Rebuilding a Training Program

Rebuilding a training program requires a lot of self-reflection and examination of what works and what doesn’t. That’s exactly what Nicole does in her latest article on the rebirth of her training program.

Photo by Marcella Gruchalak

Sometimes when you are restructuring, it is best to demolish what was there completely, give yourself a clean slate and start over. Whether the foundation was cracked or the walls weren’t level, you will probably run into fewer issues down the road if your new structure is built correctly from the ground up.

Or perhaps your structure was solid and well built, but some of the materials it was built with were out dated and flimsy, and need replaced by something of a higher quality.

For me, the structure I am referring to is my training program and, as you read in my first two articles, I am going to begin the process of tearing it apart in order to rebuild it into something better. (If you haven’t read them, you can check them out here and here.) I will be sorting through the integrity of the foundation and the sturdiness of the walls, seeing which materials, or concepts, of the program deserve to stay and be reused, and which materials will be hitting the burn pile.

There is in fact a science behind training, and that is where we must start. Some of you may already be familiar with the following terminology, or maybe this is all new to you. Either way, we will recap the basics to get a better understanding of methods. By doing so, we can take a better look at ourselves and what we ask of our horses.

The four quadrants of operant conditioning are as follows: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, and Negative Punishment. Do not let the words “positive” and “negative” fool you. This just refers to a “positive” as the addition of something, and a “negative” as a subtraction of something. Reinforcement is what you do to encourage a behavior, and punishment is what you do to discourage a behavior.

Graphic by Nicole Cammuso, adapted from B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Quadrant

Positive Reinforcement, for instance, would be using a clicker to mark a desired behavior and giving a treat reward — adding something the horse likes, a treat, to encourage a behavior. On the other hand, Negative Reinforcement is using leg pressure on a horse’s side and releasing the pressure when the horse steps laterally — subtracting the pressure of the leg to reward the horse and encourage a behavior.

Positive Punishment would be if a horse goes you bite you and you smack it — adding something to discourage a behavior. Negative Punishment could be when a horse is hard to catch with its herd, you put it in a paddock by itself — removing the horse from its herd to discourage the hard to catch behavior.

Do you know where your methods would fall in this quadrant? A little self-analyzation would determine I primarily use negative reinforcement, with a mix of both forms of punishments if necessary, and I use positive reinforcement the least. But since I am in a period of self-reflection and rebuilding, I know there are parts of my program I wish to change.

I am learning that reinforcements are a stronger teacher than punishments. I don’t currently use punishment as a daily way of training per se, but I will be making the effort to use even less of it and will be putting more thought into encouraging the correct behavior over discouraging an incorrect behavior.

Another reason to primarily use reinforcements is that every time we use punishment, we weaken our relationships with our horse, and it takes time to build it back up. Since I am focusing on strengthening my bond, this is an important concept to keep in the back of my mind.

The main reason I have not used positive reinforcement is based on the experiences I have had training horses that were owned by people who used positive reinforcement incorrectly more often than correctly. All the worst behaved and problematic horses who came through my program all had one thing in common — their mommas gave them lots of treats!


Since having to fix so many mistakes caused by treats, my policy has been no treats. But my quest toward improvement has me looking at positive reinforcement in a new light. Not only will combining negative and positive give my reinforcements a boost in their effectiveness, but also it may help me obtain that spark from my horses that I have been looking for.

There is a lot more to training than the operant conditioning quadrant. How we apply our methods is what determines the success or failure of our actions.

Timing in training is one of the most critical components. For either reinforcement or punishment to be successful, the timing must be accurate. In negative reinforcement, or pressure and release, horses learn from the release, not the pressure itself. But for learning to occur, the release must happen quick or you risk frustrating the horse because you are not rewarding it for giving you the correct answer. The same goes for punishments. If your timing is off, you just reprimanded your horse for the wrong behavior and the horse does not understand why.

Communication with horses needs to be black and white, with very little grey area. This is something my friends and clients hear me say often. Meaning, be clear in what you are asking of the horse, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging a behavior. I thought I have been accurate with my cues over the years, but this process of redevelopment has me realizing there is a whole other level to communication that I have not yet reached.

I need to sharpen my cues to the point where the horse is responding to my slightest intent. To achieve this, I need to stick to a three-step cueing process that begins with my body posture or movement showing my intent, then a verbal cue if the intent isn’t read, followed by a pressure as needed.

Reading where a horse is on its fear threshold scale takes a keen eye and is a skill that can make or break a program. What is a fear threshold? A fear threshold is the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect or, in this case, a fearful reaction. When a horse reaches the point where it is at or above its threshold, fear takes over and learning ceases.

Graphic by Nicole Cammuso

Some horses may bolt, some may become violent and some may shut down. I can look back and recall instances in my training where a horse had reached its threshold. Attempting to work a horse through a problem when it was maxing out on its fear threshold scale ends up halting the progress with the horse, and usually ends up in the training taking a few steps back.

A lot of times horses are driven up their fear scale just from simply being confused. Just like people, horses have limits to what they can absorb for the day.

Taking the time to recap on the basics of training has been a breath of fresh air. I am realizing where I need to improve, and the direction I want to go. So far it has been fun, but is also a very humbling experience as I am feeling like a complete beginner again in some aspects of training.

Tune in to the next training article where I will dive into the early sessions of my new training approach!