Is +R Just a Fad?

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So, is it a Fad?

The opinion that positive reinforcement (+R) is just the next big thing, an annoying fad, or the newest trend is pretty common. Yet, the reality is… it’s not new — more like 90 years old. The term was coined in the late 1930’s, but that’s just when it was discovered, not how long it’s existed! Reinforcement, punishment, behavioral influence, training, it’s all been around for centuries. The words and reason training worked just hadn’t yet been pinpointed. In horse training, specifically, it’s been used as a primary method for over 40 years. There were theories, but not concrete reasons. Regardless, the research since 1930 is extensive, and the benefits are clear.

By definition a fad is “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities.” I’d argue that something that’s been in a field for well over 40 years is not short-lived, that something centered around trying/learning in effort to improve welfare is not without basis in the object’s qualities, and therefore not a “fad.” It’s science.

If you are unfamiliar with psychology, you may think that positive and negative reinforcement are “good” and “bad” reinforcement, but that is not the case. In the context of operant conditioning, positive means “addition.” You are adding something to increase a behavior’s frequency in +R. In -R, you are removing (negative) something to increase behavior frequency. Not good and bad. That misunderstanding is a serious mistake. (For more on the terms see jetequitheory.com/glossary).

It’s Unrealistic

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There seems to be this perception that trainers who use treats are a lot of unrealistic idealists who think the world is all rainbows & treats, or just don’t understand how horses work; however, even as an amateur +R trainer, I’d argue I know more about horses now than I ever have! And using food rewards makes sense.

That‘s not to say that those who disagree with me do not understand what I do or that they didn’t take the same learning initiative, but simply, they have a different perception/interpretation of the information. That does not make one of us better than the other, but regardless, the general opinion is that there is one that’s better: the one that’s worked for centuries.

Why do anything different? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? But there’s a reason that phrase and others like it are deemed some of the most dangerous phrases. Why? It doesn’t allow for change. Why search for information when what I already do works? My answer? We can always improve. Times change. Horses are no longer primarily a commodity, a source of transportation, property, or a means to an end.

I am of the opinion that we, as horse trainers, caretakers, lovers, etc., should always be actively pursuing new and relevant information instead of dismissing it, name calling, or belittling because, in truth, we all want to do right by our animals. What matters is the pursuit of knowledge and allowance for change. We’re adaptable for a reason.

Think for Yourself

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For a long time, I didn’t understand why traditional training procedures worked well enough. No matter who or how many questions I asked, I always seemed to get vague and rather unhelpful answers with words like “respect,” “obedience,” and other abstract concepts. Everyone just said “release,” but never why. Is it because it makes the horse uncomfortable on some level? Is it painful? Is it aversive? Is it physically taxing? Why does the horse want release? Why pressure/release works or how to best train using -R wasn’t explained. It wasn’t for lack of riding under accomplished or intelligent trainers. The clinicians & trainers I rode under were brilliant. Regardless, they never explained the science. It’s just not something we consider in training!

When it comes to horses, scientific evidence is mostly reserved for veterinary care and nutrition, but not for training. That’s curious to me because there is so much evidence out there regarding operant training with all kinds of animals. Yet, most people don’t know about it or many, if they do, don’t care about it.

Now, I am less likely to take someone’s word at value just because of their name, position, or label — no matter how credentialed. I want to find out for myself. I’ll accept that what you believe is what you believe, and you may be right; however, I’m still going to look into the concept for myself. I do this now, due to feeling like I’d wasted so much time not knowing and accepting that I would never fully understand, when I could’ve spent that time researching and educating myself. 

The world is at our fingertips now, and if we can convince ourselves to sit down and read for ten minutes, we’d be better off & more enlightened. I spend hours dedicated to reading about & applying training methodology. I’ve delved in to the scientific information available about how horses truly communicate & learn best, not just taken a “professional’s” word for it. A label can’t be the end all be all. Beyond that, it’s not the professional’s responsibility for me to learn the why’s. It’s mine.

Reasons You Shouldn’t Use +R

(Debunking & Addressing Concerns)

What’s even more curious is the common reasoning for not using +R:

Horses are too big. Horses need to be dominated & respect humans. They do it to each other. They can’t be trained with food, they’ll bite.

To address these concerns…

  1. Horses are too big!

    Do you know how massive & powerful animals lions, tigers, rhinos, and elephants are trained? With food. How animals who can’t be led by a rope like whales and dolphins are trained? With food. How attack dogs and wild animals are trained? With food. I’d be much more afraid of a lion or elephant biting me or pushing me around than a horse! And yet, they are trained with +R in many parts of the world. All these animals have been trained to offer a hip to willingly receive a shot. Yes, a shot. Some humans won’t even do that! Dolphins have been trained to jump through hoops without force (how would you?). Wild animals have been taught to accept a caretaker’s presence or touch without tranquilizers. They have been trained to do all sorts of husbandry and care behaviors all without force or ropes. They are not punished and yet, they have cordial, peaceful relationships with their handlers.

    Respect is earned. Not taken.

  2. Horses need to be dominated & respect humans.

    Give this a read, “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” ⇾ https://equitationscience.com.

    Mind you, this is summary written by several doctors, scientists, and researchers. While labels are not everything, peer reviewed scientific evidence is. The TLDR is that there is no evidence to suggest that horses have a concept of a whole-herd-hierarchy. They communicate on a horse to horse level, not horse to whole. Beyond that, dominance theory was debunked—for dogs, too.

    There is however, evidence to suggest that attempting to assert dominance over a horse can potentially trigger fear and avoidance behaviors, create a horse that no longer attempts to communicate (learned helplessness), and near abuse. I feel like I should say: obviously, not everything is abuse, there are layers to every situation, but using punishment & aversives can easily escalate to abuse. Even if we don’t think it’s abuse, it’s really up to the horse’s perception— not ours.

  3. Horses do it to each other.

    Are you a horse? Will your horse ever see you as a horse? The answer is no. As much as we’d like to communicate on their level, punching them will never read as a kick, pinching them will never read as a bite, and using euphemisms like popping, bopping, and thumping doesn’t matter to the horse. A hit is a hit and a threat to hit is a threat. What using +P (positive punishment: adding an aversive to decrease behavior) does could be decreasing behavior, which is the goal. It could also be discouraging the horse from communicating (i.e. I have ulcers & when you tighten the girth it hurts. I first put my ears back, next I widened my eye, then I tensed my lip, finally my ears went sideways, and nothing worked, so I bit at you.)

    If you punish instead of questioning why the behavior happened in the first place, it’s only worse for the horse. An already painful situation like a girth’s pressure on an ulcerated belly is made even more unpleasant because now the horse is getting hit in the face. I used to do it too, I’m no saint, but let me tell you: Punishment does not always work how you’d like it to. It can create more anger, frustration, or pain. It can create avoidance, and fear. But it does not earn you respect.

  4. Horses can’t or shouldn’t be trained with food! They’ll bite.

    Horses are motivated in a few ways, seeking & avoiding. They are foragers, they look for food. They secrete acid in their stomachs all day because they were designed to consume food all day (save for sleep). So, they are highly motivated by food. They are also flight animals, so they run, they avoid, and they move away. So, there’s two ways right there to train. Train by using their natural desire to seek food, or train with their natural desire to avoid pressure?

    Beyond that, the behavioral problem of biting is usually either brought on by discomfort (ulcers, etc) or the horse being rewarded for being in the human’s space. Example: the horse mugs you or noses you for treats, you give him the treat to get him to leave you alone, but he’s just been rewarded for being all over you. If you try to resist, he’ll go through extinction (what’s always worked is no longer working & that’s frustrating) & perhaps bite. Luckily, it’s very easy to train proper behavior (manners) around treats with treats!

Timing is critical. Incorrect timing is how the ‘old wives tales’ originate telling us that horses will learn to bite. Animals are taught to bite by the incorrect use of rewards. If horses are allowed to take rewards from the trainer when they want, the behavior of being aggressive will be reinforced.
— Patti Dammier from Behavior Modification for Horses
 
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Final Thoughts

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As humans, we tend to get comfortable in what we know. Trying to find alternative solutions can be overwhelming and is often far more difficult than settling with what we already know or letting someone else do the work for us. Despite knowing this and having compassion for it, I’d be lying if I said it weren’t sometimes a struggle to deal with. +R training is consistently argued and often patronized. Yes, it comes with the territory when you’re trying something new. Yes, there will always be some pushback and resistance to change. That’s reality.

But simply because it’s not the norm doesn’t make it wrong, inferior, or worthy of condescension. A thing is not automatically a fad just because of a spike in popularity. History and sustainability are the determinants of a fad, and +R has proved itself to be more than a fad in both categories. It’s always been around (we just didn’t have a name for it), and continues to work over a century later.

Many who preach against +R, aren’t well versed on it or haven’t actually tried it correctly. Yes, there is an incorrect way to train with +R — just like there is with traditional training. Some have done it well, and choose to mix or to continue -R. That’s much better in my opinion than one preaching against something he/she knows little to nothing about. So please, if there’s anything to take away from this lengthy blog post, take this:

  • Be wary of blindly following the words of others. An impressive title or success rate does not automatically make someone correct. Do your own research.

  • There are a million ways to train every behavior. There is no “right” way. Instead, there’re many ways, each with varying emotional and physical consequences.

  • Patronizing others because you don’t agree/understand is an admission of ignorance & immaturity.

  • Every person who works with animals can benefit from having even a basic understanding of both classical & operant conditioning. Well informed decisions can then be made as to which method is used!

  • Lastly, be open to new ideas & hunger to know more so you can make informed decisions for yourself and your horse. This way, you’ve made your own decision and can be independently confident in yourself.

Pursue knowledge vigorously, be skeptical, & open your mind(:


It’s time to move away from the faddish and quick fic methods and invest a little time to learn the basic principles of behavior modification — that teaches anyone to create a positive learning environment and a method of obtaining behavior from horses.
— Patti Dammier from Behavior Modification for Horses

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