This may be an unpopular opinion... But here goes anyways.
Today I read something that basically asked "is training with food and positive reinforcement manipulation?" Or another way to ask it is.. "Is my horse just doing it for the food?" And another way... "Isn't that bribery?" .. and of course I couldn't resist answering... so here is what I said.
All training is a form of manipulation. You are manipulating the outcome in your favor through some form of operant and/or classical conditioning. That's how training works. It shapes the behavior of the leaner. The difference is that with skillful R+ the learner has a choice (to some degree, obviously they still live in a human world and are not running free) to be manipulated. With a trainer focused on giving choice the horse doesn't HAVE to participate or have to learn or have to do anything.. and we work with such low value food, and offer other food, that it's an easy choice for the horse to make if needed. With R- and P+ though, the learner does not have a choice to participate. It's forced manipulation vs choice manipulation.
When you go to class your brain and knowledge are being manipulated by the teacher and the educational material and the system you're being taught with. Your teacher can choose to reward success or pressure and punish into success. Either way you're being manipulated.
Is using a reward based education system bribery and are you just doing it for the reward? Sure, maybe in the beginning. But what happens when over time through this reward based system you start to learn to love learning! You begin to love going to school, you wake up excited and curious and eager to do more! There will always need to be some level of positive reinforcement involved, but over time the engagement and learning and behaviors themselves become rewarding.
Now imagine if you had a choice to go to school and learn too.. and you earned a reward for going to school, but didn't HAVE to go to school. Sure , it's manipulation to offer incentive to go to school but the student has a choice and are choosing to participate. They don't get the reward if they don't go to school, but they still had the choice.
What about the pressure and punishment based education system? You aren't going to school and learning because you feel like it ... There are consequences for not getting passing grades and there are consequences for not going to school. This is manipulation too, just in another form. It's a different incentive to get the outcome the teacher/parents/education system desires. And... There will always need to be that pressure or consequences based system to get you to learn and to do well in school. If it ever stopped, you would stop.
This happens all throughout life; in the work force, social interactions, within the family, at the grocery store, at the mall... Any change encouraged from an outside source happens by some kind of manipulation. The only way we can avoid manipulating our horses is to not train them and not own them. Period. So the question should't be whether it's manipulation or not, because it all is. Instead we should be asking what KIND of manipulation are we using? Is it the most humane and ethical kind? Does the learner have a choice? Are we manipulating the horse to do something that goes against it's nature and causing harm to them? Is what we are doing in the best interest of the horse?
If we have chosen to keep and train horses... THESE are the questions we should be asking ourselves.
Photo credits - Emilie Anne Photography