I have had a few questions around how you can say “no” to a horse without taking away the horse’s willingness to “try”. Most of us have had the experience of being told “NO!” in a way that makes us totally uninspired to try anything for that person or in the environment again . However, most of us have also had other experiences of “no” that were not that “aversive”: There is a big difference between “NO!”, a softer “nuh-uh, that’s not it..” and the even softer “hmm, not quite there yet…”
I often talk to students about replacing the “that’s right, that’s wrong” mindset with one from a game many of us played as children – -“warmer/colder”
Why does this matter?
Well, what really matters is that our words affect our mindset – which then affects our body language, tone – and how our horse perceives us. When most of us say “no” – -however slow and kind, our tone and body language are very clear – this is not a positive rewarding moment for our horse. Now for many horses this won’t make any difference—but for those horses sensitive to energy, emotions and feelings – well, this no might as well be shouted from the rooftops, and they could well shut down or overreact the other way.
Constantly being told no, however nicely, can erode confidence in horses as well as humans
When we replace the “no” mindset with the game of “you’re getting warmer!” our whole body language changes, it becomes a game to us AND our horse – and in both of us the willingness to join in and try to find the desired response stays strong.
In fact, this whole discussion of how to say no without demotivating your horse, or yourself – is closely related to how we communicate to our horses in the first place.
Many of us use headcollars and halters with lead ropes – and there has been some discussion on facebook and other groups about how the pressure/release approach to teaching things is inherently painful for the horse.
So, what about pressure – does it work because it’s pain? discomfort – or maybe it works because it’s giving the horse information? Just like the difference between “NO!” “nuh-uh” and “you’re getting warmer….
Let me clarify
If I want to teach you to move your arm away from me when I touch you I can do a few things:
– I can hold a treat out to “lure” you to move –
– I can wait for you to move the arm – and reward the behaviour and then put it on cue
Both of these are pretty pure positive reinforcement approaches
– I could use a sharp object, like a drawing pin, and jab you with it to make you move
– I could poke you with my finger to make you uncomfortable enough to move
These can both be considered negative reinforcement (the stimulus is removed when you responds) but are more a form of punishment (if you DONT move you get punished with the stimulus)
There is another option – I could gently take your arm in my hand, with a friendly, soft feel that you welcome because of our existing relationship – when you feel my touch you will look at me, asking “what would you like me to do?” and I use the pressure of my arm on yours to SHOW you not just that I would like you to move your arm – but how and where I would like you to move your arm.
In this case, I am technically using negative reinforcement – because you are moving away from the pressure and the release of pressure is teaching you. Or am I using positive reinforcement – because you welcome my touch and I give a little rub whenever I release?
Of all the options – I prefer the last one, because in my opinion it is that last one which is helping set you up for success the most.
And THAT is my criteria for working with horses OR humans.
Not which training method is best – -but what can I do to make this as EASY as possible for this horse or human to understand and do
And not just NOW , but long term (which means that anything I do mustn’t trigger armouring – as that will reduce the ability to sustain the learning, and it also mustn’t trigger learned helplessness, as that ALSO reduces the ability to sustain learning.
In this scenario, that last option, where I use pressure to guide you to where I would like you to go, where I give you the information you need to be totally successful, and reward you for a desired response – THAT is where the most learning, and the most sustainable learning occurs. In this case the touch isn’t about dominance, or being the alpha -it’s just about giving information.
B.F. Skinner, famous for his research into learning theory – developed the concept of “near-errorless learning”. What a concept – this is creating a learning environment where you never have to say “no” because the student doesn’t make errors…..so it makes the whole issue of whether we say no or not – irrelevant! How do you do this?
First, you break the activity down into chunks small enough to work on and “present information logically”. Then as Skinner says – you need to use hinting, prompting, suggesting and so on – “derived from an analysis of the behaviours” – in other words, you need to HELP them find the desired response –by giving then helpful information as they are doing the activity. In Skinners work, prompting was used to CREATE and DEVELOP the desired response – people were not just left to find it by themselves, unguided…..
Then, you reinforce every correct response with immediate feedback/rewards, Then you gradually remove the rewards – which leads to the psychological outcome of the extrinsic rewards being replaced by intrinsic ones – and the behaviour becomes internally driven and motivated. This is called Fading.
So, in good old learning theory, giving prompts and information is an excellent way to move towards errorless learning – and if the pressure is received positively, with interest and a “thank you for letting me know” – then that will create a great learning situation.
Someone once asked me but HOW do I teach something without the option of increasing the pressure? Surely a horse only responds to pressure because he knows you are going to INCREASE it if he doesn’t respond?
Good question: there ARE some ways — and often it is about breaking the learning down into smaller chunks to help the horse understand. So if I am asking my horse to, for example, lower their head following the feel on the halter, I will ask with a light pressure, trying to use the pressure to indicate what I would like them to do. So I would put a light pressure on the halter, then “comb” the rope a bit. Then instead of increasing the pressure, I will assume my horse is trying to work out what I want them to do (because I have previously established a willing relationship through meeting my horse’s needs to safety, comfort, food and play) and so there is no point increasing pressure – what I need to do is help my horse understand what I am asking. So as I ask with the halter, I will place my hand on the back of my horse’s head and let her feel the weight of it – when she moves her head away from my hand, I will release and reward with praise, rubs or something. So instead of increasing pressure, I use a different way of communicating to clarify my original request.
In the same way if I want my horse to back up and I wiggle the rope – and the horse doesn’t realise what I am asking, I don’t HAVE to increase the pressure on the rope and end up waving it around like a lunatic. I can just tap the ground near her feet, or add a verbal cue she already knows, or send energy to a foot using my bubble – and when she moves back, I release and reward – and now we have a light wiggle of the rope meaning “please move back”.
Just some ideas there – after all, I know how I would feel if the only certain thing in my life was that if I didn’t do something right rightaway, more pressure was on its way! In these cases, you can see that my focus is not on “making the horse do it”, but rather on “how can I help the horse understand what I am asking” – these two mindsets are VERY different.
Of course for this to work, there has to be a pre-existing relationship of the horse WANTING to work with me, of WANTING to try…and that – well that is a matter of brain power – what do I need to do with THIS horse, on THIS day, so that he or she WANTS to be with me, work with me and try for me….
Maybe that’s a topic for another blog post – motivation!
Meanwhile, what do YOU do to build that sort of relationship?
Yours, in confidence