To Treat or Not to Treat

B.F. Skinner proposed Operant Conditioning as a theory of learning in humans, as well as animals. The theory explores the relationship between reinforcing a desired behaviour and preventing an unwanted behaviour through the use of stimuli, as well as reinforcers such as rewards or punishment. The thinking is that each behaviour will have a consequence and the subject needs to determine which is the correct behaviour.

In equine training, we often make use of Positive and Negative Reinforcement. The below diagram by Curtis Neveu (He used Adobe illustrator, CC BY-SA 3.0, describes the basics of Operant Conditioning well:


In equine terms, Negative Reinforcement removes a negative stimulus (eg. Pressure) when the desired behaviour is achieved. We squeeze with our legs to ask for a trot from a halt. The moment the horse responds, we remove the pressure and they feel relief at having given the desired response. Positive Reinforcement would involve giving the horse a treat or a scratch on the neck the moment they give the desired response. In order to be able to effectively utilize PR, the handler must know his/her horse’s motivators. Motivators can be high incentive (their favourite treat for a highly food-orientated horse) or low incentive (a scratch on the neck and a soothing tone of voice for a highly food-orientated horse) based. Besides knowing one’s horse’s motivators, it is also incredibly important to know that treats or rewards should not become the ultimate motivator for the horse. The goal is to build a rapport with the handler and to focus on the handler – not to focus on only the reward. Some cases where PR may be detrimental to the horse’s development include horses who become anxious about food, or horses that become so engrossed with the food, that they are no longer relaxed enough to focus solely on the handler. It is important to employ the help of a knowledgeable and mindful trainer for guidance, should you be new to these concepts, as equine behaviour can be complex and incorrectly timed rewards or stimuli could alter the horse’s behaviour undesirably.

Conquer podium

The concept of Positive¬†Punishment is something which conscientious trainers try to steer clear of. Reason being that horses will only really “punish” each other if there is a threat to resources, boundaries or herd security. Encounters such as these are usually brief, provided that the individual members are aware of herd dynamics and communication. It may sound odd to insinuate that some horses are not aware of these dynamics, but it is unfortunately a reality in the artificial environment that is created for some horses these days. The last principle, namely Negative Punishment, is a concept which is foreign to equines. They will not willingly and indefinitely remove a need from a herd member, apart from stallions chasing colts out of the herd to form bachelor herds rather than to allow them to mate with the herd mares. A lesser form of this behaviour can be seen when a new herd member joins an existing herd. The leading herd members will corral their weaker or lower ranking members to safety and will exclude the new member from the herd (social exclusion, which is a form of punishment for horses) until they are satisfied that that member will not compromise the safety and integrity of the herd. Punishment, therefore, could seem like it is a concept to be left to the horses alone. A case where Positive Punishment (NOT Negative Punishment, as we have established that this is inhumane and it is never our right as trainers to subject horses to this kind of punishment) could be used would be if a horse dangerously stepped into our space or had severe behavioural issues which would warrant the need for safety on our part as trainer. For example, if a horse were to come very close to us on a circle when lunging, and kicked out towards us, this would be a moment to give them a swift “bite on the bottom” with the crack of a lunge whip in their direction. As humans, we do not have the resilience or brute strength to be able to communicate with horses as they would with each other (eg. Physically bite that member on the bottom for being “rude”), so we make use of various aids to help us in this regard. Some trainers have gotten to know their horses so well, that they never push their horses to the point where any form of punishment is needed. This is a wonderful goal for every horseman to strive towards, but the reason that training is left to the professionals is that horses do test and push boundaries. It is up to each trainer to ascertain which behaviours to safely allow, which to encourage and which to discourage. Many of the training systems developed for horse riders come from a background of teaching the horse something we know. Very few approach the horse from a background of understanding the horse before they ask the horse to understand them.

When training horses, it is important to remember to:

– Stay safe
– Take into account the horse’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, aptitudes and weaknesses
– Have a clear goal in mind, but
– also have the grace to know that ego, selfishness or greed in training can ruin the relationship and damage your horse.

If you are stuck or in doubt, please don’t hesitate to contact us for references of trainers in your area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *