The Emperor's New Clothes

I'm sure everyone remembers the children's fairy tale about the emperor's new clothes. He was promised the finest clothes in the land by a couple of unscrupulous merchants - and he paid handsomely for them. The merchants proceeded to pretend to make the garments out of the most expensive materials, yet never actually did so. Then for the final parade through the town, the emperor walked along the streets wearing absolutely nothing.

The story contains an interesting array of characters. The emperor is greedy and gullible. The merchants are dishonest charlatans. The people of the land are a combination of loyal - and somewhat embarrassed - subjects who don't want to offend their beloved ruler and other, more easily persuaded subjects, who doubt their own instincts and follow the beliefs of their leader against their better judgements. And finally there is a little boy, the one person who stands up and says "but he isn't wearing anything" - the one person who has the courage and conviction to put truth and honesty before all else. And finally, as a result, the subjects and emperor learnt valuable lessons and the rogue merchants were chased out of town.

Some of you may be wondering what this has to do with horses. But I hope you are thinking that this array of characters is very familiar within the equine industry as well.

Although any industry has its fair share of charlatans, and the equine world is no different, I'm not going to focus on this group for now. I am sure it is obvious to all of us that these people should be identified and shunned and I don't need to preach to the converted.

But how about those trainers who, like the emperor, inadvertently teach their followers incorrectly? There are many well-meaning trainers out there who, out of ignorance and misunderstanding, continue to perpetuate myths about equine behaviour. These inaccuracies can easily be tested and proven false, yet so often, like the loyal subjects of the emperor, people choose not to do so. Some of these trainers are lovely people and we might not wish to offend them. It is easier to accept what your guru tells you than to risk making a fool of yourself. You might doubt your abilities and assume that you are in the wrong, particularly if you are questioning someone who is famous, assertive or apparently highly qualified. It may not even occur to you to question your guru.

So where do we start if we are to start thinking about equine behaviour through the eyes of the little boy who is on the side of truth and honesty? The horse might be the obvious place - I think it is fair to say that our horses see us for who we are, not who we pretend to be. The more we can learn about equine behaviour from the horses' perspectives, the better equipped we become to overcome the challenges that regular interactions with horses bring us.

One of the best places to start thinking about behaviour with the horse's brain is to learn about operant conditioning and use this to study how your own horses think and learn new things. Unfortunately I would guess that of all the inaccurate myths surrounding horses, most of them relate in some way to operant conditioning. Trainers even disagree on the definitions - it has been well-established for decades that negative reinforcement and punishment involve different forms of learning - negative reinforcement increases the likelihood of the reoccurrence of a behaviour through the cessation of a negative stimulus, (positive) punishment decreases the likelihood of the reoccurrence of a behaviour through the application of an aversive stimulus. Yet a number of otherwise recognised experts would (erroneously) contradict this:

"...a reward is a pleasant consequence of any particular action, also known as 'positive reinforcement' in the context of learning; a punishment is an unpleasant consequence, also known as negative reinforcement." - Dr. Debbie Marsden, "How Horses Learn"

"Both positive (reward) and negative (something unpleasant or the avoidance of something unpleasant; it is not punishment) reinforcements are used in training horses...the horse may initially do one of many things when the whip touches him (negative reinforcement)... Punishment is not negative reinforcement. The reason for this is that negative reinforcement comes before the response, punishment after it." - Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington, "The Behaviour of Horses"

"Punishment and reward is something you do after the fact. Positive and negative reinforcement is something that happens at the fact. For example, when a horse puts his nose on an electric fence, he gets a negative reinforcement immediately." - Pat Parelli, "Natural Horse-man-ship"

Not only do these "definitions" contradict each other, they can be shown to be incorrect by standard psychology textbooks. The definitions of operant conditioning are not about timing, the trainer's perception of the problem or the trainer's intent. It is purely about the horse - the operator - and how it responds to the stimuli we provide, whether or not we are aware of the stimuli with which we are constantly supplying the horse...

