During my 20 years with horses, I’ve visited a lot of different ‘methods’, or at least I thought they were methods, but they were in reality just applications of the same overall method. Now I’m not suggesting that everyone has experienced the ‘method’ in the same way as myself, but for this personal blog, I’ll be talking through my experience and how my horse changed my view on how I was teaching my ‘method’ and what a reward meant to me and my horse.
Reward in Traditional Horsemanship
In the beginning, I was brought up in a traditional ‘English’ style of horsemanship. My mother grew up riding with an ex-military horseman and so naturally her attitude was mostly along the same lines. I received lessons from a few BHSI’s and my understanding of technique grew, but my application didn’t really change. I was always called quite soft when it came to horses, me and my washing line reins. You might read this phrase a lot in my writing – and in person it’s mainly said through gritted teeth.
In my traditional upbringing – what applied to my experience – reward was a carrot when caught, an apple in the feed, perhaps a carrot stretch. Mostly though, it was thought that the reward was our attention, that we ‘looked after’ them and in return they owed us a great ride and lots of fun. We considered our horses lucky to be owned by us, that was essentially their reward.
Reward in Natural Horsemanship
As my Mum then moved to western riding, we started to learn about pressure-release. She followed the likes of Clinton Anderson and through that he was the best thing ever 15 years ago. I have come to shudder at that thought. I used the horsemanship application of the ‘method’. Funny now that Clinton’s wording is to ‘apply the method’. Because there is only one method of training, it’s just his style of application.
There were other ‘Natural Horsemanship’ trainers I followed for a time, but they all essentially used the same type of application and I came to realise that they all had the same idea about what reward meant to them. The release of pressure is considered the reward, whether that is giving the rein, removing the leg or the flag etc – whatever pressure you are putting on them, when the horse does what you want them to do, you remove the pressure a little, a lot or completely. Timing to remove this pressure is important, knowing how much pressure to use is also important and that’s possibly why I started looking at the horse and seeing the response to the asks I was giving.
Reward in Positive Horsemanship
The term Positive Horsemanship, refers to positive reinforcement training, in a less ‘sciencey’ term. I began the journey to PH on an Equine Psychology diploma course, learning about what other ways I could teach the horse. During this period of learning, I revisited the work of BF Skinner, a psychologist and father of the term Operant Conditioning.
“According to this principle, behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated. Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect – Reinforcement. Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e., strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e., weakened).” – Simple Psychology
I’ll let you in to a little secret. When I first revisited this work, I thought ‘Nah!, this isn’t for me!’. I really thought that I knew it all, that I had years of experience with horses, I knew what I was doing and I was 2nd generation to traditional horsemanship. I didn’t need to learn anything new. Well, that was a huge mistake. You see, my fear of the unknown, coupled with some blind self belief that I didn’t need to know this just added to the problem that I was still failing with my horses, but refused to acknowledge that. I wish I’d listened to myself sooner!
The basics of it are, I reward my horse for the behaviour I want, and I train in that method, lessening the treats through a chaining model. E.g. I ask for more than 1 desired behaviour before rewarding. This transfers to the saddle too. Some trainers use a clicker as a marker, they are called Clicker Trainers. Not everyone who uses positive reinforcement is a ‘Clicker Trainer’ but it’s all part and parcel of the same ethos.
So what are the real differences?
Below is an excellent graphic created by Fed Up Fred It demonstrates with a little humour, how the horse feels towards these different ‘rewards’.
- Positive Reinforcement = REWARD
- Positive Punishment = Pain (NOT REWARD!)
- Negative Punishment = Disappointment (NOT REWARD!)
- Negative Reinforcement = Relief (NOT REWARD!)
Upon hearing this, it can make us feel really uncomfortable, angry, sad or neutral. If you are experiencing a reaction to it, this article isn’t meant to judge you and how you train. I’m merely wanting to inform what a reward is, so we’re all on the same page and knowing how we are applying the method.
If you are interested in R+ and looking for a good place to start at, I recommend HOW TO BEGIN EQUINE CLICKER TRAINING by Hertha James. It’s a very clear book, with photos, instructions and YouTube links.