We all want to understand the things we love. For those who love horses, understanding comes through observation and interaction with a horse, by attending clinics and reading books and browsing web sites, and by listening to the counsel of friends who know horses. We gather information, and try to assemble it into some sensible pattern. We come to believe that we understand.
We don’t understand. Clinics, books, and web sites that focus on horses either get it wrong or get it right but misunderstand why. And so when we seek the counsel of friends who have read these same books, attended these clinics and browsed these web sites, we are no better off. Such a circular swirl of myths about horses produces a bowl of dogma from which we can’t expect to escape.
Horse training approaches should involve the principles of learning theory (the principles of how all organisms learn), and consider motivation, associative learning, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and habituation. In addition, horse training should consider equine ethology (the study of the horse’s natural behavior), so that we use stimuli similar to those that horses naturally respond to, and reinforcers that they find reinforcing. This seems needlessly complicated, but that’s how the world works. In fact, basing our training on learning theory and ethology simplifies everything. Without understanding these fundamentals, we enter a world of accidental results and mythological explanations of those results. And that is today’s world of equestrian coaching.
Natural horsemanship favors the use of reward in daily interactions with your horse. Traditional horsemanship is more prone to using aversive influences, such as bits, spurs, and whips, but tries to disguise them as “aids”, “moving away from pressure”, etc. Is one approach better than the other? The answer to this question might hinge on the training techniques used, not the language we use. Your horse would choose to live in a world in which positive reinforcement was the norm. So would you. But would he learn better with positive reinforcement than with the other options? Positive and negative feedback have somewhat different roles. Both improve performance, but positive feedback is important to maintain a desired behavior, while negative feedback is most useful in adjusting current behavior.
It is fashionable to talk about “partnership” with a horse. Many of those interested in partnership are from the “natural horsemanship” school of thinking, and want two very different things: to be able to control their horse, and force it to do what they want, and to set their horse free. Their ideal is this: when my horse is free to do whatever he pleases, he will do what I please. He’ll do this without any evident coercion or resistance. He will do it without hesitation.
If your horse is truly free to do what he wants, I can’t imagine that he will be doing what you want. Horses everywhere seem to prefer being with other horses, not with people. They would rather graze than trot in circles in a ring. Most would rather walk around a jump instead of jumping over it.
Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.
Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.