Positive reinforcement training for all types

What do hyenas, meerkats, hippos, rhinos, lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, llamas, zebras, goldfish, orcas, sea lions, beluga whales, walruses, and dolphins have in common with horses? They can all be trained using positive reinforcement techniques. And no one knows this better than positive reinforcement coach and animal behavior expert Shawna Krach.

Many people know positive reinforcement training by the term “clicker” or “R+” training. Although Karach did not invent the technologies, there is no doubt that she was a pioneer in introducing them to the equine world.

From 10,000 to 1,200 pounds

Karach first developed her skills as a positive reinforcement coach when she worked as a marine mammal trainer at Sea World in San Diego, California, for a decade. There I worked with sea lions, walruses, otters, beluga whales, killer whales, and various species of dolphin.

Karrasch served as a marine animal trainer at Sea World in San Diego for ten years. Photo by Kelly Cannell

Her life changed dramatically in 1992 when she attended the Grand Prix Jumping Show. By the end of the night, she was infatuated.

“I didn’t even know what posting a trot was, and I wanted to be a Grand Prix athlete in my 30s,” she laughs. “At that point, I was flying off the noses of whales, so fencing big on a horse didn’t seem like my thing. Actually, the horses were kind of cute and small. They’re not 10,000 pounds. They’re 1,200.”

She knew she could put her accumulated knowledge of positive reinforcement training with whales to work with horses, but first she had to learn the ropes of the horse industry. She started taking beginner riding lessons and even riding calls with the vets and trains to learn all she could.

“I was that 12-year-old girl,” she admits. “I was talking about horses, horses, horses. Within a couple of months, I ended up buying my own horse, and then I was showing, and I really loved it.”

Basics of positive reinforcement

She kept asking the horses if they used positive reinforcement during training, but was told “no” over and over again. However, her experience on the Executive Board of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association has shown her that all types of zoos and marine animals can be trained with positive reinforcement. A phone conversation with legendary trainer Tom Dorrance gave her the go-ahead that her animal training methods should work on horses.

Since everything I did with marine mammals was positive reinforcement, I had a hard time grasping the concept of pressure and release, also known as negative reinforcement, and is more common in the equine industry.

“I try to remind people, positive and negative don’t mean good and bad; they mean plus and minus,” she explains. “So when people talk about negative reinforcement, it doesn’t mean that you beat your horse. It means that you apply pressure and remove pressure, and that subtraction of pressure is what increases the frequency of the behavior. On the flip side, adding something to the equation, like food, increases it.” behavior. So we have a couple of different ways we can reinforce it.”

Opportunity for positive reinforcement with horses

Her big break came alongside her then-husband, Vinton Karach. The couple is invited by Vinton’s friends, John and Beezie Madden, to move to New York so they can use positive reinforcement methods with the Maddens showrunners. She called this “lab time” as she was beginning to perfect her techniques.

Her success with Maddens horses began to take hold, and it was the first clinic she ever booked for people attending the Festival of Champions at USET headquarters. After over a year at Maddens, she left to start her own business, On Target Training.

Karach assumed the equine world would fully embrace it, but that wasn’t the case. Especially since it was something new coming from a newcomer. However, the fact that she trained orcas and other marine mammals gave her credibility. In the beginning, some people came just to see Lady Pisces.

Positive reinforcement coach
Shauna Crash with Minty, her longtime medical partner who is now 28 years old. She began training him as a yearling after buying him from John and Busy Madden. Photography by David Meyer

One of the biggest challenges of working with clients at the time was that there wasn’t enough material for riders to follow, and many would return to training the way they’d always known.

“I was one person who really couldn’t help but keep up,” she says. My book hasn’t been written yet. Now with the internet, we have so many resources for people.”

The future as a positive reinforcement coach

Her first book was You Can Train Your Horse To Do Anything! On Targeted Clicker Training and Beyond, was released in 2000. Her second book, published by Trafalgar Square Books, titled The Power of Positive Equine Training: Creating Exceptional Behavior by Changing Equestrian Relationships with the World Around Them, is dropped in November 2021.

In 2020, she partnered with Via Nova Training, a dressage and eventing facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and became the lead conductor and trainer. She teaches the entire team at Via Nova how to use and teach positive reinforcement training.

Its goal is to keep everyone learning and growing with technologies. To do this, she has embraced technology to teach others via video, webinars, blog, social media, and podcast, Equine Clicker 101 with Shawna Karrasch.

Crash points out that positive reinforcement is of great benefit to the horse because horses are always communicating. Sometimes it’s subtle, but people can learn to read cues and emotional states.

She stresses that positive reinforcement training should be fun for you and your horse.
“If the marine mammals didn’t think training was fun, they wouldn’t show up,” she says. “The same goes for horses.”

This article about a positive reinforcement coach appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Positive Reinforcement Coach Illustrated horse magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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