I have an internal struggle. I’m seeing more and more articles about clicker training and horses, which is a good thing, right? Well, I’m not so sure. One article discussed how to train your horse to put its head down. It clearly demonstrated how to apply pressure to the poll and then once the horse lowers its head you click.
Herein lies my struggle. Why should the click be associated with pressure?
Why not simply use a target stick to “invite” or “attract” the horse to lower its head. Then after the horse understands a verbal cue of head down then go ahead and place your hand on the poll. The hand on the poll, after the horse has been invited to head down will then be a cue, like sign language, not a way of forcing or even gently forcing a horse into the behavior.
From my perspective, I want my horse to associate the click with things that feel good. I’m thinking that the use of my hand pushing my horse into position may not feel bad or horrible, but I’ve not given my horse the opportunity to use its brain. I’ve found that the behavior (no exaggeration) is at least a million times stronger when my horse has its own ‘ah ha’ moment, where it has logically deduced that something it does, earns it something it wants. I don’t think using pressure allows the horse this type freedom.
I think in all creatures, especially me, my initial response to pressure, is some sort of resistance. I first have to wade through the irritating feelings, then rationalize, if I do this task that I’m being forced to do, like pay my taxes, I’ll avoid a bad feeling (threat of fines or worse) when I cough up the dough.
As the creator of my communication style with my horses, I can choose to focus on methods that allow the horse to feel good. I don’t like pressure to perform a task, so why would I think my horses would like it any more than I would. Negative reinforcement as means of communication with horses is what we’ve been taught for centuries, but I think now is the time to ask, “How does this feel to a horse?”
Here’s what Karen Pryor, leading authority on all things clicker, has to say about negative reinforcement:
However, because negative reinforcers are aversive-something the subject wants to avoid-every instance of their use contains a punisher. Pull on the left rein, and you are punishing going straight ahead, as well as negatively reinforcing turning to the left when that occurs. The traditional trainer typically doesn’t think of his negative reinforcers-his reins or choke chains or verbal corrections-as punishment. After all, trainers explain these tools are gently used, on the whole: if the trainer really wanted to punish, there are much more severe corrections available. And, the argument typically continues if you use a lot of praise and positive reinforcers as well, no harm is done in the long run.
However, the strength of the aversive can only be judged by the recipient. What the trainer may consider to be mild may be seen by the trainee as blisteringly severe. Furthermore, since all negative reinforcement, by definition, includes a punisher, making a practice of using negative reinforcement puts you at risk for all the unpredictable fallout of punishment: avoidance, secrecy, fear, confusion, resistance, passivity, and reduced initiative, as well as spillover associations, in which anything that happens to be around, including the training environment and the trainer, becomes distasteful or disliked, something to be avoided or even fled from. (Samples of Negative Reinforcement by Karen Pryor 2005)
Ouch! What the trainer may consider to be mild may be seen by the trainee as blisteringly severe. This is what I experienced with DaVinci. Had I have placed my hand on his poll to ask him to lower his head, no question, he would have exploded or imploded, or both. He would have viewed my hand, even a gentle hand on his poll as blisteringly severe. Of course, he associated a hand anywhere near his head as threat of pain, and not all horses do, but the point is, it was his association mattered.
DaVinci’s progress, in my not so humble opinion at this point, is due directly to the power of the click being associated with inviting or attracting a behavior. DaVinci was very fluent in his past life that pressure meant pain. He had all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in humans, or as Karen Pryon explains as fallout of punishment, with the biggies listed as avoidance, fear and I’ll add one, major stress diarrhea whenever he saw a human.
In my mind, the difference between communicating with negative reinforcement and the clicker, and attraction-based communication being paired with the clicker, is monumental, earth shattering, mind blowing, life changing. Just ask DaVinci.
I think if negative reinforcement is going to be used, don’t click for it. Let the release of pressure be the reward. The click is so darn powerful, I just don’t think it should be associated with something that doesn’t feel good.
For now, I’ll calm my inner struggle with thoughts that our horses will lead the way. They are the ones, who as Karen Pryor suggests, are the ultimate judge of the strength of the aversive. If pressure based communication, even paired with a click, doesn’t feel good, my guess, is that it won’t feel good to the trainer either. This is always my gauge, how is my horse feeling, how am I feeling? I know, in my pasture, if the horses aren’t happy, I’m not happy.
Fortunately, in my pasture, happiness is just an attraction-based click away!
PS I’ve posted a few new paintings. Enjoy