There seems to be a lot of chatter in the world of horse training about positive versus negative training. As a result, I wanted to take a minute to clarify a few things. Not just for you, but for me as well.
Recently, I've been hearing a few comments about natural horsemanship being a negative reinforcement training program. And comments about Parelli, Anderson, Buck, and the other big names, being mostly negative in their training styles. When I hear these comments, I get curious and begin to wonder if there is some truth to the chatter. As it turns out, there is. But, I beg my readers to exercise caution in their judgment and think clearly about their own experiences while reading forward.
For starters, let's define positive and negative reinforcement training styles.
Positive reinforcement training is as simple as it sounds. When the trainee (a horse in this case) does something good, they get a reward. The trainer adds something wonderful to the experience. Through repetition of the behavior/reward cycle, the horse will learn to link command signals to just about any behavior.
Conversely, negative reinforcement training relates to consequences for "not" doing what the trainer wants. But negative reinforcement, by definition, is slightly more convoluted. The phrase "negative reinforcement" according to psychology and in the context of training, doesn't mean injuring, abusing, or punishing a horse at all. Negative reinforcement means "to take away" or "eliminate options."
For instance: If my horse wants to go right and I want to go left. I place pressure on the right side of my horses mouth via my left rein. This pressure takes away or eliminates the option to go right. Which is of course, negative reinforcement training. Any other activity related to eliminating options is therefore a form of negative reinforcement training. I'm not talking about punishment based training. There is a difference, which I'll get into later.
This is where it gets a little messy. One hundred percent positive reinforcement training, as wonderful as it may sound, is theoretically impossible to achieve. Because... any form of training in any industry in any part of the world, requires one very important factor. That factor is a five letter word that starts with "F"
Focus! In order to focus, a trainee must eliminate distraction. And there is that word again. "Eliminate" or "take away." Which is of course, a form of negative reinforcement.
What do all horse trainers across the entire globe do to eliminate distractions? Don't think for too long about this question. The answer is simple. TRAINING TOOLS. Tools such as ropes, saddles, reins, and fences. That's right. Fences take away the horses options, just like rein pressure on the right side convinces the horse to go left, fences convince the horse to stay close enough to interact with. Just as a classroom eliminates the distractions of the outside world for a student in school.
So in theory, just by owning a horse, we have all become negative reinforcement trainers. Our tools and our fences allow us to focus the horse. Advanced trainers can work toward not needing tools for control, but training by it's very nature requires tools that eliminate distraction.
I've personally worked directly with elite dolphin trainers who claimed to use only positive reinforcement training techniques. One day I asked, "What do you do when the dolphin whips it's tail around and knocks you over?" The trainer answered, "You get up and walk away, you don't hit the animal."
I felt good about that answer. After all, there is no need to be abusive or punishment oriented. But then I started thinking about it at deeper level. What happens when the trainer walks away?
In this case, the dolphin is left alone in a small pool and bored out of it's mind. So even though the trainer didn't use a stick to push the dolphin away, or curb a negative behavior, the trainer did in fact eliminate herself from the equation. After several sessions like this, the dolphin begins to think that acting silly around the trainer is undesirable, and starts concentrating on pleasing the trainer. This kind of training totally works if... you can eliminate all other distractions, such as herd mates, and space to roam. But there is that word again. "Eliminate" or "take away" which is by definition, negative reinforcement.
Now, if we can all agree that one hundred percent positive training is theoretically impossible, I hope we can find some balance in the middle of it all. I also hope we can discover a sort of scale that allows us to measure ourselves against the standards of the people we aspire to be like.
I don't like negative reinforcement training. I don't like what it implies. But let's be clear. What we really want to avoid is abusive training or punishment based training. Punishment based training delivers heavy and consistent consequences for mistakes without the balance of rewards for good behavior. It can cause horses to experience fear and resentment. Anybody who has a heart for the animals experience, will avoid punishment based training and move toward negative and positive reinforcement training. But... I don't want to be labelled as a negative reinforcement trainer, so I want to know what quantifies such labels. To answer that question, we're going to have to dig into the imagination. And this is where your own experiences count most.
If we make a scale from zero to ten with anything below zero being undesirable punishment based training. And we say ten is being totally positive and zero is being totally negative, or elimination driven, lets make five the middle ground. Where would you say you live when it comes to training your own horse? How were you in the past? Where would you like to quantify yourself in the future? What about the big name trainers? Where do they operate on the scale?
Everyone is going to answer the above questions differently. I have the unique experience of studying with many of these big name trainers in person. I can tell you first hand what their training style is on a zero to ten scale. Would you like to know?
Well, this is where we have to exercise caution. Nobody ever sets out in the world to do more harm than good. The natural horsemanship movement has dramatically changed the world for horses as we know it. But is it a perfect? NO. Fortunately, however, most natural trainers aren't punishment based in their training styles. The good ones all tend to avoid damaging a horse for the sake of progress. But is it positive enough? Answer: NO! Not usually. Not yet!
On a scale of zero to ten, Pat Parelli lives around the three mark. Mostly negative, or elimination based training without the required balance of positive rewards. Linda Parelli, on the other hand, lives around the seven mark. Mostly positive, but less focused. Clinton Anderson, Buck and most other natural trainers live around the three mark too. Which is a far cry better than many trainers were fifty years ago, who operated below zero on the scale.
You may find some trainers who claim to live around the eight and nine mark. But in reality you will never see what these trainers can do, because they never did anything amazing. Without determined focus, nobody does anything amazing. It's true, the people that claim to be strictly positive may never express firm training styles, but they also never ask for anything cool. That's why strictly positive training doesn't work if you want to accomplish big things. You can however, enjoy a great relationship, if that's all you want. You'll just find it hard to make progress because progress requires focus and focus requires eliminating options.
Parents can bond with their children and never teach them anything, but more productive parents will strike a balance between bonding and focused training. Horse trainers, I believe, should follow a similar model. The goal is to find balance in your training style.
If, by reading this blog post, you have discovered you lean more toward negative training and avoid using rewards, I hope you'll see the value in becoming more balanced and positive in your training. After all. Doesn't your horse deserve some grace?
If, on the other hand, you feel like you are a very positive trainer, but you find you aren't making the kind of progress you hoped for, or your horse is often pushy or disrespectful around people. I hope you'll find the value of more focused, disciplined energy from time to time. I'm not saying you have to hit your horse. I'm saying you may have to firmly guide him or her to a deeper understanding of what you want. But don't ever forget that the rewards you use must balance out the challenges you engage in or the pressure you apply.
Me personally, I strive to become balanced enough to say I'm a perfect five on the positive versus negative scale. But I tend to lean on the number six. I feel that using fences to keep my horse in my own pasture is a form or negativity and this makes we want to tip the scales in his favor. I want my horses to love working with me. I know the value of focus and determination, and I know the value of rewards that count and matter to the horse. I also remember the best teachers I've ever had, were positive in their attitude and focused in their actions. I want to be this way too.
What about you? What do you want to be? How do you want to be labelled?
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