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."
Look to the past
I'm reading "The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship" by Alois Podhajsky, a former Director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I think you would enjoy Classical Horsemanship, it is designed to keep the horse interested and motivated in its work. The way their horses are trained is so fine, that to give an aid is a slight movement. Nothing harsh. Anyway, I am really enjoying the book, as my first horse is a Lipizzan :) I think you would too.
Everything old is new again. Nothing you're saying hasn't been said and practiced before, numerous times.
Xenophon, considered the Father of Classical Equitation, stated as such back in 400 BC.
Anything forced and misunderstood can never be beautiful. And to quote the words of Simon: If a dancer was forced to dance by whip and spikes, he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar conditions.
The one best precept-the golden rule in dealing with a horse-is never to approach him angrily. Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he will regret.
- Xenophon -
If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden.
- Xenophon -
CRK Yes, yes, I for one agree and I think I can say that so will the majority of Forum members who regularly contribute to the debate by posting to HF. But what you are saying is no more than what any believer in Natural Horsemanship might say.
The movement to treat horses kindly began after WW2, when slowly but surely leisure riders started to question the methods traditionally used by the military and the tradesmen who had used horses as beasts of burden. Even as late as 1950, there were in Britain probably more horses being used to pull carts than to ride as a leisure activity. The internal combustion engine killed off the horse and cart. Previously those professionals horse masters had needed for their horses to obey instantly especially in the inner cities.
I am 74 and I can remember roads in London being covered with the dung excreted by horses pulling drays and carts. Milk was but one essential staple of life which was delivered on a daily basis by horse and cart. We also bought green grocery once a week which was delivered to the door by dray. So were sacks of coal delivered for the fireplace by men covered in coal dust. In the coal mining towns they used to drop free loose coal in a heap outside the front door.
Later in life I learned to ride in the mid 1970s and I was taught by the old methods that horses must be dominated at all times. It took decades for me to realize that to achieve willing cooperation, the rider needed to understand what the horse was saying to the human when it was resisting. The old professionals used the fear, that all horses acquire at birth, to dominate. We trainer/riders should be taking the fear in a horse out of the equation when schooling the horse to willingly do what we ask of it.
Nowadays when schooling a horse we aren't asking the horse to do anything it cannot already do, but we are schooling the animal to do what we ask of it by applying an aid - hopefully in a kindly manner, say a mere squeeze of the calf or heel.
Stacey Westfall demonstrates how a horse can be ridden without reins, bridle, bit, stirrups, crop or saddle. She is an object lesson to us all. In truth in many ways she is preaching to the converted - it is just that most of us, as yet, haven't acquired her skills. And let us be honest, we do not own the horse on which she demonstrated her skill.
CRK, go ahead and preach in your own style, the 'gospel' of enlightened horsemanship - but don't assume that your message is a new one. It is just that the influence of competition from some equine sports and the race track have not yet been subdued.
Maybe it is because I don't ride at a 'barn' or stable, but I disagree with your fundamental argument: "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."
In the sense that one is too many, it is correct. However, none of the people I've met thru riding use that approach. I haven't seen any books arguing for it. You won't find anyone on HF arguing to beat your horse into submission, although you WILL find lots of us who will use negative reinforcement in our training.
"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"
Well, I'm not going to hand my horse a carrot on the fly to reward 'good behavior'! Frankly, for INITIAL training, it is negative reinforcement. Once learned, they will find out moving that way is fun or at least more comfortable and balanced than not doing it.
If I have any concerns about modern training methods, it is that too many REJECT some form of appropriate punishment and end up with out-of-control horses. My mare doesn't control her little herd of 3 by handing out rewards. If they disobey, she uses teeth and hooves to enforce her will. And the two subordinate geldings respond how? By wanting to be with her and by looking to her for guidance when they are afraid.
So if I want my mare to look forward to being with me and to respond to a scary thing by asking me what I want to do, how can I do that? Hmmm......:?
@Maximas Mommy, I read this book as well and loved it!
Perhaps I chose the wrong title for this post... I'm not trying to say I have any new ideas here at all. I just feel there are many people, myself included, who get stuck in old ways of doing things, and we should all be open to new ways (new ways to us, even if the methodology itself is old) of doing things.
training is evolving, constantly.
I think you are focusing on the negatives of horsemanship, those who over use spurs and big bits.
The key(to this and life) is balance. Your weight loss illustration for example. This is something I'm familiar with. Your positive motivation may be thinking about the 'new you', but you get negative feedback when you put on that target pair of pants that still don't fit. That helps spur you on to your goal, just as much as that mental picture of you on a beach in your bathing suit does.
At work, your boss doesn't say "you made a bad choice and cost the company money, but lets not talk about that, you showed up today on time, congratulations!" No, you make a mistake, their is a negative consequence, then, in the case of a great boss, they move on and try to be positive about you as an employee.
Same with dogs. I have been working with dogs with behavioural issues for years. I don't come home to a shredded couch and go "you chose to eat my couch over your chew toys. Lets focus on the positive and give you a treat for sitting!" No, they have a consequence, then we move on. And the sitting illustration. I would ask for a sit with a treat, and when I made my self abundantly clear and the dog still refused to comply, I would physically encourage them to sit. Then they would get the reward. Positive, negative if necessary, then back to the positive.
If I asked for a walk on my horse subtly, and she refused, I would ask more obviously. If she absolutely ignores me, she with get a smack with the crop, then we will move back to positive. My horses come running up to me in the pasture, begging to be worked, so some how I don't feel that they are resentful about 'negative reinforcement'. My dogs adore me, and listen to me without fear of being beaten.
Bluespark, I agree completely, I use a combination of negative and positive with my own horses - you can't do everything with positive reinforcement, not with a dog, a horse, or a child. I do believe that many methods of horse training could use more positive reinforcement, not necessarily use it entirely.
It is actually good to hear that many other people on the forum here are familiar with what I brought up, I grew up working in show barns, and I still have a lot of contact with that world, so I interact with many people who don't study either classic horsemanship or the new ideas that many clinicians are presenting (or re-presenting from others in the past.)
So -- do you think that a well-trained horse that carries a big bit is being abused?
Do you think a rider that wears spurs is automatically an abusive rider?
Define 'negative reinforcement'.
Define 'positive reinforcement'.
These definitions vary wildly in the horse community. I would be interested in YOUR definition.
Riding bareback and bridles isn't new, we often did it as kids, No one felt like hauling tack across a very large pasture so we'd just jump on and ride back. The horses turned well with a little knee pressure and stopped when we leaned back.
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