Sometimes owning horses feels like a permanent self help course. Each time I accept a new lesson and grow in my horsemanship I feel I am one step closer to that zen place of inner peace. The true horseman is master of his emotions. He is patient, understanding, and in the moment. He is aware of all those little things happening around him without wasting time and energy worrying about the next appointment or phone call that is waiting after he gets back to the barn. Most of all he spends time in self reflection thinking about (my family may call this phase obsessing) how to address a particular problem or theory.
This week I have been doing a lot of thinking about punishment as it applies to training our horses. There is a prevailing belief, in the world of horsemanship that teaches us that when the horse does something wrong (ie in opposition to anything that may or may not have been requested of him) he is being bad, disrespectful or downright dangerous. If we don't immediately put a stop to it, the horse will eventually move forward with his evil mustache twirling plan to take over the stall, the barn and eventually our lives! It is up to us to maintain the upper hand at all times or they just might figure out they are stronger than us! Indeed, time spent in the barn around horses produces a certain "toughness" of character. We joke that because we can "handle" a 1200# animal that a problem person is nothing! Watch out, world, horse girl here! I admit to reveling in that feeling of control and power myself as a young girl and I highly doubt I'm the only one. I think that is actually part of the appeal for most women that spend time around horses, isn't it?
It is important to understand a little bit about behavior modification and the terminology if you plan to do any training at all, whether children, dogs or horses. They all respond in a similar fashion. The two most common types of training are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. The positive and negative describe the addition or subtraction of stimuli and are not associated with negative or positive connotations.
Positive reinforcement is the addition of something desirable in response to a desired behavior. The positive is almost always a food reward but can also be the promise of a food reward delivered at an unspecified time. This is the basis for clicker training and the way most of the performing marine mammals are trained. It is widely considered to be the most effective training modality, creating a long lasting and fairly predictable response. It has an interesting history in horse training with those firmly in the camps both for and against this form of training. As a veterinarian I see positive reinforcement more commonly (and incorrectly) used as a distraction technique. This is not how positive reinforcement is meant to be applied. You acting as a human Pez dispenser to keep the horse standing quietly is not positive reinforcement, this is bribery. Giving a treat to reward a horse that has stood quietly through a procedure is positive reinforcement. There are a few big name natural horsemanship trainers that are adamantly apposed to positive reinforcement (treating) in training as it "spoils" the horse. When used ineffectively (like the human Pez dispenser) that can certainly be the case.
Negative reinforcement is the removal of something undesirable in response to a behavior. This is the classic training paradigm that is used in almost all of our work with our horses. Our aids are effectively the "undesirable" that is removed in response to the desired behavior. Many people blister a little at the "negative" in negative reinforcement. If it helps, think of it as "subtractive" reinforcement. When used with effective timing and feel there is nothing abusive about negative reinforcement. This is not a pain or fear based training paradigm. It is the addition of pain or fear that moves negative reinforcement closer to punishment. As with all behavior modification, a positive experience makes the behavior more likely to be accepted and repeated. When fear and pain are introduced into the equation, those become the stronger association making the behavior association unpredictable.
The natural horsemanship movement has been a wonderful thing for many people, women especially, either returning to horses or finally following their dreams of owning and riding their own horse. Within the natural horsemanship movement there is a teaching paradigm that really emphasizes the theory that any time a horse doesn't immediately respond to your request he is being disrespectful and dull and we need to follow that up in anyway we can to get the results we desire from our horse. The phrase do as little as possible and as much as necessary can escalate quickly from application of negative reinforcement training to punishment.
Punishment can be in one of two forms. You can have negative punishment which is the removal of something, generally a treat or food reward, in response to an undesirable behavior. A good example would be removing a treat from the horse's reach if he takes it too abruptly. Positive punishment is the addition of something due to an undesirable behavior and is much more common in training our horses. An example of positive punishment is jerking on the bit if the horse pushes on your hands, or spurring or kicking repetitively if the horse ignores your leg. Probably the most common punishment we see, especially in natural horsemanship circles, is aggressively backing the horse that crowds or creeps forward out of your space.
The problem with punishment as a behavior modifier is that it is almost impossible to apply accurately to change or affect the undesirable behavior. For punishment, either positive or negative to be effective both contingency and contiguity must be well paired with the behavior. Contingency means that every time the behavior is exhibited the punishment is administered. Contiguity means that the punishment is delivered right away rather than delayed . For punishment to be effective, the punishment must be delivered within 1-2 seconds of the behavior, and the horse has to understand the relationship between the action and the handler's reaction. If the punishment is delayed several other behaviors may occur before punishment making it confusing to the horse which behavior is being discouraged by the punishment.
The horse, in almost all instances, simply does what he thinks he has to get by. It is our anthropomorphism that projects motive onto the horses. We want to believe our horses love us. We want to believe that we "know" what is going on in their heads. This is exactly what gets us into trouble when we are in a training mode. This is why great horsemen seem to have the patience of Job when dealing with a horse that the rest of may look at and say, "Man, that horse is a jerk!!" The horseman knows the horse is only doing what he thinks he has to and is in search mode, trying to find the right answer to this new herd dynamic he is faced with.
All horse training from our very first haltering experience to developing a flying lead change is the result of rewarding the horse for the desired behavior. In most instances we cannot force a horse into a behavior. The better the horse is at searching for behaviors (we call that try) and the better the trainer is at rewarding those behaviors (timing and feel) the faster and further the training will go.
When we change our training paradigm from negative or positive reinforcement to negative or positive punishment we change the rules on the horse. Punishment can actually produce unwanted behavior as the horse responds to the action of the punishment without understanding the behavior that induced the punishment in the first place.
A good example of punishment resulting in an undesirable behavior would the head shy horse. Obviously, biting is a dangerous and undesirable trait that we see in young horses. It is a natural extension of their teething and learning phase of development. It's as natural to the horse as it is to the toddler gnawing on whatever is within reach. It is very difficult to effectively punish the horse for biting without creating undesirable behavior. Hitting or flicking the young horse that is biting will either induce a fun game of grab ass or if you hit hard enough or often enough a horse that is difficult to handle around the head, eyes, ears or mouth resulting in somebody down the road complaining about how the horse must have been abused. (Enter an endless stream of horses presented to the vet because the owners cannot deworm, clip, or handle the horse's ears).
Instead, good behavior modification in that situation would be to encourage a different behavior or negative reinforcement in the form of the horse running into pressure when he attempts to bite. A well placed elbow or maybe redirecting the energy into moving the feet will be more effective than combat.
Most people will agree that the very best and effective horsemanship comes from a place devoid of human emotions. Anger, fear or frustration has no place in horse training. Punishment comes from those places within us. In an attempt to sterilize these actions of emotion we see some trainers who laugh as they punish the horse or make a joke of it. "Oh, I'm sorry, did you run into my stick?" Laughing or playfully saying oops after punishment is for the owner, not the horse. It makes us feel better about inflicting punishment for an action that we couldn't prevent, redirect or avoid.
I can hear what you are saying to yourself under your breath. I can hear it because I would have been saying exactly the same thing 5 years ago. "So, what are we supposed to do then? Just let the horse walk all over the top of us? All lovey dovey and touchy feel? No way!"
I am by no means advocating that we hand over leadership to our horses. They still need to understand that we are the leaders and they are the followers in our little herd of 2. They need to understand this and accept it not because we will kick their lily white hiney if they don't but because we will keep them safe and secure if they do. This is a fundamental shift in thinking that took me a few years to completely understand, especially after the few years I spent drinking the kool-aid of one of the most abusive natural horsemanship trainers out there.
So, how do we use the theories of positive and negative reinforcement and avoid resorting to punishment to produce the most effective and long lasting behavior modifications in our horses? In all cases of behavior modification it is the motivation behind the behavior that the horse is most likely to remember paired with the timing of the release or reward.
For instance. Imagine you are sitting in your chair and there is a sudden sharp pain in your butt. When you shift your weight the pain immediately goes away and so you can choose to either continue to sit in the chair in the adjusted position or go find another chair. If it's the first time, you may continue to sit there but if it happens over and over again you are probably going to want to avoid that chair in the future even though the pain can be immediately avoided. You may even go so far as to avoid all chairs of that design in the future. That is pain associated negative reinforcement. It resulted in you avoiding the chair, which was the desired behavior modification, but left you with suspicion of chairs of that sort. So, it was effective in modifying the behavior but resulted in additional unwanted fear and pain associated behaviors.
If you are sitting in the chair and somebody comes up and whallops you over the head until you move to a different chair your response may be immediate but it may also make you fearful of all chairs in the future. You may even decide that you should maybe just remain standing. This is positive punishment. This is precisely the type of training that often produces horses that won't load. The horse walks up to the trailer, takes a sniff and maybe stops to consider the change in lighting or angle of the floor since the last time he saw this trailer and WHACK! Suddenly he is punished for checking it out. With enough application of punishment he may decide that the trailer might be a refuge and jump in, but the next time he approaches the trailer he is more likely to remember the punishment for the approach then the cessation of the punishment for entering the trailer. This again results in a desired behavior modification in the immediate sense but instills additional unwanted behaviors as well.
If you are sitting in the chair but there is a cookie (or glass of wine for the more sophisticated among you) next to the chair across the room you will probably eventually move over there to enjoy the treat. However, this is a choice that you are making. If you don't have enough desire to make the choice, say the cookie isn't your favorite or the wine is red instead of white, you may not choose to immediately make that choice. The trainer has no choice but to continue to wait for you to make the choice. Maybe not feeding you breakfast the next day will increase your "try" and willingness to search for a different chair. This is positive reinforcement. It's one of the reasons that it is difficult to incorporate into our training under saddle. Until we can figure out a bit that dispenses a treat after the required maneuver we are probably going to be stuck with negative reinforcement as our main training regime.
The most common and most effective to date for most of our equine training is negative reinforcement without punishment. In order to prevent negative reinforcement from becoming positive punishment we have to learn to wait.
Consider the chair example again. What if instead of a sharp pain you just felt a nudge or pressure or maybe a change in balance like the chair wobbled a little when you sat down. You may not immediately change your seat but eventually it would become uncomfortable and you would select a different chair. If you were particularly sensitive to wobbliness you may change right away. If you are easy going by nature it may take you a second. You continuing to sit in the chair is not disrespectful to the chair. You are not trying to be a rebel. You just don't have a good enough reason to move. Once you move and decide it's better in the other chair you will probably avoid the wobbly chair in the future. You will have no chair animosity or fear. You will freely try other chairs and maybe even become a bit of a chair connoisseur developing a taste for really nice comfy chairs.
This is how we build try and softness in our horses without developing fear or pain. We retain their trust and their desire to follow our lead because we build a place where it feels good to sit in our chairs. We wait for the try and we reward it when it happens.
From the very beginning when working with our horses some will have more try than others. We must hold onto whatever try they are born with and attempt to cultivate their try by always rewarding the smallest amount of it. If we keep the horse searching with try they will be more likely to stumble upon and remember the right answers to our directives without the need to resort to pain associated negative reinforcement or positive punishment. We are such an impatient species. We have agendas and goals and check lists. The horse does not. The horse desires the bare necessities and puts up with us for reasons that only God could expound on. We owe it to the horse to be the very best human we can be. Sometimes that means letting go of all the things that make us human in the first place. Emotion. Impatience. Agenda. Drive. Anger. Frustration. Let go of it and just wait and be with the horse.
There will be times in any training program when things go south. That's the nature of attempting to align the minds and souls of two very different creatures. Punishment will happen out of either necessity or frustration or desperation. That's okay. Recognize it for what it is and try to see how it perhaps could have been avoided. As luck would have it, we are dealing with one of the most forgiving of all the beasts on the planet. Just don't excuse it as good training. Punishment is a last resort and is the least effective of all the training modalities.