One Myth, Three Facts, & A Confession About Fixing Behavior Problems in Horses
Myth: If you don't allow the horse to make the mistake he won't learn from it.
It's a popular myth in the horse training world that you need to allow the horse to make a mistake so that they can learn from it. This usually involves allowing the horse to do exactly what it is you don't want them to do - essentially setting things up so that the unwanted behavior is triggered - and then correcting them when they do it. Let's look at the facts that debunk this myth.
1. In order to fix problem behavior, it is usually completely unnecessary to trigger the problem behavior.
2. Triggering problem behavior is often counter-productive to solving the problem.
3. Doing so can make existing problems worse, or even create new ones.
Let's look at each of these in more detail
1. Even the most serious behavior problems - like bucking, bolting, rearing, kicking, biting, striking, refusing to trailer load etc. - don't need to be triggered in order to be resolved. Instead of triggering such behaviors, horse behavior consultants identify the root causes for the behaviors, determine and address what is happening to keep the behavior continuing, and eliminate the problem behavior by teaching the horse what it is they should do instead.
2. Every time a problem behavior is triggered, the horse can become more 'practiced' at it, if the consequences for performing the behavior are desirable to the horse. The longer this continues, the harder it can be to resolve the problem. To complicate matters, if nine times out of ten the horse doesn't 'get away with' the problem behavior, that tenth time where they do 'get away with it' is enough to keep the behavior continuing. Behaviors that result in desirable outcomes for the horse - even only occasionally - are much more likely to be repeated in the future.
3. Behaviors don't occur in a vacuum. This means that something always 'sets the stage' for the behavior to occur. The majority of the time, we humans 'set the stage' for unwanted behavior to occur, meaning we are the ones who put horses into situations that trigger the behavior. When people set the stage in this way, they often then resort to punishment to try and make the behavior stop. Punishment is anything done with the goal of making a behavior less likely to happen again in the future. Some examples: 'moving the horse's feet', 'making the wrong thing hard', hitting, whipping, shanking, backing the horse up, sending them around the round pen, smacking, spanking, 'escalating phases', causing them to circle and change directions repeatedly, and so on. Put simply, if we cause an undesirable consequence to happen when a horse performs an unwanted behavior we are using punishment.
The use of punishment is problematic. It's difficult to use effectively, in a way that doesn't cause the horse lasting mental damage or physical pain. It's rarely used when we are calm, which means our judgement may be clouded and our timing may be poor. In the case of aggression or fear, it frequently makes the problem worse. It can also create new unwanted behavior problems or negative associations about training. Punishment suppresses learning, and cannot tell the horse what it is they should do instead. Finally, punishment can damage the trust between horse and human.
Hands-down the best trainer I know who uses punishment is an electric fence. I've never seen a more skilled punishment-based trainer, and you probably haven't either. But, despite its perfect application and impeccable timing, even its results aren't always desirable. Many horses become fearful of being in the vicinity of electric fences, or of things associated with electric fences, like white tape, or ticking noises. For other horses, the electric fence's punishment isn't strong enough, and the horse will push through the electric fence. Other horses may accidentally touch or get trapped by the fence, and then panic and fight to escape the fence as it punishes them. Very similar problems occur with horses who have been exposed to punishment in training. In fact, if you go back and substitute the word 'trainer' for 'fence' above you will see some of the problems. In light of the issues with punishment, it should be used sparingly, by skilled trainers who understand its limitations and its side-effects, and who have tried other approaches first.
Confession: One of the worst aspects about the cycle of triggering unwanted behaviors and then punishing them is that doing so is very reinforcing for the trainer. Behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to happen again in the future. If a trainer uses punishment and the unwanted behavior stops, the trainer will repeat their use of punishment in the future. I feel fortunate to personally know how true this is. I spent the first part of my career as a horse trainer who routinely triggered problem behaviors, and then (unknowingly) used punishment to try and stop those behaviors. At that time it was the only way that I knew of to resolve such serious issues, and I was unaware of the fallout this approach can have for horses. On a deeper level, I also was heavily reinforced by the praise from others for being able to safely and skillfully handle horses who were behaving dangerously.
Luckily, I've since learned that it simply isn't necessary to trigger unwanted behavior to stop it. The vast majority of behavior problems can also be solved without ever using punishment to stop them. This I know to be true, both in theory, and in hands-on experience. Solving even the most serious behavior problems can be done by determining the cause for the behavior, identifying and managing factors that keep the behavior continuing, and by teaching the horse what it is they should do instead. No triggering required! Good luck in your horse training journey.