitions and rewards.  Let’s say one day that you decide to train the rat to take a different route.  You have a few options.  You could block the old way (more of a management solution, not really training) or you could rig it so that the rat would get a shock when ever he tried to go the usual way.  This part was interesting.  You would think that after getting shocked for turning left enough times that the rat would choose to go right.  But, that isn’t what happens.  What happens is that the rat will still try to keep to the old program because that is what he is in the habit of doing.  He’ll keep doing the old thing but instead of doing it happily he will be stressed about it.  Turns out, the very best way to...