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God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.
Quote Mark

R. B Cunningham Graham


Why choose a method

Crawford Hall used to say to me “Everything is a matter of perception”, and because of this fact two horse trainers can argue/discuss their differences all day to justify their position and beliefs. What one person believes is dominance the other believes is leadership, who is right? I think it is a matter of personal perspective. The dominance advocate taking flawed information from the domesticated dog or horse as an example of wild behaviour will always believe differently about aggression to those who have seen the truly wild version of the species. You can’t change beliefs unless someone wants to change. Even if you see the evidence on a "TV screen or DVD, if you don't want to believe the evidence, then you won't.  A man forced against his will is of the same opinion still.


People didn't believe the Wright brothers had achieved powered flight, not even those that saw those first flights, but eventually we build jumbo jets. The world believed the four minute mile was impossible until it was achieved, the following year 82 people broke the barrier the following year over three hundred did it why? Because they now knew it was possible. The same is happening with positive reinforcement, some people don't believe and some do. What was once acceptable in horse training in this country has been slowly softened, at least in public. However, people need to see something new to believe and understand it. Until they see something different some trainers are certain they are right, and certainty is always the biggest danger. When we are certain about something we stop looking at the possibility we may be wrong. People forget you can't force learning in.


A persons training methods are physically manifestation of their beliefs, emotions and mental states, not just about animals but about life in general Each trainer can justify their beliefs positive or negative.. The trainer that advocates force, but not too much, is aware of the damage force can do, and so knows too much will be unacceptable, hence the silent menace of the coke chain and pressure halter. leadership is about being questioned so that you might show you have the answers and the confidence to deal with them so perhaps the dominate trainer, does not like to be challenged and questioned. Perhaps aggressive trainers fear being wrong. Maybe the positive reinforcement advocate is indicating how they feel they would like to be treated and perhaps showing that’s what they need in their life. I could go on but you get the idea. People choose to follow different methods because that method most closely mirrors their own beliefs and emotional state. Change is hard and people don't like to be vulnerable. Even those of us who advocate positive most probably started somewhere less commendable in their training, some people find the path and their lessons and teachers more easily than others. It is a pity the animals suffer while human learning takes place.


Any method of training positive or negative, can achieve the desired final results. For me it is not about the final results it is about the journey to the destination or to put it a different way, how the behaviour was attained and the emotional states of trainer and animal during the process. Some people are results driven and how they get there is not as important as how fast. Others are content driven how they get there is far more important than when. While those human differences exist then different methods will satisfy the needs of individuals involved.


I believe in balance, There is perhaps discomfort for some in accepting that the unfortunate cost of domestication to the dog or horse is that they need to behave within a certain way in order to maintain safety, theirs and our own. Domestication is a process of adapting the behaviour of animals to suit the human environment and any animal that is not running completely unrestrained on a hundred thousand acres without interference from man is in some way restricted by domestication. Positive reinforcement is great but dangerous if the animal is allowed to perform behaviours that risk the safety of other animals or humans, I often see positive reinforcement advocates allowing their horses to doing anything they choose because they feel guilty about restricting their horses behaviour. Unfortunately domestication requires the animal behave safely around us feeble humans. It is not whether it is ok to say no that is the question but rather how we say no. If a horse continually swings its head to hit the trainer during handling, it is clear that the behaviour is dangerous and needs to change. One trainer may choose to use punishment because of their beliefs in the nature of horses and their beliefs in methods and the fact they are unhappy to use food rewards. A different trainer with different beliefs may establish the cause of this behaviour and choose a different course of action, including the possibility of food rewards. Either way with good timing and persistence the horse would have figured out what was required. With punishment the horse perhaps learnt to avoid the pain, smart horse! With positive reinforcement the horse perhaps would learn keeping your head still would get it what they wanted. The out come is the same, horse not hitting people on the head, and both trainers could be successful. 


The difference then must be the emotional journey of the horse and trainer, with punishment the horse learns to avoid pain but with positive reinforcement perhaps the horse learns to solve problems. One method deals with the problem, the other changes the individual distinctiveness of the animals character. One method takes more time and is not easy to market to others, requires skill and an understanding of behaviour, the other requires bravery, a hard hat, body protector, great timing and some luck. It is a personal choice. 


If the human brain can convince people to starve themselves to death as in anorexia or to eat themselves to death with obesity, give themselves lung cancer by smoking, or to give their own life to save someone else then it won't really have much difficulty in justifying punishment and the use of force to get the required behaviour from an animal.


© Ben Hart 2007



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