Moments of Recognition - Training for Connection in Relationship-Based Horsemanship
There's a lot of debate as to what's ethical in the horse world. Human minds are complex. We may be fairly intelligent animals, but all too often we cannot see the most obvious things. How can we be outraged by an outrider having to get rough with a young, fired up racehorse in an effort to protect his own horse, but then be ok with that same racehorse being beaten down the track by the jockey to win a race? How do we reconcile accusing a neighbor of neglecting his thin, aging horse, when we're spurring our own horses' sides and yanking them around by their mouths their whole lives?
So many of us say that we love our horses, but then trap them in stalls 23 hours a day, condemning them to a life of solitude and slavery. We expect them to give us their bodies without us putting any effort into the relationship. We get so caught up in our goals and objectives that we often forget to consider their perspective and then go through the motions of what endless gurus, who don't even know our horses, say we should do.
The human mind is really good at normalizing things that don't make sense. When we live in ways that don't make sense, or do things that don't make sense because of conventional norms, we create conflict with Nature ... and often each other because we are not all living by the same rules.
What is it about the way we perceive things that causes these illogical rationalizations? These are the things that polarize our world. Conventional norms often create problems for truth, and this is particularly problematic when the truth is the only hope we have of reorganizing human culture in a way that makes more sense to everyone.
Becoming conscious of perspective and expanding our awareness to notice the details of our reality is necessary to break down the walls of denial so we can really see the truth for what it is. In this way we can live in better alignment with Nature which is ultimately what needs to happen for continued human survival on this planet.
The horse world is plagued with denial and unethical norms. We initially want to be around horses because we love them. We want to build magical bonds with them and go on adventures together. But then we begin to learn that in order to get our horses to participate in conventional equine activities, we have to dominate them. This puts us in a predicament that we manage by denying the actual truth ... our horses just don't want to do these things.
If we authentically love our horses, we should want them to love us. And if we really want them to love us, we have to use the achievement and maintenance of that love as our objective for working with them. This means that we need to acknowledge their efforts and recognize them deeply when they try to connect with us. We need to train for connection, rather than performance. And if we do this, we'll probably be able to do any activity we want with them eventually anyway ... just with a better partnership, and having gone through a far more enlightening experience along the way.
Our horses can learn so many amazing things, but these things need to be learned with a willing mind, not conditioned into a resistant body though force and repetition. To keep a horse willing and tension-free, we MUST develop our energetic awareness so we can respond to his most subtle tries in real time. If we don't acknowledge these very small attempts at communicating, the horse will brace against our requests, and then in order to get him to participate, we must force him to comply.
Most conventional performance-based trainers use increasing pressure and its release as a way of training horses to do things. Many don't have knowledge of learning theory or understand that there are other ways of getting results. Then there are the trainers who believe that the only ethical way of training horses is to use strict food-based positive reinforcement methods. Although food rewards are a great way of motivating our horses and teaching them things cognitively, this sort of instant gratification leaves a lot "unsaid" in the horse's natural language and disturbs the flow of the energetic connection.
Taking a polarized view is usually not the best way to handle any scenario. Let's dive into learning theory a bit, specifically operant conditioning, and explore some effective and ethical ways of educating our horses that also enrich our relationships with them at the same time.
Negative Reinforcement (R+)
Imagine this. I'm sitting in a room with a person from a different culture, who speaks a different language then me. He seems eager to communicate. I decide I will teach him the phrase "high five" in my language. How do I do this?
Well, I would start by making sure I have his attention. I'd then raise my hand up and say, "High five!"
If he had never given someone a high five before, he would probably look at my hand, then look at my face ... and look a little confused.
I would wait ... keeping my hand up, and then send my attention to his hand by pointing or looking at it. Maybe I'd even nudge his arm a bit.
Once he focused on his own hand, I might look back at his face, nod, and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah!", but then I'd send my attention back to his hand until he lifts it. Maybe I'd even touch his hand gently to encourage him to move it. At any point during this scenario, I'd obviously drop my attention from his hand once he understood what I was trying to show him.
Attention is a form of energy that can stimulate behavior. In this scenario, we are using our attention to create a stimulus that is released to reinforce a behavior. In operant conditioning this is referred to as negative reinforcement (R-).
In R- conditioning, the release is what teaches. This is a very natural way to communicate. There's nothing wrong with it. The term "negative" is unfortunate because people generally think of it as a harsh way to train, when in reality the term "negative" in this case simply means removing something to convey meaning.
Many definitions of negative reinforcement use the phrase "creating an aversive that is removed to reinforce a behavior". Based on my lifetime of experience as an animal trainer, this isn't always the case. In our "high five" scenario, I wouldn't say that the attention I was bringing to this person's hand was causing an aversive sensation that he wanted to get rid of. I would say that I was creating a binary system of communicating using the presence of energy verse its absence to create meaning. The ethical divide should be whether the subject is willing or unwilling to participate, and not actually have to do with the negative reinforcement process itself.
That's not to say that people don't take R- too far. I wouldn't start smacking my new friend's hand if he didn't get it. All that would do is piss him off and make him uncomfortable, which would shift him from cognitively functional to emotionally reactive. The energy I'm creating switches from calmly "showing" to aggressively demanding, and his friendly communicative state becomes defensive. His mind would go from permeable to impermeable, and he probably wouldn't even want to be around me anymore.
