Regret Natural Horsemanship and Positive Reinforcement Learning?
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
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To answer the title question: Do I Regret my Natural Horsemanship and Positive Reinforcement Learning? Please read on.......
The header to my blog page advises that each installment is written at just one moment in time. Like all of us, I grow and change in my mindset regarding teaching humans and their horses. With each passing year, my practices and thoughts have become more and more focused on how the HORSE feels, thinks, and processes in order to better build trust & communication for the partnership. (*See an example of how my perceptions changed in two years….at the bottom of this page)
I feel that building upon ideas, my style, and mindset helps me become a better teacher and horsewoman. Each bit of learning enhances prior learning. Certainly, there are times that new learning negates some part of what I’ve latched onto in years past. In those situations, I let go of ideas/concepts that don’t really fit into my current belief system.
So, 2022 is no different than past horsemanship learning/teaching years. I’ve grown to learn that there are better ways to connect, relate, and communicate with our equine partners.
My Horsemanship history
A quick clarification: Although I began with horses in the traditional English methodologies, I consider natural horsemanship to be the impetus of starting the journey towards what I believe to be good horsemanship.
In the beginning: Natural Horsemanship
So, my horsemanship teaching began with Natural Horsemanship mostly from the Parelli
perspective … essentially well-timed: pressure and release. The goal being good, not average, and definitely not aggressive natural horsemanship (hopefully you know what I mean by that?).
Natural horsemanship subtracts pressure with a release when the horse gets it right (from the human perspective). There are also various versions of when to release pressure, not necessarily when the human gets the end desired behavior; but potentially when the horse is heading in that direction (as Sarah Schlote speaks of in her blog article: Connection Before Concepts: A Comparison of 3 Pressure-Release Methods).
Then: Positive Reinforcement
Later in my teaching methodologies, I began to embrace positive reinforcement behavior modification….slightly different in terms of adding a reinforcer when the horse gets it right….(rather than subtracting pressure). Quite often this is practiced with a “bridge” like a clicker or any kind of secondary reinforcer (like a quick vocal tone or a word) that lets the horse know that something positive is coming.
A little clarification: Sometimes people think that positive reinforcement must involve food. It doesn’t! In a previous blog installment “Adding Positive Reinforcement Communication to Bring More Clarity to Horsemanship”, it sheds light on the fact that the positive reinforcement (R+) reward “can be anything that the horse values in any given moment, such as rubs/scratches/touch, an energy the horse likes, a smile, vocal reinforcements and yes, also….treats. Additionally, the reinforcer can also be another behavior/activity that you know your horse enjoys doing. (When you think of it, in effect a “release” in natural horsemanship is positive reinforcement.”
What cornerstones of these training methodologies
contribute to 2022 teachings?
What I believe is critical to all behavior modification styles is: TIMING!
Both natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement teach the importance of timing. The horse LEARNS with precise timing of a release and/or the delivery of the secondary reinforcer which could be voice or clicker. The primary reinforcer (praise, food, energy, body language, etc) can come a bit later as the secondary reinforcer is the actual marker of the behavior.
Chunking the tasks/goals down into smaller approximations
When utilizing good natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement methodologies, it’s important to break every task or goal down into smaller chunks called approximations. An example could be with fly spray: 1) introduce the fly spray bottle from a distance 2) have the bottle make the spray sound from a long distance 3) come closer a bit at a time as is appropriate for your horse 4) come closer and closer with spray again keeping in mind how the horse feels 5) ultimately do one spray 6) finally build on the duration of the spraying.
Honoring the smallest try
No matter what you’re teaching your horse, for the horse to feel good and become confident about learning, a horse needs to know that you recognize and honor their smallest try. This way they know that they’re on the right track in deciphering your communication.
Many horsemanship methodologies speak of “energy”. I haven’t found much over the years with clinicians actually teaching how to find and use “energy” effectively with horses. I believe some men and women who are excellent with horses naturally, maybe even unconsciously, create an effective energy with them. However, I’m not sure that they’re aware of what they’re doing within themselves to teach it effectively. I was only aware of and practicing high and low (calm) energies; modulating in-between … as well as a drawing versus a sending energy, versus an “as you were” energy, plus maybe a few others.
