Discipline versus Punishment versus Positive Reinforcement versus Other Opinions

I’ve wanted to create this thread for some time, but with my real life in chaos (caregiver, teacher, just general overwhelming anxiety), I held off.

I think everyone has opinions about correcting horses since I joke the equestrian world is kind of cultish (I fully claim I’m in a cult). So here are two extremes:

  1. A lady at my barn does “force free” training. I had no idea what this was except an off shoot of positive reinforcement. To give everyone an example, she doesn’t do anything without her horses’s consent. She actually stopped feeding her long yearling because he didn’t consent. He lost quite a bit of weight, so she realized she should probably feed him. Her mare very obviously has health problems, but you know, consent.
  2. On the other side is another lady who hits her horses for any little thing. Horse wouldn’t stand tied, so she hit the horse in the face.

I have my opinions, but I’m curious what people’s thoughts are about disciplining horses. It seems like positive reinforcement is in vogue for fairly good reasons. There are the more extreme versions (I’m posting a video of a trainer someone sent me, but I think it’s borderline dangerous). Of course, there are people who still believe in other versions of punishment.

How should one discipline a horse if at all? What are other people’s thoughts and opinions?

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WOtcE9hMMM

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My barn girl and I just discussed this on a ride back from a competition. We agreed that yelling and hitting a horse in anger or frustration accomplished nothing, but we both confessed to doing that when a horse stepped on our toes! We agreed horses can’t see human toes and it truly was an accident, but hard not to respond with a shout and a shove! Personally, I train with endless repetition. As to reward, a trainer pal said “when I leave him alone, that’s his reward.” I follow that. When response is correct, all cues stop.

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I use both copious amounts of praise, with discipline as needed. The right response gets lots of verbal praise and pats.

When just learning, there is no real punishment - the horse learns that wasn’t the answer because the cueing/annoyance does not stop.

I am HUGE about a horse being safe and understanding boundaries on the ground. I do not tolerate ANY crowding, running over me, spooking into me, walking ahead of me, bucking, jigging, etc. It is SO much more pleasant to be around animals that have boundaries and know the black-and-white rules of ground manners. In addition, your barn owner/manager/employee does not want to deal with Floofy’s ill behaviors. Trust me. For ground manner “violations” the punishment is often swift and harsh, then back to business as usual. All of my horses have been great on the ground, for the farrier/vet/anyone. They aren’t nervous or edgy because the rules are black and white - X is acceptable, Y is unacceptable and there will be a consequence.

The under saddle portion of their lives I’m a bit more lenient, because this is where I do want them to express if something is hard, or uncomfortable, or whatever. This is where, while I am still the “leader” between the two of us, I understand I am asking for difficult things and don’t mind them letting me know how they feel (within reason). I typically have a 3 strikes rule, where they get 3 instances of “big” acting out before there is a consequence. For example, my Old Man horse will kick out at the whip. He gets 3 of those before his little furry behind gets put to much harder work, so that he learns that kicking out just isn’t worth it.

I’m not saying my methods are right, or the only way to do things. It’s just what I do, and it works for me.

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That’s incredibly ironic that the force free boarder stopped feeding her horse. The vast majority of force free trainers state that they do so for the wellbeing of the horse and that’s their priority. I would argue that feeding a horse is crucial to their wellbeing but anyways.

I’ve tried a lot of training techniques on my horse and I think you honestly just have to see which seems to work best because each horse is individual with their preferences for learning. Between your two examples, I would say I’m in the middle with a slight lean towards the 1st one as I do use some R+ and don’t do a whole lot of strong disciplining. This works very well for me but that doesn’t mean it’ll work just as well for everyone else’s situation and that’s fine.

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She waits to see if the horse comes to her, and if it doesn’t, she said the horse didn’t consent to feeding. I’m oddly intrigued by her view, but also it’s strange.

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I’m all for positive training as much as possible and use both treats and praise extensively in all my training with all my animals. I will also discipline my animals, though, for their health & safety as well as my own.

