Friday, January 21, 2011

Just for Encouragement

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Last fall I met a lady, who had just recently gotten back to horses after years of having nothing to do with riding. The woman owned a big gelding with which she rides trails. She had a kind attitude towards her horse, but was nevertheless going down the traditional route, more or less. We were having a conversation about Little Love’s abusive past and how it affected the present day. I was telling her that it was extremely hard for Little Love to witness the abuse of other horses.

“You mean people at your barn hit their horses?” the woman asked.

“Yes, some do,” I said (this was when I was not yet Lilo’s owner and she was still boarding at the big barn close to my house).

The woman shook her head in disbelief. “I have never hit my horse. Ever.”

Ten minutes later, she showed me one of her many crops. “I always carry a whip when I ride though, but it’s just for encouragement. Like if he stops on the trails, I just tap him with it – to help him.”

Everything is relative, I suppose. Violence is not a black and white issue, but rather another one of those grey matters. Nobody wants to say they hit their horse; it is much easier to use words like encourage, guide, correct, help, tell, tap and even smack. And it is true, there are different levels of abuse. To take a four foot whip and hit the horse as hard as you can surely is different than giving him a few slaps on the shoulder.

Or is it really? What are the mental and emotional consequences for the horse that is subject to such actions? Especially when often this sort of behavior is coupled with extremely bad timing and human emotions that are running high?

Horses, unlike other animals, are trained mainly using negative reinforcement instead of positive reinforcement. In positive reinforcement a desired behavior is rewarded by adding a pleasant stimulus, a reinforcer - such as food, and thus making this response more likely in the future. So, in a nutshell, when we use positive reinforcement training, the animal goes from a neutral state to a positive state. This training method has been highly successful with animals ranging from marine mammals to dogs.

In horse-training, however, we apply pressure to the horse and remove it when the animal gives the desired response. Therefore, the horse starts in a negative condition, but ends in a neutral state. So in a way, you could say that negative reinforcement involves the use of a “pre-punishment”. Of course, the goal is to use as little pressure as possible, but because people don’t know any better, are impatient or have a hard time understanding the principles of this method, they often revert to excessive pressure and even punishment.  In addition, the timing of the release is essential for learning, but often becomes equally muddled, leading to severe communication problems. And a confused horse is often subject to more abuse.

I also believe that a training method that is based on using pressure often paves the way to abusive behavior; if a person has already learned that it is alright to kick the horse, the next step i.e. hitting it with a crop is all too easy to take.

While I was in California over the holidays, I ran across my old trainer. She and I have grown miles apart when it comes to horses, but we still greet each other as old (but perhaps a bit apprehensive) friends. Conversation turned to horses, what else, and soon I realized I was listening to my trainer reminiscing about an old acquaintance of ours, a student we once shared.

“Remember how she just couldn’t get the horse to move off her leg,” she laughed. “It was terrible, she kept nudging and nudging and nagging and nagging and the horse just stood there. It took her forever to learn to give the aid and then the correction, then another aid and another correction, and so on, until the horse got it. In the end she barely needed the aid and didn’t have to give the correction.”

Nudging and nagging? Aid and correction? This is smart horse terminology. And with smart I mean it makes everything sound less abusive than it really is. What my old trainer was talking about was her student repeatedly kicking the horse to get the horse forward (nudge and nag). Her advice was to give a lighter leg signal (aid – as if the rider is somehow helping the horse with her leg) and then hit the horse immediately afterwards, if and when he didn’t react (this is called the correction). In the end, as the horse is now anticipating the abuse, he will undoubtedly move off the light leg “aid” out of fear and thus the rider won’t “have to” (as if we had no choice in the matter and it was the horse forcing us to take this route) beat him.

In general, talking about “aids” is slightly misleading. In dressage, this word is used frequently to signify the cues the rider gives to the horse with her leg/reins/seat/whip/spurs. In real life this means the pressure the rider/trainer puts on the horse.

In Equitation Science McGreevy and Andrew McLean (my new holy book, it seems) put it well when they comment on the use of the word “aid” in current horse-training, especially dressage: “This word is antique in origin, derived from the French verb ‘aider’, meaning ‘to help’. The notion that cues in any way offer assistance to horses is anthropocentric and… nourishes the notion of the ‘benevolent’ horse, the horse that is a willing partner. Horse-trainers should respectfully recognize that training is an act of equine exploitation rather than equine enlightenment…”

I find the term “equine exploitation” to the point. Because isn’t that really what current horse-training is? Unfortunately, to train a horse in the competition-driven world, it is hard not to rely on negative reinforcement.  Yet, unlike positive reinforcement training, the effects of this method have not been studied much.  Many trainers don't even know they are using negative reinforcement, as they confuse it with positive reinforcement. In any case, using such a training method without really understanding the principles of learning theory can lead to the use of excessive pressure and punishment.

