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Breaking New Ground – Terra Nova

August 5, 2019 | by Katrina Merkies, Associate Professor, University of Guelph

If the horse isn’t having fun, then I need to try a different approach

quadrantsThose of us who work with horses and know a bit about learning theory understand that we traditionally train horses mainly using negative reinforcement – that is, we remove something undesirable to increase the likelihood of the horse performing the behaviour again in the future. For example, we squeeze with our legs when we ask the horse to move forward from a halt, and when the horse moves forward, we remove the leg aid. The removal of the aid is the reward that the horse associates with the behaviour. This approach works fairly well in our training regimes, but we often tend to forget about the other three quadrants of learning theory. While science shows us that punishment-based training systems do not produce the best results, positive reinforcement can be a very powerful training tool in our toolbox. Chances are that everyone uses positive reinforcement already in some capacity, but trainers like Shawna Karrasch use positive reinforcement as the foundation for everything they do.

shawna photoStarting as a marine mammal trainer, Shawna learned the basics of positive reinforcement training which were de rigueur for working with zoo and marine mammals. A chance meeting turned her interests to horses, and after her success with Olympian Beezie Madden’s Grand Prix showjumper, Shawna was in high demand with a variety of riders and trainers. One of her clients was so convinced of this training method that she purchased a property in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, to dedicate to positive reinforcement training. Terra Nova Equestrian Training Center, now home for Shawna, has purpose-built facilities to give workshops teaching equestrians how to think like positive reinforcement trainers, and how to safely and practically use positive reinforcement with horses under saddle in traditional sport disciplines, ensuring both horse and rider are having fun together. In the spirit of spreading the word, Terra Nova is the exclusive Maple Leaf sponsor for the upcoming Equitation Science Conference being held at the University of Guelph, ON from August 19-21. As part of the practical day on Wednesday, August 21, Shawna will be giving a demo on how to start a horse with positive reinforcement training, how to avoid common pitfalls, and how to transfer from ground work to mounted work.

I come from a traditional training background myself, but as a sympathetic trainer, I learned to always listen to my horses. If the horse isn’t having fun, then I need to try a different approach. For the past two years I have been working with a client who uses positive reinforcement in her training, and it has since opened my eyes and expanded my toolkit for different ways to train horses to achieve our desired results. The science behind positive reinforcement training shows that horses learn faster and more reliably than with negative reinforcement. But more importantly, the relationship you can develop with your horse runs much deeper, which makes everything easier.


Don’t miss this demonstration along with an engaging lineup of high calibre presentations. Registration is now open for the 15th annual ISES conference. For all the details and links to registration and accommodations, visit the Equitation Science website or the Horse Portal.


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