The Emperor's New Clothes (alternative version)

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, yet a number of otherwise recognised experts would (erroneously) contradict this and we end up with "definitions" equating punishment with negative reinforcement. Another common error is to claim that in negative reinforcement the pressure is applied before the desired behaviour and, in punishment, afterwards. Alternatively, some experts, who really should know better, claim a release of pressure is a reward.

Not only do these "definitions" contradict each other, they can be shown to be incorrect by standard psychology textbooks (e.g. [1]). 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 - the horse is apparently "choosing" to exert large amounts of pressure via a pressure halter or narrow rope halter to sensitive parts of his body. At least, the horse chooses to do this in order to avoid something it finds even more aversive. I would suggest that the trainers who invoke this sort of technique 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.

There is a growing list of euphemisms which we use so as to avoid claiming that we punish horses. As well as blaming the horse for exerting the pressure, we also "get effective", we use "carrot sticks" and "training sticks", we use the whip to "back up our leg aids", we even "raise our energy". All of these involve increasing pressure and making life a little bit less pleasant for the horse so that he complies with our requests. We go as far as claiming that we are the "leaders of our herd of two", using selective snippets of "natural" ethology to suit our whims (compare, for example, [2] with the "herd behaviour" as marketed by the various natural horsemanship methods), and on-line forums are full of debates about what constitutes a good leader. Except again, in reality this becomes a quest for more subtle ways of dominating our horses whilst making it look as though we have a partnership (with one "partner" not allowed to make decisions, hmmmm....). I'm not suggesting we don't make requests of our horses but let's be honest about what we ask and call it what it is. If we dislike the use of pressure sufficiently for us to go to rather a lot of trouble thinking up euphemisms for it, surely it is time we devoted the same degree of effort to change the way we make our requests?

To some this may all seem somewhat pedantic - who cares, as long as the horse is happy? But this is the point. If experts are claiming that the release of pressure is a "reward" then their clients continue to believe that their reinforcement is positive rather than negative and their horses receive no genuine positive reinforcement - and none of its benefits. It also feeds the general ignorance of the effects of genuine positive reinforcement because so few people see this sort of training in action. To others even this may seem nothing to worry about - so what if the horse is put under a bit of pressure? Afterall, it is soon over with... But I strongly believe that the pressure is not necessarily over with. It feeds into an overall stress response, both emotional and physiological, which will be associated with the owner, the training and/or the trainer. And this can affect the life-long relationship we have with our horses, particularly as so many people seem to be unaware of the difference between apparent relaxation and actual conditioned suppression which comes about through chronic stress.

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 on account of the assumption that it causes horses to bite, particularly through hand-feeding. But the more modern and supposedly enlightened approach to training is not so very different, just with a few "natural" arguments offered in support. Apparently horses do not even respond to reward-based training since they are grazing animals and are not used to having to work for their food. While the many people who successfully use clicker training will laugh (or cry.....) at such a suggestion, the very fact that - in the absence of good timing - hand-feeding food rewards can encourage mugging/biting 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.

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.

[1] Introduction to Psychology, 11th Edition, R.L. Atkinson, R.G. Atkinson, E.E. Smith, D.J. Bem - "Reward is sometimes used synonymously with positive reinforcer - an event whose occurrence following a response increases the probability of that response. But a punisher is not the same as a negative reinforcer. Negative reinforcement means termination of an aversive event following a response; this increases the probability of that response. Punishment has the opposite effect: it decreases the probability of a response."

[2] Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size, Joel Berger, University of Chicago Press (1986)

Copyright Catherine Bell 2010