A 1000lb horse who thinks it’s okay to dance a jig and run over his handler every day on the way to turnout is not a horse that’ll find a soft landing if I get hit by a bus tomorrow. So all my horses have great ground manners and if it took a chain shank and the occasional elbow in their side to teach them that, well, so be it.

Likewise, my shepherds are big, scary (to non-dog people) dogs. While I might see 70lbs of enthusiastic puppy lunging at the end of the leash, that’s not what Joe Public with dog fears see. So even the puppy has to behave like a civilized being when we’re out in public and if that takes leash correction when he forgets, well, my dogs aren’t going to be the one running over grandma in the park.

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As with all things horses, It Depends.

I have one horse now that I am glad I own later in my life versus when I was younger. He is the type of horse I wished I owned as a young rider, but he is a horse that could be ruined in the wrong program or hands and I don’t think I was ready for him as a YR. He opened a lot of ‘thinking’ doors for me. He challenged every bit of knowledge I had about how to produce a riding horse, and encouraged me to open my toolbox and look for better options out there for him.

The funny thing is, he doesn’t do anything bad – but he is incredibly sensitive to the point I joke he is the world’s worst empath.

There is something to be said for watching a horse’s body language and seeing what they react to. Your ‘force-free’ boarder is at the total Coco-Loco deep end of that mindset – but if you dial her back about 75%, you hit the threshold in which most horses would blossom under a little more conversation, a little less confrontation or ‘you’re-gonna-do-it-no-matter-what’ handling.

Horses and people would be better served if more horse-people out there watched how horses react to their presence and objects they bring the horse. Next time you bring your saddle to your horse, watch his eye. Watch his feet and his body. Watch his mouth - does it change? How about his breathing rate? Strive to understand the dialogue your horse is giving you. A good horse-person can read these signals and shape how they handle the horse accordingly. Some horses don’t care how they are handled. Some are shut down or tuned out. And some need a little more compassionate handling to learn they can trust their people.

One of the quirks the horse I mentioned above has is that he is ear-shy. He has aural plaques that his prior owners tried to treat by a series of blistering. In the beginning any topical in your hand made him suspicious, and if you watched his breathing or listened to his heart rate you could see it was elevated. He knows what brushes and bridles go near his face, but if you have a new colored brush or new tool, he is immediately suspicious of it. He became unhandleable when a vet of mine tried to strong-arm him into a speculum. He is a horse that just does not do brusque handling.

I thought it was a lack of good ground manners, but it really wasn’t. This horse was just telling us he didn’t trust that what we were doing wouldn’t hurt him. I spent several months letting him set the boundaries, and listening to them. I’d approach with Corona ointment in my hand during grooming, where he groundties. He knew not to move his legs, but he’d try to turn his head away from me before I even got to his shoulder. So I’d stop and put the Corona away.

He picked up pretty quickly what was going on. Instead of the behavior worsening, it got better. I started being able to carry it around him without him caring. Then I’d pour the ointment on my hand and bring it to him. The first few times he said ‘no, I don’t trust it’ so I put it away. Then after the third or fourth time, he started to want to sniff it. Then he was fine with me putting it on his shoulder. Then he was fine with it on his neck, then he was fine with it on his face, and now he’s fine with it in his ears.

The really interesting thing about me adopting this approach is now I see him actively communicating with me in other ways too, and I can recognize it whereas before I was tuned out of it. He’s not so ‘shut off’ about what’s happening around him anymore. He has a specific look for when he wants to investigate something in my hand - like that new brush, or a tool when I’m working in the paddock.

That little bit of time I took to show him I was listening has completely transformed this horse, who now accepts the speculum readily, lets you put SWAT in his ears, knows a new tool or brush isn’t going to hurt him, and has become inquisitive rather than suspicious of human activity.

