I stumbled upon a wonderful article written by Kellie Snider, editor of Animal Behavior Answers, and positive reinforcement dog trainer. In her two part article she discusses the unwanted teachings of negative reinforcement. She very clearly discusses and defines many issues surrounding the use of negative reinforcement as a teaching method, bringing to my mind a few similarities occurring in the horse world.
Traditional training techniques, whether for people or animals, often rely largely on negative reinforcement. You want your dog to sit so you pull up on his leash and push down on his butt until he caves to relieve the pressure. You want your horse to turn so you yank on a rein attached to a bit in his mouth so he turns his head to relieve the pressure on the tender flesh in his mouth. Quite a few trainers have given up training because their dogs started hiding when it was time to start work. Others have either just provided more pressure, or even just gotten rid of the dogs.
Many breeders have opted not to breed dogs that fall apart under that kind of pressure. The result is that certain breeds have been created that are willing and able to tolerate forceful teaching techniques. Laborador Retrievers fit in this category. Many of them can endure a whole lot of pain and not fall apart. This is only a gift to the dog if he has no alternative but to be born and endure aversive training. But even these dogs can learn with positive reinforcement and you won’t end up with the kinds of problems associated with aversive training techniques. (Kellie Snider, 2005)
I’m wondering if Quarter Horses are our equine Labradors. If you notice these are the horses of choice for most clinicians, especially the natural horsemanship clinicians. They hold up well under pressure.
This characteristic of the Quarter Horse and the popularity of pressure/release based training, I’m afraid is making things tough on the other breeds that may fall apart under pressure.
I can’t think of any big name clinicians that are actively using Arabians, Lusitanos, Andalusians or other sensitive breeds dubbed as hot or spirited. Those breeds are found in performances like Cavalia, where they use positive reinforcement techniques. In my experience, Romeo, my Paso Fino gelding, would melt down, even under slight pressure, but practically over night became a dream horse with positive training methods that did not involve pressure.
The contrast for me was so clear. With pressure-based communication my horse acted like he was standing in a hive of angry bees. With attraction-based communication he became a solid citizen with an amazing work ethic. Before I figured this out, I did long for my easy Quarter Horse days of youth. But, once Romeo and I got on the same page, I never looked back, in fact I bought another Paso Fino!
I think, just as the dog training world has expanded to include positive reinforcement techniques, I think there’s also room in the horse world to do the same. It’s my hope that all horses, regardless of their genetic tolerance for pressure, will experience the joy of interacting with handlers that can train using methods that feel good to the horse.