Positively Persuaded


In Spring, I started to write about my explorations into positive reinforcement on Facebook and now we are a few months further down the line, I thought I would write an update on how things have been developing so far.

Like most people with horses, I think about them...a lot! In particular, I reflect on the ethics of having horses in my life and I am always questioning whether whatever I am doing is fully in their best interests. The ethical dilemmas come thick and fast with horses and for those of us who read about our favourite equine subjects, our heads can fairly spin at what appear to be diammetrically opposed positions on what is considered best for the horse. So shoeing v's barefoot, rugging v's rug free, bitted v's bitless bridles, treed v's treeless saddles, chemical wormer v's herb wormers, natural training v's traditional training are just a few subjects on a very long list. The horse world is full of camps with very fixed views and often never the twain shall meet. Sometimes disagreement over methods is the right and appropriate response. What horse lover could resist the urge to speak out about the stabling of horses 24/7? This is not an unusual practise and a few months ago I was talking to a land owner who recently sold a piece of land so that a horse starting and livery yard could be set up there. She blithely commented that there was no need for turn out space as the horses were going to be ridden every day! These misunderstandings about horses innate needs are still sadly commonplace.

Differences in opinion however can always be stated constructively and it is in this spirit that I offer my thoughts on the differences I have found between using positive reinforcement and pressure and release approaches to training. I really do understand how challenging it can be when you are invested in a particular approach and it is put under the microscope and found wanting. In fact, I can remember googling 'criticisms of postive reinforcement' some time ago when I was fed up of reading about the significant limitations of pressure and release based training in comparison to positive reinforcement. I could have chosen to stop reading but there was something both bothersome and compelling about the content of those articles and posts that seemed to be popping up everywhere I looked. So I read on but I also looked for evidence to undermine it... to say that it was just a bunch of animal behaviourists who didnt know one end of a horse from another. I looked for this evidence not in the name of a balanced rational critique of positive reinforcement. I wanted postitive reinforcement to be rubbished... discredited... worthless. Then I wouldn't have to stop what I was doing and I could just carry on with business as usual. So believe me, I do get some of the mental gymnastics you can go through when something challenges both your assumptions and your practises with horses.

In the end though it was the horses who had the last say and it is because of them that I decided I had to draw a line under how things had been done and to properly give a totally different approach a try. One horse in particular was at the forefront of my mind when I made the change...Temple. Temple who you can see in the picture, has spent the

last few years looking like this the second you try to do anything with him. He has been like this from day one and I suspect he has had a troubled past in Spain. I think he experienced rough treatment from the tell-tale serrata marks on his nose, coupled with spending time living on his own, missing out on positive socialising experiences with horses and humans. We looked at physicial reasons for his mindset and addressed those with some good improvements but they were relatively minor in nature and essentially his expression remained the same over the longer term. I have tried the approaches of various (pressure and release) trainers over the years and nothing has seemed to make a lasting difference... until now. It is still early days but with the help of Alize Veillard Muckensturm from Fair Horsemanship, I am really beginning to see some significant and sustainable change in both Temple's expression and motivation. This has been a direct result of using a huge amount of positive reinforcement and a small amount of negative punishment (leaving when he is looking grumpy). Negative reinforcement and positve punishment are major triggers of unhappy feelings and associations for Temple so using them as part of a training system does not make any sense at all. In effect you are using the same factors that created the issues in the first place which is counterproductive to say the least. This is the most compelling kind of evidence for me and one that has me motivated to continue exploring positive reinforcement. To finally see Temple softening feels nothing short of miraculous. It is early days and the balance of his behaviour is only begining to turn but I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel for him.

There have been plentiful reasons to keep going with positive reinforcement but in the name of balance, here are some of the challenges I have faced in replacing pressure and release for positive reinforcement based training:

  • It makes my brain hurt sometimes!!! Yes... I know, it's a shocking admission but the plain fact of the matter is you have to put a fair amount of intellectual leg work into the process if you are serious about making the switch. To put it bluntly, with negative reinforcement you can get away with being pretty ignorant as to the why and wherefore of what you are doing. I know again people will find this upalatable but for me this rings true. It's a matter of personal choice as to how far you would want to go down the route of understanding the science behind the practicalities but even a general working knowledge is going to require some effort.

  • It can feel slow as a process in comparison to pressure and release modes of training. This was definitely a challenge for me at the start. Although bridge conditioning is generally a pretty quick process (or at least I have found it to be so far) putting behaviours reliably and consistently on cue in any environment is a time consuming commitment. It is one that I think is hugely worthwhile, but there is no skirting around the fact that without the 'make' of pressure and release, you can feel as if you are taking a long time to get basic tasks done. I can remember vividly, starting out and having to resist the urge to take the target and apply it to the rear end of the horse to create forward movement!!!! Oh dear.... This phase passes though as you both begin to figure out the new rules of the game. With horses that have a tendency to shut down, withouth the 'make' influence of pressure, things can feel even more frustrating and time consuming. I had to spend some time with Axel convincing him that the choice really was his and that I was not going to encourage (no matter how 'gently') with a carrot stick, or any other stick for that matter. Again, this is just a transitory stage and it is more then repaid by seeing Axel genuinely offer something because he sees the value in it, not just because he has been taught that phase 1 is followed by 3 more increasingly uncomfortable phases. It feels different... very, very different.

  • There is still also some confusion over exact meanings of key terminology that can be challenging, particularly for a newbie. This lack of uniformity over terms can be a challenge to anyone wanting to put it into practise. Just with my limited experience I have already found that different practitioners have different meanings attached to phrases so that can be confusing at times. Coupled to that is the added confusion of overlap in definitions (overlap between operant conditioning and classical conditioning as an example). Fortunately, my herd seems to be quite generous in their patience in trying to figure out what is going on. Evidence again that they perceive something of value to them in investing patience and effort into figuring it all out with me! I try not to get bogged down in too much theory and know that I can keep learning and developing my understanding as I go. This is standard in improving in any endeavour I think.

So these are the things I have observed so far. I think it is fair to say that I have used positive reinforcement in the past, while I was still very much in the game of 7 games and it is also fair to say that I do occasionally still use pressure and release to shape behaviour when I think it will be most effective. What I am noticing though is that the ratio has totally flipped and this is the difference. Before it was mostly pressure and release as a means of shaping behaviour with a little reward to say well done (I stopped viewing the release of pressure that I applied in the first place as a 'reward' some time ago!!) where as now it is plentiful encouraging rewards with a tiny amount of pressure. I suspect the use of pressure will continue to decrease even further as I break old habits and develop new skills and insights. It will be really interesting to see where we all are by the time spring comes around which will be roughly a year since we started in earnest. I have put a note in my diary to post a clip of Timo, Axel and Temple to see how things are unfolding.

Until then....


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