Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Using Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program- Part 1, Introduction

using antecedent arrangements in teaching a young rider to train a pony about turn on the forehand
Recently I have received many inquiries about how to incorporate positive reinforcement in a lesson program. I have been teaching for over twenty years and in that time, I transitioned to positive reinforcement from a traditional (negative reinforcement and punishment based) approach. I don't have the solutions yet, but I have learned some things which may help others.  I am so glad to see so many inquiries because it means we have lots of people starting to teach others about positive reinforcement. And that is a very good thing.
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? 

Then of course we also need to consider what the histories of the horses and ponies are. If these saintly individuals have only known a more traditional approach, you will have a very different experience than if you are starting an equine in a program with positive reinforcement from the get-go. Again, I have done both. I currently have four lesson individuals.  Two were purchased at an older age and had histories with traditional training. The other two are homebreds who were started with R+ as babies. They are very different to teach on.

young kids can be far more compassionate with training than adults
Third, what are the goals of the human learners?  The primary job of my lesson ponies currently is to teach people about positive reinforcement.  Most of my lessons are now lessons on the ground, to adults, so they can practice with R+ on experienced learners and then take their skills home to their own horses. But I also teach some riding lessons, and did much more of that previously. In all honesty, I have pulled further away from the riding lessons on my own ponies because of the stress of trying to convince people of a different approach. Traditional riding is heavily ingrained in our society due to the visibility of everything from cowboy movies to watching the current competitive scene. As someone who used to partake in that competitive scene every other weekend throughout the riding season, it has been a long road to where I am now. I enjoy working with others with the same mindset and so I have gravitated to more of that teaching.  But we need to preach not just to the choir, so I don't turn people away if they want riding lessons. I know that I will need to be tactful and patient with my human learners, just as I must be with my equine learners. 

Are you planning on teaching groups or individuals? Regardless of the above considerations, teaching groups requires a different skill set than teaching individuals. This is especially true of teaching groups of kids.  You really do need eyes in the back of your head and the ability to juggle flaming swords to teach groups of kids. If you have a lineup of "broke" lesson ponies, who just follow each other around the arena, the job is easier.  But if you have creative equines, looking to find ways to earn reinforcement, the job of the instructor needs to become very creative as well!
having horses who understand basic clicker skills under saddle is a bonus

Are you teaching people on your own horses/ponies or on theirs? If you are teaching on yours, then you can train them to fit in with your teaching program.  If people are taking lessons on their own horse, then you have to consider whether the animal has any experience with R+. If not, again, creativity comes in to find ways of making the lesson reinforcing for them, how to incorporate markers and food treats, and not be too depressed knowing that will only be a small part of their lives. 

Finally, do have any experience with TAGteach?  If not, get it.  Now. 

In coming posts, I will address each of these situations in more detail. 

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