The secret behind the many “methods”
Choosing a “method” when it comes to training your horse can be a confusing and difficult process. There are so many gurus, experts, programmes, high flying instructors and pub philosophers all out there proclaiming their “method” as “the” way to train a horse. It usually involves some “unique” equipment, expensive books and DVDs and a promise of a “quick fix” for all your horse-related problems.
There has long been a line between “conventional” and “alternative/natural horsemanship”, but I’ve noticed recently a new battle line emerging between the “positive reinforcers” who usually take a rather holier than thou attitude to those they call “pressure people”, and in return the “pressure people” get all precious about being “natural” and de facto “better” than anyone else.
I can’t help wondering, is all this bickering doing any good for the cause of better, kinder practices in horse training? While people are using rollkur and the like, is it really helpful for the rest of us to be at each other’s throats over whether a click or a carrot is better than a rub or a scratch?
The learning process
The sometimes vitriolic exchanges between proponents of different methods on social media and equestrian forums started me thinking about how the horse might see the differences, and I came to the conclusion that there is actually far less difference than all the hoo-ha might make you think. It’s not a matter of alternatives, more a matter of positions on a scale at each stage of the learning process, so it’s differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in process.
There are four stages of a horse (or dog, or human, or anything else) learning, and I’ll try to avoid emotive words in describing them:
1) Motivation: there has to be a reason for the horse to make a change, otherwise it will carry on eating hay/grass/admiring the view.
2) Response: the horse does something that it thinks will satisfy 1.
3) Fulfilment: the motivation is satisfied.
4) Reinforcement: something additional happens that underlines that the response was a good choice, making the response more likely to happen the next time.
Let’s take the human out of the equation to start with. If, for example, a horse is learning to use a new automatic drinker, the motivation is thirst, the response that satisfies the thirst is working the drinker (usually pushing a lever or plate with its nose), the fulfilment is that it can drink, and the reinforcement is that it is no longer thirsty. I think we’re all agreed so far?
Those four stages are, as much as anything is in the world, set in stone. When it comes to human interaction with the horse, the thing that varies enormously is the way these 4 stages are handled and the emphasis put on each. In the extremes, the “positive reinforcement” people concentrate on 2 and 4, and almost disregard 1 and 3 – but that doesn’t mean 1 and 3 aren’t happening. Extreme “pressure people” emphasise 1 and 3, but again, 2 and 4 will always be present, even if they don’t talk about them so much. Most people are somewhere between these extremes, but many still align themselves to one camp or the other, and end up at odds with those who are doing pretty much the same thing under different labels.
Whichever way you look at it, motivation has to be there. You can call it a pressure, a cue, or a stimulus – but without it, nothing is going to happen. A lot of people are sensitive about the word “pressure” and equate it with force, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be just standing there waiting for something to happen – that in itself is a “pressure” in that the horse senses an expectation that it will try to fulfil. In the other extreme, it can also be 50 kilos of pull on a rope and whip on the backside. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle, and the goal (which is again pretty much universal) is for the motivation to be as gentle and subtle as possible, while still being distinguishable from “background noise” to the horse. Whether it is tactile, gestural, or postural doesn’t make much difference as long as it is applied appropriately.
The more clearly the motivation directs the horse towards the desired response, the faster it is likely to learn, which is why breaking each task into very small stages works so well.
The horse does something that it considers the most appropriate response to the motivation. If the response does not lead to fulfilment the horse will try another response. Whereas we can’t predict exactly how the horse will respond, we can try to adjust the motivator to maximise the chances of getting the response we want. Fine tuning the balance between motivator and response is an art we can work on for a lifetime, and still have room for improvement, as each horse will be a little different.
The horse recognises that its response was correct when the motivation is no longer there. This can be taking the 50 kilos of pressure off the rope, or it can be as subtle as “tension release” – the subtle and subconscious change in the handler’s body language when a correct response is offered. Whatever it is, the motivation has to go away, otherwise the horse will consider the response it offered to be wrong, and will keep looking for other responses.
This can be a relaxation pause, a stroke, pat or scratch, a verbal word or tone, a carrot or other food treat, or the idea of a food treat through a click, cluck, other sound or even a gesture. Whatever it is, it needs to be pleasant for the horse and to come immediately after the fulfilment.
Boiling the learning process down to these 4 stages makes it obvious that all these criteria have to be met for the horse to learn, and any “method” is going to have to follow this pattern to be successful. So whether you consider yourself a positive reinforcement person or a pressure-release person, you are still following this pattern, just with different labels for the way you handle the stages and different emphasis in the way you talk about it, which may or may not translate into different emphasis in the way you practise it.
Moving around the scale
For my money, Buck Brannaman is probably the greatest horseman alive. I was watching his “problem solving” video recently, and there is one section where he is handling a strongly lateralised horse (one that behaves very differently on the right from on the left).l He stressed how important it is to modify your approach according to the way the horse responds. His approach on one side of the horse would have been completely inappropriate on the other side, and anything he was doing with this horse would have been totally ineffective on another horse he had worked on earlier.
Those words rang so true, and in a way make a nonsense of any “method” that claims to “work on all horses”. Good training is not an absolute, but a sliding scale with different balances and emphases between the 4 learning stages that will vary from horse to horse, and even from moment to moment. In our desire to handle horses as safely and humanely as possible, we are all striving to get down to the lightest and finest motivators to elicit the response in the most stress-free way possible. Let’s not get sniffy about labels – all motivators can be described as “pressure” in one sense or another, or they can have different words put on them – the point is, is the motivator should direct the horse as clearly as possible to the desired response, and therefore on to stages 3 and 4.
Let’s not get uptight about the best sort of reinforcer, either. Some people like to use food or the idea of food, others prefer tactile or “mood” reinforcers. Whichever you choose, don’t lose sight of number 3. It will happen anyway – you can’t help it, but the more aware you are of it, the better you can use it to improve timing and fine communication, and strengthen the link to stage 4.
Good and bad horsemanship exists in all methods
To improve our own training and techniques, and to practise good horsemanship, I think we need to put equal effort and recognition into each stage, and be ready to move up or down the scale and adjust any stage at any time. The mechanics of how we do this is very secondary and a matter of personal preference. I really don’t believe there is a “right” and “wrong” in terms of technique – it’s how the technique is applied and adjusted that is the key to good horsemanship.
Poor horsemanship is using inappropriate, unclear, contradictory or overly forceful motivators, not recognising an attempt at a correct response, offering fulfilment for an unwanted response, and inappropriate reinforcement.
These measures of good or poor horsemanship apply under any method, system or programme. So next time you hear someone rubbishing natural horsemanship, or clicker training, or classical training… or any other “method” – bear in mind, it’s not the method, it’s how you use it that makes it good or bad, and there are both good and bad practices being exercised and taught within every method.
As always, please feel free to post any comments or questions on the Thinking Horse Facebook page!