For Monika, a dedicated BC SPCA foster guardian, the benefits of positive reinforcement training for horses are clear. She has volunteered her time to rehabilitate horses rescued through our Animal Protection Services so they can have successful adoptions.
“Positive reinforcement training motivates the desired behaviour,” says Monika. “It involves adding something rewarding to the horse, such as a scratch or a treat, in response to the horse displaying the desired behaviour. By rewarding every step towards displaying the desired behaviour, we can increase the horse’s motivation, making them want to spend more time training, rather than wanting it to end.”
Positive reinforcement training isn’t just for our canine friends; it can also be used for training horses! Positive reinforcement has become more common in horse training, offering a humane and effective approach that builds a strong bond between horses and their guardians. Traditional horse training methods rely on pressure and release, while positive reinforcement training focuses on rewarding desired behaviours, creating a positive learning environment for horses. Many equestrians have explored reward-based training, especially for challenging skills like trailer loading.
Research shows that horses trained using positive reinforcement (compared to horses trained without rewards) learned tasks faster, remembered them for longer, exhibited less stress, and generally had more positive associations with humans.
“There is a misconception that positive reinforcement training can result in pushy and nippy horses – however, this is not true,” states Monika. “When timed correctly, only desirable behaviours are rewarded.” Like any method of training, trainers and guardians using positive reinforcement need to take time to learn how to train effectively and avoid unintended consequences.
Promise is a 3-year-old mare currently being fostered with Monika. She was brought into our care through our animal protection work due to multiple injuries and no owner came forward to claim her. She required extensive would treatment and care over several weeks.
“When Promise first arrived on my farm, she was very timid, one of the most timid horses I have ever worked with,” explains Monika. “It was clear she had not been handled much, if at all. Touch was very scary for her. I learned very quickly that my presence created pressure in her space, and I could not get near her for the first couple of months.”
Through devoted care and her positive reinforcement approach to training, Monika made progress with Promise.
“I started to offer her treats in exchange for taking steps towards me, one step at a time. I allowed her to come close into my space, and without attempting to touch her, I would reward her with a treat every time she tolerated me lifting my hand near her or taking a step towards her without her moving away. This led to her following me at liberty, taking steps forwards, backwards, sideways, and going through gates, all motivated by the treat rewards. Now, I can lead her anywhere on the farm without using a halter or a lead rope.”
The next step in Promise’s training journey was learning the ropes – becoming comfortable with the haltering and leading process. She has made significant progress because Monika gives her control during training.
“I give her the choice of exposure to ropes, allowing her to move away if she needs to, and rewarding generously when she chooses to connect. Listening to her needs, she finally trusted me enough to get the halter around her head. I will continue this process until she is consistently comfortable with being haltered.”
Monika’s dedication as a BC SPCA foster is invaluable. This beautiful mare is ready for adoption thanks to Monika’s unwavering commitment, dedication, and patience. “I have seen big improvements in her physical and mental condition, which is my favourite part about fostering. She really looks forward to training sessions and would be a great companion to someone interested in building a bond with her. She is incredibly athletic, sound, and has a sweet personality. With time and patience, she will do anything for you.”