It’s in the nature of training that we should leverage both – provide a lightly aversive stimulus (e.g. leg or bit pressure) and then provide a negative reinforcement when the horse does the right thing – releasing the pressure – and finally a positive reinforcement (“good boy” or a wither scratch) after the release of pressure.
Ron Meredeth of Meredeth Manor speaks of the “corridor of pressure” – perhaps more correctly called the “corridor of no pressure”. This fits neatly with Andrew McLean’s concept of self-carriage – the situation where the horse correctly finds the three dimensional position (two dimensions of space and one of time) that leads to an absence of pressure at all times. This relaxed and relieving place is when training has been successful and the purpose of the trainer or rider is only to provide the edges of the corridor of pressure when the horse trespasses on them, using a feather light brush.
Buck Brannaman speaks of preventing the horse from getting in trouble by anticipating trouble and heading it off before it arrives. Though not as systematic or consistent and Meredith or McLean, his concept is understandable in that context – a light pressure at the beginning of trespass causes the horse to realize what’s correct and what’s not and where the “wall” of the corridor of movement lies.
So if you think of training as starting with pressure, accepting a basic attempt that even slightly responds correctly to the pressure, removing the pressure, rewarding, resting and repeating – gradually shaping the basic attempt through the stages of obedience, rhythm, straightness, contact and proof, then where is the role of punishment?
Shaping is about timing. The horse feels a correction as a slight increase in pressure as it starts to do something that does not fit the shape or path you are communicating. The quicker the timing, the gentler the correction, the faster the learning. In a less focused corridor, it’s not so clear where the walls are; in a crisper corridor, the boundaries are clearer and easier to learn. Of course, if the corridor is too sharp and too unforgiving, the horse is also confused – “when am I right”?
Amidst this careful art, correction is immediate and understandable, punishment is delayed and confusing. If a horse does something incorrectly and you leap off and strike him with a whip, it’s impossible for the horse to understand his error – so he is “within his rights” to feel unreasonably attacked. What did he do wrong? Stop? Stand? Look at you? How sad is it to so confuse the horse and, worse yet, to do so with pain it can’t possibly learn from due to the nature of its intellect and the point at which it can no longer be aware of events as connected by cause and effect.
Horses are not people, they don’t perceive time, or the connections between events, as we do.
People are constantly aware of the fourth dimension of past and future and they are constantly working forward and backward along their timeline to anticipate what they should do and to trace effects to causes in sometimes far distant prior events or actions. Horses, on the other hand, are more limited and their introspection is probably barely existent. They understand the moment, but not so much about the moments that precede them, and even less about the moment that is to come.
So punishment is a sad injustice and leads to nothing but a generic anxiety. It’s not a proper part of any training method. It’s a curse word and an aggression that only creates uncertainty and tentativeness.
A confident horse is difficult to create… a prey animal trying to survive in a world of rapidly moving predators will necessarily feel insecure until the frightening humans have demonstrated a consistent and safe environment where the horse always has some level of success.
Let’s create confident horses and avoid punishment.