What to do when your R- habits kick in

You want to use positive reinforcement in training because you find this a better way to teach your horse new behaviours and improve on trained behaviours.

But what to do when things don’t work out as expected, and your R- brain kicks in?

I had a wonderful conversation with Jill Treece from Jetequitheory podcast and this was one of the topics that came up. I remember a time when I struggled with this. Before then, I didn’t struggle because most likely I ‘just switched back into old habits’ without being aware of this.

Here’s a simple three step solution to get back on track with positive reinforcement.

Step 1: Awareness

Changing habits can be tricky if you don’t know how your brain works. Your brain wants to save energy and therefore chooses to use the neural pathways that are used most frequently 1). This is easier and quicker then to figure out a new way (of thinking) every time we need to make a decision about something. That’s the reason we fall back onto our habits in horse training.

Now, if we want to change our habits, we first need to become aware of our habits, then make a decision to change them.

There are several ways to become aware of when you’re using negative reinforcement (aversives) to get what you want from your horse.

First of all you need to know the difference between an aversive (something your horse wants to avoid. In training usually pressure) and an appetitive (something the horse desires and wants to have. Most often a food reward or social interaction like a good scratch.). This is about how your horse experiences it! A good thing to keep in mind.

Ways of paying attention

A mentor or coach can help you point out when you start to use aversive pressure. She can also help you avoid falling into using aversive pressure by guiding you step-by-step through the training process.

Another way is to film yourself and watch closely to when you unintentionally use pressure. You can see it reflecting in your horses behaviour. Usually very subtle and often we have learned to ignore our horse’s body language for two reasons:

  • We have never learned to pay attention so therefor a flick of an ear, a swish of the tail or a wrinkle appearing in the face doesn’t ‘mean’ anything to us. Once you start paying attention and learn the meaning of the communication your horse is expressing you can’t “unsee” it anymore.
  • We have learned to ignore it, because an authority or expert told us over and over that this doesn’t mean anything or that we should ignore it. Since we put great value on what authority figures and experts say, we simply believe them. Once you learn to tune in to your mirror neurons 2), you can feel what the horse feels. That will help you see if something is aversive or appetitive. Children are really good at pointing out when horses are in pain or don’t like something.

Internal awareness

I noticed in myself, after I became aware that I was still using R- even though I made up my mind using R+, that one of the internal triggers was frustration.

Whenever my expectations in training weren’t met (by the horse or myself) I became impatient and sometimes frustrated. Looking back I realize that I would fall back on R- because I could predict the outcome better than using R+. I learned to be more gentle with myself and motivate myself with R+ instead of aversives (and becoming angry with myself and feeling guilty).

After training hundreds of horses and even more behaviours I now rely confidently on the power of R+.

I know what to do when the reality doesn’t meet expectations and I also know how to keep motivation high. Whenever you have a coach or mentor that has the experience, it’s easier to trust the process because you can be confident your goal behaviour will be achieved. So, the more you train with 100% R+, the more confident you’ll become in your own skills and the more you’ll learn to trust the process.

Use your feelings as triggers

Once I became aware of my (personal) internal triggers that would lead me to fall back on R- training techniques, it was relatively easy to change myself.

Internal triggers for me were, as I mentioned above, feelings of frustration, impatience and disappointment (of expectations not being met). I learned to use these feelings as a trigger: to take a break.

I trained myself to step back and give myself and my horse a break. A simple breathing exercise helped me to calm down my amygdala and always gets me back in ‘learning mode‘. If I couldn’t think of a R+ solution after that, I made it a habit to go home and sleep on it. And then try again until I had figured out a positive reinforcement solution, with or without support from my mentor.

But, you can’t let the horse win (or can you?)

The myth that you “can’t let the horse win” was easily debunked in practise by ‘letting my horse win’ an djust stop my session. Nothing bad happened next time: horses don’t keep scores in that way. Even if I “ended on a bad note”: I learned that every day brings new opportunities with R+.

Stop training in order not to become frustrated and falling into undesirable habits, brought me more positive results than “not letting the horse win” (and falling back onto R- or even P)!

Re-training a behaviour simply means reinforcing the desired behaviour more than the undesired one. The undesired behaviour can simply be the ‘half trained’ behaviour. I do end training now on a positive note by asking a simple, well trained behaviour that my horse 99% sure can and wants to perform, so I can reinforce and end the session in a satisfying way.

Step 2: Asking questions

Once you become aware of the risk of falling back onto old habits, habits that you want to change, you can start asking yourself questions. Your brain can’t help but answer these questions.

You can ask yourself:

  • ‘If I am being honest, are my expectations too high for my horse?’
  • ‘What is influencing my training negatively?’ (Am I hangry?, Do I want to show off and put too much pressure on myself and my horse? Are people watching me? Are they making me nervous?)
  • ‘Are my expectations of myself too high? Do I want too much in the time frame I have?’
  • ‘Did I prepare my horse enough?’
  • ‘Did I set myself and/or my horse up for success by preparing the environment?
  • ‘What canI do different (better) next time?’ (Be gentle with yourself: you’re learning a new skill)
  • ‘Did I make a good (shaping) plan before I started?’
    ”Do I have a realistic time frame or am I impatient to get results?’
  • ‘Am I really listening to my horse?’
  • etc

Step 3: Follow your Plan

Once you’re aware of falling back onto negative reinforcement techniques, you can make a plan to avoid this pitfall. What will you do when your R- brain kicks in?

What I find very powerful, is taking a break and focus on relaxation. We want our horses to keep calm and relaxed, right? Why not start with ourselves.

Taking a few deep breaths will help clear your mind.
Then you can focus on:

  • How can I make this easier for my horse?
  • How can I make this easier for me?
  • Powerful tools to make training easier are: making a shaping plan before you start. It’s a process but it prevents so much frustration. In my hippoLogic method it’s called Key Lesson Shaping Plan. Having a system in training will make your training way easier: you know exactly what to do and when to do it. You also know WHY you’re doing what you’re doing, because my system is based on principles, not on (human invented rules).

Watch the video

Today I did a quick Facebook live about this topic What to do when Your R- Brain Kicks in.

This was such a good topic to talk about. Thanks Jill for bringing this into our conversation!

If you’re looking for a podcast about R+ horse training, check out Jill on JET EquiTheory. Jils podcast is findable on your favourite podcast platform.

Happy horse training!

If you have questions or comments, use the comment box below.

If you find this helpful, intriguing, useful or you think someone else could benefit from this blog: please share it on your social media for your friends.


1) Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind (2007), dr Joe Dispenza

2) Mirror neurons, Wikipedia

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  1. Pingback: Tips to feel more confident in R+ - HippoLogic Horse Training

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