Why I’m OK With Combining Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This evening I read a post on HippoLogic titled “The Difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement” by Sandra Poppema.  It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts on this subject. After explaining (accurately) the scientific difference Sandra goes on to make her case for R+ being a better approach than R- for training horses leading to a conclusion that R- should be avoided. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a huge advocate for positive reinforcement.  I hand feed a LOT of food while training horses – much to the chagrin of many ‘never hand feed’ traditionalists.  However, I don’t necessarily agree the R- is something to be avoided. In her post, Sandra states, “The ‘release of pressure’ is not a reward: the horse will not offer ‘more behaviour’ in the hope of a more severe aversive ‘in order to earn a bigger sense of relieve’.” I take some issue with this because that isn’t how it works when done well.  I will explain. This anti- negative reinforcement mind set assumes that the horse is not actively engaging in the training.  He works only to avoid aversives and does the minimum to stay out of trouble.  I will grant that many horses do seem to be operating like that.  However, it doesn’t need to be like that. The way that I learned horsemanship assumes and cultivates a mentally engaged horse.  For the engaged horse discovers that there is, in fact, something in it for him.  Like us, horses appreciate being acknowledged.  Horses are intelligent, curious, and are wired to want to get along.  As such they appreciate and seek...

Finding what motivates a change

This week I worked with Libby, a 30 year old Quarter Horse mare, for the first time. Libby and her owner, Kirsten, were referred to me by Libby’s massage therapist, Heather Davis. Libby suffers from some lameness due to injury and hard use (before Kirsten). Not surprisingly as a result she holds her body very tightly. The massage therapy has helped Libby but Heather believed that if Libby could become more mentally relaxed that it would help her body to relax as well. This is where I come in. Kirsten had started a little bit of target training with Libby before I arrived. I was curious to see how Libby responded to this. Did she ‘get’ it? Was she willing to work for food? How hard? With all of Libby’s prior history I had a feeling that this sort of free shaping work might be too big a leap for her. So I decided to go into the stall with her and work on some basic lessons in feel…. look at me, follow me, turn… on the lead rope. As always my first objective is to capture the horse’s interest and cooperation. With some experimentation I discovered that Libby loved…LOVED…scritchies. Particularly in the udder area. This was, for her, way better than food. So, I began to click and scritch rather than click and feed. Historically, Libby would only put up with any kind of handling (like for trimming) for only a short time. Then she would begin to fuss and struggle making the whole procedure unpleasant for everyone involved. I saw this happen when we opened the stall...

Thoughts on Softness and Breathing on the Trail

Editor’s Note: Laurie Grann is a dear friend and a most excellent horse woman.  She recently participated in a week long clinic with Mark Rashid.  She wrote up her thoughts about how she is working his ideas into her every day riding.  The result is what follows.  Perhaps if we are all very nice to her she will contribute again! Today, my sister and I went on a 14 mile ride–2 loops of about 7 miles each.  The first loop was mostly flat and good footing and took us 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The second loop was climbing and lots of rock and ledge.  Quite challenging so there was lots of walking.  That loop took 2 hours. So plenty of saddle time to think about all the concepts and doors Mark Rashid showed me. I guess I can sum it up to 2 major areas:   Starting with softness and Breathing. On starting with softness, I need to start with a thought and offer that as my first cue and remain soft inside and outside.   Mark would say, from your inside to the horse’s inside.   I just never thought to start that far down the scale.  I could get work on just a thought before but always with a lot of preparation that involved aiding and sometimes quite strongly. My mare, Dulcie, had a real strong desire to go forward on this ride so I had to monitor my thoughts carefully!   If I said to myself, “well maybe we should trot now,”  hup, there we were trotting along.   Very neat.   Also getting into the canter  was...

Of Life and Horses by Ann Nyberg Bradley

I have “known” Ann Bradley (in the cyber-sense) for many years. I’ve always felt in her a kindred spirit, a person of like mind. So, it is no surprise, really, for me to be writing now that I nodded my way through her book, “Of Life and Horses: The Nature of the Horse.” I expected to enjoy the book and I did! This is not a book about training horses in the sense of providing “how-to’s”. This book is about enlightenment and perspective. It comes from her lifetime with horses which started with an attitude of “show him who’s boss” and evolved into one of harmony and unity. To quote her introduction: Much of the way we interact with horses is dependent upon perception, and perception is always versatile. Merely looking at another from a different point of view will change one’s perception, and thereby one’s feelings, and thereby one’s intentions, and thereby one’s actions, and thereby change the entire interactions with the other being. Like me, Ann, does not subscribe to the typical “dominance model” of horsemanship so often seen in the world. Throughout the book she encourages us to see things from the horse’s point of view and challenges us to work with the horse’s nature for a better outcome for all. If you like Mark Rashid’s books, you’ll enjoy Ann Bradley’s, “Of Life and Horses: The Nature of the Horse” as well. If you would like to read it, you’ll find it under Horsemanship in my Book...

Changing Habits One Step at a Time

On a recent visit my client, Nell, told me about an interview she listened to with Dr. David Bresler.  FYI,  David E. Bresler, PhD, LAc is a neuroscientist, board certified acupuncturist and health psychologist, author, and educator best known for his pioneering work with people in chronic pain.  Anyway, during the interview much of the conversation was about strategies for changing habits that are really hard to break, like smoking or addictive eating.  Call me “not surprised” to hear him talk about the best way to change behavior is to 1) set yourself up for success and 2) be rewarded for the new behavior. He gave the example of a rat in a maze.  The rat knows the way to the reward very well as a result of many repetitions and rewards.  Let’s say one day that you decide to train the rat to take a different route.  You have a few options.  You could block the old way (more of a management solution, not really training) or you could rig it so that the rat would get a shock when ever he tried to go the usual way.  This part was interesting.  You would think that after getting shocked for turning left enough times that the rat would choose to go right.  But, that isn’t what happens.  What happens is that the rat will still try to keep to the old program because that is what he is in the habit of doing.  He’ll keep doing the old thing but instead of doing it happily he will be stressed about it.  Turns out, the very best way to...

When Your Horse says “No” it might mean “Can’t”

On his blog Tom Widdecombe brought up the point about how important it is to get the little things right.  It is important because it is those little things that add up down the road to mean a nice ride or a less than nice (or worse!) ride.  In his article, which you can read here, he specifically mentions a problem his horse was having turning his head to the right without tipping.  He’d spent quite a bit of time perfecting his request so that it was light yet clear.  Still his horse tipped instead of turned.  Was it that his horse really didn’t understand?  Was he just being stubborn?  Not at all.  Tom had his chiropractor come and take a look.  Turns out his horse was blocked at the C1 joint and COULDN’T turn his head. If you aren’t certain about what I mean by tipping vs. turning then definitely check out Tom’s article, here, because he’s got some nice photos showing the difference. Anyway, the moral the story here is if you are pretty certain you know what you want and that your presentation is fitting to the horse and he isn’t offering what you think he should… then you need to consider that he simply can’t comfortably do it.  This is just another way of saying what I’ve always said, which is, “If your horse knew what you wanted and believed he could do it, well, he’d be doing it.” If you aren’t certain if your presentation is fitting and you are having problems, then do get someone who’s judgment you trust to take a look...