Only recently I heard about this persistent myth. It is a myth that is frequently shared amongst dog trainers and in the marine mammal world.
The idea behind this myth is that predators are used to ‘working hard’ in order to get food while prey animals (herbivores), like horses, don’t have to work for their food. ‘The most valuable thing for a prey animal is safety and comfort’ and therefor positive reinforcement training with food rewards don’t work. Who else has heard this?
Well, first of all not all prey animals are herbivores. Prey animals are hunted by other animals for food, but that doesn’t mean they are not predators themselves. An animal can be a predator and a prey animal for other species at the same time. According to Shawna Karrash an expert in training marine mammals, all marine mammals, except orcas, are prey animals.
In the marine mammal world positive reinforcement training is used successfully for decades to train prey animals (dolphins, seals etc) to perform.
‘Prey animals don’t understand rewards’
Myth: rewarding in training works with predators because that’s how their world functions : they work hard (chase the rabbit) and then are rewarded for their efforts (eat the rabbit). But the most valuable thing for a prey animal is comfort, so you can’t base your training on rewards because they wouldn’t understand, it’s not how they view the world.
In the video below you can see some of Kyra’s behaviours that I trained with 100% positive reinforcement.
Horses are herbivores and don’t need to hunt for their food. The argument that ‘therefor herbivores cannot be trained well with positive reinforcement’ is a sophism. Positive reinforcement (adding appetitives in order to reinforce behaviour) works just as well for herbivores as it does for predators.
All animals, including prey animals, herbivores and even roundworms can learn and respond to stimuli from their environment. They all learn to avoid aversives (unpleasant stimuli) and learn what to do in order to receive appetitives (pleasant stimuli). It is simply a survival mechanism.
Besides that, even herbivores do have to do something in order to eat: they have to walk to a stream or lake in order to find water, a herd has to move if they eat all the grass in the area and they have to search for special medicinal herbs or salt in order to self medicate.
While positive reinforcement or clicker training is usually associated with training with food rewards it doesn’t have to be food to motivate the animal in training. A trainer can use everything as appetitive as long as the horse wants to receive it.
It is the receiver (the horse) who determines if something is worthwhile to receive and he wants more of. It is the trainers job to find out what it is and to observe if the behaviour is really getting stronger by the reward he is offering.
What myths or arguments have you heard that clicker training won’t work for horses? Let me know in the comments.