Harassment Training in Action

Sometimes contrast is good. I normally prefer to link to feel good, positive, forward moving videos and stories, however this  story demonstrates my previous post in the most timely manner. I just posted a blurb musing about negative reinforcement training being called harassment training and I find a well publicized example that I feel compelled to use to visually demonstrate my last post.

The impetus behind my work with my horses is to focus on what I want instead of what I don’t want. This video is an example of what I don’t want, but from this, I can clearly identify what I do want.

What I want for a horse that has issues with being bridled, is for the horse to have the bridle completely demystified. First I consider why does the horse have the issue. Is it his ears, his mouth, is it the notion of humans placing him in a headlock?

From there I begin making every step of bridling something the horse can associate with good feelings. For example, if the horse has sensitive ears, I teach the horse to target its head to my hand, then its ear to my hand. The moment the horse allows me to touch its ears, it becomes a celebration and a party. The horse now has the association that When my ears are touched, it’s the best thing ever!”  Notice that the horse is always moving towards me, not me moving towards, or doing something to the horse.

Also too, the reward is much more than a release of pressure, because, well there’s no pressure! My reward for the horse performing the behavior I want, say letting me touch its ears, is the something very valuable to the horse, three alfalfa pellets. The horse’s association is this:  human hand on my ears brings good things that I enjoy and need, I like hand on my ear!

If it has issues with its mouth, I teach the horse to target the bit with it’s muzzle. Then I’ll slather the bit in molasses and let the horse lick and play and often it will draw the bit into its mouth on it’s own. Upon seeing his bridle, Raleigh, my Clyde, will lower his head and stand with his mouth wide open in anticipation. It’s as if he can’t wait for the bit. My guess is that because we made the bit sooooo much fun, his association is that of bit means good times!

If the sight of the bridle is unnerving to the horse, I spend time using the bridle as the target. I’ll have the horse target the bridle all over the place. Pretty soon, the horse associates the bridle with good feelings. When the horse sees the bridle, that bridle becomes a visual stimulus eliciting the response of something to move towards in anticipation of something wonderful happening. Bridle means yay!

Conversing with a horse using positive reinforcement, in my humblest of opinions, embodies a fabulous way to honor a horse’s inherent dignity. Here’s the contrast, nothing is being done to the horse, the horse is not being acted upon. Instead, the horse is allowed to choose, to move towards, to look forward to something good happening.

In my experience when I motivate with the promise of good things coming down the pipe, my horses are more than enthusiastic to repeat the behavior I want. This is exciting for me to see. I love their enthusiasm. This is a much different feeling than motivating them with pressure and then the release of that pressure. The presence of pressure, especially for the sensitive horses, often starts the relationship off on an irritating, harassing, unpleasant feeling climate.

My hope is that these demonstrations to show how quickly a horse with issues can be made to do something will fall out of fashion. I don’t think it should ever be a contest to answer the question of how quickly, but instead to answer in the horse’s mind, how good does this feel? Because, if your horse is feeling good, he will easily give you the behaviors you want. And ta da! This feels good to me (and you), and then my horse feels even better, and then we keep creating good feelings and so on and so on and so on! (And quite often this happens really quickly because I don’t know of a single creature that doesn’t want to feel good.)

May horses all around the world fall in love with their bits and bridles and most of all, their handlers.



4 thoughts on “Harassment Training in Action

  1. I liked the last post about harassment training.

    Is negative reinforcement always harassment?

    I don’t think so. There are ways to use negative reinforcement that are so subtle and light and I don’t think the horse sees it as harassment.

    Is negative reinforcement harassment or annoying in the ways that many people use it? Yes, often I think it is.

    Is the negative reinforcement that Parelli used with Catwalk harassment? No, even more so….from the clips I’ve seen and what I’ve read, Parelli’s treatment of Catwalk good old fashion horse abuse.

    I’ve been meaning to write my thoughts of all of this on my blog. I feel quite bad for the poor horse. However, I think it’s wonderful all of the people who voiced their opinions with their presence and walked out of the event.


    • Thanks!

      Is negative reinforcement always harassment? I think the answer depends on the particular animal’s point of view. It’s not very scientific, but if we can figure out “how does the animal feel about the pressure” then we can more accurately judge if it feels harassed.

      I think it also depends on the animal’s previous association with pressure. If pressure was first introduced forcefully and then reduced as the animal became obedient, I’d venture a guess that pressure is not only harassment, but intimidation.

      This is why I work very diligently to introduce the concept of pressure through attraction-based means first. So if I want my horse to do shoulders over, I will first teach in on the ground using a target stick. Then after it understands and has the muscle memory of moving over, then I’ll establish a touch cue. I can increase the pressure of the touch cue if need be, but my hopes are that its association with pressure for shoulder over will trigger the original feel good memory of targeting.

      The other way I determine if negative reinforcement is harassment is by assessing the animal’s response to the stimulus. If it’s tense or confused then I know where I stand. If it’s following my feel, as dance partners do, then I would think it’s not harassment. But, I’m very concerned as to HOW the horse learned to follow the feel. Is it following because something unpleasant occurred if it didn’t, or because of something pleasant occurring.

