Saturday, June 12, 2010


I appreciate all the "been there" comments, both here and on the Bookends Farm facebook page regarding my Good, Bad and Ugly post. That was part of my reason for that nobody got the impression that all is sunny and bright here with never a mistake. That would be deceiving anyone who reads this. After all, if horses were perfect, we wouldn't need to train them would we?

This might also be a good time to point out that Positive Reinforcement is not the only thing that works to train a horse. The other three quadrants of Operant Conditioning- negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment, all work as well. BUT, we each need to understand what the side effects of those quadrants are and decide which technique to use at any given moment. Back when I started Clicker Training, I was sure there were limited applications. But the more I have used it, the more uses I have found! Over the years, I've had several misconceptions slowly evaporate. I thought the handler had to to be alpha/dominant- wrong. I thought you could never use it with young horses who had a tendency to be mouthy anyway- wrong. I thought there were certain things which MUST be punished because they were dangerous behaviors- wrong. I thought there were some things which just couldn't be taught with +R... wrong.

So, the other day Percy got punished. Did it work? At this point I'd have to say yes. The definition of punishment (in Operant Conditioning terms) is that it makes it less likely that the horse will repeat the behavior. As excited as he was, he did not rear again (and he does love to rear when he's playing out in the pasture so it's not like it's difficult for him). Was the original punishment delivered accurately? I'd say yes- it was immediate and strong enough to make a good impression on him. What followed, however- the spin/yank cycle, was not effective
training. AND what was the fallout? Well, when I went to bring him in a couple hours later, the little booger broke my heart because for the first time in forever, he did not come trotting or cantering up to the gate to meet me. I had to walk out and get him (sob). He allowed me to put his halter on with no problem and did not act afraid, but he sure didn't think I was as much fun as he used to think.

When I took him back to The Spot where we had our disagreement, it was definitely poisoned. He had unpleasant associations with that area and simply going there put him at a higher level of anxiety. Rather than remembering any training I had done, he was just emotionally uneasy and that anxiety overrode what he "knew" was desired behavior. Talking about a horse knowing what is right and choosing to do something different is silly. There is always a reason a horse is behaving the way they do and as their handlers, it is our responsibility to figure that out and work with it. In Percy's case, it was nervousness in each and every incident. He was anxious about going out that first morning because it's FUN to go out and eat grass and it was cold and breezy and Ande was already out there, etc etc etc! So, he didn't leave his head in the halter when I held it out. I should have stopped right there and worked with him to calm him down so he could focus on my requests, rather than foolishly trying to punish him for not cooperating. The next day he had the association of being left behind added to the excitement of getting turned out. When he reared, I should have figured out a way to calm things down, even if it meant bringing Ande back in and nobody going out on grass that day until we could do it calmly. Pushing through at a time like that simply backfired on me. By the third day, I had excitement, worry about being left behind and distrust of me all roiling around inside a hot little red head. That was a lot to work through.

So while the punishment may have been effective, it gave me all kinds of other excess baggage that I now had to deal with. Who needs that? If I'd kept my cool and worked with him, I could have gotten the same result without the baggage. At the afternoon session, we did work through the problems with patience and positive reinforcement and he's been a saint ever since.

Oh- one other little piece of baggage? Rumer has decided I'm not to be trusted when I am leading them both. sigh. Just her, she's fine. If I have Percy along, she turns into a little donkey statue and Will Not Move. So, to keep Percy's progress moving along, I have dropped her lead, taken him out alone and she comes grazing along at her own pace. Guess what I've now taught Rumer about being stubborn. argghhh


Golden the Pony Girl said...

Great post! In fact do you mind if I link to it on my blog? I think this is such a well written and honest example of how the different training methods affect horses.

Bookends Farm said...

I don't mind at all! Glad you think it is worth referral :)

Anonymous said...

Just discovered you (through Golden the Pony Girl) - very interesting and thoughtful post - thanks!