The other problem in the realm of competitive equestrian sports is that the rules permit hitting horses with whips. When the FEI states in their General Regulations (2007) that “whipping or beating the horse excessively” is forbidden, they imply that hitting the horse is alright, as long as it’s not excessive. And what exactly is “excessive whipping” and how can any outsider be the judge of that? How can we justify any kind of violence, even if it is not “excessive”?

The FEI is the authority in many parts of the equestrian community. Perhaps they don’t directly affect the majority of riders in the world, but indirectly their violent attitude towards horses is significant, because it trickles down to the grass root equestrians, many of whom are children.

How is it possible that the governing body of competitive equestrian sports is supporting punishment as a training method? What good can ever come from the use of punishment? If it isn’t common sense to realize the long-term disadvantages of abusive training, science backs it up. B.F. Skinner, the American behavioral psychologist, concluded years ago that positive reinforcement was greater to punishment in altering behavior. According to him punishment was not simply the opposite of positive reinforcement; positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioral changes, whereas punishment changes behavior only temporarily and presents many detrimental side effects.

So many people claim they don’t hit their horses.  I did, too - once upon a time. And if I did hit them, they certainly “deserved” it (which somehow didn't count as hitting, right?). It is easier to hit a big animal than something smaller, say a dog, which on top of cowering down onto the floor will make pathetic whimpering noises. Horses don’t do that – unfortunately.

A while ago I witnessed someone brushing their horse. The horse was extremely unhappy, pinning his ears back and making threats to bite. The person brushing the horse ignored all this and carried on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And perhaps nothing was; maybe this was how the horse always reacted to brushing.

Finally, after several minutes, the horse crabbed the woman’s arm and bit into it – hard. She yelped in shock.

“How dare you bite me,” she hollered and stared at her horse incredulously. “That’s it, I won’t talk to you anymore,” she continued.

Then, as an afterthought, about ten seconds after the fact, she hit the horse on the neck with her fist. The horse turned his head away; his eyes were tired and there was a sort of accepting look in them. Or was he merely dissociating from the situation? After all, he had tried his best to communicate his feelings to the person brushing him. 

Little Love, who had witnessed the whole scene, sighed and chewed and lowered her head. It seemed that she, too, sort of shrugged the incident off. If that horse had flinched or yelped out loud or cowered away from the human who hit him, had it made a difference? Would she have then perhaps seen the consequences of her actions? I’ll never know, because the horse took it like only a horse does, silently, stoically and without an ounce of blame or anger. And before I opened my mouth to share some of my thoughts with the owner, I sent him a message of love – just for encouragement.

~ K

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. ~ Salvor Hardin


  1. This is a very good post!

    The horse-human relationship is fraught with communication problems. Horses are silent communicatators, they read body language and they push their awareness outwards in an incredibly large circle; a horse at the other side of a field will already know what you want just by looking at you. Humans are verbalists and as a rule pay very little attention to body language. Our awareness tends to be restricted to ourselves. Many people, like the woman who got bitten while she was grooming her horse, are not aware of what their horse is feeling at all. They might not even really know their horse and his likes and dislikes. Perhaps that horse doesn't like grooming, for whatever reason, and even though he did his best to tell her, she was not aware of him. Instead, she was focussed on herself and her own agenda.

    The problem with hitting a horse, even if it is only a tap, is the intention behind it. The action of hitting brings up agression. Take a whip or a stick and hit something, a log or fence post, and hit it hard. A couple of times. The agression goes up with the amount of times you do this. It is hard for us to hit without feeling any emotion at all. Think of a door that is stuck. You push with your weight, but it won't open, push harder and before you know it, you are angry with the door.

    When a human hits a horse, even if it is supposed to be an aid, the horse reads the anger and agression behind it and instantly recognises the human for what he is: a predator. The relationship is disturbed.

    Perhaps it would help if horses would cry and whimper, but then again, people hit and kick their dogs too. Violence only breeds violence, but that is a lesson that hasn't been learned yet. As a race, we still have a long way to go..

