Updated: Sep 7
There are countless training approaches within the many different equestrian disciplines in the horse industry. The common thread among the vast majority is the tendency to use negative reinforcement as the primary means of conditioning the horses to respond to cues. If the executed effectively, the horses learn to respond consistently to the demands of their trainers, and understand what they have to do to avoid being subjected to some sort of aversive stimulus. In relationship-based horsemanship (RBH), we look for ways to not only educate the horse but also build, preserve, and nurture the integrity of the horse-human relationship ... and there is much more to it then pressuring them to do something.
Let's break it down. In most conventional horse training approaches the horse is conditioned to respond to a cue associated with pressure to achieve a desired outcome. In operant conditioning this is referred to as negative reinforcement. Horses use negative reinforcement to move their herdmates around. This establishes hierarchy. The horses with higher levels of awareness have a certainty that helps them minimize their energy output while moving other horses out of the way. Once hierarchy is established, all this horse has to do to move one of lower rank is walk over with the intention of taking that horse's space and the horse will move out of the way.
Trainers use the application of pressure to encourage a response from the horse. When that response is achieved, the trainer releases the pressure. This conditions the horse to respond consistently to certain stimuli. Prior to the application of pressure, the better trainers will insert a cue. The horse learns that if he responds correctly to the cue, there is no pressure that follows. If he does not respond correctly, then pressure will persist until he finds the answer.
The problem with using negative reinforcement as the sole method for training is that it does not inspire the horse's desire to participate. He does what we ask because he has to, not because he wants to. The hard truth is that the horse is simply a slave to our demands and must do what we want regardless of how he feels about it. This is not a partnership.
Another issue with this sort of conditioning is that trainers are not always empathetic to the emotional and psychological needs of the horse --- particularly when they are under pressure by clients or conditioning the horse for sports driven purposes. Many of us might view this as unethical and it also does more harm than good when it comes to effective training.
Horses tend to brace their bodies in areas where they feel too much pressure. If they can't find the correct answer to the demands of a relentless trainer, this will cause them to hold tension in that area. This can lead to all sorts of physical problems. This is why sports horses often spend so much time undergoing various types of physiotherapy to keep them sound. Not to mention, constant tension and inescapable discomfort causes horses to establish a state of learned helplessness and can completely shut them down emotionally. In a sense, they become nothing more then programmed robots, which is very sad and absolutely unacceptable if you ask me.
Now I realize that horses need to behave in certain ways to keep themselves safe in our human world, but there are other ways of educating them that do not damage their well being. And if humanity is ever going to evolve out of our current crisis, we need to gain control of our own behavior when it comes to what we project out into the world. So taking a training route that encourages compromise rather then compliance through dominance is probably healthier for all of us.
The beautiful thing about working with horses in a more collaborative way, is that in order to do it properly, we need to look inward. We have to expand our consciousness beyond the realms of what most of us are accustomed to, and obtain control over our compulsions and projections. Being good horsemen makes us more capable of maintaining a lifestyle that is harmonious with nature. The bare truth is that we can use our horsemanship practice to either devolve into a more dominant, incongruent state of existence, OR we can use it to help guide us into a stronger state of universal harmony and coherence. I don't know about you, but think I'll choose that latter. And this is what we do in relationship-based horsemanship (RBH).
In RBH we look for ways to encourage the horse's desire to interact with us. We want to soften his mind to the work we would like him to do. We do this by combining negative reinforcement (part of the horses' natural language) with positive reinforcement (the addition of something pleasurable when the horse finds the desired response), along with carefully applied emotional energy and feel. Understand that the objective of RBH is coherence, and establishing and maintaining softness in the mind and body of the horse.
If we work to find ways to preserve the integrity of the horse-human relationship during our training sessions, not only can we still achieve a wonderfully athletic riding horse capable of all the advanced movements and skills you could want, but we will also have a true partnership, and share with him a profound energetic connection. These things might take longer to establish then in conventional methods, but it will be a far more enriching experience for both horse and human along the way. Keep in mind that true joy in life comes not from the destination itself, but from our journey towards it.
Now, it will take a long series of blogs or even a book to really break down the processes involved with building meaningful relationships between horses and humans, but I would at least like to explain the idea behind establishing willful participation. When we work with the horse we are looking to reinforce and release in moments where the horse presents interest, curiosity, attentiveness, or any sort of relative relaxation. We encourage these states just as much as we would if we wanted to reward a correct response to a cue. In this way we are also continually acknowledging the horse when he shows desire or expression. The process of acknowledging the horse creates moments of recognition. Recognition is what bonds him to us. It help him know us just as much as we are trying to know him. He begins looking more closely at our expressions and ways of communicating, which then makes him a better learner.
If you are interested in learning more about RBH, look for my blog on 5 Roles of Relationship-Based Horsemanship. It offers a good foundational outline of how to build quality relationships with horses. Remember, good horsemanship needs to be something that is guided by the horse in the moment, so no one method or approach is more important than the intuitive skill of sensing how and when to use it. The best we can do is become better at maintaining awareness, empathy, and clarity with our horses. If we do this, we will become better leaders and partners for them, and in the process become better human beings.