Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Driving Horse

Monty Gwynne of EquiSpeak graciously took some time to write this blog for us! Thank you Monty!

Let me just preface this blog with this: I signed up for her Online Course and have already learned so many things! I have been doing Positive Reinforcement training, mixed in with negative reinforcement training for a long time, but have a different understanding after watching just two of Monty’s videos.

I too started Zorro at liberty with positive reinforcement. Everything he learned at first was done without force and then I used positive reinforcement to start his ground driving at liberty. It has been amazing!! The journey from ground driving to pulling a cart has been short and sweet and Zorro has shown me so much joy and confidence! Just what I want in a driving pony.

Onto Monty’s words of encouragement!


Teaching a horse to drive with positive reinforcement training??

Why not? If you can teach dolphins to jump through hoops or gorillas to get their teeth brushed? It is now commonplace in the dog training world and starting to gain ground in the horse world too! But if you are a successful trainer already why bother?

With positive reinforcement training we get a different motivation behind the behaviour we get from the horse. He is motivated to do something to get something he likes, in most cases food, but scratches can work as well. He is not doing the behaviour to get relief from something he doesn’t like. Most times it is a ‘choice’ between a rock and a hard place in traditional horse training. Oh, but he is licking and chewing after making these ‘choices’ and folks are told that if he is licking and chewing he is thinking. Well, he is, but he is thinking “Thank goodness I survived!” not “Oh right! I know what to do now.” He was stressed and therefore not actually able to learn or retain what we thought we taught.

Why would I switch to another way to train?

I have trained lots of horses for many disciplines over the years and was successful and skilled in the pressure and release training and the competitive show world so why would I switch to another way to train?

The world of positive reinforcement, that I came upon over twenty years ago, has opened up a world I never knew existed. I can train easier and faster and both the horse and I have a lot of fun doing it. I have laughed more with my horses since I started this training than I ever did in the time before.

My horses now have a choice, a real choice to participate. Now I know you are thinking if I give them the choice to do something rather than just hang out and eat they will never choose to come with me and do stuff! I can tell you they will. And they will actually leave their food to come and play with me for the same food as they could have for ‘free’. This has the cool name of contra-freeloading!

Starting from Scratch

Most of the horses I started training with positive reinforcement are what we call crossover horses, in that they had already been trained in the normal way. I wanted to experiment with a horse with no training and see if I could just use positive reinforcement to train him to drive. (Remember positive is NOT permissive. The horse needs to do a behaviour to get reinforcement but if they don’t there is no punishment or reprimand or increase in pressure. And another aside a release is not a reward!)

*You can refer to Kendra’s blog for the definition of Positive Reinforcement.

So I purchased Eggo, a miniature horse, when he was just weaned. He did have a bit of halter training the normal way but that was all.

Wow! This was a learning curve for me because he was so quick to figure things out. My crossover horses got quick but usually started out hesitant because of their previous training where volunteering behaviour was frowned upon. With Eggo there was no baggage from other types of training. No fear of giving me the wrong answer and what might happen if he didn’t guess right.

In the early days

When he was still young we shaped and captured many of the behaviours any well-mannered youngster should have but it was all done with positive reinforcement and at liberty.

Catching, haltering, tying, grooming, hoof cleaning were all shaped and captured and put on cue. When it was time to start introducing him the driving he already had many of the behaviours I needed. He would walk at liberty next to me and follow my body. He would walk ahead of me to a mat and stop on the mat. He had been taught to put his halter and blanket on so transferring this to putting his collar and harness on were easy and behaviours I would need to start driving him.

I began with the usual dragging poles beside him etc. but he was free to leave if he was uncomfortable and if he did, then I would need to try and go back to where he was comfortable and ok with it, before going forward. There was no flooding, ongoing exposure to the thing they fear until they no longer react, which can lead to learned helplessness, but because he was curious, and allowed to have an opinion in that he could leave if he needed to and never put over threshold, there were not very many instances of this at all. Thin slicing (going in little comfortable steps) allowed us to progress very quickly.

He had been taught to station at a mat and swing his bum into heel position and this easily translated into swinging between the shafts as seen here.

He was also taught, using targeting, to turn and then this was transferred to the reins.

Here is his first drive outside.

There was never any fear or unexpected behaviours from him because if he was uncomfortable he knew he could leave and he trusted me that nothing bad would happen and I wouldn’t force him if he was uncomfortable. This resulted in a very bold, brave and confident pony, just what you want in a driving pony!

Eggo and I love our Hyperbike both for it’s ease of pulling and because it makes giving treats easier! (You can go HERE to see Chimacum’s harness just for the Hyperbike!)

I’d love to show more about this training so I invite you to visit my website My new online course just launched as well so check it out HERE.

I encourage you to start a new journey. You are never too old to start and we can all do with more joy and laughter in our lives.

Until we meet again ‘Keep it positive!’


2 thoughts on “Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Driving Horse

  1. Maddie says:

    Do you think this would be possible to do with a full sized horse? I would love to train my mare to pull a cart like this but I’m not sure she would be able to reach the treat!

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