Being able to use all your senses to imagine what you’re expecting from your horse or helping them understand what’s about to happen helps 1) clarify everything in your own mind while also …whether you believe it or not… 2) communicate what you’re looking for to the horse in a way that he/she can understand. An example: when drawing your horse in to you … creating an imaginary line on the ground in the spot where your horse should stop OR when you’re asking for a horse to pick up his/her hoof…..picturing it in your mind.
My mindset and how I think now in 2022 –
and how previous learning shaped present practices
For the past five months, I’ve been studying in person and virtually with Dr. Susan Fay, author of the book: Sacred Spaces: Communion with the Horse through Science and Spirit as well as reading everything I can on energy vibrations….as well as seeking to get a better understanding of our neurological systems.
Dr. Susan Fay believes that the responsibility for many of the issues humans have with their horses lies predominantly on the human. The human needs to do the work; this doesn’t mean practicing mechanical physical techniques and methodologies à la some of the positive reinforcement and natural horsemanship teachings. It means working on oneself in terms of energies, thoughts, breathing, and being “in-the-moment”.
My interpretation of my learning with Dr. Fay is that working with and communicating our desires to horses is about using certain emotional/feelings energies while maintaining a very specific steady breathing style (non-predator-like). Also, sometimes the energies are in the “ask” and sometimes they’re a positive reinforcer. Although finding various energies and communicating with horses in this way is super effective and horses seem to really appreciate and read it, it’s not easy. It takes a lot of time on the human’s part…..but oh so worth it!!!
These “feelings” energies involve emotions and the ability to access certain emotions/feelings within one’s body. That along with mental imagery betters our communication of what we’re doing or asking of our horse. My understanding is that these energies are essentially vibrations which the horse can feel (humans can too, but we’re not quite as aware). These concepts give real tangible meaning and accessibility to the elusive “energy” concept.
More positive feelings create a higher vibration like peace, joy, gratitude, harmony, love, etc. (Be careful with the last one … as everyone’s embodiment of the word “love” is different and may or may not influence a horse in the way that one might want.)
It seems that each horse has feelings/energy vibration preferences at certain times …..which is also challenging to ascertain. But, WOW when you find it…it’s obvious to see in your horse …and what a difference!!!
Much of what I’ve learned about energy vibrations or feelings/emotional energies seems to also be consistent with this book, The Hidden Messages in Water by Masaru Emoto. Here's a short excerpt: “Human beings are also vibrating, and each individual vibrates at a unique frequency. Each one of us has the sensory skills necessary to feel the vibrations of others. A person experiencing great sadness will emit a sadness frequency, and someone who is always joyful and living life fully will emit a corresponding frequency. A person who loves others will send out a frequency of love, but from a person who acts out evil will come a dark and evil frequency.”
My horses and horses that I’ve been working with have made it clear to me that these principles of energy (along with imagery) are for sure the way to connect and communicate with our horses….both in-the-saddle and on-the-ground. Depending on each horse’s nature, I’m embodying certain energies and I see that the horse becomes more motivated and animated OR is able to find relaxation and safety OR has clarity and feels appreciated if they’ve accomplished my request OR becomes calmer and accepting of honoring my boundaries.
Let me take a moment to circle back to: “Each bit of learning enhances prior learning.” at the beginning of this article. I would not be able to successfully practice this newer “emotions/feelings energy” learning without my prior horsemanship learning including: precise timing; creating small approximations; honoring the “try”; as well as being aware of and focusing on the concepts of creating imagery and energy.
To learn more, please
email: firstname.lastname@example.org or text/call: 845-598-0069
Kyle Van Splinter
We move as One Horsemanship
* It's funny to look back (example of changing mindset and perceptions over time). The following is an excerpt from my August ’20 blog article: "Adding Positive Reinforcement Communication to Bring More Clarity to Horsemanship":
“Also, I noticed that certain behaviors (or tricks, if you will) would really get my horses excited (in a good way 😊). My horses would have a sparkle in their eye and were waiting with bated breath for me to give the signal or cue. I believe the reason for this is that when I taught my girls those particular moves, I became truly SUPER excited when they performed them well for the first time. I know they loved it when I did that…..and they liked feeling successful too. I know that consistency is the key and if I were to be perfect in duplicating my energy, vocal responses, and emotions each and every time, my horses would always be that excited about everything we do together. Although the timing and execution of that is not always so easy.”