Why punishment doesn't work

We don't want to admit it but there were moments when we punished our horses. Beat them, pulled on the reins, spurred them. One might feel bad afterwards, the other might think that the horse deserved it that moment. 
I don't want to go on about how to define punishment in scientific terms - there is as you know a difference between punishment and negative reinforcement in behavioral studies - but I want to give you two situations I have experienced lately as examples why and when punishment does not work.

1. The human triggers the behavior he wants to prevent

Whenever a friend of mine wants to saddle her gelding, he puts back his ears as soon as he sees the saddle. When she lifts it he starts weaving his head back and forth, and as soon as she dives for the girth and starts to tighten it, he turns his head and tries to bite. She tries to correct his bad expression with verbal commands like "Stop it" or "No" ; but
when he turns to bite she hits him with the hand. So the gelding stops biting and retreats to swishing his tail, shaking his head and pinching his ears. At a short notice she has succeeded in preventing the worst behavior - the biting part. But as sons as she comes to him with the saddle the next time he will start all over again
The punishment - beating him - only makes him hate saddling even more. He will not stop misbehaving because the human triggers it again and again with the saddling process. 
It's obvious that the gelding has a problem - be it the saddle pinching his shoulders, be it the human cinching up too quickly too tight or be it that he has abdominal pain. So instead of punishing the horse for giving his opinion it would be more appropriate to find and remove the cause of his behavior. So he doesn't feel the need to defend himself anymore.

Punishment does not work with horses

2. The horse doesn't connect the punishment with his behavior

Lately an excited mare hit her owner in the head when she quickly turned her nose from left to right. The owner hit her back with the stick. For the mare that didn't mean "Oh, I mustn't knock over my human" but rather "I knew right from the start that this place was dangerous!" When she was turning her head her focus was not on the human and her hitting the owner was coincidence. If the owner would have stood farther away the mare wouldn't have touched her. The human was in the wrong place - in the range of the mare's head - at the wrong time. 
Accordingly the mare doesn't relate her "bad" behavior with hurting the human - from her point of view she was only turning her head. 
As having to accept knocks in the head from your horse cannot be the solution, we better turn to prevention. The human has to teach the horse to respect and to insist on his personal space - even in situations that spook and distract the horse. 

1 comment:

  1. If you liked this post, you might want to check out Anna Blake's latest entry: http://annablakeblog.com/2014/05/23/training-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates/