Conditioned Aversives

Conditioned Aversives

“The whip is just an extension of my arm”, “The whip is just encouragement”, “The whip just provides direction”, “my horse isn’t afraid of the whip”.

These are super common phrases used by people who just don’t understand how conditioning happens. Conditioning is when A=B. It only needs to happen once or twice for someone to learn A=B. For example most of us know not to touch an open flame, it will likely burn, we’ve seen flames heat things enough to know how flames=hot.

So whether the whip gently touches the horse, swings gently behind the horse, or just follows the horse without ever touching them – if the horse is working to avoid the whip, it’s aversive. You don’t need to touch the horse with the whip for it to work effectively as an aversive motivator for a horse. It’s still an aversive. Still negative reinforcement.

I see so often traditional and natural horsemanship trainers work so hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, rubbing the whip on them, moving the whip around – but if the horse flinches or seeks escape the horse is punished. All until the horse stands and tolerates the whip flapping all about them. However in the next move they use the whip to ask the horse to move away – if the horse does not the whip is flailed, flapped and smacked until the horse can bear the fear no more and moves off. If the horse is actually no longer afraid of the whip and does not move away they either strike the horse with the whip, reconditioning it as something to be feared and escaped from – or they tie a plastic bag onto the end to make it extra scary!!

So why desensitize them to something you do want them to be afraid of? Because most of us don’t want to believe we are using fear and threats to control our horses. Most of us truly love our horses and train them in the ways we’ve been taught as “correct” and even ethical. We want to believe our horses are doing what we ask out of love for us, trust or even “respect”. But the fact of the matter is that’s just not the way it works.

If they aren’t afraid of the whip more than they dislike the work being asked of them, the whip won’t work.

It’s as simple as that, a math equation, which is better, stand here and allow the whip to flap around, maybe even hit me – or work? It varies horse by horse how aversive the tool needs to be to get how much “work” out of the horse (and how aversive that horse finds the job being asked), but the equation remains the same. “But my horse isn’t actually afraid of the whip”, many people say this too, but if it were true the horse wouldn’t work to avoid it. It’s really as simple as that.

The same is true but opposite for a target. A horse will work to seek out a target so long as it’s value is stronger than the work – except in this case the value is appetitive, not aversive. The target can give direction more clearly and completely than whips – in that it shows them where TO go, not where NOT to go.

Often people, in an attempt to justify the use of their tools or training techniques, in their own mind or others – people will soften the language around these tools. “It’s just an extension of my arm”. Maybe if your hand is as aversive as a whip? It could be! Many of my rescues move rapidly away from a fast moving hand… But is that really the relationship you want your horse to have with your hands? With you? Don’t forget when conditioning is happening it’s not the tool alone that’s being conditioned, you and everything else that’s around are being wrapped up in that picture.

How do you want your horse to see your tools? your hands? You? Do you want to be a conditioned aversive? Or a conditioned appetitive?

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