It's Time for Horse Training to Evolve
This may be a little controversial, but I'm going to post it anyway. I have long been bothered by many of the training methods that are commonly used today. In my opinion, too many horses are trained solely with harsh negative reinforcement - big bits, big spurs, chains, and all kinds of other gadgets designed to influence and control a horse through pain and confinement. To me, the saddest part is that it’s not mean, abusive people doing this. It’s simply people who are doing what they were taught to do or what they saw being done without ever stopping to ask "why" and "is there a better way"?
I see many horses that appear well - behaved, but its only because they are shut down, tuned out, and numb. They have learned to hold their anxiety inside and to disconnect from their handlers. This is a natural response, people do it too when they reach a certain level of pain, fear, or heartbreak. The anxiety will still come out, though. Think about a stereotypical "big show barn" and how it kind of resembles a prison or asylum, with horses cribbing, weaving, pacing, or pinning their ears at the stall door.
The science of behavior is an interesting field to study. I know that even after reading several books, I have only scratched the surface. In any type of training I will argue that there are two main schools of thought - training with positive reinforcement, and training with negative reinforcement. Let’s start with a simple example that anyone with a dog will probably recognize. You can teach a dog to sit with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or a combination. In negative reinforcement training, you pull up and back on the dog’s collar while using your hand to push his butt towards the ground. The dog eventually recognizes that in order to avoid discomfort he should sit when cued. In positive reinforcement, you wait until the dog starts sitting, then immediately reward the dog with a treat or a word (a word that the dog associates with good things, like treats, toys, or play). You then "shape" the behavior, waiting for more of a sit before you reward the next try, until the dog figures out that in order to get the "good thing" he needs to sit down. If you use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement to teach your dog to sit you might push his butt to the ground then give him a treat. Which method do you suppose produces the happiest dog, who most enjoys his training? It's the positive reinforcement. In the other methods, the dog tends to look unhappy and respond more slowly.
Now let me give you another example, this one relates to how we "train" ourselves, or motivate ourselves to do things we think we ought to be doing. Say you want to lose weight. If you use positive reinforcement on yourself, you will envision a new you - skinny and energetic. You will give yourself a mental pat on the back when you choose an apple over a brownie, or a salad over a steak. Now, if you are using negative reinforcement on yourself, you would handle your weight loss differently. You would look in the mirror and criticize how fat you look, then jab yourself mentally for not running this morning or skipping the last 15 min of spin class. Which method is going to make you happiest during your weight loss? What do you think? Are you starting to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement training?
Now let me further define what negative reinforcement is in regards to horse training. Negative reinforcement is pressure, from our legs, the halter, even an aggressive way of walking or moving. Negative pressure does not necessarily mean pain, but it certainly includes it. Any bit, spur, or whip used improperly will cause real physical pain to our horses.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about how many horses are ridden. Heels or spurs squeeze in to go forward, horse is collected, by pressure on the bit and maybe more leg contact. Rider takes horse through patterns, over jumps, whatever. Control is mostly with the legs and reins, pressure is applied somewhere to ask for a different movement. There is not a lot of positive, and when it is given it is often not in a way that the horse connects with the behavior.
Now I am not saying that we should be only using positive reinforcement and never give a corrective yank on the lead rope or a bump with our legs. All I'm saying is that we need to think about our current training methods and look for ways to incorporate positive reinforcement into our riding and training. I have seen the difference this makes with my own horses - they are happier, more responsive, and feel like they are "looking" for the right answers to training questions.
There are several ways to give positive reinforcement to a horse. It doesn't necessarily mean treats. Positive reinforcement can be rest, praise, or food. You can use safety and comfort as positive reinforcement, which can be very effective with horses.
I don't have all the answers, but all I want to do with this article is get you asking "why" and "is there a better way"? Tune into your horse, think about what you are doing, and is your horse behaving because he wants to, because he knows that picking up a left lead canter somehow means good things, or does he pick up the left lead because he knows that if he doesn't your spur is going to be gouging his side?
Tough questions, I know. When I think back, I have made a ton of mistakes in the way I rode and trained, but I am always searching for a better way, and you can too! Always remember these timeless gems of equus wisdom - be slow and soft in your movements, always be tuned in to the horse, and keep your mind calm and clear, strive for a mind that is "like still water."