Blog Learning Theory Theory

Timing is Everything

We have already extensively discussed B. F. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning. The four quadrants of conditioning, namely Positive Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment, are frequently utilized by parents in order to shape their children’s behaviour. In the case of equines, some riders still believe that they can use positive and negative punishment to achieve their goals. It is completely illogical to wish to employ negative punishment (removing a desired object in order to discourage an unwanted behaviour) with equines. Equines are not as concerned with the past and the future as we are, so they live in the moment. Arbitrary “punishments” are not easily associated with a specific behaviour and this is only viewed by the horse as a form of neglect. The only instance where this quadrant would be effective is when a horse is becoming overly excitable and you remove yourself (if you are a “reward”) from the horse’s presence. They will not see this as punishment, but it often helps them to relax (more on this at another stage) and refocus on us when we return.

Positive punishment is still used by trainers worldwide (eg. When a horse bucks, it gets a smack with the whip, or when it rears, the rider breaks a raw egg on its head, simulating blood dripping down its face – both examples intending to discourage unwanted behaviour by adding punishment at the time of the behaviour). In my personal experience, it is much more effective for the trainer to rather continually set the horse up for success than to push the horse to the point where “punishable” behaviour arises. It is my goal as a trainer to evaluate any aversive behaviour from the equine as objective, reactionary feedback indicating their current state of health in all aspects. The feedback can also be directly related to the person interacting with the equine and many trainers and owners find this fact difficult, if not impossible, to accept. If this is true, positive punishment becomes acceptable, and if we are to ever employ punishment, it needs to be 1. warranted accourding to equine behavioural codes (not merely because we are acting out of fear of personal safety) and 2. dealt out in accordance with equine language (ie. Energy first, then body language, then touch and sound), proportionately and without emotion. How many trainers can truly do this? Surely as we discover more about horses, we should feel more humbled and less inclined to punish anything they do…as we should find it less necessary. I’ll leave that thought for readers to chew and lick on…it is an evolving thought indeed.

Equines use energy – the essence of who they are in true authenticity – to communicate firstly, followed by body language, movement and sound. Humans use sight, speech and sound naturally, so it is we who have to adapt, not equines.

This brings us to the crux of operant conditioning. In equine training, we utilize negative reinforcement (“pressure-release” as many Natural Horsemanship enthusiast call it), whereby we remove a stimulus (pressure) in response to a desired behaviour, as well as positive reinforcement (such as Clicker Training), whereby a reward is given in response to a desired behaviour. In nature, POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT DOES NOT EXIST. When horses “reward”each other, it is done out of a sense of camaraderie and mutual affection. They do not desire a response from each other, they merely enjoy each other’s company. Now before I have hundreds of irate messages streaming into by inbox because I dare make such a radical statement, think about it for a moment. You will find it to be true. Friendship and togetherness, quiet contentment within the safety of a social group and a strong sense of self within said group is reward in itself for horses. They do not try to change each other unless the safety and peace of the herd is threatened by an individual member. This is not to say that positive reinforcement is bad. It is a language that humans seem to understand well – it is quantifiable and it yields results. What we can quantify, seems to fulfill us, our pride and sense of achievement. It feels like we are deepening our relationship with our horse, and more often than not, we are. It is wonderful. Just think twice when you hear the words “positive reinforcement” and “natural” in the same sentence.

Negative reinforcement should work under similar principles as positive reinforcement, namely, we want to reinforce a behaviour, so we identify what we want and shape our reactions around this behaviour. The major problem which tends to creep in with both forms of reinforcement is timing. Often, I see a rider struggling to shape a behaviour for months, causing confusion and sometimes even frustration in their horse, only for another rider to step in and show the same horse the desired path in one or two sessions. There are three major differences in the former and the latter rider. The difference between success and failure often lies in four basic aspects:
1. Intention
The handler needs to have in their mind, a crystal clear picture of the end goal. They need to be able to visualize the desired response without interferance of other internal or external forces.
2. Clarity of question
Once the intention is clear, the handler needs to be able to portray effectively to the horse, what the handler’s imagined inner picture would like from the horse. The question and intention are not mutually exclusive – they both constitute integral components of the question.
3. Timing
Timing of both the question to the horse and the response to the response is important (are you still with me?). If pressure is released a split-second too slowly, the horse will associate the last action with the release (maybe a bite at a fly instead of intended forwards movement). Similarly, if a horse is treated at the bottom of a bow instead of once they have responded to the words “bow” and “thank you/there there/up/enough”, they will only ever hold the bow until they get the treat – and not when until they are asked to come back up again. Incorrect timing of reward can also lead to frustration and irritable behaviour in many horses. Others can merely become dull or “shut down” at any further questions.
4. Pause
A pause when introducing new work is integral to the learning process. The pause is effective in allowing the horse to process, as well as to give the handler the opportunity to review what feedback the horse would like to provide regarding the exercise. It is quite often in these pauses, especially with positive reinforcement, where the horses start to explore their options and search for the “correct” answer. For the more sensitive or anxious types, this is wonderful to encourage relaxation and to ultimately engage curiosity as opposed to instinct. What a wonderful tool!

With both positive and negative reinforcement, the main issue handlers face is timing. When we reward inconsistently, horses become confused, frustrated or dull and this is where practitioners from both schools of thought clash. Reinforcement utilized incorrectly is damaging, regardless of who does it and how it is done. Probably the most important aspect to consider, is that a horse is a living, breathing, creature capable of cognition and reasoning. Not only do they mirror and amplify our character traits, but they can also take on parts of who we are, how we feel and what we do. When one takes this into consideration, it is easy to see why reinforcement may not be as straight-forward as that very expensive “how to” DVD explains…in 5 easy steps 😉 The first goal of manipulation is to find what motivates the other party. This sounds terrible, but this is what we do. We take an extremely compliant partner, who does not understand a word of English, we discover who they are and we ultimately either use it to get our way or we use it to establish a language between us. I prefer not to use Monty Roberts’ analogy of a contract. Usually in the negotiation of a contract, both parties should be aware of the terms of the contract. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is not the modern relationship between equine and human at all. In all my work, I aim to create thinking riders and trainers. Thinking about not only why we do things, but also how we do things can go a long way towards shaping critically thinking handlers. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Don’t just agree or disagree. Argue, reason, think it through and argue again. This is the only way to expand our thinking!

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