So many topics in the equestrian world spark fierce debate and I suppose that's just human nature all over. Shoes or no shoes, blanket or no blanket, bridles or bitless are all topics of much heated debate in horsey chatrooms and there are avid and well referenced Karens on both sides of the keyboard as well established and successful professional horsemen. The issue of whether it is good and appropriate to "treat" a horse is another one where you can see heated impassioned debate on both sides of the issue. So, let's delve into the ins and outs and whys and why nots of hand feeding treats to your equine partner.
First of all it is important to understand the strength of the nature of association in the brain with positive reinforcement. It is universally understood that positive reinforcement is the strongest training tool that we currently understand in all facets of animal behavior. The association between a behavior and a positive reward can form behavior links that are so strong they can be recreated years after the initial behavior modification is instilled. I had the distinct pleasure of talking to a marine animal trainer when I visited Sea World a few years ago and when he learned I was a visiting veterinarian we spoke at length about how they train the animals to actively cooperate with difficult veterinary procedures like blood sample collection without the aid of any physical restraint. As an equine veterinarian that has to deal with needle shy and sometimes dangerous patients I found this fascinating and it made me realize how barbaric our handling and training of our domestic animals is by comparison. Yes leaping through a hoop and balancing a ball is cool but the real success in operant conditioning in my opinion is having a dolphin swim to you and present a fin for blood draw without a qualm.
Positive reinforcement in operant conditioning is a behavior modification technique in which a pleasant stimulus is added to the environment in direct association with the desired behavior with the purpose of encouraging the frequency of the behavior. This is the method of training universally used in training marine mammals, zoo animals and most circus performing animals as well. While you hear the horror stories of negative reinforcement and barbaric techniques like shocks, whips, and prods being applied in those settings, they are actually much more common in our domestic training programs, specifically in all equestrian fields. Indeed our entire training program that relies on the use of physical aids is negative reinforcement. You apply an uncomfortable stimuli (even if it's very mild) and the horse responds and the stimuli is taken away. That is negative reinforcement. It is also a safe, effective and humane way of training but that is not the method of training that is traditionally most effective for long term behavior changes.
Animals trained with positive reinforcement will often offer the behavior in an attempt to garner the reward that they are used to receiving. An animal trained in negative reinforcement will seldom do the same as they have been taught that the status quo of being left alone is the ultimate reward.
Because every single horseman is by default an amateur trainer it is imperative that we understand behavior modification and the ramifications of each type if we are going to make decisions and continue to train our animals to have the behaviors that we desire whatever their intended purpose or use in our lives from pleasant companion to elite athlete. Timing and feel of the addition of stimuli or removal of stimuli are essential for creating the behaviors we desire. You may have heard the horseman's refrain, horse's learn from the release of pressure not the pressure itself. That is an elemental pillar of behavior modification through negative reinforcement. The timing of the reward in both positive and negative reinforcement is imperative for the association to be paired with the appropriate behavior and here in lies the rub.
It is possible, through poor timing to create positive reinforcement associations for the WRONG BEHAVIOR and this is what gives food rewards such a bad name in horsemanship circles. This is why you will hear people say that using food rewards creates dangerous horses that will bite you or that it teaches them disrespect for the person or that they will get to the point that they will only do something for the reward. These are all examples of the horse training the human through poor timing of positive reinforcement. The wrong behaviors are rewarded, which creates very strong behavior pathways that are challenging to rewire and often are rewired through the use of another form of operant conditioning which is punishment.
Punishment in terms of behavior modification is the opposite of reinforcement and may also be termed positive or negative punishment. Punishment is stimuli in response to a behavior that will decrease the frequency of that behavior. An example of positive punishment in the equestrian world is "shanking" or jerking the lead rope in response to a horse walking forward uninvited. I'm sure you can think of many instances of positive punishment that are very common in most equestrian circles. Negative punishment is the removal of a pleasant stimuli that is meant to decrease a behavior. Leaving a horse tied until they are able to stand quietly would be an example. You remove the pleasant stimuli of comfort of moving or of companionship until they cease the undesirable behavior of equine temper tantrum. It's essentially the time out philosophy. While there is debate among behaviorists as to the ultimate effectiveness of punishment in behavior modification there is little doubt that the biggest down side to punishment is the likeliness of side effects related to the punishment. Again, we can see many examples in our equestrian world. Horse bites (maybe because they've taught the human to give them a treat that way) owner reacts by whacking said horse, horse responds by flipping it's head and becoming "head shy" in response to sudden movements of the hand. Repeat 3 times and it's a well established behavior pattern.
So, how can we as horsemen use the exceptionally potent training modality of positive reinforcement within the constructs of traditional horsemanship? A few years back I had the opportunity to discuss this with renowned equine behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell of New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. McDonnell has long been one of my veterinary heroes as she specializes in reproductive behavior modification in horses. I find her work absolutely fascinating and the studies she has performed on basic herd dynamics in feral ponies is well worth the read for any horseman. After listening to Dr. McDonnell lecture for several hours on the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in horses I asked her how in the world can we use this in horses when our entire riding tradition is based on negative reinforcement and the application of aides? It would require an entirely different method of riding. The best we could come up with is a bit that would dispense something tasty when the right behavior was achieved. Not at all practical when trying to teach a horse to chase down a steer!!
While I don't see that we will ever be able to replace the use of negative reinforcement and training aids in our ridden horses I do believe that the piece that can be strongly cultivated through positive reinforcement is partnership. In Cowboy Dressage we place partnership right at the top of our list of equestrian goals. We want our horses to be with us, mind, heart, and soul and to desire our company as much as we desire theirs. We also want our horses to be safe and easy to handle and man, if we can encourage their active participation in the training process as much as possible, I'm all for that as well! Using well timed positive reinforcement we can encourage the horses to crave the training and interaction.
We use positive reinforcement to create a training environment that the horses crave. As a matter of fact, we often have trouble convincing them to leave when their training session is over. The desire to be with you and to be engaged in the activity becomes stronger and stronger through the proper application of positive rewards. This isn't bribery. This isn't about being a human Pez dispenser every time the horse sticks his nose out. It also isn't about riding around with a pocket full of treats to dispense when ever the horse does something amazing. Unless you are able to give the horse a food reward the moment the appropriate maneuver is performed you are ultimately rewarding them for stopping work while you fish a treat out of your pocket. (Although I have used this exact method for a horse that was anxious and unable to stand still in the middle of the dressage court!) So, while we can and do use positive reinforcement to train things like picking up the feet or putting on the bridle, mostly we use it to encourage quiet togetherness. We reward the horses just for hanging out with us and once they want to be with you, anything is possible, I believe.
Now, remember what I cautioned early on, there is a good reason why many very great horsemen discourage hand feeding of treats. Positive reinforcement can quickly and strongly influence the wrong behavior when used with poor timing. Rewarding a horse even once for aggressively frisking your pockets and you just reinforced the mugging behavior. Give a horse a treat because they are pawing and wont stand still and you want to distract them will quickly create a horse that is a chronic pawer. Bribing a horse to stand still by dispensing treats when they try to walk off will create a horse that is likely to never stand still. You absolutely must be 100% cognizant of the behavior you are trying to create and the environment you are trying to encourage if you are going to try to use positive reinforcement and that is why so many trainers tell their clients not to use it at all. But, if you are aware of the ramifications of this powerful tool, I think it is a great thing to experiment with. We readily encourage positive punishment in the equine world; "Whack him! Don't let him get away with that!!" which can also create unwanted behaviors as a side effect. Maybe it's time we started accepting the power of positive reinforcement as well!