Myths That Lead To Punishment II
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
After finalizing my last article on this topic I've become aware of some more myths that lead to the use of punishment in horse training. So, because I don't want to leave any rocks unturned, I'm going to address those myths here in "Myths That Lead To Punishment - Part II". If you haven't read the first article, check it out here. I highly recommend doing that before continuing on, since I will be making references to previous myths addressed rather than trying to re-explain everything again.
Myth #9 Because my horse is handled by other people too, they have to be "normal".
It's really easy to excuse the use of punishment based on the idea that other people may be in a position where they need to use force to get the horse to "listen". So the horse should get used to it from you and learn how to cope with receiving corrections. I don't know about you, but I don't know that I could ever learn how to "cope" or "get used" to being spanked or hit? There's just no such thing as responding "normally" to that, and you using punishment more often is not going to change how your horse responds to punishment. In fact, especially with sensitive horses, the more punishment is used the more reactive and "abnormal" the horse may become. Reacting dangerously as they become panicked.
Instead, the goal should be to reduce the need for anyone else to use punishment/corrections with good training that establishes safe handling practices and encourages the horse through positive methods to want to be well behaved.. rather than threatening them into obedience. A horse that wants to be well behaved (as we view behavior) is far safer, more "normal", and less likely to be faced with a situation where it will need punishment.
One situation a lot of horse owners are faced with is boarding their horses at a public facility. Boarding stables are common in many countries, facilities full of horses trained in a large variety of disciplines, of different breeds, and often times coming and going with mysterious histories and background of inconsistent training practices.
These same boarding facilities are often full of people; grooms, stable hands, trainers, handlers, owners, and visitors. And.. due to the nature of these facilities, the horses are often handled by not just one person, but as many as five or more a day! Each of those people having a different way of doing things; usually in a hurry and usually just "wanting the horse to be good."
Honestly, this is nearly an impossible task we've asked of our horses, especially when wanting to practice more humane training methods in a world of coercive and fear-based handling practices. Not only that, there's not much consistency! Thankfully though, in general, the most horses experienced people have a similar set of behaviors they use to obtain a set of behaviors from the horse. Common handling practices if you will... and lucky for the horse, we can actually use positive reinforcement to train these same exact "common" cues so that even those with no experience with positive reinforcement can lead the horse to pasture or groom them or tie them up! It just takes some planning, training, and work on the owner's part... which honestly, is no different from training with any other method.
Myth #10 My horse is a performance horse, so a mistake could be dangerous.
We talked in myth #3 about horses not wanting to be dangerous, but the reality is that they are still in fact large animals. No matter what you’re doing with horses, there are risks. I would, however, argue that even animals we consider "safe", like dogs and cats, also carry inherent dangers due to claws and teeth. I know I'm not the only one that's heard horror stories of people being mauled by "perfectly normal" pet dogs or sent to the emergency room by their cats.
My point is, whether you're trail riding in the mountains, racing a barrel course, stadium jumping, loping a western pleasure class, or nailing the perfect dressage test, when you put yourself in the proximity or on top of a flight animal that's tremendously larger than you. The activity you're performing may change the risk factor a little, but in all honesty, it doesn't change it that much.
But what does that have to do with punishment? Well, I've heard people use this logic to explain the use of punishment and training their horses with punishment. The idea is that if the horse is "disrespectful"(reference myth #1) and makes a mistake due to lack of punishment, it could be dangerous! What's true about this statement is that yes, a mistake could be dangerous. What's false about this statement is that the use of punishment-based training reduces or eliminates the ratio of mistakes a horse will make.
First, I'd like to say that statements like these tend to imply the mistakes are due to the horse's error and are the horse's fault when in reality everything we are asking them to do is on us (reference myth 1, 2 & 3). Horses don't know how to run a barrel pattern or jump a course, that's up to us to teach them, and how you teach them can make a huge difference in the frequency and the degree of mistakes that are made.
