Let’s set aside the technical definition of positive reinforcement in deference to yet another case of common use morphing of the language. Uncle – this post will use the term to designate reward practices as such. We’ll assume those advocating for positive reinforcement are against any actions that involve a correction that discourages a horse (or human) from bad or dangerous behavior. It still doesn’t work as well as people might think.
Society seems to be focused these days on a ‘don’t say no’ mentality, for fear the mere act of providing guidance to direct behavior through disapproval may undermine the self-esteem of our youth or label someone who sets limits as cruel to their animals. What this approach is producing is a bunch of confused, aimless and narcissistic humans along with a new generation of horses who long for a human that has guts enough to challenge bad behavior and provide them with the comfort of a guide they can trust to keep them out of harm’s way.
Don’t misunderstand – I’m not an advocate of ‘keeping their feet busy,’ ‘teaching a horse respect’ or reckless punishment, but there comes a time when it’s appropriate to say no – and mean it. That’s never a good first approach with a young or confused horse, but if you’re skillful at reading what’s being projected, there will come a time when misunderstanding turns to manipulation or bullying.
Foals appreciate clear direction
We have a fifteen-month-old colt here that’s recently been feeling pretty proud of his appendages. He’s not very bold or confident, so we’ve taken extra time with each request keeping it kind, patient and encouraging. His behavior during the last blacksmith visit merited a different reaction. He figured he’d give biting and kicking a shot. One quick and timely correction (a thump to his belly) ended the antics. He was testing, seemed to appreciate having some boundaries set and handled the rest of the session with ease and grace. A scared or confused horse would have reacted very differently. It was time to say no with this coming cocky colt.
Youngsters live happier with limits
If you think you’re doing your horse a favor (or your kid for that matter) allowing them to find themselves without negative reinforcement to help them understand appropriate social behavior or avoid danger, you’re not. People, like horses, are better adjusted and more joyful when guided on how to be a productive contributor in life. Even in wild herds you see this. Regardless, horses have been domesticated for millenniums. Most I’ve encountered seem to be hard-wired to seek out humans for work fulfillment.
Done right, horses appreciate the attention and engagement riding time brings. For most, finding a confident and responsive leader makes activities a lot more fun.
Keeping the horse in the conversation is critical.
That doesn’t mean you always have to agree or cave, just listen. Acknowledging the horse’s perspective and then saying no is a happy place for most equines, provided you let them express their views and, when appropriate, contribute to decisions on training activities. Some days this can mean a shorter session or none, others a longer one. Often a horse will suggest a different approach than you had planned, making the learning experience better for both of you. Why not let your horse help decide what you do in a session if it keeps you both happy and moving forward? He’ll be quicker to accommodate you when requests are less negotiable.
Negative reinforcement isn’t a bad thing
Honestly I don’t get this mindset that discouraging bad behavior is wrong. Most creatures appreciate direction that helps them better cope with the world we live in. In fact, a majority out guidance and approval from those they respect (something you can’t teach, but instead, need to earn) to help keep them safe, happy and fulfilled. Setting limits isn’t evil. In fact, done right, it’s a kind way to show you care. If you never intercede to guide one away from danger, why should they trust you (or themselves) to make right decisions when faced with new challenges?
Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean violence. It’s simply a matter of making it less comfortable to act out in ways being discouraged and more pleasant to proceed in the requested direction.
Horses are being discarded these days in growing numbers. It’s sad. Many novices take on a project they’re ill-equipped to handle. Most are good-hearted and well-intentioned, but lack the ability to understand how their actions are shaping horse behavior. You can literally kill a horse with kindness when only positive reinforcement (applied to both good and bad behavior) creates an equine that’s dangerous to themselves and others. These horses are being turned loose, dumped in auctions and left to starve. The horse is blamed and labeled a problem by merely doing what he’s been taught.
Horses and humans can live happier lives with clear boundaries. Sometimes a little bit of conflict is a good thing. It’s how we learn.