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...

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...

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...

Does your horse have the right to say No?

Much of my appreciation for classical dressage training comes from my lessons with Karl Mikolka. One of the (many) things I remember him saying (probably while my horse was having a fit) was, “the horse is allowed to say NO!” I’m not saying that fits are desirable! Of course, what we’d prefer is a resounding YES. But if you want to be more than ‘just’ a rider you need to be willing to listen to the horse and if he says No then you need to accept responsibility for that feedback. Then you need to ask yourself, What’s it gonna take to get a Yes? What got me thinking about this topic today was reading Mary Hunter’s blog post about her encounter with Steve Martin (the bird trainer!) at the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I love hearing about how people are successfully using positive reinforcement with all manner of species. Especially species that can just fly away so you’d better be right on the money with your training philosophy. It is a real inspiration to learn that good training practices are Universal. So it wasn’t much of a surprise (more of a validation) to read that Steve had made the very same point as Karl did: “A good trainer is able to give the animal power over their environment. This builds confidence and trust. We can do this by taking responsibility for what the animal does and giving the animal the right to say no. When things go wrong, it can be really, really easy to blame it on the animal. The animal is being...