Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) is a term which covers all forms of training that are based on the behavioural law of positive reinforcement, (see my book Hidden Horses for a full definition and explanation of this term). PRT techniques include many methods such as target training, clicker training and body language techniques. However, I try to avoid these terms because they sometimes make PRT appear to be a 'system', similar to some of the natural horsemanship systems are often promoted as 'Mr X's system of Natural Horsemanship'. This is not natural horsemanship.

A much better way of understanding PRT is to think of it as if it was a human language. If you do this you will realize PRT is something that can be learned and can be taught but like any language it must be learned structurally, progressively and logically, starting with the basics which ultimately be built up from simple beginnings into a complex and very beautiful form of communication. This approach means that we can avoid the 'system' based approach, where we end up doing things to the horse to make it fit with the system, - rather than doing things with the horse and learning what the horse needs to understand and trust us. PRT works both ways: on the student and the teacher.

So to give you a taste of this approach using an extract from my book Revealing the Hidden Horse and to continue the idea of PRT as a form of language we need to look at the very simple grammar of this language.


Unlike a human language there are only three basic grammatical terms' we need to understand:

• Classical Conditioning

• Operant Conditioning

• The difference between a treat and a reward

The first two might sound daunting but actually they are very simple to understand.

Classical conditioning

The key to understanding whether a behaviour is classically conditioned or not, is the word predicts. When a behaviour is classically conditioned it simply means the animal learns that two (or more) events are linked together so that, the event predicts something will happen. Let me use my dogs as an example:

I keep my dog's leashes hanging up in the kitchen cupboard. When the dogs see me open the door and take down the leads they know that it is time for a walk. This creates a change in their behaviour; previously they have been curled up fast asleep but now, they  become excited and jump around in anticipation of the walk (or hunt as they would see it). This is a typical classically conditioned response where an event predicts another event that, in this case, is emotionally rewarding (fun).

Operant conditioning

Some dogs are very clever, when they consider that it is time they went for a walk they will go and find the dog leash and bring it to their owner in order to get him to take them out, this is called an operant conditioned behaviour, all it means is that:

• the subject takes a specific action in order to make something happen.

When we train our horse we should always be looking for ways of getting our horse to learn through operant behaviour (by making things happen) because in learning this way the subject is discovering what actions earn not only  physical rewards but also at the same time, earn emotional rewards, and so the horse will be eager to experience that feeling again. This is the power of reinforcement.

The difference between a treat and a reward

The third grammatical term' is one of the most commonly misunderstood ideas around any kind of positive reinforcement.

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning  are not 'good' or 'bad' in themselves, it is the emotions they lead to that are important. This is what sometimes confuses people about  conditioning/learning, they don't understand that:

the emotions the events lead to are more important than the physical events themselves

This is because behaviour is a side-effect of emotions. Nothing illustrates this better than the confusion found around the ideas of treats and rewards.

Treats are not good – at all. I never treat my horses, ever, BUT I do reward them lots.

The reason treats are not  good is that  while treats may (or may not) induce pleasant emotions in the horse,  the fact is it doesn't matter, because treats are not about rewarding the horse…

they are about rewarding the human.

End of extract...


Tried it before? Didn't work? Look again...

One of the main reasons people never realize the potential of PRT methods is that they don't understand they are ‘learning a language’. Often people take an approach that is similar trying to teach yourself a human language by memorizing a dictionary! They base their study on memorizing phrases or some vocabulary, but this is a waste of time and effort because language is not about memorizing it is about communication. People who try to learn this way usually end up thinking that PRT is only useful for teaching tricks to their horse, and indeed that is exactly what they use it for. But teaching tricks is ultimately disappointing and frustrating for the trainer. So instead of rewarding them, it gives them bad feelings and that  is why they quit and go back to all the old ways of doing things.

The secret of learning languages  - and also positive reinforcement training, is to learn right from the beginning to think in the language. In other words, to know clearly what you want to say and to have the ability to think out how to communicate this to the horse. The only way to do this is to understand how to break the desired behaviour down into small achievable (rewarding) steps and build this up into the finished behaviour. So the progress is always positive!

There is not enough room in one small article to give you a detailed description of the entire clicker training process, see my blog for more under the training category. In the meantime, I recommend you read my book so that you can fully understand the theory and behaviour that underlies the training and the thinking.

On the other hand, if you want more information on general clicker training NOW, I recommend this handy eBook written by Elaine Polny over at Training Horses Naturally. Click HERE to download it.