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Day 68 - Food and shaping

100 days Dec 08, 2017

People often look at liberty work and assume that the entire routine has been taught using food treats but, with horses, this is almost never the case. 

Training is usually a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. That positive reinforcement might come in the form of a scratch on the wither and a few gentle words or it could come in the form of a treat. It really doesn't matter, both will work if correctly timed - immediately following the desired behaviour. Of course, neither will work (that is train the horse) if poorly timed, such as a delay of a few seconds or more between the behaviour and the reward.

As I mentioned last time, it's difficult to raise a horse's emotional level using food. I could offer a bucketful of carrots but my horse would probably never piaffe for me. To teach piaffe I'd need to put a bridle (or at least a halter) on the horse, that's negative reinforcement right there, and probably use a whip to tap the hindquarter, negative reinforcement again, run backwards (trust me, it involves a LOT of this and I've no idea why I always seem to choose the hottest day of the year to start), which will probably be a combination of negative (asking forward with the rein or whip) and positive (praise and reward scratches for forward movement in trot) reinforcement.

Once I'd established the pattern with the horse (and my pattern for this lesson is me running backwards and the horse trotting down the long side of the arena), I could then introduce food to shape the behaviour.

Shaping means that in the beginning we reward even a movement that is close to what we want, my choice was 'trot' down the long side, so it was a pace to travel and a place to do it. Each time the horse is taken to the long side, it trots until I ask it away from the long side and cue it back to walk. Once the horse knows 'trot' in that place, I can then start to shorten the stride - shape the behaviour and food rewards could be introduced here.

I already raised the emotional level with negative reinforcement, established the pattern and now I can shape the behaviour. Of course, it's not necessary to change your reinforcement schedule, I actually don't personally, but I think if you really watch how these things are taught, you'll find that some form of negative reinforcement is used, at least to establish a pattern.

Leave a comment below and tell me about a behaviour you've shaped using some sort of positive reinforcement. Was it food or scratches or something else?

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