I look at instilling manners in a horse in two ways. One: this is a large animal. It can easily accidentally kill its handlers, and it needs to be taught to respect space and it needs to be a good citizen… BUT… this horse, who outweighs us ten to one, needs to have a reason to trust us. They put up with a lot of unpleasant things like clipping, trimming, bathing, trailering, and riding all out of the sheer generosity in their hearts… so it’s up to us as handlers to find that balance of goodwill and good manners, and give horses a reason to want to be good to us.

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A couple years ago, I read Tik Maynard’s book, In The Middle Are The Horsemen. At first, I thought it was a wishy washy thesis. I thought he should take a clearer stand against harsh and coercive training methods. But now, I get it. I don’t feel that dogmatic about horse training. I feel the opposite of dogmatic, whatever that is. The cruelest training is training that doesn’t work. I guess I’ve taken more of an “ends justify the means” perspective, as in do what it takes to get the point across, reinforced, and installed as a habit, and be flexible about the means to get there. Then the “habit” part is the key. More than any technique or concerted effort to train, it’s the whole environment, routine, and expectations of the horse that are the determining factors in how a horse behaves and performs. I think that is a big part of why it can be so advantageous to be in a program, and why it’s hard to replicate that training for a horse in a less structured environment.

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Just because someone calls themselves some sort of trainer like “force free” or whatever the term they choose is, doesn’t mean all people who use the term force free or similar train the same. I think you have to look at people as individuals and how they train their horses without the labels.

Personally, I am in the mindset that horses can learn better when they are comfortable and trusting. Patience is everything and though it may take longer but you get there quicker :wink: I am against any sort of violence, fear or abuse in training. I have seen myself the change in my own horses over the years as my training and understanding of horse behavior and psychology works and being patient, kind, and understanding with horses has a much better effect long term than any training done with force or fear. Positive reinforcement works and is scientifically proven as a training method, however positive reinforcement training doesn’t just mean shoving treats in your horses mouths.

Horses should always come first, that being said if a horse is being dangerous or acting in a way that might hurt a person or another horse, sometimes force is necessary.

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For this topic it’s really useful to refer to the 4 quadrants of behavior modification and be clear which one you are using.

Positive reinforcement (treat), great for tricks and groundwork. Negative reinforcement (pressure and release) great for riding. Positive punishment (like a shout or a slap) needed for actual aggressive behavior like biting or kicking. Negative punishment (take away a privilege or food) harder to conceptualize for hirses.

You need all the first 3 at least for training effectively. There have been a lot of threads on this.

There are crazy people misusing all these methods and standard trainers also using them in suboptimal ways.

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Initially I thought “force free” training lady was crazy-- she is ignoring her one horse’s health issues-- but she does pose some interesting questions that I think are important: is it a health issue or basic training issue? She’s forced me to not jump to conclusions about a situation.

I do think the phrase is wrong since the moment we engage with horses there is a level of “force” if we associate force with pressure. Even brushing horses is a level of force.

I’m not even going to discuss your two examples because both are extreme outliers and don’t warrant consideration beyond saying, “Those people are idiots.”

The definition of discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience,” so you can’t really separate discipline and punishment. In general, I’m against discipline/punishment in horse training, but then, the gray area is in defining what, exactly, constitutes “punishment,” because different people define it differently.

For example, my new horse is young, mouthy, and a bit of a biter. When I’m handling him and he gets that “I’m going to take a nip” look on his face, I growl at him and say “No” in a forceful voice. Is that punishment? If I’m grooming and he swings his head around at me, I put my elbow out so his muzzle smacks into my elbow. Is that punishment?

If we’re at a show and he comes out of the stall really fresh, I put him on a lunge line and we work until he settles down and starts listening instead of bucking and jumping and ignoring me. Sometimes, he ends up huffing and puffing and steaming in the cool dawn air. Is that punishment?

My preferred method of horse training is the classic pressure-relief approach. Like @Foxglove said, endless repetition and removing the pressure when the response is correct.

