The 3 Training Categories

There are three main categories of training within the horse world, each come with their own sets of preaching, justifications, and reasons why they are the “right” method to use with your horse. Various trainers have nuanced each style and try to sell it as their own, using specific tools, names for skills, styles of handling, and keeping of horses – but they all share the same foundations. So let’s look at this analytically, let’s strip away the pretty language, the theories and ideas behind why their techniques work, and the well-proven FALSE dominance theory. So what’s really happening with each of these styles? From a science perspective, how does each teach a behavior?

Traditional training was started when horses were divided out from livestock and began to be used as modes of fast transportation and skilled warfare. This relies on the classic use and understanding of Negative Reinforcement (increasing the frequency of the behavior by removing an aversive). They apply an aversive stimulus directly to the horse, when the horse responds accordingly the aversive is relieved. It’s extremely straight-forward.

An example would be squeezing or tapping legs on the horse’s sides, when the horse moves forward, the squeeze is released. The horse learns to avoid the discomfort by moving forward. This is basic yielding to pressure. The pressure/stimulus used in the training MUST be aversive to the horse, it may be very mild, but it must be something the horse dislikes enough that they are willing to work to avoid it. If the stimulus is not aversive the horse will not work to avoid it, won’t work for the relief of it. This is Relief not Reward, this is utilizing escape/avoidance in training.

Natural Horsemanship is an evolution of traditional horsemanship, with a goal to be kinder and more species appropriate and for the horse as an individual. Unfortunately it is riddled with romanticized misinterpretations of how horses behave in nature. They also rely on the outdated and misunderstood concepts about dominance (about this here: Dominance). They attempt to train in a way similar to how horses communicate with one another. Unfortunately we aren’t horses, horses don’t think we’re horses, we physically can’t take most horse-horse communications, and horses don’t ask anything of each other (like standing tied, riding in circles, or using aversive tools on one another) they only ask the other to “stay away from my resource”. However, this movement has had great aspirations and focus on owners learning to train and work with their own horses. So while much of the foundational information is misguided, the results are forward moving and helping move the horse world towards it’s goal – ethical horsemanship.

So let’s look analytically, how does Natural Horsemanship train behaviors? Ironically, despite all the fancy words, it’s not all that different from traditional. They still apply an aversive stimuli, when the horse responds as desired, the aversive stimuli is relieved. So how is it different? The types of aversive stimuli are different, rather than always applying direct painful pressure (like a whip smack, spur poke, or bit pull, kick…) they may use other options like work (being chased around a round pen a signature of NH) or threats of aversives. These warning signals are another signature of natural horsemanship. This is where they condition a benign signal to predict an aversive, so eventually the handler can use gentle cues instead of always relying on the aversive cue.

This is done by using the non-aversive cue, then the aversive steadily increasing until the horse responds as desired, then the aversive is removed. Soon the time between the warning signal and the strong aversive shrinks, the horse learns to respond quickly to the warning signal, to avoid the aversive stimuli. So while they still use negative reinforcement, they also utilize classical conditioning to train the horse to respond to a gentler cue so we don’t need to use as many actual aversives. However, unfortunately we’ve learned the emotional reaction in the brain/mind is still the same, whether the stimuli is aversive or just conditioned to predict an aversive.

So really, in the thousands of years of working with and training domestic horses training has changed shockingly little. Even the tools have barely changed. We took nose rings and put them in their mouth instead, to make for easier steering from their back… But that was a few thousand years ago. We still use whips, bits, spurs, heels, hands, ropes, and “work” as aversive control devices for our horses. Whether we give them fair warning and use aversives in a wide variety of ways, it’s all the same basic principle. Negative Reinforcement.

So then what is Positive Reinforcement and how is it different? First let’s remember “positive” and “negative” are “adding” and “removing” not “good” and “bad”. Negative reinforcement is removing something the horse dislikes (an aversive) and Positive reinforcement is adding something the horse does like (an appetitive). So positive reinforcement training techniques involve feeding or otherwise giving the horse something they want, when they do the desired behavior. This means we first need to find a way to get the horse to do the behavior we want, so we can positively reinforce it. We have a few techniques for this, capturing (waiting for it to happen and catching it), shaping (reinforcing small steps towards the end goal), and targeting/luring (following a target or the food to guide them into the goal behavior), these options are limited only by your creativity and how well you know your horse. This new approach to working with horses has flipped the horse world on it’s head. Everything is now backwards, horses seeking instead of avoiding, horses rushing TO the arena, hoping training never ends, getting too excited to play with their favorite humans!

While R+ is new as a horse training method, it’s actually not all that new. These learning quadrants have always existed, even before we understood and labeled them. But marine mammal and exotic animal trainers have been utilizing R+ as training tools for decades. Using Negative Reinforcement limited exotic animal training to only what you could use to physically control the animals, which is difficult with large predators like tigers and marine mammals like whales. While possible, it’s impractical, tricky, and very dangerous. Positive reinforcement allows trainers to teach animals without needing to have physical contact or confrontation with the animals they’re working with. In fact they can teach from the side of the pool or the other side of a fence. Even some dog owners are now using remote control video camera treat dispensers to reinforce their dogs for being good even when their person isn’t home! Dog owners were the next to transition, while there’s still some use of aversives, most domestic pet owners utilize positive reinforcement for their training. Not just your classic dogs and cats being trained with treats, but also all sorts of brilliant, exotic birds, rodents, rabbits, bugs and even fish! Now if a wild, dangerous hippo can be trained to hold their mouth open for dental work, a shark to station in a basket for medicine, a lion to offer their paw for blood draws, giraffes to hold their feet up for trimming…. Why on earth would we be resistant to using this kind and forward thinking approach with horses?

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