Said someone once to me. I didn’t say anything, but my body screamed: ‘Yes, there is….‘
Although I couldn’t explain in words why I felt that way, now I do. Since it was hard to catch it in words, it is a long explanation, so please get seated.
When I talk about horse training, I like to use the scientific definitions in order to keep the language as clear as possible and to avoid emotional and subjective projection. Let’s start with some definitions because this statement (“There is nothing wrong with R- applied properly”) is one that causes a lot of commotion among horse people.
Negative reinforcement: removing an aversive in order to strengthen behaviour.
We write it as R-. The R stands for reinforcement, the minus (-) indicates something is taken away/is not there.
Using pressure-release is an example of R- training. The pressure is the aversive which the horse learns to avoid (‘yielding to pressure’). Some horses don’t yield to light pressure naturally and that is when the trainer has to use more pressure. In fact the trainer always uses enough pressure to make it aversive in order to teach the horse: pressure means yielding.
Positive reinforcement: adding an appetitive in order to strengthen behaviour.
We write it as R+. The R stands for reinforcement and the plus (+) indicates that something pleasurable is added in order to get more behaviour.
Clicker training is an example of R+ training. The horse gets a reward -something he values (the appetitive)- in order to strengthen behaviour. The horse learns that offering a certain behaviour results in an appetitive (treat).
The click in clicker training is a bridge signal that closes the time gap between the behaviour and the delivery of the appetitive.
Aversive: something unpleasant the learner [horse] wants to avoid or get away from.
This is why it also sometimes is referred to as avoidance or escape learning.
Apetitive: something pleasurable the learner [horse] wants or desires.
This is why it sometimes is referred to as reward-based learning.
It is always the learner that determines if something is aversive or appetitive. NOT the trainer!
How training works
In order to train an animal the trainer must use an aversive or an appetitive according to the scientific definitions. If the stimulus is not aversive or appetitive enough, the desired behaviour will not occur and therefor it was not strengthened/reinforced (=learned).
When I bought a Natural Horsemanship training package (two decades ago) I purchased it because it promised me Friendship, Partnership and Harmony in the relationship with my horse. Wow, who doesn’t want that!?
What is wrong with pressure-release methods?
In my years of using R- training methods and teaching them to my students I learned that in general it didn’t bring those most wanted values in horse-human relationships: friendship, partnership and harmony.
I found it really, really hard to tell my students to apply more pressure/keep applying the same amount of pressure until the horse yielded. It was so obvious that the horses didn’t like it, my students didn’t like it and I didn’t like it. Why did I do it? Why was that?
At first I was happy with the quick results and the step-by-step training program because it worked! It was my Inner Voice that didn’t approve. I felt unhappy when I used aversives. It didn’t feel fair.
Sometimes, if I got frustrated I only applied more aversive and I even used (positive) punishment. Which felt like a relief in that moment (to release the frustration from my body) but only a short time later I felt guilty. Which lead to feeling like a failure and that really crushed my confidence.
Define friendship, partnership and harmony
That is when I started to think about my values and definitions in training and how they are connected to my dreams, goals and training method. What meant friendship to me? Partnership? Harmony with my horse?
I asked myself what do I value most in horse training and keeping horses?
For me my relationship with my horse is the most important. That is why I wanted a horse in the first place!
When I understood my values I could let go of R- and I started to use more and more R+ in training. That was scary at first, because there where no ‘guaranteed results’ in the horse world, twenty years ago. I didn’t have a clear positive reinforcement training system. I developed my own and I now teach all my students this step-by-step positive reinforcement training system; Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Clicker Training.
Why are values hard to describe
Values are in the part of the brain that is called the limbic system. Your language skills are settled in the neocortex, another part of the brain. That makes it really hard to put your feelings and values in words. You need to take time to think about that.
Google a list of values. Take a look at it and see what values are applicable in training and bonding with your horse according to you.
A few of the values that are important to me in training are:
Freedom (of choice)
Trustworthiness and Achievement. A value like respect, is not applicable in training, see this blog.
Once I had my values clear, it made me question negative reinforcement as chosen training method:
- If my horse is my friend or if I want to befriend him, why would I apply an aversive in the first place? Remember the definition of an aversive: something unpleasant.
- Do I want to use aversives at all? It is me that applies the aversive in order to release it to get the behaviour. Do I want my horse to associate me with aversives/training?
- The pressure I was are using might not have been aversive at first, but training have taught the horse what comes next if he doesn’t respond (read: yield) immediately. He wants to avoid or escape something that he knows is coming. The command that is given must be followed or else… That actually sounded very much like a threat when I think about it. Do I want to threaten my friend (horse) or do I want to ask a question? That is what you do if you give a cue in positive reinforcement: it is a question and the horse may say whatever he chooses.
- If I want my horse to be my partner, why would I boss him around with commands? In R- training is no room for the learner to come up with new ideas or let the trainer know he doesn’t want to do something, can’t do something or is fearful. When a horse doesn’t react immediately and correctly to the trainers aids, more pressure is applied. The pressure will be increased or applied as long as needed until the pressure becomes aversive enough that it’s worse than the behaviour he didn’t want to do. Is that how I want to treat my partner or a friend?
- Have you ever considered why it feels good to get results in training (quickly)? Getting results with R- training is positive reinforcement for the trainer! Of course we don’t want to give that up! Especially not when we get results quickly and when our instructor assures us that ‘It [the aversive, remember the definition!] isn’t so bad’ or ‘He [horse] has a choice’. The real choice for the horse is basically to respond quickly and avoid the aversive all together or to see how much he can take before he yields. Do I really want to treat my friend or partner like that? All the time, and in everything I demand?
I don’t think there is something wrong with training animals with R-. You get results and you can get them pretty fast.
For me negative reinforcement (NH and traditional methods) won’t help me accomplish friendship, partnership and harmony in training.
In my experience positive reinforcement is a much better way to accomplish those values in training.
- It is fun for both horse and human!
- I get amazing results (achievement) with R+. Here too applies Getting results in R+ training is also R+ for the trainer!
- I think it is very ethical to give the horse a voice and a choice in their training (ethical, autonomy and freedom).
- By listening to my horse and acting on his messages I create trust in my horse. He can trust me follow the pace that is right for him.So even when R- (negative reinforcement) is applied properly, it doesn’t feel good for me or the horse! That is what’s ‘wrong’ with it. For me. It might be different for you of course. That’s OK.
Thank you for reading this whole article.
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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