July 21, 2021
Patricia Lincourt is a Los Angeles-based trainer with nearly 40 years of experience coaching and competing in the Hunter, Show Jumping, and Dressage rings. Specializing in science-based training techniques like positive reinforcement, Lincourt is passionate about helping riders of all levels develop strong partnerships with their horses.
We had the chance to chat with Lincourt about her top tips and techniques that have earned her undeniable success using positive reinforcement as a powerful training tool.
Image Courtesy of Patricia Lincourt
You specialize in training horses using positive reinforcement. Can you share with us what that is and how you apply it to training humans and horses?
To explain positive reinforcement, understanding what qualifies as positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement is vital because it can be very confusing. People often think of negative as bad, but really “negative,” in this case, means subtraction. If you think of it in mathematical terms, you’re either adding something or removing something. So, with reinforcement, think of positive as addition and negative as subtraction.
Applying pressure and release is an example of negative reinforcement, but that doesn’t make it bad. It can be done very elegantly. We see talented riders applying pressure and release in a really pleasing way, all the way up to the Olympic level. However, we can also see negative reinforcement done poorly where people just get harder and harder on their horses. The results, in some cases, can be horses that are defensive, shut down, or aggressive.
On the other side of the scale is the use of positive reinforcement. These horses work for their reward and understand what behaviors will earn that reward. Receiving rewards contributes to the production of endorphins, and these horses tend to be quite happy. They begin to seek things and seek play. They're seeking the reward. Therefore, they're seeking time with you.
Is pressure something we want to avoid?
No! Pressure is the way 99.9% of horses are trained. It's also part of how we learn as humans. We learn through pressure. If I don't pay my taxes, I get fined. If I borrow my neighbor's patio furniture, they might throw me in jail. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Learning how to use the two systems, be fair, and move forward in your training with an educated process is most important.
Since you specialize in positive reinforcement, what role does negative reinforcement play in your training practices?
I'm very much continually learning how to use positive reinforcement for my goals. I have 30 years of practice using traditional pressure and release, so the process of navigating the transition has been relatively long for me.
I'm swinging more towards positive reinforcement because I feel I have failed when I use negative reinforcement. When I have a failure, I often spend the night thinking about how to replace it with a positive reinforcement option. That's the challenge, and I find that to be endlessly fascinating.
Going back to what positive reinforcement entails, I’ve noticed you use a clicker to train horses, as people do with dogs. Is clicker training how you teach positive reinforcement?
Yes, it's the same thing as clicker training for dogs. Clicker training is easier to say, but positive reinforcement and clicker training are the same. In marine mammals, trainers use a whistle. In dogs, they use the clicker. A clicker works great for horses as well.
The clicker marks the behavior you want. So, let’s say your horse is trotting across the arena. When you see the trot you like, such as more swing to its trot, more roundness, straightness, or they stop pinning their ears or twisting their head, whatever your criteria is, when the horse performs that way you want them to perform, you click. The click marks that moment for the horse.
Teaching the horse not to beg is an excellent place to start. The horse knows you have treats and that they can do something to get the treat, but you don’t want to teach them to beg. So, what you want to teach them to do is to keep their head straight and quiet. When the horse turns its head away from you, you click, and then you reward the horse in the position you want the horse’s head to stay, which is usually away from you. The click marks when the head is in the correct position, and the treat follows as soon as possible to that position.
Another example of using positive reinforcement to train your horse to stop begging would be when you're standing next to your horse, and it’s nuzzling you and searching your pockets for treats. Ignore that. There's no reward for that. As soon as the horse gives up and turns his head away from you, you click and quickly reward it in the head away position.
A brand-new horse will learn this behavior in the stall in just a few brief sessions.
How did you get into positive reinforcement?
Over the years, there have been hundreds of horses that have gone through the barn, and you kind of wonder why one horse is more successful than the next. Then you run across a really unsuccessful horse. It comes to you usually as a problem horse that everybody else has gone through, and the owner says, “Will you try this horse?” I’d say, “Well, okay, but you know, if everybody else has failed, I'm probably going to fail too.”
This all changed when this one horse came to me. They tried to start him under saddle as a six-year-old, and he just bucked everybody off. Nobody could ride him. So, the owner called me and said, “Do you want him?” I said, “Well, I don't know that I'll be any better, but I'll try.”
I knew that if he bucked everybody else off, he could buck me off too. So, I started looking for other ways to approach the situation. That is when I found Shawna Karrasch. She grew up training killer whales, seals, and dolphins before transitioning into the equine industry, where she applied techniques from her prior experiences.
When I found her, she was doing 100% positive reinforcement for the horses. So I started studying with her and practicing on this horse. That was a few years ago, and that horse moved after the owner had some success, but we could see it would be a long road with him. He moved on to be a companion horse.
I learned a lot from that, and then a few years went by, and I got another dressage horse. He was doing the Prix St. George, but with a spotty career. He would either be terrific, or he would be eliminated. People would see him coming in the warm-up ring and go the other way. He had a reputation as a talented horse with tricky behavior. I ended up buying him because it was what I could afford, and I thought, “I'll figure it out, and we'll get along, and it'll be fine.”
Well, that didn't happen. This horse didn't improve with my riding. He continued to be very moody and spotty. He would have a good day and then a bad day. So I went back to the positive reinforcement. What I thought I would learn from that horse was how to ride at the FEI level, but my journey ended up being how to use positive reinforcement on a competition horse. It changed my plan with this particular horse. I've been using positive reinforcement with him for a couple of years now, and I do it with all of the horses as much as possible.
I also began to use the technique for competition horses and the riding school. Learning how to preserve the riding school horses’ quality of life with positive reinforcement and how to use positive reinforcement with clients is part of our working process. It makes our training in the riding school unique. Keeping the lesson horses cheerful and motivated while giving new riders positive reinforcement skills looks really different in the lesson arena.
Who would be a good candidate to leverage this type of training? Is this something for horse trainers, or can anyone learn how to use positive reinforcement?
The nice thing about positive reinforcement is that it’s accessible to everybody, whether they're a beginner or an experienced rider, whether they have a trainer or don't have a trainer, whether you are a professional or an amateur. So it is very accessible if you're interested and willing to educate yourself.
There are obviously ways to do it wrong, but because it's positive reinforcement, you can easily fix your mistake. However, if you end up misusing negative reinforcement training, you may not be able to undo it as quickly because it's punitive.
The nice thing about positive reinforcement is that it’s accessible to the general public. There are plenty of resources and people to help you, or you can self-educate in your backyard if you need to. It makes training affordable and accessible.
What is your best advice to individuals wanting to excel in this sport or industry?
If you really want that edge in the sport or to be successful with horses, period, I feel like you need to understand a horse's learning capacity and all training methods available.
Check out the videos above to learn more about how to use positive reinforcement with your horse.