  2. Thank you for such a perceptive, reasoned post.

  3. I couldn't agree more!
    My boy Griffin reacts very strongly when someone hits or (more often) yells at their horse in our presence. I can't count the times I've had poor Grif tense up on me because someone ewas "getting after" their own horse nearby. On one occasion, Griffin actually spooked because another rider was getting into a fight with her horse in one corner of the arena where we were also riding. Griffin was so shaken, I had to dismount and leave the area before he would calm down.

    I DO feel it's important for a horse to be able to accept restraint...and use of mild pressure, but it should not escalate to the point of being uncomfortable....for example- no more pressure than what it would take for me to take your hand as my friend and ask you to accompany me somewhere. If Grif and I are walking along the road somewhere and a car is coming, I may use just a slight pressure on his halter to ask Grif to step over more to the side (out of harm's way of the car). In the case of farrier or vet visits, there may also be times when a bit of restraint or pressure may be necessary for the horse's benefit.

    Aside from this however, I make every attempt to NOT use any type of pressure or force when spending time with my boy. I no longer use any spurs, whips- or the like....these items do not "help" the horse in my opinion....and rather like Two horses said above, they show negative, menacing "intent" behind them. If the rider truly wants to help their horse, they should dismount and ask the horse to follow ...and I mean ASK-not force. If the horse is truly afraid, the kindest, most HELPFUL thing to do is take them to a more comfortable environment and slowly work your way back in small increments as the horse communicates that he/she is ready. A whip may HELP the RIDER get what he/she wants, but serves the horse in no way.

  4. Perfectly said. I think all negative "re-inforcement", even "positive" punishment lays at the hands of impatience in the giver. If we (humans) can just slow down for a minute and be present with our horses, we might just find ouselves listening to what they have to say. I loved your comparison of how dogs show us their submission, and defeat when abused. Horses do too, we just don't "see" it. I bet that woman would feel differently if she noticed her horse's defeat. So sad. Even so, this woman who punched her horse could not have felt good in the doing of it. Revenge is never a feel good emotion.

  5. I love the discussion going on here! Twohorses, you are so right about the intent, because that is what the horse feels. And you are also right about how anger builds up in humans; the act sort of leads to the emotion, so to say. Violence breeds violence...

    Carol, it's hard not to use pressure and I'm happy you are working on that, too! Especially with horses that are trained with pressure, it's nearly impossible to even do anything else, at least in the beginning they sort of expect it and respond to it (even the slightest pressure helps them understand). I would love to see a horse that has never been trained with pressure-release, how would what work? Is there such a horse somewhere?

    And tmdunphy: it so IS about seeing these things or even being aware that there is something to see!

    Keep talking, I love it!

  6. Bravo, everyone... Twohorses, very eloquently said and very spot on... thank you for this. I love this commenting on these subjects... this is so important.

  7. Someone once told me that when you teach something new to a horse, let's say a new movement, whatever the horse's mental state at that moment is - that is the state he always returns when repeating that movement.

    I believe this. My first horse was in theory trained to do piff's paff's and all the "important" dressage elements. However, it was obvious that someone in his past had trained him with a lot of force i.e. "encouraged" him with a lot of negative reinforcement. Regardless of what you were doing with him or how relaxed he was or who was riding him - the moment he was asked to do certain movements he became very stressed and extremely worried.

    We decided to forget all those movements and tried to focus on the fun stuff - it also turned out that whoever had taught him extended trot had made him feel like the king of the world. (During the time he was competing that was also where he scored the highest points - coincidence?) So the best ever reward for that horse was to let him go. At the end of session he always suggested that he could do a bit of THE trot, if ok - and once given the permission (all you really had to do was to think "yes") he was flying.

    So every second really matters. Nowadays I try to avoid conflicts and rather not ride if I am not in the proper state of mind. I have concluded that for me it is not important if the horse is ridden every day but it is more important that we enjoy our time together.

  8. VL, you are right. The emotion the horse has when it is learning the skill will transfer to that situation over and over again. That's why you see so many dressage horses looking quite tense in the piaffe especially; they were tense during the initial learning (and often for a reason, many horses get taught piaffe with excessive whip usage)

    I think trying to avoid conflict with your horse is a great rule of thumb, I so agree with that. I think many problems with horses could be avoided if people realized this simple (but often difficult thing).

    Like you said, every second counts, horses are learning all the time, not just when we train them, but every moment we spend time with them.