Second I'd like to say that horses trained with positive reinforcement are actually less prone to mistakes due to the nature of the training approach. With clicker training in particular the animal is provided a much clearer form of communication by the human, the training process is based on a very methodical approach that doesn't typically allow for the human to skip steps or make mistakes in the training, and.. best of all.. it motivates the horse to WANT to learn and not make mistakes.. rather than fear making a mistake. This brings me to my next myth.
Myth #11 I can't just NOT tell my horse what to do. Winning comes down to fractions of a second!
As we discussed in myth #8 in my last post, humans have been training animals for a long time now using exclusively positive reinforcement to do far more complex things than we ever ask of our horses. I mean, we can train massive marine animals to station themselves voluntarily for medical procedures and then hold perfectly still without sedation for the entire thing!
We can also train them to do long and complex "performances" that resemble our jumper and barrel racing courses very closely, though in many cases the marine animal's is more difficult! I've even seen people train goldfish to do little courses, chickens too! And if you're worried about speed, have you ever watched an agility dog competition? Almost every trainer you watch there is training with positive reinforcement, those competitions come down to a fraction of a second too. It's VERY intense and VERY competitive.
Or what about flyball? Talk about a fast insane sport. All trained with positive reinforcement.
And then there's the famous situation of the jumping horse Judgement ISF who would refuse liverpool jumps until working with Shawna Karrasch, in which they were able to achieve reliable liverpoool jumps under saddle with rider Beezie Madden using clicker training!
So the answer to the question is a loud and confident YES, you CAN use exclusively positive reinforcement to train a horse to compete. However, you need to be aware of the fact that some horses absolutely are not suited to a competitive lifestyle, and without the use of force, you may never achieve show ring aspirations. This isn't unique to the horse world either, there are many humans that are not competitive and do not enjoy stressful environments.. same with other species like dogs. Horses are no different, some are not built to be show horses.. and that's okay!
Myth #12 There aren't any competitive professional trainers I know that use positive reinforcement, so it must not work.
Unfortunately, it's true that we don't see any popular horse trainers or big-time competitors using positive reinforcement training. Why? There are at least three answers to that questions, but possibly many more.
One, there are very very very few positive reinforcement horse trainers out there compared to more traditional styled trainers or natural horsemanship trainers (reference myth 8). So have to really look to find them.
Two, because positive reinforcement has been so shunned by the equestrian community for so long, it's hard for trainers that put ethical training methods first to ever become popular or famous. Trainers that focus on the horse first before themselves or clients are not likely to become rich and famous this day in age, as unfortunate as that is. It also means there's very little money involved in being a positive reinforcement trainer.
And last but not least, the equine industry is built on the use of fear-based training methods, which means the competitions are geared in such a way that they may not be conducive to positive training methods or even allow for kinder training approaches (for example, the illegal use of bitless bridles in some disciplines or the illegal use of a plain snaffle rather than a double!). That doesn't mean you can't compete if you train with positive reinforcement or that the methods don't work, but it does mean those using fear methods are going to have the advantage in some cases as well as less restriction on what they are and are not allowed to use. This is the reason you will probably continue to see fear-based training methods prevail in the show ring for a long time to come, unfortunately.
For this reason, and others, horse trainers that use positive reinforcement tend to change their focus away from competition and becoming famous in order to focus more on the well being of the animal than on their own personal gratification. One day I hope to see the equine industry change, but right now the reality is that you are going to see more punishment than positive in the horse world.
"Just because something has always been done a certain way
does not necessarily mean it’s the best way, or the correct way, or the healthiest way
for your horse, or your relationship with your horse, or your life."
- Joe Camp
Don't let this deter you though! Change is coming! And with enough preparation and a change of mindset, I do believe even now anyone can successfully compete using positive reinforcement methods. You just have to be willing to brave the path blazing with us, to take that road less traveled; for you, for the industry, but most of all.. for your horse.
more reading on the subject....
On Herd Dynamics and Dominance
https://www.youtube.com/user/eponatv/ (watch the Real Ethology Series)