An Introduction to Using Positive Reinforcement With Horses

Are you curious about using positive reinforcement training with your horse? 

In my experience, positive reinforcement (often called R+ or +R for short) has improved my horse’s willingness and our relationship. 

Using R+ made our training sessions joyful and fun. I think it’s a great approach to have in your toolbox when working with your horse!

In this post, I’ll walk you through the principles of R+ and how to incorporate it into your training. 

I’ll also share some examples of how it has worked for me and address some common misconceptions. Let’s dive in…

What is R+ Training? 

Positive reinforcement training means using a reward (e.g. treats, clicks, pats, praise) to encourage desired behaviors. 

Because the reward makes your horse more likely to repeat the behavior, it helps you to shape your horse’s responses.

You might be familiar with positive reinforcement in the training of other animals – most famously dogs and dolphins. R+ has been a staple of training animals for decades. 

Clickers or whistles are often used in R+ as a bridge to another reward, but they aren’t required. 

First, here’s a quick overview of how positive reinforcement fits with other types of training approaches. 

Reinforcement and Punishment

When used to describe horse training, the words positive and negative don’t mean good and bad like they often do in everyday life. 

Instead positive in this case means something being added. Negative means something is being taken away. 

Positive can also be used to describe punishment, such as when something is added to discourage a behavior.

Here are the four ways reinforcement and punishment can be used in training:

  • Positive reinforcement = when something is added to encourage a behavior
  • Positive punishment = when something is added to discourage a behavior (aka the pressure in pressure and release)
  • Negative reinforcement = when something is taken away to encourage a behavior (aka the release in pressure and release)
  • Negative punishment = when something is taken away to discourage a behavior

The most common approach to horse training is pressure and release. The trainer applies pressure (e.g. putting your leg on) and releases the pressure when the desired behavior occurs (the horse moves faster). 

In my experience, positive reinforcement can work beautifully when used in conjunction with pressure and release. 

Some R+ proponents use positive reinforcement exclusively and don’t use any form of pressure (positive punishment) in their training. 

But this is only a small percentage of people who use R+ in their horse training. Most are able to include R+ in addition to the traditional pressure and release training with much success!

R+ Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions around using positive reinforcement with horses. I’ll address a few of the main ones here. 

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Horses will bite if you feed them treats by hand. 

Some people think that horses will inevitably be nippy and bite if you feed treats by hand. But how you feed treats will go a long way towards making sure this doesn’t happen!

First, your horse needs to learn how to use their lips to accept treats from your hand and not their teeth. 

You can teach them this by offering your hand palm-side down with the treat inside your balled up fist. 

Your horse may at first use their teeth to try to get the treat but they won’t get any purchase on the top of your hand. When they use their lips only, turn your hand around and offer the treat in your palm. 

They will quickly learn that teeth = no treat and lips = treat.

If they start to use their teeth at any point, even a tiny nip, go back to square one and reteach them that their lips are the only acceptable way to take a treat from your hand. 

Your horse will start mugging you for treats.

Once your horse knows that treats are involved in training, they may start to nose around in your pockets or wherever you are keeping the goodies. 

If you set a clear boundary that this isn’t acceptable and never encourage it by giving in to the horse’s request for treats, the mugging behavior will quickly stop. 

But you must be very present and aware while training to keep this from happening! I notice that if I’m distracted at all, or trying to talk to someone or multi-task, I can get sloppy and give in to the horse’s requests. 

So be sure to establish and maintain the boundary that YOU are the one who decides when to reward, and you will have a horse that respects that and doesn’t try to get into your pockets or treat bag. 

Your horse will expect a reward for anything they do. 

Again, the way you set up a training session and your boundaries will go a long way towards preventing this from happening. 

For example, let’s say your horse performs a behavior you have asked for, such as moving off around you in a circle. Your expectation is that she will continue to walk around you in a circle until your ask her to stop. 

But she decides that she’s been walking long enough and deserves a reward, so she stops on her own accord and stares at your expectantly (or even approaches you for a treat). 

You can either give in and say “oh that was good enough” and reward her, or ask her to continue walking around the circle and make it clear that YOU are the one who decides when the activity is over and if/when to reward. 

