What Qualifies As A Reward

At the Equine Affaire I went to the only event that even sounded remotely R+. It was a seminar about how to use rewards effectively. The first slide and I knew I was in the wrong place, “rewards don’t have to be food”. But I thought, let’s give it a chance, there is likely some valuable tools in here. But when the slide appeared listing the rewards they did use I knew for sure I was in the wrong place.

They listed rewards they used, “rest, quiet, calm voices, gentle/soft hands, loose rein, downwards transitions, consistency, routine, verbal praise, familiar humans, equine buddies, scratches, strokes, and massages”. I rearranged the order so i can discuss them logically. Despite the speaker explaining the difference between R- and using rewards, as well as expressing the benefits of using reward instead of R-, the whole first half of this list IS R-. From rest to downward transitions these are all ways to relieve pressure. These “rewards” are not rewards, they are “relief”. Let’s look at the difference.

Reward “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.” (Oxford) Or another ” a stimulus (such as food) that is administered to an organism and serves to reinforce a desired response” (Miriam-webster)

Relief “a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.” (Oxford) or “removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful, or distressing” (miriam-webster)

So let’s be honest, the first half of that list is, in fact, just an effective use of R-. Being aware the release/relief of the aversive is the reinforcer is beneficial, but it IS R-, not any sort of reward.

Now consistency and routine, this is very beneficial to horsemanship. Predictability is safe and comforting to an animal such as horses, who can be naturally neophobic. But this leads to a rather boring life without positive enrichment or variability. But boring can be safe, so definitely a good thing. But still, not a reward. This is just good practice, maintaining consistent cues and an appropriate daily routine is just expected, it should not be contingent on the horse’s behavior.

You know what else should not be contingent on good behavior? “Familiar humans and equine friends”. Connections are not a gift, they are a necessity! These are necessary for an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate life! This is not a reward, its something that is expected. When we domesticate a social animal keeping them in isolation is inhumane and unacceptable (aside from medical needs, then it is a temporary misfortune). But providing a horse their basic needs is NOT a reward. Its just ethical animal care.

Finally scratches, strokes, and massages. Finally something that is actually a reward!! Something you are giving the horse that they don’t need to live, but feels good to them. These are valuable as a reinforcer and as a way to build connection with your horse. However, they are inconsistent and variable in the degree of reinforcement. Scratching and itchy spot is highly reinforcing, but scratching where there is no itch is not very reinforcing at all. Pats and stroking is low value and not worth high effort behaviors. Massages are wonderful but not easily delivered or utilized in the moment. The inconsistency and difficulty with delivering this reinforcement makes it a nice addition, but not an ideal reinforcer for regular use.

And so we return to food. Just like stated before however we aren’t to deny our horse food until they comply with our wishes, food is a necessity of life. But we can freely feed food throughout the day in convenient handfuls of values we can control. We can feed something as simple as hay, which horses consume vast amounts of during the day, or up to a delicious special horse treat, which can be used sparingly as a high value reward. This is the reward that is easiest to add in a safe and appropriate way to their daily life without denying them their needs. Just adding something the horse consistently and predictably values. This makes it the ideal reward for training with R+.

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