What’s Really Extreme?

You know what really gets my goat? Chupacabras…

Ok but really, what really upsets me is being considered an “extremist” or “purist” because I try to avoid the use of Punishment. Why is extreme to try to be kind? Why is it “purist” to aspire to minimal harm? What an odd cultural bias to think it extreme to avoid aversives… What ever happened to the Humane Hierarchy? Why is it an extreme belief to save the extreme options for last?

For me, punishment is the extreme option, something to be reserved for the most serious situations. I couldn’t say I never use punishment, and I sure couldn’t say my horses never feel punished (even if it wasn’t my intended goal). But I take my use of punishment very seriously, I take this to be an extreme option. These scenarios are usually regarding safety or medical needs. If I need to resort to punishment (even negative punishment) I consider this a screw up on my part, I have not managed the situation appropriately or prepared my horse well enough. Though sometimes the reality of life is that things happen we can’t prepare for or avoid. We do the best we can with the situation we’re handed. The important part is to learn from these experiences, for the sake of the horse, we learn what we need to better prepare for.

But isn’t it strange that in current horse culture, it’s normal to use punishment and aversive tools, but the extreme option is to utilize tools that reduce the need for punishment? Especially when these are regularly used in parenting, dog training, and marine mammal/exotic/zoo training. We are talking about the use of protected contact, positive reinforcement behavioral preparation, environmental management, antecedent arrangement, and enrichment. With these tools in use we can adjust the environment to provide us and our horses safety and security while their behavioral training progresses to meet our training goals. We can also use these tools to adjust the horse’s emotional state to ensure safety in handling and care until we are able to build the confidence and relationship to do these things with progressively less management.

Yet our egos often encourage us to take risks with our horses that may predispose the horse to punishment. In current horse culture there is a sense of trying to make ourselves look good, confident, or brave, by confronting a horse with a situation they aren’t able to handle – thus resulting in the need for punishment. We regularly push our horses too far, too fast, and it is the horse who suffers for our ego. This lack of management and preparedness rapidly sets our horses up to fail and results in punishment for safety or getting the job done, when it could have been avoided by smarter handling.

We also need to consider the human’s emotions, very often when we overface the horse we have a flood of emotions that lead to anger, frustration, and fear triggering physical defensiveness. When we feel the need to get the job done at all costs or need to save face and not be embarrassed by setting our horse up for failure. Or we utilize punishment just out of fear of being hurt by your horse or the horse hurting themselves. But it always starts with our lack of management and preparedness, our decision to overface our horse’s current emotional and behavioral ability to do what we are asking of them. Then we shift the blame to the horse to justify our use of punishment.

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