“There are many things to consider when beginning a R+ lesson program. One is the ages and experience of your human learners. Are you teaching kids? If so, are they 6 years old or 16? Are you teaching adults? Are they beginners or are you transitioning them to positive reinforcement as well? Is it a choice they have made to come because of your R+ program or because they don't know any difference? Are these people resistant at all to this "new" approach?”
So, why do the age and experience of the human learners matter when considering how to run a lesson program with positive reinforcement? Simply put, as positive reinforcement trainers, most of us consider many things beyond what we can train. We consider the environment, the husbandry, and the overall opinions of the horse (ok, from here on out, I’m going to try to swap “horse” and “pony” since both are used in lessons and I don’t want to exclude either).
This means we need to prepare our ponies for the behavior of who may be working with them. Small children
things. I am extremely safety conscious and all my students know that their first lessons will have very little time in the saddle while they learn about leading, grooming, and equine body language. Picking up feet can be scary for any age. One of my ponies will lift a foot when I simply bend over next to him, but not for students. He has experienced the squeals and dropped feet enough times that he just does not trust others enough to shift his weight and hold his foot up for them. When working with him, I “fill in” until the person is ready to hold a foot confidently and even then, I will treat at the head when he picks up a foot.
We also need to prepare our horses for the behavior of people who will be riding them. We need to prepare our lesson plans in a way that our human learners will learn, while at the same time ensuring that our horses, who are really our assistant instructors, will have an enjoyable experience. In the plethora of choice and consent conversations in the positive reinforcement world these days, don’t forget that daily training and/or exercise sessions should also be the horse’s choice and what we do with them should be with their consent. I doubt you’d find many (ok, any) lesson horses in traditional programs who would choose to go out and take part in a lesson if they were given the choice to graze instead.
The experiences that ridden lesson horses will have probably include poor balance from the rider. Lesson horses will certainly get muddled cues whether under saddle or on the ground (using horses to teach others about R+ or about simple care such as grooming). How will we prepare our horses for this so they are not aversive experiences? We can ride the horses ourselves, exploring being off balance and clicking and treating the horse for maintaining a straight course even with a wobbly rider. Cues are harder, especially because they become mixed up with poor balance. A rider struggling to hold on may have legs that swing or grip. If the horse learns to ignore that, they may also ignore the leg movements which are supposed to indicate a cue to go forward. Thus, the dead-sided or hard-mouthed lesson horse who needs to be thumped to go forward and hauled on to turn or stop.
The solution which my ponies and I came up with for this problem during riding lessons is that I give the salient cues, and the ponies pretty much ignore the rider. All my students begin on a longe line, with no reins. By desensitizing the pony to various movements from the rider, and reinforcing them for responding to my voice and body cues, I can work on that with or without a rider. I do give treats during lessons. I also use props, such as targets and mats, to guide the pony’s direction if we are working on things which preclude being on a longe line, such as changes of direction. The ponies learn the patterns I use, and know where treats will be delivered. The rider is learning to steer, and gets the reinforcement of the pony going where they wanted.
The downside of this solution is when the riders are ready to give cues/aids themselves. The horse has learned to ignore the rider, and continues to do so. If you are teaching on the rider’s own horse, you can do a simple cue transfer, and proceed from there. To do this, the rider gives the aid and you follow up immediately with your cue, then click and treat the response. Soon the horse will respond to the rider's aid before you get a chance to give your own cue. The horse transitions from taking cues from the person in the middle to the person on its back. But in my situation, with multiple riders for one pony, it got messy because the pony didn’t know whether to listen to me or the rider on any given day. And they could get quite irritated at the rider for making noise (with any body part) when they were trying to listen to me.
I think the simplest solution for this is an environmental cue. I do have a round pen, and I think if beginners ride in that, rather than the arena, I could teach my ponies that “in the round pen, you take cues from me standing in the middle, but if you are in the arena, you take cues from the person on your back”. As I say, I have few riding students for my ponies these days, but it’s an idea going forward. To transition them to that, I will sit somewhere on the outside of the arena while people ride, rather than standing in the middle. It goes without saying that before the riders graduate to the arena, they will have decent balance, I will be able to see that they have the skills to give ridden aids appropriately, and they have practiced them in the round pen, even if the pony ignored it.
To change gears from teaching beginners to teaching more experienced riders on their own horses, it is as much about changing the rider’s mindset as anything. How easy this will be depends on how much traditional training the rider has had, how successful it has been for them, and if there is a problem which I can help them solve with positive reinforcement that they couldn’t otherwise. Sadly, they may want you to solve that problem, but go on using negative reinforcement or punishment for everything else. But I don’t know anyone who has made that transition in an instant. It takes all of us time to see, experience, open our eyes and then learn how to do it correctly!
In the meantime, I work to make lessons as pleasant as possible, pointing out ways for the rider to reinforce without using food if necessary. Many horses like a rest so time those rests to function as reinforcers (using it as an excuse to explain something to the rider if necessary). Explain how to use releases appropriately, rather than just constantly nagging the horse with leg or rein. Bring in the TAGteach! If students can experience how helpful timely markers and reinforcers can be in the learning process, they may be more sympathetic to the idea of using it with their horse.
The job will be easier with people who embrace the notion of using positive reinforcement. What I often run into with those people is excessive self-consciousness. They want so badly to be kind to their horse and “not to mess up” that I need to use all my teaching and training tools thoughtfully. People are bound to make mistakes in timing and execution so break it down carefully. This minimizes the cringe moments which make compassionate riders feel awful. I must take responsibility for their errors! It’s my job as the teacher to set tasks they can accomplish and to reinforce them for successful completion. Finding different ways to phrase things and different exercises to get to your goal is helpful to turn to when the first effort doesn’t succeed.
Now, about those clicker training lessons. My horses and ponies love to see people arrive for those. To be honest, my ponies don’t get the attention from me that they deserve. I have limited time in which to train and that time is spent on my two horses. Then I need to go out and make money to buy hay and pay the vet so my ponies get really happy when other people come to train them.
Muddled cues are still a problem. My ponies will try hard to interpret various iterations of cues they know. They are less tolerant of poor mechanics, whether it be rope or feeding. In this case, it is my job to introduce people to human horses and get those cues and mechanics clean with me (or a fellow human learner) as the “horse” to minimize stress on the real equine. Video can be very helpful here as well. Most of us have the ability to video with our cell phones and do instant playback right there in the barn aisle. That can help people see how they are executing skills, and that may be different to how they thought they were executing them.
Next time- are your lesson horses crossover horses with a traditional background or individuals who have been trained with positive reinforcement from the start?