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The Cook Book

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The Cookbook Approach to Horse Training

There are many who would really like to know all the answers, to be able to work through a book to train the perfect equine. There are many who try to provide this service, they produce glossy ads and videos showing how you can have a rapport with your horse. Some even give you a step by step program to obtain the perfect partnership.

What is wrong with the Cookbook approach?

Well for a start each horse is different, as is each owner/rider. No horse has ever read the book so has no idea what people want him to do, he is just busy being a horse.
Any book or program can only provide a framework – the trainer needs enough knowledge to know how to adapt and improvise.

If we have a cookbook what happens if you don’t have all the ingredients for a recipe? It probably all goes wrong unless you have enough knowledge to be able to adapt a recipe or make one up from scratch.

The same can happen in horse training if all you do is watch a few videos or read a few books without a true understanding of the subject.

What knowledge does an owner need to be able to be the trainer of their horse?

They need to know how horses learn – so an understanding of operant and classical conditioning.
Some physiology and an understanding of biomechanics will help to keep the horse healthy and sound.
An understanding of equine body language and emotions is also needed.
Certain programs can teach you the basics of horse care – the BHS Horse Owners Certificate looks at the care of the horse physical needs.

Studying the learning theory and emotional side of things may be a bit more tricky. There are however excellent behaviourists around who can help and several good online resources.

However pick a course or person who is not attached to an organisation that uses only pressure/release types of training. This may have a place in training but it should not be the only way to motivate a horse. Avoid those who use escalating pressure to teach behaviours to horses. Horses are very good at learning to avoid the pressure but it can be detrimental to their emotional state.

Some organisation teach equine psychology but have an emphasis on their own brand of training, so they justify the use of aversive stimuli and ignore positive reinforcement. Some never mention that what they use is negative reinforcement so many are under the illusion of it being positive reinforcement.

We do have to be careful as any training done badly will cause problems – this goes for both negative reinforcement programs and clicker training programs. There is much more to reward based training than a clicker and some food.
To learn safely and effectively try to find someone who can come out to you or who can do some video lessons and give good feedback.

All the time I learned to ride and train via both the BHS and natural horsemanship it was never explained that I was using negative reinforcement. Natural horsemanship did teach how to apply the aversive stimulus (pressure) and that is was the release of that aversive that reinforced the behaviour. However it was never called aversive or negative reinforcement.

Most people aren’t stupid and can understand the basics of learning theory if they are given the facts. Only then can they decide what motivation to use. The horse can be motivated by learning to avoid the application of pressure (-R) or he can learn to seek something he wants (+R).

Chasing, driving, applying more pressure can lead to a horse who suppresses his natural flight response. It can even lead to complete learned helplessness. This can be seen in traditional and natural horsemanship training, the dead to the leg riding school horses, the totally bombproof horses, natural horsemanship trained ones who don’t do anything unless told (because they fear the correction).

We need a balance – a safe horse but one with character, one who feels safe to express an opinion – even when it isn’t one we agree with. How many people mount horses who don’t willing stand at the mounting block – I know I have in the past got on my horse and before I was fully onboard she would walk off.
We can of course teach this with negative reinforcement  – making the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing easy. However do we really have a willing horse if he only performs a behaviour to avoid the consequences of not doing so?

We can equally cause conflict if using +R if the horse is still afraid but wants the food. This is why we need to learn more than the basics, learn about different rates and types of reinforcement, learn to fade out targets and clickers for established behaviours. Learn what conflict looks like and how to recognise fear and frustration and how to avoid triggering flight responses. Learn what to do if things don’t go to plan, learn to read all the very subtle signs our horses give us.

What ever we can teach using negative reinforcement can equally be taught using positive reinforcement – the difference is how the horse feels about the process. We do need knowledge and imagination and lots of patience.

Dominance, leadership, respect are often spoken about but have little place in our relationships with horses.
Trust, partnership and providing all our horses needs is far better in my opinion.


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