One reason it might be convenient or desirable to use incorrect definitions is because it means we can claim to avoid the use of negative reinforcement and punishment. We can claim that a release of pressure is a reward and that sounds much nicer. It's not good marketing to sell your training method based on correct use of punishment, such a subject is no longer considered appropriate. Instead we talk about "positive" training and teach people to use their whips as "extensions of their arms" and not as punishments. Except of course, if the whip is reducing the likelihood of a behaviour, such as a lazy gait, reoccurring then we are using it as punishment - like it or not and regardless of the latest fashionable euphemism.

Some trainers try to get around this by claiming that the horse punishes himself:

"Let him apply the pressure so that, in his mind, he is putting it on himself. If you present this to them as if they are putting the pressure on themselves, then they will yield to their own pressure to freedom." - Tom Dorrance, "True Unity"

Nice try, but I think they are forgetting the effects of classical conditioning - does the horse "choose" to apply this pressure to himself when the trainer is not around?! Or can we credit horses with enough intelligence to connect the pressure with the human? Just because the use of pressure is effective does not mean that the horse is a willing participant. If it is not a willing participant then shouldn't we be finding out why not? The horse provides us with a wealth of information about how he is feeling, - if we want to be ethical trainers then all we have to do is listen and act accordingly.

Since the presence of aversive stimuli can significantly alter the behaviour of a horse (or human or other animal), positive reinforcement can arguably provide us with the most transparent way of seeing the world through the eyes of a horse and understand his motivation for his behaviours. Yet this goes very much against the grain of conventional horse training. Why are we so resistant to the notion of reward-based training? Why are we so content to believe that a release of pressure is sufficient "reward" to a horse? Of course, a release of pressure is negative reinforcement by definition, not a reward (i.e. positive reinforcement). Or why are we so content to trust that a stroke or a spoken "good" is sufficient? Secondary reinforcers such as these are only reinforcing if they have been paired with a primary reinforcer, such as food or a lip-curling scratch. If you have found a true primary reinforcer then the horse will genuinely choose to work for it, sometimes to the point where he will try to persuade you to keep on "training".

The reluctance to use food rewards is deep-rooted in traditional horse management:

"Constantly giving horses titbits from your hand tends to make them pushy and can make them bad tempered. Rewards of food should be reserved for horses which are difficult to catch and horses which are nervous of approaching people, even in the stable." - Josephine Knowles, "The ABC of Horse and Pony Problems"

The more modern and supposedly enlightened approach to training is not so very different:

"[Food as a training aid] can encourage biting and nibbling... Horses don't see food as a reward in the same way that dogs and seals do. Dogs and seals, being predators, have it in their nature to 'capture' food, to link the 'kill' with the 'reward'. Horses are used to having food around and don't regard it in quite the same way." - Kelly Marks, "Perfect Manners"

Monty Roberts makes similar comments, but goes on to say:

" There are professionals who use food to train their horses...it is quite amazing to me that a knowledgeable professional will do this...I feel certain that professionals trained in this art can accomplish their work without the side effects that the untrained person experiences." - Monty Roberts, "From My Hands to Yours"

I have heard so many people say to me that they would like to use the odd food reward in training their horse yet MR says not to - and so they don't. These are nice, intelligent people with nice, polite horses - yet it is not until they start to trust me as someone they can be honest with that they somewhat sheepishly admit that even though MR says not to use food rewards, they do sometimes and they seem to get away with it. Of course they "get away with it". MR and KM are actually contradicting themselves - if hand-feeding food rewards encourages mugging/biting then it is proof that horses will work for food, despite not being predators! All it takes is an awareness of behaviour and an understanding of what behaviour is being reinforced when the treat is given. It is entirely up to us whether we reinforce mugging or some other, more desirable behaviour. Thank goodness that MR now recognizes that some people can use food rewards effectively, although sadly he appears not to understand how or why.

Clearly it is not enough to choose a single trainer from whom to learn about equine behaviour. Too many of them are simply the emperor and at the mercy of the information they've been given by the unscrupulous merchants. And sadly, some of them are the unscrupulous merchants themselves, whether or not they are aware of it. We all need to stop accepting what people tell us and keep on questioning the experts, many of whom are self-proclaimed! The horses are the only true experts and we need to listen to them. We need to be the little boy in the story, the little boy who was able to stand up for honesty without concern for the cost to himself. Let us not all be the members of the crowd who were simply content to follow the leader blindly it did not do any of them any favours.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2010