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Again, you must be very clear that you are the one who decides when to reward. As long as that is clear and unambiguous, your horse will not come to expect a treat for anything they have deemed worthy of one!

Another approach that helps with this is to use a special pouch or bag to hold your treats. It will signal to your horse that you will be using treats in this training session. 

If you aren’t wearing the pouch, then they will know they will be expected to do what you ask without any positive reinforcement. 

If you mix up your sessions in this way, they will know that sometimes you use the treat pouch, and sometimes you don’t. And that’s just how it is! This will keep them from always expecting treats. 

Treats aren’t healthy for a horse’s diet

You can definitely use forage-based “treats” as rewards in R+ training that are still part of a natural and healthy diet. 

For example, I use small alfalfa and alfalfa/timothy hay pellets for rewards when training my horses. I offer a few at a time, so at most use a quart of pelleted hay during a training session. 

My horses absolutely love these treats and they aren’t contributing to any health problems. 

I suggest asking your vet for suggestions for a treat that’s easy to feed by hand that will still be part of a healthy diet for your horse. 

Using a Clicker in R+ Training

Many people use a training tool called a bridge or marker signal as part of their R+ training. 

The bridge can be a sound such as that made by a small hand-held clicker, or even a sound you make with your mouth, such as a pop made with your tongue. 

When I started R+ training I really liked using the tongue pop, because it kept my hands free for other things. I could make the sound easily while riding without having to hold the clicker and my reins. 

The idea with a bridge is that it gives instantaneous feedback that the horse is performing the desired behavior. It can be hard to reward immediately with a treat, so the bridge sound helps make it clear to the horse that he is on the right track. 

I started using a sound with something very simple and natural, such as my horse bumping a target with his nose. 

For example, you can hold the target out (many people put part of a pool noodle on the end of a pole as a target) and when the horse touches it with her nose, you click and then reward with a treat. 

Do this a few times over and your horse will quickly associate the noise with a treat. 

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Then you can start to use the click as a reward in other situations. 

Gradually you can begin to space out treats, and only offer one after every few clicks. You can get to where you only occasionally give a treat, because the click becomes a reward in and of itself.

Some people use a phrase such as “good boy” as a bridge as well. Just be careful that whatever you choose isn’t a sound or phrase you make in regular conversation, or you may find yourself rewarding a behavior you didn’t intend to!

Can You Use R+ With All Horses? 

You might be wondering if there is ever a situation in which R+ training isn’t a good idea. 

I can only speak from my personal experience, but I have worked with a horse who I decided not to use treats with because he became aggressive. 

If your horse has any history of food aggression, you will definitely want to work on that issue before you use treats as rewards in training. 

Resource aggression such as food aggression can be caused by the way the horse is fed and how it is treated by it’s pasture mates. 

Having access to forage 24-7 can help with food aggression. Sometimes a horse is being bullied by another horse who may not know how to live peacefully with others because of living in an unnatural way (e.g. separated from other horses). If the horse is being chased off of it’s feed constantly it can develop resource aggression. 

So if your horse shows any sign of food aggression, for your own safety do NOT use treats in training. My gelding’s food aggression stopped completely after we removed an aggressive pasture mate and made sure he had access to forage 24-7. 

R+ Training with Horses Summary

I hope this post gave you a helpful overview of R+ training and addressed common questions and misconceptions. 

I love using R+ with my horses and feel it has improved our relationship and connection. They are excited to work with me as it is always a positive experience for them, whether treats are involved or not. 

If you want this with your horse, I suggest giving positive reinforcement training a try!

Here are some resources that will help if you are just getting started using R+:

About Leah Althiser

Guest post by Leah Althiser, creator of The Practical Horsewoman. Leah’s a DIY-obsessed horse owner and rider who is living out her childhood dreams by finally having her own horses in her backyard. She also shares tips for affordable family travel at The Frugal South and The Budget Mouse

1 Comment

  1. September 3, 2021 / 12:00 pm

    This article is super interesting. I have always been interested in horse training and the different methods, so having an article that explains reinforcements is a helpful piece of knowledge to have. The breakdown of each type of reinforcement and all the examples really help in making the author’s points clear and easy to understand.

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