Who hasn’t heard the statement that ‘if you train with treats (like in positive reinforcement), your horse doesn’t respect you, he will do it only for the food and not for you’. This is an interesting myth to debunk because there is so much to it.
‘Training with treats’
Not everyone who ‘trains with treats’ is using a marker or bridge signal (a click) or understands the importance of the timing of the food delivery.
The click indicates two things: it pinpoints the exact desired behaviour and it announces an appetitive.
If a trainer is not using a bridge/marker signal when rewarding the horse with food it can lead to confusion (Why did I get this? Was it random? Can I influence it?) and even frustration in the horse (Why is there no food today? I expect food now). This can cause the horse to become very focused on the food, instead of the marker and the desired behaviour to display. This can cause all kinds of undesired or even dangerous behaviours.
When a horse doesn’t understand that he must pay attention to the marker and the associated behaviour in order to increase the likelihood of a click, he can display behaviours that he thinks influences the appearance of a food reward. Often that’s behaviour that occurred during or just happened a few seconds before the food was offered: sniffing the pockets of the trainer, stepping towards the handler (the food) or other -in our eyes- undesired or ‘disrespectful’ behaviour. This is caused by miscommunication or lack of knowledge or experience of the trainer and not ‘just a result of working with food rewards’.
What is ‘respect’?
This leads us to the next question: what is respect and can a horse display respect to another species? Or is what we call ‘respectful’ behaviour just something else?
Simple Definition of respect
a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.
a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way
a particular way of thinking about or looking at something
I think we should scrap the word ‘respect’ out of our vocabulary when we talk about the horse-human relationship. We, humans, can still respect the horse, but we have no way of knowing if ‘the horse feels admiration’ for us when he looks at us.
What behaviours do we expect when we are talking about the horse must’ respect’ us? We all know we can’t force respect, but why do so many trainers behave like they can?
Here are some ‘respectful’ behaviours:
- the horse doesn’t step into our personal cirkel, unless invited
- the horse respectfully follows all our cues
- takes treats carefully/respectful from our hands (doesn’t grab the food)
- waits ‘politely’ until the food is offered (doesn’t mug us)
- stands when mounted or groomed
- et cetera
I think these behaviours can all be taught and are often more the result of training or a learning process in the horse than ‘a feeling or understanding [from the horse] that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way’.
If the horse is not behaving ‘respectful’ that is also the result of the learning curve in the horse. He simply has learned that stepping into your ‘personal circle’ or sniffing your pockets results in something he values (a scratching pole, getting attention, a pet or a treat).
The horse only works for the food, not for you
In the next episode of Myth Monday I will debunk the part of the myth that in clicker training it is only the food that motivates the horse. Stay tuned!
What myths about clicker training/ positive reinforcement have you heard?