That said, horses are big and they can hurt you and sometimes, they do things that call for a more aggressive, forceful approach, like John Lyons “3 seconds rule:”

But again, gray area. Exactly what actions on your part constitute “kill him?” I’m pretty sure I can make my current horse believe that I’m going to kill him without actually laying a hand on him. Is that punishment?

My personal horse training idol is a guy who started one horse for me and did some remedial work with another. He followed the pressure-release approach with the classic “make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy” philosophy. I never saw him get aggressive with a horse and he had such great feel and depth of experience that he could see resistance and misbehavior coming three steps before the horse ever got there and short circuit it, so it never happened. I will never achieve that level of feel and ability, but it’s something to aspire to.

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Maintaining the pressure (and it may be as light as a feather) allows the horse to search for the right answer. I feel it creates thinking in the horse, and to a degree, patience.

The 3 second rule: Just like a mare disciplining a naughty foal. Lightning fast and fair, and no hard feelings.

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I think we all use different versions of several things. If I had to describe my approach, I’d say “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”. But, I do choose spurs with some horses, I do use whips when necessary, I will “drill” if that seems appropriate.

Part of making the right thing easy is insuring the horse is physically ready which is one of the places that “drilling” (repetitions) comes into play. You build the muscle so the horse can answer correctly. On the other hand, drilling for behavior seems counterintuitive to me. (I had friends who had western pleasure horses that they would exercise and the exercise was EXACTLY the same each time. X circuits at the walk, Y circuits at the trot, Z circuits at the canter. Absolutely NO variation ever. In fact, she and her daughter would ride these horses at opposite sides of the arena, and match each other stride for stride. They won a lot of competitions, but those horses were dull dull dull.)

I do subscribe to the notion that spurs are refinements of the leg aid (NOT punishment) and that whips are the signal for “that is wrong” but it must be judiciously applied or it makes no sense to the horse. I also subscribe to Never punish the mouth. In fact, finding the right bit or bit replacement is a crucial step often overlooked IMHO.

I haven’t dealt with youngsters in years, so my whole notion of how to deal with them is very fuzzy.

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Force free training lady is crazy. She has taken a kernel of a good idea - that force and coercion shouldn’t be the foundation of your training program - and embellished it with a bunch of nonsense.

It’s crazy to think that a horse not coming up to you means that he doesn’t want to be fed. Maybe the horse wants his dinner, but he doesn’t trust her enough to come up to her to get it. Maybe he wants his dinner, but he doesn’t want it now. Maybe he doesn’t feel safe in the location where she wants him to eat. Maybe the alpha horse is eating in too close a proximity to where she wants him to come and eat and he’s afraid to get that close.

In fact, I think you could say that force-free training lady is actually using coercive methods to force the horse to eat exactly where and when she wants him to eat and if he doesn’t comply, he goes hungry, which is controlling and authoritarian, a far cry from her professed desire to be “force-free.”

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Force free lady is trying to use negative punishment to make horse obey. It’s like “go to your room without dinner, young man, until you can behave.” Problem, horses don’t have the human brain power to connect being hungry all night to mouthing off at mom that afternoon. Negative punishment is pretty much a fail with horses. Positive punishment on the other hand is exactly what they use on each other. Nip me, and I will charge at your with my teeth bared and drive you to the end of the pasture. Immediate and obvious. Over in 5 seconds and all forgiven. Horses get that and appreciate it.

Force free lady is totally confused and is an idiot. You just need to not look at her as much as you can.

Where less craycray people mess up is not realizing that in any pressure and release negative reinforcement which includes all riding cues, the reward is in letting go the pressure. So keeping your horse in a death grip rolkur and yelling good boyee as you blast round the arena is not rewarding him. Surprise surprise he gets heavier and heavier. Using pressure to move a horse and then giving a treat is not positive reinforcement per se. also, getting a horse razzed up emotionally does not teach them anything but to fight with you. Learning comes in calm clear moments.

