I’ve just read about a study done with dogs to see if the “extra information” of a “no” signal (just something mild like a tone that they come to learn means “that’s not the right answer”) helps them learn more effectively. 

The answer was a conclusive no. The dogs that had that extra information were less than half as successful as the ones who only received positive reinforcement. 

The article likened it to doing a puzzle. You’d fair lose heart if each incorrect option you tried was highlighted. You’d lose enthusiasm, optimism, confidence… Your SEEKING system would be switched off. And maybe in horse world that’s what people want. Animals that are slightly switched off so they don’t volunteer ideas or opinions. But it makes no sense to me. It’s harder to teach a horse not to bite than it is to teach it to focus on politely standing with eyes front. It’s easier to teach the things you do want, than things you don’t. It’s easier to use your brain to teach incompatible behaviours (horse can’t bite you if his head is elsewhere) than to punish and stop the undesired behaviour as it happens with actual long-lasting success. It’s easier to address why things are happening in the first place than to try to punish them once they do. 

People think +R is “soft” in a bad way. That it’s too permissive, that animals “get away with” things (what a troublesome phrase that is). But the truth is +P is permissive. It is permissive towards yourself. 

Humans punish through fear, annoyance, anger, anxiety… Rarely as a training method and rarely in a considered way. And, even if they did and even if it were the mildest form of “no” you could possibly imagine, it still isn’t a very effective training method, as seen in the study above. If you ever want your horse to confidently offer extended strides, to trust your hands, to take to jumping, to boldly hack out past all manner of spooky things, you’re going to want it to be confident trying stuff out. 

We’ve all gone to +P in the heat of the moment. We lose control of ourselves. We permit ourselves to behave in a less than upright fashion. And in a true emergency sure, you do whatever you have to. But how can we expect a horse to manage its emotions if we can’t do the same? +R has principles and rules, it requires focus and a level of self-discipline. Taking the moral high ground and thinking in terms of proven training methods when a 500kg animal has pulled a threatening face at you, that can require a lot of self-control. But we know, the science has proven, that effective training stays outside of the RAGE system, for both handler and animal. So don’t piss off your sodding horse! 

Don’t be rough with the girth. Don’t be grabby with lifting feet. Don’t ask for more than they can physically do with comfort and confidence, at any given moment. Don’t be walloping them for looking sideways at you. Don’t change a confident horse into one that flinches if you move your hand towards it. Don’t be reinforcing potentially dangerous behaviour (like biting) by rewarding it with attention (because let’s be clear, what you consider a punishing bop on the nose might just be the playful attention the horse wants). And don’t be creating fearful or shut down horses by over-riding all the things they’re telling you and micro-managing all their responses. 

Humans… we’re so quick to punish a horse and so slow to control our own tempers. 

We really should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and be more tolerant of the horses as they try to figure out what on earth we humans are about. 


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