      I feel like it’s such a fine line and so easily crossed. This is why my gauge is always, how’s the horse feelin’ about it? And how would I feel about it if it were being done to me. Would I want a rope tied to each of my feet and then pulled to teach me to do the splits? Doubtful, especially if I didn’t know what the heck I was being taught.

      So far in my present level of understanding, positive reinforcement training rarely results in the train wrecks from the classic “I will limit the horse’s movement and then when it stops struggling it will learn that restraint is nice.” Perhaps it’s the ‘that which does not kill it, makes it stronger’ thinking. Some horses can tolerate this type of pushing it to the brink and then it’s says ‘Whew, I lived!”, and then that event is no longer a threat. However that’s big chance to take. It’s seems like Catwalk was pushed and said “This is stupid”.

      So perhaps instead of thinking in terms of is this harassment or not, maybe we should ask what part of the horse’s brain are we appealing to? Are we activating a flight response, or the seeking emotion of curiosity. What was in it for Catwalk to comply to all the restraints? Release of the restraints? I have a feeling that release was not at all motivating for him. He was a horse that was feeling bad about being bridled and the techniques made him feel worse. Ideally the goal would be to cause him to feel better about the bridle, not to teach him that resistance is futile. If he feels good about the bridle, what’s to resist?

      I’d love to hear if you’ve encountered in your studies of any work that expands beyond the definitions of operant conditioning? Perhaps the four quadrants of reinforcement (R+, R-, P+,P-, and extinction) could be revisited to help us answer this.

      Please write about this. I think the more we can define, perhaps establish levels of negative reinforcement, the more understanding we can create that will foster training videos that make us smile inside and the horses too!


  2. “Are we activating a flight response, or the seeking emotion of curiosity”

    I really like that statement!!

    That’s the problem with a lot of horse training, though. The trainer works so much of the time way overthreshold, in a state of fear and flight response that they squash all curiosity and interest.

    I wrote a post today for my blog about parelli and catwalk (http://stalecheerios.com/blog/horse-training/lessons-pat-parelli-catwalk/). I’ve been trying to think of what I Can learn from the whole fiasco, what can I do to improve my training.

    “I’d love to hear if you’ve encountered in your studies of any work that expands beyond the definitions of operant conditioning? Perhaps the four quadrants of reinforcement (R+, R-, P+,P-, and extinction) could be revisited to help us answer this.

    Please write about this. I think the more we can define, perhaps establish levels of negative reinforcement, the more understanding we can create that will foster training videos that make us smile inside and the horses too!”

    I’m not sure the quadrants need to be redefined, but I think how we think about them sometimes does.

    Particularly the notion (more prevalent in the dog community than the horse, I think) that
    R+ —> GOOD!
    R-, P+ and P- ——> BAD!

    Now, I’ve seen first hand people using both R+ and/or R- to create happy, curious, engaged animals.
    I’ve also seen both used (together and separately) to frustrate, overwhelm and upset animals.

    I’ve seen videos on youtube of people free shaping or playing games such as 100 things to do with a box with dogs and the dog is confused, frustrated, miserable.

    I’ve also used -R with several untouchable horses, very near theshold, and removing myself at any sign of curious or friendly behavior. And seeing dramatic increases in curious and friendly behavior. (this is closely related to extinction as well).

    Mixing +R and -R can be dangerous, especially when fear or not wanting to do something is concerned. If we’re not careful, the +R can become a bribe, in that the animal will do something extremely aversive in order to gain access to the positive reinforcer.

    I have a series of posts related to all of this and some of my experiences that I’m working on, but it will probably be awhile before I get around to publishing it.

    The punishment quadrants I feel I understand even less about. Probably because for me it’s easier to remember behaviors that are increasing than behaviors that are going away.

    Just a few thoughts for now. I always enjoy your blog, though, it keeps me thinking!


    • I think collectively we’re at the brink of some type of major expansion. BF Skinner basically said to only look at what’s observable, and forget about ‘getting inside’ the animal’s head. I think horses collectively got the short end of the stick on that one. It’s easy to observe happy or unhappy dogs at cats, but the stoic nature of the horse often makes them difficult to observe their behavior and at times it can be very subtle.

      I think this is why NH became so popular because of the vividly observable nature of the dramatic pressure and the dramatic release. It’s very reinforcing for the handler to see that some action of their creates an action in the horse. However, what association is this horse creating in their mind?

      This is where I’m so excited about Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s research. He went where Skinner said not to go, into the animal’s head, literally. He’s now defined, what I consider, several ways of ‘being’ for animals. This is where so much of my focus is going, is the animal being pressured, causing a particular emotional state, or is the animal being invited and then the ultimate question, how does the animal feel about it?

      So in the case of +R becoming a bribe, we can ask, how is it feeling in the process, and hopefully we can get to the place where we can honor their inherent dignity regardless of what type of reinforcement we’re using.

      I can’t wait to read your posts when they’re ready!


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