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Stopping Unwanted Behaviours with Positive Reinforcement

I don’t “correct” bad/unwanted behaviours


One thing that always makes people confused when they first encounter force-free or positive reinforcement training is the idea of NOT “correcting” or punishing bad behaviours.


Normally, in the horse world there’s two ways people try to stop unwanted behaviours. One is increased, or continuous application of pressure/aversives, the other is “corrections” aka. Positive punishment which can take on a variety of forms.

•Swatting a horses nose for nipping,

•smacking a horse for kicking, •whipping it for refusing a jump, •throwing a bucket for pawing at the ground etc.


Now since the goal of force-free is to avoid aversives and especially punishment, neither of those are optimal.


So does that mean we just let our horses do whatever they want?

No of course not!

But what DO we do?


First, it’s important to note why a lot of unwanted or dangerous behaviours actually occur.

Everything horses do has a purpose, even if we don’t know it. Horses do what works, and they don’t do things that don’t work.

So if we can figure out what the purpose of a behaviour is, then we can modify the behaviour.


Now many unwanted behaviours happen due to physical issues, like pain, discomfort, physical inability of the horse, or not having certain needs met.


In all of those cases, figuring out and solving the underlying cause will often get rid of the behaviour.

•Resolve the pain, the horse will stop bucking

•give the horse turn out, or 24/7 forage, the horse will stop kicking the stall wall

So welfare should always be the first thing to look at.


But let’s say we have ruled out any pain or welfare concerns to the best of our ability.

The behaviour was accidentally taught, or simply has worked for the horse in the past.

•Think horses nipping the handler

•The horse pulling back on the leadrope

•Pawing the ground excessively during feeding time


In that case, we can still utilize positive reinforcement, and avoid aversives to solve these behaviours.


Instead of focusing of what we don’t want the horse to do, we focus on what we DO want the horse to do.


Instead of thinking: I don’t want my horse to nip me, I don’t want my horse to paw the ground, I don’t want my horse to pull back on the leadrope

Think: I want my horse to stand calmly with her head straight and all feet on the ground.

So what we do, is we positively reinforce the behaviour that we want to see. If this new behaviour, is more reinforcing for the horse to do, or in other words, it works better for the horse, the horse will stop displaying the old behaviour.


Let’s say you have a horse that kicks out at you when you’re trying to lift its feet.

Instead of thinking: I don’t want my horse to kick out.

Think: I want my horse to lift its foot calmly and hold it quietly.

So we shape and positively reinforce a calm and quiet hoof lift. Because doing this, is more reinforcing for the horse, this will now be the behaviour they do instead of kicking.


Shifting your focus from the unwanted behaviour to the wanted behaviour helps you see what can be reinforced instead of what to punish. It allows you to leave “corrections” in the past!




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