We cannot learn if we're resistant to learning. This puts us in avoidance mode. At that point, in order to figure out the solution, one would need to be forced to find the meaning through trial and error, while undergoing a great amount of stress in the process.
Taking R- to extremes like this is common in conventional horse training. Humans do not generally spend the extra time needed to ensure the horses are willing and able to keep up with us cognitively. Most horses wouldn't be able to meet the standards of competition if trainers gave them the time they needed to properly process requests and compromise with them when needed. As a result, horses learn that training is about finding a way out rather than figuring things out. I believe THIS is where the ethical divide lies in horse training.
Positive Reinforcement (R+)
Positive reinforcement (R+) is act of creating meaning by adding something the moment the desired behavior is presented. Food rewards are the most common reinforcers in R+ conditioning.
Clicker training is a great way of utilizing food to train animals. The "click" marks a behavior the instant it is presented so the animal understands exactly what he did to get the reward. He quickly learns that when he hears the "click", a yummy snack follows. The animals tend to get really excited and engaged in the learning process this way.
This is a great way to teach a lot of behaviors, but with horses, I find that constant clicking can become very stimulating, and because they're so sensitive to energy, this can contradict the relaxation and softness I look for when cultivating a fluid energetic connection with them.
It's hard to eliminate physical tension in horses when they are constantly being stimulated ... even if its a good kind of stimulation. And although this sort of conditioning is great for cognitive learning, it places the horse's attention on the reward and how to get the reward rather then on the connection itself. This is a form of instant gratification. Energetic connection is not found this way.
Most people think food rewards are the only way to utilize positive reinforcement conditioning. This is not the case. I use food as a motivator a lot in my work, but it's not the only way R+ can be implemented. Remember R+ conditioning is the addition of something to create meaning. In binary communication we are building language through the presence of something vs its absence. We present something or remove something. R+ is the presenting of something. R- is the removing of something.
The Moment of Recognition - Energy as a Positive Reinforcer
In my work with horses, one of the most powerful methods I have of communicating with them is to create what I call a "Moment of Recognition". This is something I add during the "yes" moment when I'm trying to teach a horse something. The moment of recognition is when I exchange eye contact with the horse and share a moment of stillness with him that contrasts everything else in the atmosphere. We share intimate acknowledgment and recognition of each other in these moments that helps the horse relax and lean into learning process.
Now some may say that this is negative reinforcement because I'm removing all energy and noise. However, the way I see it is that the horse would not bring himself to this stillness as his neutral state. He would ebb on with the flow of life, grazing, socializing, and responding to his environment. The reinforcer in this case is the addition of stillness and eye contact. This creates an energetically peaceful moment that calms the horse, rather than stimulating him as food rewards often do. There's also an profound display of mutual recognition for one another that bonds our horses to us unlike anything else.
Horses are sensitive to all types of energy. Energy is not just a stimulant, it can also be a calming agent, and it can be used to generate emotions conducive to learning. We need to remember to reinforce certain emotions the horse is showing just as much as the behaviors we would like to develop.
As we refine our ability to use energy to communicate, we become energetically connected to our horses, where even the slightest shifts in our awareness can trigger responses from our horses. Our immediate acknowledgement of these responses is what keeps our horses attuned to us as we work with them. This "dialogue" we create with the horses becomes just as captivating for them as it is for us because the horse is getting as much feedback from us as we are from them.
Energetic connection between horse and human is found by mindfully feeling for one another during the interaction. This provides continuous gratification on both sides because we're both tension-free and completely engaged. This sort of immersion is referred to as flow state.
Energetic connection is a fluid, dynamic state where energy is being exchanged continually in an almost a trance-like state that clickers and food rewards would break up. At this point the cognitive work that we used to develop the horse's acceptance of the connection gives way to the connection entirely. Horse and human fall into flow state together, creating a feedback loop that uses its own momentum to maintain the connection. But should the connection get severed, cognitive work steps back in reinforce the connection until flow state can be re-established.
When working with horses, I mostly use R+ to stimulate cognition, and R- to cultivate and communicate within the energetic connection. Cognition and connection are the most fundamental objectives in my horsemanship. Once I achieve energetic connection, it becomes self-gratifying for the horse and essentially becomes its own reinforcer. I find that that ideal way to build language with horses is to combine positive and negative reinforcement approaches, and use each as needed to find flow and balance in our relationship with our horses. We need to create clear binary systems of communication. When we do this, our work with the horses is less about "training" and more about teaching and exploring together in the moment.
Energy is a universal language ... the natural language of all life. Most of us humans have removed ourselves so far from Nature that we don't understand these simple ways of interacting with the world anymore. Exchanging energy is how we function within our reality at a fundamental level. Working with horses helps us get in touch with our bodies while expanding our intuitive capabilities. Fighting over meaningless details that create division and resistance is as stupid as forcing horses to do meaningless things just to exacerbate our ego. We should be utilizing our horsemanship to help horses understand how to live and find joy in this very human world, and to help ourselves to reconnect with innate life skills that can help us make better use of our lives.
A well-lived life is about finding balance. And the intuition we find during this process can be used to make choices that are aligned with the highest possible good. Relationship-based horsemanship is the art of seeking this balance. It is an enriching and meaningful journey, and at the end of the day, isn't enrichment and meaning what we are all really searching for anyway?