Thursday, March 4, 2010

The school of hard knocks

I have had my thinking cap on today and in the mood to summarize as I have been working on a manuscript for work. Scientific writing always puts me in the critical thinking mood. So for my 60th post I wanted to try something different.

I was thinking about my life with horses so far. What I have learned through trial and error, what I have gleaned from trainers, magazines, books, videos, blogs, osmosis, diffusion, and of course the primary source: the horses themselves!

I thought I would make a list of my personal discoveries and maybe you guys could share some of yours? There is a ton of information out there so tell me what have you discovered? What has the school of hard knocks taught you?

  • Use positive reinforcement-We are working with one of the few species that actually responds to Negative reinforcement at all but every animal on the planet (including whales, elephants, clams, fish, and humans) responds to positive reinforcement! Reward is the mechanism that makes work play.
  • Be predictable- I think being a "leader" means the student can count on the teacher to react the same way every time. Confidence means you have a plan. In order to create a learning environment you have to be predictable in your cues, your rewards, and your releases. Trust is built when your horse can predict your response and you can reasonably predict theirs. It is not magic it is repetition.
  • Keep it simple- Keep your cues simple and work on one thing at a time. I need this tattooed on my forehead because I am horrible at this!
  • Be creative- There have been so many times that I have been stuck in one mind frame/discipline/trainers' philosophy. If you have a problem then find another way to look at it. There is no one right answer and horses are individuals just as much as humans are. Be an open minded skeptic.
  • Have a plan for every ride- When I was younger you just got on and went through the gaits in circles. I think that really bores our equines. Same with lunging for the sake of exercise or blowing off steam. Same with throwing tarps in their faces all day. Have small objectives for every ride and when they get it right tell them! If you want a horse that likes to work make sure they know what you want them to do.
  • Bad days are normal- Actually that has been scientifically proven( see illustration). As new behaviors are acquired and old behavior extinguishes there are always extinction bursts. They are like clock work.
  • Find a yes- an answer to a bad day! If you are experiencing one of those nasty extinction episodes then ask your horse a question you know he will say yes to. That is how you build confidence.
  • Consider biology- Training is a science, but don't factor out of the equation of horse's innate behaviors. Work them into your training regiment and don't fight them. I think this is what natural horsemanship is trying to say but I do wish they would use a little more scientific dialog and a little less magical thinking

And on the other side of the coin...
  • Don't be afraid of being afraid-fear is nature's way of telling you something may not be such a good idea. We have a stigma against being afraid but it really is a good thing. Take it down to where your comfort level is and work from there. Horses really do pick up when we are nervous.
  • Punishment does not work- it doesn't! It makes our animals fearful and is almost impossible to administer correctly. It only shows the animal what you do not want not what you do want. It also has the side affect of relaying to the animals that the behavior is appropriate when it is not punished. which increases the likely hood of re occurrence. Not fun, though we have all been there for sure!
  • Don't use force- I know this seems repetitive but I am not talking about punishment but I mean when using an irritant in negative reinforcement. First they are bigger than us. If you use force you are playing a game you can't win. Also if you use force you are illiciting a prey response. We use force and punishment because we are primates. If we get angry or scared we aggress. We all do it from time to time, and most disciplines and training methods excuse it or condone it, but it is not productive or necessary in training. We do sometimes stoop to that level, but don't make excuses for it and see it as a mistake not a victory.
  • Anthropomorphize- Horses do not think we are horses! They do not think you are their alpha or leader. It is not fair to them to think about it in this way. The horse responds in a way that reflects his biology and his repertoire of learned behaviors. "Trust" comes from generalizing your cues so that he reliably responds to them including when he is scared, excited or saucy, not because he thinks you are his herd leader.
So there it i!. So far this is what I have learned.This is not what I have perfected of course! In fact I think these things are what I have learned to think about because I make the same mistakes a lot.
I have come a long way from where I started though. How about you? How have horses changed your point of view?


  1. Question:
    So if you don't use any negative reinforcement, what do you consider leg pressure? Halter pressure? Dressage whip? A bit in the mouth? Are these considered neutral?
    Would love to understand from the behaviorists point of view.

  2. Never said I didn't use negative reinforcement? What I have learned though is that positive reinforcement works better that's all. :) and that equestrians(especially me!) often forget about the positive because we are working with an animal that does responds so well to negative.

    I am working on right now how to keep the cues I use (legs, reins etc) but reinforce positively more and use negative reinforcement less. I am just learning though, every time I get something right Bodhi lets me know. :)

    "Every time I unlearn I learn something new" :)

  3. I love your Anthropomorphize comment. I just wrote something similar on a forum. lol
    I also really LOVE this statement! "Be an open minded skeptic." What a great way to put it!

  4. Really good thoughts - an excellent post!

  5. You're obviously a "thinking" rider, and Bodhi is lucky to have you. :-) Sorry, my brain is switched to Off at the moment, so I don't have much to offer. Great post, though!

  6. Bravo! You've written a thoughtful post and I agree with everything you've said. It seems over the years I have come to the same conclusions. It's hard to add anything productive to your list.

    As for my point of view well,my horses have taught me that patience seems to be the key ingredient in having a relationship with them and earning their trust. I also feel that if I respect my horses they will respect me in return. All of our horses have distinct personalities that need to treated differently and I think that once people learn that no one training method is the be all, end all, for every horse, there will be many more happier riders and horses out there.

  7. Patience is the key! If you ask my husband he will tell you that is something I have a short supply of and I waste most of it on the horses.

  8. After 20+ years, I have learned that positive reinforcement usually takes the form of doing nothing. Negative reinforcement is demonstrating that there will be consequences for an action. I will praise a horse with a stroke or a quiet verbal tone, but I am not in agreement with clicker training and lavish praise under most circumstances. I find that this will set unrealistic expectations for the animal, and their future is probably NOT going to offer them homes in which they are praised non-stop for simply doing their jobs. I find that being clear and consistent (as you mentioned, no surprises) will allow a horse to understand much faster than distracting them from their thought process with treats and praise. I have witnessed this type of "training" lead to a compounding of issues with horses spooking, invading space, and other behavioral issues. Clicker training may have its place, but not in my training program.

    I would also add that it is extremely important to reward the try. Our short term goals are much longer than the horse's short term goal. We need to know when to quit, and let the horse think on it. I will sit on a horse and let them air up for up to 10 minutes to let something good soak in. If the try was big enough, I'll get off, loosen cinch, and walk my horse out...done for the day. Try doesn't mean they learned. It means they're on the track to learning.

    Great post, by the way!!

  9. It is all about the try! Behaviorists call this concept "shaping".
    I guess you had some bad experiences with a clicker trained horse or to? I don't think any particular training method is right for everyone either. I don't like mechanical hackamores and several kinds of bits but used correctly they can be good training methods. What you witnessed were horses that were

    trained incorrectly! That sound like tons of horses I have met. Does not matter what training method you use if you do it wrong!
    :) "Clicker training" is not all about treats. What makes it different from other training methods is it uses a marker "like a click or whistle" to mark behaviors you want to reinforce (weather with + or -). Wikipedia actually has a great synopsis even with a few misconceptions written at the bottom.

    Sorry to talk your ear off but I am always excited to share information :)