What is Attraction?
Let’s take a visit to a marine mammal park.
What does training with attraction look like? Watch how the enormous Orca/Killer Whale is rewarded after each lap around the pool. Notice that the reward was not a release from pressure, it was a fish. Was there a handler floating in a raft with a really big stick waving it at the whale to make swim in circles? No.
Here’s Merriam Webster’s definition of attract:
- A draw by appeal to a natural or excited interest, emotion or aesthetic sense
Their definition of attraction is:
- The action or power of drawing forth a response
- A force acting mutually between particles of matter, tending to draw them together, and resisting their separation
- Something that attracts or is intended to attract people by appealing to their desires and tastes
Which reward do you think the whale would find more appealing to its tastes? The stopping of the stick waving, or a fish? Consider for a moment what would happen if you were to make a whale, a killer whale, uncomfortable. There would be no question as to what that whale would be having for lunch.
It’s totally in the trainer’s best interest to create a situation (to draw or appeal to the whale’s natural interest) where the whale feels good about what it’s being asked to do, or else. The presence of really sharp teeth and enormous tail flukes encourages trainers to train very mindfully.
How to Tame an Eagle, Prey Tell?
Now let’s go to a free-flight bird show with birds of prey.
Notice that these birds are not attached to a tether and there’s no enclosure, no roof. These birds could fly away at any time. Also, notice the really sharp beak on the eagle and equally sharp talons. At any moment those talons have the potential to do some serious damage. But they don’t. The trainer has created a situation where the bird wants to be with them. The motivation is so strong that the bird does not fly away, nor does it rip a human to bits.
Did you see a trainer in the middle of the arena waving anything like a stick at the bird? No, I just saw the bird being given a tiny piece of meat for returning from it’s free flight over the heads of the audience.
The moral of the story here is that if you pressure a whale, you could get eaten. If you pressure a bird of prey, it can fly away, or shred you.
These animals have to be trained using positive reinforcement ( attraction), or else. Just because we can train horses using pressure without getting eaten or having them run away, doesn’t mean we should.
Of Mice and Whales
A well known positive reinforcement trainer once told me that it’s as easy to train a killer whale as it is a mouse. The principals of positive reinforcement work across the board for all animals, so why the push to train horses exclusively with pressure?
In my opinion I think training horses with pressure has a nice payoff for the trainer. The trainer exerts some active energy at the horse and the horse responds. At a clinic it looks exciting with all the waving, flapping and fancy foot work. There’s a lot happening that you can see, even from the far-away bleachers. It’s quite dramatic and makes for a good show, giving the people their money’s worth.
Training with attraction, on the other hand, appears really boring, no whacking sound effects, no Fred Astaire moves. The horse is simply moving happily towards what feels good, not in a galloping frenzy away from what feels bad. The deeper level of training with attraction comes when you realize your horse is with you because it wants to be, not because it’s contained in a round pen or restrained by a rope.
As Free as the Wind Blows
Most of my work with my horses takes place with them at liberty, unhaltered, in a two-acre field. I treat them as if they have wings, capable of flying away at any moment like a free-flight bird. My training challenge is to motivate my horses to want to stay and interact with me. If I make a mistake, they simply walk away. If I keep them motivated, they don’t want to be any place else in the world except with me.
I like to teach every single behavior with attraction that is normally taught with pressure.
For instance, if I needed to teach my horse to back up, I could pull on his halter or send energy down the lead or wave a whacking stick at it. But instead, I teach it to target an object and then teach it to follow the object backwards. As the horse is backing up (following or being attracted to the object) I’ll say Back. Then once the horse knows how to back with attraction, then I’ll add a wriggle of the rope as cue, only after the horse first knows how to be attracted into the behavior.
This is my my training focus and the inspiration for this journal:
How many ways can I attract a horse into doing what normally would be achieved through pressure?
The payoff for me training this way is written all over my horses’ faces. When I appear in the pasture with a saddle and bridle, they race to me to see who gets to be ridden first. I never expected that horses could show this type of enthusiasm. I’m finding it really, well, attractive.