R+ and R-, Does The Horse Have A Choice?

Most people truly believe they listen to their horse, they understand and respect their horse’s communication, that they offer their horse consent and choice… But is that true?

Negative reinforcement doesn’t allow actual choice or the ability for a person to allow communication from the horse. Positive Reinforcement gives us more options, but can still be used in a controlling manner (out of coercion or for required behaviors).

I’ve heard the common joke, “they’re 1,200lbs, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to”. But the thing is they aren’t a 1,200lb brick you are trying to push over a jump – they are a feeling and learning animal. Fear, pain, fear of pain, can be used to control animals, regardless of how large and heavy or potentially dangerous they are. So long as they can feel bad, they will work to avoid the things that make them feel bad. So they can be controlled through force.

Unfortunately traditional and natural horsemanship methods rely on the use of “negative reinforcement” this is the application of an aversive stimulus, which is removed when the learner responds as desired. Often these methods include the use of punishment, adding something aversive to the horse to discourage unwanted behaviors. Many kind trainers use very gentle aversives, only escalating to more extremes when necessary. They use soft pressure on gentle tools. Unfortunately, the gentle gestures are not empty threats, the horse knows through past learning, that if they don’t respond correctly to the gentle aversive, it will get stronger. They learn to respond to the mildest predictor signal to avoid the stronger aversive.

So what does a horse have to do to have “no” be heard? See the problem is that when you are using an aversive to motivate and it’s removal to reinforce behavior – you can’t take “no” for an answer. If the horse says “no” in any way and you relieve the pressure, the behavior of saying “no” has been reinforced. They will choose this option more and more until they don’t comply with anything – because why would they? There is nothing in the equation for them to WANT to participate in the training other than to avoid the aversive… which if they can avoid it by saying “no”, just say no, right? Why put up with aversive motivation for difficult behaviors if you can stop it?

Positive Reinforcement offers us the option to allow our horses choice and consent. Because there is something in the equation that makes the horse want to participate in the training. However is can still be used coercively and without choice. We can utilize these choice-less methods of R+ to help pull us through an emergency, but they shouldn’t be something we utilize for regular training (if we want to have an honest, two way communication, with choice).

If you’re hoping to work with your horse with more choice with R+, some things to keep in mind is that every choice your horse makes needs to have a similar consequence. Meaning if your horse decides they don’t want to engage with you today, the response needs to be similarly nice for the horse. For example, one of our ponies has been feeling off lately, when we do agility he starts out having fun then gets bored and doesn’t want to play. He shows us this by being slow to start the next behavior after each click, by hovering near the gate and by being reluctant to leave the gate area, by walking instead of his usual playful jog around the obstacles So while we sort out what’s happening medically, we continue to listen to his communication. When he is done playing we leave the agility ring but allow him to graze on the nice grass in the lawn (in his paddock it’s eaten down). We know that playing is fun for him and he loves agility, we know this because he’s done it for years and eagerly rushes to the ring. So we know when he’s feeling better he’ll eagerly return to the fun. But something is obviously making this not his favorite choice. If we were to put him back in his empty paddock when he says he’s tired, it would be “punishing” to him, this choice to not participate means he has to go home and lose out on food and human interaction. We don’t find that fair, so instead someone grooms him on the lawn. This way he still gets yummy food and human love, which he appreciates, he just doesn’t need to do the part he’s not enjoying. THIS is choice, this is listening.

However when the vet comes he’ll be held in a halter, fed for desired behavioral responses and “no” won’t be an accepted option. We’ll sedate and use pain killers as appropriate and address his medical issues, but this is a situation where choice isn’t available.

So positive does not mean we have to be permissive of everything. It doesn’t mean we let our horses walk all over us, we just use minimal aversives and the least intrusive methods available to get the jobs that must be done, done. We also use ethical measurement to decide to what degree we allow free choice in each situation. For example, choosing not to play agility is totally fine. This is something that is meant to be fun for kid and pony alike, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.

Things that are “just for fun”, something we enjoy doing but isn’t important for the horse’s health or welfare we allow great choice. Meaning we ensure the horse can choose “yes” or “no” with relatively equal consequences, both result in similar reinforcement. In situations where we might want less choice, but not none at all, we might weigh one side of the choices with higher value reinforcement while the “no” option results in lower value reinforcement. Until the scale is totally tipped to no choice for medical or safety requirements.

Comic by Fed Up Fred

Leave a Reply