Is the Release Really a Reward?

I can’t set foot in any horse training arena without hearing something like,

The release is the reward.
Horses learn through pressure/release/reward.
Horses work for the release.

That’s great but, notice that the so called reward always comes after something, usually irritating, that needs to be released. Hmmmm.

In a very extreme case, imagine someone is strangling you. Their hands are firmly squeezing your neck. If they stop the squeezing, in other words give you a release, do you view that as a reward?

Thank you so much for releasing the compression on my wind pipe! I can breathe now. Thank you! You now have my undying respect and trust.

In my crazy mind, I view a reward as something like bonus for a job well done. I don’t find it very motivating if I’ve worked really hard, did a great job and my boss says, You get to keep your job. That’s you’re reward.

Here is Merriam Webster’s definition of reward:

  • to give something to by way of compensation (as for a service rendered or damage incurred)
  • to pay for
  • to return in kind

I like to think of a reward as the last definition. A return in kind. I’ve always viewed it as an honor to work with horses, let alone ride them. For them to allow me on their back I believe is a privilege. At any moment they could easily eject me. I think it’s within my best interest to return, in kind, whatever I can for whatever they give me.

When I read the first definition, I laughed out loud. I think that definition is more of a horse’s point of view. To give something by way of compensation for a service rendered or damage incurred. My thoughts immediately went to all the lesson horses that have to endure the learning curve of a posting trot while the horse’s mouth receives all the impact of a less than independent seat.

These saintly creatures have rendered quite a service and one can only guess at the damage incurred to their backs and mouth. So for the lesson horses, if they get any release at all, their “reward” is simply the stopping of the pounding and the pulling. (Anyone want to be a lesson horse?)

It’s my theory that since horses are sentient creatures, they deserve respect. In a perfect world, I’d like to see them get a real reward. I think if we can’t return in kind for all the things horses have to endure, than we should ride motorcycles or ATVs.

My personal beef with the release being called a reward is that it’s misleading. I think it’s just a euphemism to make humans feel better about it. I don’t think it translates as a true reward to a horse.

I believe a horse has full knowledge of what a real reward really is. Take for instance, wild mustangs traveling miles to a watering hole. Their reward for arriving is not the release of traveling, but drinking the water. The same is true for a horse wrestling with a branch full of moss. He uses his feet to hold the branch steady and then his teeth and neck to pull off the moss. His reward is not the release of holding and pulling, it’s getting to eat the moss.

I think the same principal applies to horses as to humans in the field of advertising. A savvy advertiser always points out features and benefits according to the WIIFM principle (what’s in it for me). If at the end of any behavior, there’s something in it for the horse that the horse views as a feature and a benefit, you can bet it will do what you ask with a lot more vigor than if it’s simply a break from an irritant.

I have a feeling that if, as trainers and handlers, we started thinking in terms of, What’s in it for our horses, we’d find that the release is really just that. It’s a release.

I still think it’s a bit warped that we expect horses to buy into the reasoning that if we stop doing something irritating (poking, prodding, waving, shushing) to get them to do what we want, they should view it as a reward. Oh, and that they should see it as a building block for trust and respect.

How then does a horse view us if we are both the cause of irritation (negative reinforcement/pressure) and the removal of irritation (release)?

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about negative reinforcement and psychological abuse in humans:

In negative reinforcement, also called aversive conditioning, unpleasant behaviour by the manipulator ceases when the victim complies. Such behaviours include nagging, whining, crying, playing the victim and blaming others. This tends to cause anger resentment and frustration in the victim and can lead to a downward spiral of anxiety, depression and low self esteem.

If negative reinforcement/aversive conditioning causes anger, resentment, frustration and anxiety in humans, why would we think it would be any different for any other creature?

Judging by how my horses act, and the ease at which they perform tasks for me when I use attraction instead of pressure,  I think they’re really happy that negative reinforcement has an opposite. Whew, me too!



One thought on “Is the Release Really a Reward?

  1. again…your right on it cheryl. i still stand behind treating a horse with utmost respect and love. ESPECIALLY if they’ve been abused. when i was first asking 2 of my horses to stand on the pedestal, i did use their halters and leads to do it because they were both mouthy and were too overfocused on the reward but as they are both light in hand i wasn’t too worried about it. as soon as they were standing on the pedestal and they realized how cool it is (what is it about the standing that they like so much!??) and asked them to stay, THEN i started using the reward. now, they will go stand on their pedestals when they see me coming! no halter, no lead! they have become more relaxed and happy and hardly ever mug or snoop or try to dig into my pockets anymore. to me this just went to prove that you CAN go back and fix a problem that you thought you were limited by and bring it to the horse as an idea that in many ways, i believe, is an apology for previous mistakes and flubups. bye for now, roxanne >>>——->

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