Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Though more complex in thought and emotion, human beings share a surprising number of traits with horses and other mammals. We may not have head to toe body hair (with the exception of that guy at the pool…eeewww, tramatized forever) but we are highly motivated by some of the same things: comfort, security, and social and basic needs such as food/water/shelter. Behavior is shaped by the drive to acquire those things and can become incredibly ingrained in the individual.

There are three ways behavior is shaped in human beings and horses: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment. Positive reinforcment in relation to this blog would go something like this: Post in a timely manner and Bill Gates will call and offer to share his fortune. Negative reinforcement: Write a posting OR be forced to keep track of all the friends who have won a chicken, or pirate booty on Facebook games. Punishment: If you don’t post now—and send it to ten friends for luck—a large meteor will fall on the house (thereby destroying the computer and access to Facebook…certain descent into social obscurity).

Though not writing much the last month ( I’ve become one heck of a painter and floor sander, however), I have been reading. One of the books I bought is about clicker training horses and the concepts of positive/negative reinforcement and punishment as training tools. Written by Alexander Kurland, it is fascinating.

I discovered clicker training a few years ago when a friend from Wyoming visited and taught me the basics with my gelding, Tango. Clicker training is exclusively positive reinforcement and uses a marker sound—the click of a small device—followed by food reward to create and shape behavior. It has been used extensively to train dogs, dolphins, and even zoo animals like bull elephants. I used it previously to get Tango to accept deworming and, just for fun, to retrieve. It seemed a useful method for tricks and such but, frankly, I didn’t see much practical application beyond that.

For training horses, negative reinforcement is a very effective method to shape behavior and is probably used most by good horsemen and women. The horse gets to choose its behavior though, admittedly, it is often the “lesser of two evils” if the animal could express itself that way. For instance: “Load into the trailer and stand or move your feet A LOT outside.” The horse would rather avoid both of those scenarios if it had its way.

Punishment, as Kurland points out, is addictive behavior on the part of the motivator, often escalates, and gets inconsistent results at best. It is definitely used to train horses but in my experience rarely successful and, if it is, the positive results are short lived and actually invite worse behavior. I use punishment sparingly and almost exclusively to deal with overt aggressiveness such as biting and striking.

I’m not sure why I have regarded positive reinforcement (using a treat, specifically) as an inferior training method. That darn horse should just do what I want, when I want it, right? A long trail ride and collected work in the arena surely beats lounging in the shade with a flake of hay.

I picked up Kurland’s book because I enjoy experimenting and have been looking for ways to draw Eli out of his shell and invite expression. Though he tests me sometimes with naughtiness, he is overwhelmingly willing to please and has a good work ethic once I get him on task. But I get the feeling that there is just more available in my relationship with him. I don’t know why. Because positive reinforcement is exclusively about the individuals free choice and desire, I decided to try it with him and see what happens. Tune into the next posting and I’ll share the interesting initial results of clicker training sessions with both Eli and Chance. That is, of course, unless Bill Gates calls. In that case I may be gone (to the Bahamas) for another month.

PS. Clicker training horses has enjoyed renewed interest and respect because of the experience of Karen Murdock and her Thoroughbred horse, Lukas. Check out this link.
PPS. The above photo is of 3 yo Tucker, the stud colt I started over the months of May/June. He's gone home now but since he inspired a prior posting I thought he deserved an appearance. Is he a cutie patootie or what? Love that little guy...


Mary H. said...

Alexandra Kurland is excellent. Really a talented trainer.

She's good at teaching others too! I love her books and DVDs.

Recently found your blog and enjoyed this post. I'll be waiting to hear how the clicker training went with your horses.


Mary Hunter

Catherine said...

Thanks for stopping by, Mary. I'll have to look for Kurlands DVDs. I've gotten alot out of the book and another one I've been reading called, Unlocking the Animal Mind (think thats the title). Fascinating stories of offered behaviors on the part of "dumb" animals. Have you read Beautiful Jim Key?

Peggy Frezon said...

Hi Catherine! I like the changes in your blog. Alexandra Kurland is the trainer who worked with that Seeing Eye Horse I wrote about for Guideposts. Remember that one? I tried clicker training with my dog Kelly but one of us (me) failed!

Catherine said...

I do remember that one, Megs, how funny! Did you interview Alexandra? I'm enjoying her book alot. You must have been so inspired after doing that piece. Poor Kelly--lol. So far my boys are enjoying clicker training. I'll be updating this week on that. Thanks for the compliments on the new look...gotta keep up with you:).