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Oh, I have stories about her. I think for my own sanity, I just try to think about the situation positively because otherwise I would be bald from ripping out my hair.

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I think a lot about setting horses up to succeed, making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy, and I find R+ helpful for sticky ground manner issues. I correct horses for unsafe behavior but I don’t even conceive of it as punishment, I feel like that word brings in a level of emotion that isn’t appropriate… it’s just a response to their action.

I don’t really see people whaling on their horses, thankfully, but I do see people stuck in cycles of ‘punishing’ to stop unwanted behavior without thinking about WHY the behavior has occurred, which over time makes the situation worse. If your horse is dancing around in the cross-ties because he’s anxious, and you snap “stop it” and jerk on his halter, he’ll probably stop… but you’ve just confirmed his belief that the crossties are a stressful place, so tomorrow he’s going to dance around more, and next week maybe he won’t want to be caught, and on and on.

I’ve had two super green horses this year and help out with a few more. It is funny to see the cycle repeating where people tell me I’m too easy on them, and then after a month or two the same people are blown away by their progress and manners. I had one lady insist I needed to “be the boss” of a really unhappy pony and after a couple of months of me pretty much just being nice to him, she told me that in 30 years as a professional she had never seen such a positive change in a horse in such a short time. I had another person very much caught up in a ‘punishing their anxious horse’ spiral tell me I’d made more progress with my new horse in a few weeks than she had with hers in a year. Maybe they’ll connect the dots eventually?

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yes very good points about not punishing anxiety. You need to know what and why your horse is doing things, and think about the solutions.

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IMHO, true discipline is reserved for truly dangerous behavior - biting, kicking, striking in my direction, or charging. It shows either willful intent, or simply being obviously to my presence, but either way, is a clear and present danger to my health (or life). I’m ok going all banshee bat-crap crazy on a horse with noise and even hitting behind the head. Avoid the head with everything possible. 3-5 seconds, then stop (assuming he’s backed off, hopefully WAY off)

Then there’s positive and negative reinforcement.

PR is the act of praising/rewarding for doing a behavior you want. This should be a huge part of all training, especially if it’s a behavior we can’t or don’t know how to cue for - yet - so you need it to happen so you can reward it and start creating a cue around it.

Another example of using PR is a horse who dances around on the cross ties. Not dangerous, he’s not hurting anyone or anything, so we don’t tell him “stop doing that” because that doesn’t tell him what TO do. Instead, pay attention and the second he’s planted his feet, praise the crap out of him. Over time, you can even start building a cue to “stand up” or something like that.

Another PR example is - he knows the canter cue, but it takes him a few seconds to consider whether to do it, but he’s still learning. Or maybe he regularly goes right into the canter, but sort of ho-hum, without energy. One day, he goes YES M’AM! and leaps into a lovely canter. You praise the crap out of that extra effort.

Negative reinforcement is NOT a bad thing. Every single leg aid is a NR aid, whether it’s for the canter or leg yield or haunches in. Apply pressure, he does as you ask, you remove that pressure as the reward, the cue that he did the right thing.

“Negative reinforcement” is NOT punishment. It is the negating (removal) of a pressure.

If you want a horse to give to the left rein, don’t punish him when he moves to the right, either by jerking on the rein, or by not being aware and ending up increasing the pressure and pulling against him. Just keep asking for what you DO want, and the second he gives to the left - no matter where his head is, drop the rein (NR) and praise (PR). It doesn’t matter if his head is still cranked around to his right side, the goal wasn’t to get his head turned to his left side, it was to move in to that pressure. That’s it. Soon he’ll stop moving away from it, and then he’ll start moving into it.

The biggest problem I see/hear is people constantly telling their horse “don’t do that”. Ok, so, that’s telling him 1 thing not to do. What about the 5,546 other things he COULD do? 5,545 of those still won’t be what you want. So, just keep asking for what you DO want. He’ll be happier, you’ll be happier.

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