Some thoughts on Punishment

Traditional horsemanship relies a great deal on punishing unwanted behaviors from the horse. It can be hard to shake these habits even if we’ve switched to more positively reinforcing training methods. Sometimes when we are confronted with a behavior we dislike we instinctively want to punish them, especially if the behavior is potentially dangerous or makes us feel afraid. Being afraid often triggers our feelings of needing to defend ourselves through fighting back. But we have some major pitfalls that come with using positive punishment that could actually be far more dangerous than finding another way to communicate that we dislike that.
 
First it’s important to remember that horse’s aren’t being “good” or “bad”, they are simply responding to their environment with their best guess as to how to get what they want and avoid what they don’t. If by performing a behavior we dislike (bucking) finds them relief from what they don’t like (the rider falls), that behavior is being reinforced. The horse chose the “correct” behavior to fix their problem, even though we might dislike it. So it’s important to remember that behaviors are happening for a reason other than “he’s a jerk” or “she’s just being fresh”, horse’s aren’t inherently bad, they are just solving their situation. So the behaviors we are trying to reduce are behaviors we “dislike” or are “unwanted”.

But if the behavior is “working” for the horse, earning them escape from something they dislike (R-) or getting something they want (R+) the behavior is being reinforced! So instead of any sort of punishment we need to make sure to reassess whatever might be reinforcing the unwanted behavior. Look at the environmental situation and find what is reinforcing the behavior. Remember not to just look externally, but also internally, they may have a physical discomfort that this behavior is resolving or an emotional reason this feels good. Maybe being locked in a stall has them pent up so they kick their door? Or maybe they have a stomach ache and kicking their walls is a good frustration release. If kicking their door gets them fed first, guess who’s always going to kick their door? Waiting instead for them to stop before feeding, or removing the door and using a stall guard, or turning the horse out so there is no door to kick, or feeding before they start kicking… These would all be ideal ways to stop reinforcing that unwanted behavior.
 
We can’t always wait out an unwanted behavior allowing it to extinguish without reinforcement. Some behaviors are even self-reinforcing, they just feel good to the learner. In these times we can use our redirect or reteach methods. If we can redirect our horse to an appropriate behavior and reinforce that soon they will learn to go directly to that more preferred behavior. Such as teaching a horse to station at a target during feeding time. Focus on what we do want our horses to learn instead of just getting mad at what we dislike. Punishment only tells them what not to do, it doesn’t give them an option that we prefer, so even if they stop pawing they may chose another unwanted behavior to fill the void (head tossing, wall biting, bar grinding…)
 
Remember positive training doesn’t mean permissive training, we don’t just sit there and allow our horse to bite us, drag us, kick us, or otherwise cause us harm, waiting to click when they stop. 😉 Instead we Reassess the problem, Remove the reinforcer, Redirect the learner, and Reteach a preferred behavior.