I’ve been experimenting with training my horses with predominately positive reinforcement for almost five years. I use techniques commonly used in training animals such as marine mammals and birds of prey. These are the animals in which pressure based techniques would be a completely ineffective way to elicit a behavior.
The questions I have in my mind are:
- Just because we can exclusively train horses with pressure based techniques, does it mean that we should?
- What would it look like to train a horse using predominantly positive reinforcement?
What I’ve found is something very fascinating, at least to me. Horses are bilingual. On the one hand, they speak pressure/release and understand all the herd hierarchy dynamics popular with Natural Horsemanship practitioners. But they also speak attraction.
Attraction dynamics are different from herd hierarchy dynamics because they appeal to the horse’s thought processes when the horse is not interacting with another horse. I feel this is a huge and important distinction.
If you watch a group of horses grazing in a field, they are not in a constant conversation of, I’m the boss, so get outta my way. Most of the time I see them independently moving about based on what they want next, which is usually another clump of grass, a sip of water, shade or a scratch from a low hanging branch.
What I’m seeing is that there are two very distinct ways to communicate with a horse:
- Herd motivation – based on motivation while interacting with other horses; involves pressure and herd hierarchy dynamics; basis for Natural Horsemanship theory.
- Self motivation – based on individual motivation while alone; involves attraction; basis for Positive Reinforcement Training.
What I’ve found is when I communicate with a horse using Self Motivation (attraction), it draws from the horse’s earliest experiences as a foal from the mare/foal relationship. In this scenario, the mare is the provider and the foal moves toward what feels good. I believe this sets the stage for the foal to be individually motivated by what feels good. It’s only later that the foal learns to move away from things that feel bad.
I’ve found that when I can relate to my horses based on what motivates them as an individual, our communication becomes simple and easy. I think this is because neither of us has to draw from the tension involved in herd hierarchy challenges. When I communicate using herd hierarchy techniques, I’m no longer acting as the provider. I’m now using pressure, which in their minds may feel predatorial.
I’ve watched my mare Juliet (the “Police Mare” who gets the biggest hay pile) prowl around like panther ready to pounce if she doesn’t get the best pile. Yes, it appears horses are prey animals, but sometimes they can do a darn good job acting as a predator amongst themselves.
The fascinating aspect of this is that I never saw this side of Juliet until we added a third horse. When it was only Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo as the extremely dominant force, I would brag about how Juliet was a complete wonder mare. I never ever saw from her a flattened ear or snaked neck or bared teeth until there was a new, third horse.
Suddenly this soft, gentle-eyed mare became even more dominant than Romeo was dominant over her. It was as if he transferred his power to her. I truly didn’t recognize her. Romeo still is the guiding force in the herd, but Juliet is definitely the enforcer. Yet, when she is alone, she transforms back to her wonder mare status, where she is soft and relaxed.
To me, horses have their two distinct sides:
- Who they are in relationship to other horses
- Who they are alone, or with a human
The ironic part about asserting dominance like a horse as a human is that we’ve borrowed that behavior from a horse when we saw it in a stressful situation. This is the hole I’d like to see filled. How do horses communicate with one another when there’s no stress involved?
Deep down, I don’t think it’s “Humans emulating horse behavior” that gets a response. I think it’s simply the threat of force or pressure. I don’t think the horse says to himself, Wow, that person is acting like a lead mare. I better do as they say. I do think he might be saying, Jeez, I better move or I’m gonna get whacked.
Force is force whether it comes from a human or a horse. No doubt it’s a powerful way to get the job done. But what if you want more than that?
For now, my practice is Bilingual Horsemanship, learning to relate to my horse predominately as an individual, which is based on their motivation when they are alone and not in relationship with a herd.
For centuries humans have related to horses from the herd mentality, as dominant leader, using predatorial techniques, forcing or pressuring a horse into a behavior. In my experience, it’s easier on the human to shank a horse to make it back up, rather than to attract it to back up. This is because a chain shank across the nose is an external motivator using pressure.
Attraction based techniques require a little more understanding from the trainer, as the motivation takes place internally, based on what feels better to the horse. In my experience, the more I’m able to draw from from that place, the more quickly the horses learn and eagerly repeat a new behavior, without stress or tension.
This is yet another reason why horses are so beautiful. We can train them using pressure or attraction, or a combination of both. It’s the horses that have problems with pressure that interest me. I think they may be the leaders who are showing us a new way to relate to all horses.