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Myths & Misconceptions

A lot of what we think we know about horses and horse training has been around a while; it is seen nearly everywhere you look, and has been handed down for generations.  A lot of the information that is conveyed is not necessarily true or accurate or even kind to the horse, it is just what has been accepted as good horse practise for a while.  Unfortunately, things we have been brought up with often seem right, even when they are not. 

In addition to that, our own misconceptions and expectations can cloud our perspective. Disney has a few things to answer for; as does the princess riding off into the sunset on the white unicorn. Ok I think it was a cowboy with the sunset, but you get the meaning.

When We Think About Training...  

Equines are not born understanding English, and they are not born knowing that patting and praise are a good thing. They are not born knowing human rules; and they are NEVER going to get human right from wrong, morals nor ethics. 

"All life is born hardwired to repeat behaviours that ensure survival, even single celled amoeba."

Antecedents, or what happens before the behaviour, may prompt or elicit the behaviour to happen. Whether the behaviour is repeated, is a result of the consequence, and the consequence is what happens AFTER the behaviour. If the consequence is good the behaviour is repeated. In the case of most animals a good consequence will be obtaining food, water, comfort, safety security or a mate. Again, anything that ensures survival of the individual or survival of the species.

A = Antecedent

B = Behaviour

C = Consequence

In brief, with-in a training context, Rewarded behaviours happen again, so in the case of our non-english speaking equine, in lieu of right from wrong, he is going to perform behaviour that ‘works’, behaviour that provides a good consequence, behaviour that supplies him with good things for horses. So, for very simple efficient training; reward behaviour you like.

Rewarding behaviour you like is called ‘positive reinforcement’ (positive because we add (+) something (ie the reward) and reinforcement because it makes the behaviour stronger). This training is more efficient than traditional ‘don’t do that’ training, as let’s face it, there are lots of ways to get it wrong!! If there are multiple ways to get it wrong, then teaching what we do want seems to make more sense doesn’t it?

Patting and praise is a ‘secondary’ reinforcer, or sometimes called a ‘learnt’ or ‘conditioned’ reinforcer, as the equine needs to learn that it means a good thing. Generally, they learn this as it is combined with food, or combined with company or other social interaction. Some patting can be naturally reinforcing (i.e. no learning has to take place) if your horse enjoys being scratched, however food is a primary reinforcer, as all animals know that food is a good thing without prior learning having to take place.

Anything that your horse enjoys or would chose to do himself can be used as a reward.

What is Not Positive Reinforcement?

A rest in traditional training is often touted as a reward for your horse, however it is not actually a reward, but more likely relief. If your horse wants a rest then he is not enjoying his training and therefore stopping is a relief to him but not rewarding (a reward is something the animal actively works for and enjoys, rest is something they gain but usually to avoid an aversive consequence).

Stopping training in traditional training can however make the preceding behaviour stronger. When your horse doesn’t like what you are requiring him to do, then ceasing doing it will reinforce the preceding behaviour, as he wants to stop performing. It is called negative reinforcement, (negative because we are taking something away; and reinforcement because it makes the behaviour stronger). You may ask, what is wrong with that? The problem here is we are removing something he would rather not have in the first place, and it is generally something we have applied – e.g. a leg pressure go forward cue. A whip tap is positive punishment, (positive because we add something (i.e. the whip) and punishment as it should reduce behaviour). In this case it should reduce the behaviour of not going forward in response to the leg.

Often we are told that we need to let our horses know when they have done the wrong thing, however, there is no need to tell our horses when they get a different answer to the answer we were hoping for. The absence of the reward will generally prompt the horse to try something else, in order to obtain the reinforcer. Telling them when they are wrong doesn’t speed up the process, it can actually backfire because often then they are too concerned about being wrong to guess again.

Why would we use aversives to training when we can use positive reinforcement options to get them moving forward? A happier forward! Positively trained horses like to keep training, stopping can actually be unpleasant for them, as stopping training stops the opportunity to earn the good things!

Positive Reinforcement Training

Animals do a lot of learning by association; and association (classical conditioning) plays a HUGE part in our horses learning environment. When we use positive reinforcement training, he associates YOU with the good things (and he enjoys his training) When we use traditional training, he associates us with the unpleasant things we have to apply in order to remove them. I know which I’d prefer.

When we are teaching new behaviours, our horses actually are often guessing what we want - remember they don’t speak English. Supporting their guesses engenders more ‘try’ than telling them when they are wrong. Words can’t make behaviours happen unless they know what those words mean! And louder words and whips don’t help them understand either. It is a little like yelling instructions to someone in German when they don’t speak German.

Remember you can only expect the correct answer (in a safe environment) after you have gone through a satisfactory teaching process, with a sufficient reward history, and after sufficient practise. When we are teaching new behaviours if the horse doesn’t give us the answer we expect. Also remember he is responding with the answer that makes the most sense to him at the time. If he doesn’t understand our request, then it is up to us to EXPLAIN ourselves better – HELP HIM GET IT RIGHT; provide more clarity, MAKE IT EASIER for him to understand.

We are of course here assuming that you are requesting something that your horse is physically and emotionally able to do at that moment. Anything that we ‘ask’ or ‘want’ our horse to do that he would not chose to do of his own volition, he needs to be ‘paid’ for. ADD reinforcement as reinforcement makes behaviour stronger. Add something he wants so he wants to get it right.

Horses trained with positive reinforcement learn more quickly, retain the learned tasks longer, experience less stress, react to humans more positively, and are able to generalize this training across trainers, novel tasks, and over long periods of time (eg. Sankey, 2010).

Positive Reinforcement helps horse enjoy the training and enjoy being with you. Win-Win.


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