In this month’s training article, Lindsey Partridge of Harmony Horsemanship discusses how people respond to her use of positive reinforcement. She also explains why it works for her.
As I wrapped up 2019, there were a couple important things that were happening for me that sparked some debate. The first happened shortly after I picked up my Mustang for the Ohio Equine Affaire training challenge (which I will be doing in April). The second is when I started putting my schedule for 2020 together, which includes various demonstrations and being a clinician at different horse events.
Both of these tasks reminded just how my training methods are often perceived, and how easily these methods can spark waves and controversy.
Let’s start with my Mustang. I picked him up from Illinois on December 13. The conventional or normal method for gentling Mustangs is to confine them in a small space and usually use a stick or a flag to make first contact with the Mustang. Most of the time this also means there is a fair bit of chasing or driving the Mustang around with the stick and flag.
Of course not everybody does this, but it seems the vast majority do.
I use a different process to gentle my mustangs. It’s a process of offering rewards and using patience to establish my first contact and complete the haltering process. Really it did not take me long — after a couple sessions I had the halter on and by the end of the first week I was leading the horse into the barn and was able to give him a needle for his vaccines. My vet was very impressed with what I was able to accomplish with my Mustang that I only had for a few days. I shared the process with my new Mustang on my YouTube channel.
After just a couple weeks doing less than an hour a day of training I was able to load him up on the trailer and bring him with me on my Florida tour, which included a demo in Virginia along the way.
My premise is that I want my horses to trust me and see me as a positive. When they are in the holding pens, a stick or flag is used to separate them and herd them into chutes where they are branded, given dewormer or, from the horse’s perspective, scared.
The stick does not have a positive image to the horse because of it being used as a tool to chase them and move them around. I am not saying that a flag or a stick is a bad tool or that they are being mean; handlers need to be able to move the horses around and separate them. I am saying it does not make sense to me to start by trying to reach out and touch your horse with the one object it has been trained to move away from and even be scared of.
I sparked some interesting comments on my YouTube channel after revealing my initial sessions of training my Mustang. I train my mustang in an open space — although it is a fenced-in paddock, it is a relatively large space where the horse can definitely get away from me. I go into the pen without a stick or a flag — instead I bring a bucket of alfalfa hay. I am not trying to lure the Mustang, but I offer rewards when the Mustang exhibits a behavior I want.
As one would expect, I get a lot of interesting comments and some people debating my training methods. At the end of the day, when you watch the sequence with my Mustang, it is a very gentle process. The horse is never made to be scared of me. It never tries to hurt me because I never make it feel trapped, so it is a significantly safer way to train a Mustang I think.
Some see what I’m doing as unsafe or unwise. If you understand that horses don’t just randomly attack you and that attacking is their survival instinct only if you are trapping or overwhelming them, then it makes it easier to understand that going into a pen with an untamed Mustang without a stick is actually okay.
I focus on understanding my own body language and my own energy to help keep the horse in a calm alert state. If he does something I do not like or he does run away, he is not punished. Punishment causes an emotional response, and when training horses it is best to avoid emotional reactions and instead focus on trying to keep the horse in a learning and thinking frame of mind. I use my own body with just a simple halter, lead rope and a reward system. It might be a little awkward carrying around my bucket of hay until my horse learns how to enjoy hay cubes or roughage cubes, but in my opinion it is well worth it. If I were a Mustang I would want to be trained by me.
When it comes to animal training, using food as a reward is accepted across many different species from dolphins to dogs and even to camels and many other animals. I’m not talking about just using food to get animals to perform tricks. There are many zoos that use food rewards to make daily living tasks a lot easier. For example, some zoos train the camels to move from one pen to the other without drama by using peanut butter as a reward.
Yet with horses using food as a reward is often met with a lot of resistance. Some studies show that you can train a horse nearly twice as fast using food as a reward. For me that is pretty important because I don’t have a lot of time every day with the other demands of being a new mom, being a full-time nurse when not on maternity leave, having other horses, and many other competing priorities.
This makes it interesting when I am booking different events for demos and expos. Some events love me and can’t wait to have me, and other events it is virtually impossible for me to get through the door or I actively get turned away.
This year I am pretty excited that I will be at the Horse World Expo in Pennsylvania at the end of February, at the Western States Horse Expo in California in May, the New Jersey State Fair in August, Equitana USA at Kentucky Horse Park in September and I have a couple other events that are tentative.
We also host Harmony Horsemanship meetups, which are kind of like our version of mini tradeshow events. There are different HH instructors that come and present different topics using demo students or their own horses to share knowledge that is based in positive psychology. Harmony Horsemanship is a training philosophy that straddles the space of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. We do some pressure and release training, but in a way that does not push a horse into flight mode. We also do a lot of positive reinforcement whether it be with food or by causing endorphin release.
Coming up in 2020 we have an HH Meetup booked in Morriston, Florida on Saturday February 7th and on Saturday March 28th in Dover Plains, New York.
There are many people who hold the strong belief that using food rewards with horses has no place in training. However I prefer to let the horses be the judges. They make massive progress with these training methods, I am able to win at many different types of competition with many different types of horses, I’m able to take on horses that other people give up on, the horse’s expression appears to be happy when they are at our clinics or in the program, many students remark at how effective and how much more progress they have made, and even with research on our side, we are still met with negativity.
There are two main arguments against using food rewards in training horses. The first is that you won’t be able to get your horse to do anything if you don’t have food. The other is that your horse will become a Cookie Monster.
My response is simple, let’s say you use a mounting block most of the time with your horse because it is easier on your horse’s back and more comfortable for both of you. Does that mean that your horse is not properly trained and you would not be able to find a way to get on your horse if you did not have a mounting block? Of course not.
Just because you use a tool did not mean it is your only option, and it does not mean that you are reliant on the tool. There are many options with horses and there are many types of rewards. We don’t have to use food, but using food is faster and more effective. The way that money is the universal reward for people, food is the universal reward for horses. It is fast and it is effective with most horses. However there are other options the same way that there are other options for rewards with people.
Secondly, you have to teach a child how to say please and thank you and you have to do the same for a horse. You can’t expect them to understand that they can’t throw a tantrum and want to demand more treats. You have to teach them what kind of behavior is acceptable around food. This is the same if you want to walk down a candy aisle without a child throwing a tantrum and demanding that they get a chocolate bar.
The onus is on at the parent or the guardian to teach the child how to behave appropriately around temptations. This does not mean the child can never have a chocolate bar when they go down the candy aisle, but it means that there are expectations about how they need to behave to earn that chocolate bar if you do not want to create a candy aisle monster.
At the end of the day, I feel good about and am excited about the training I’m doing with my horses. It is gratifying to see how well my horses do in competition. It is gratifying to see the amazing progress that students can make. And, if I imagine myself as a horse, I could see myself wanting to be trained by somebody using Harmony Horsemanship.
I am starting to see change in the horse world and opinions about using food rewards. For example, I have a great coaching relationship with Belinda of the Canadian dressage team. We exchange tit-for-tat sessions where I help her with building calm connections and confidence in her dressage horses and she helps me with refinement and learning high level performance maneuvers. I also see some other trainers that are taking top spots in competition that are using positive reinforcement.
I was delighted to see the Liberty freestyle for the Las Vegas Mustang Challenge and she unashamedly gives her horse a treat during the performance as they pull off some impressive Liberty maneuvers.
I feel like change is slowly coming but is continuing to come.
How do you feel about using food as a reward in training horses? Let us know in the comment section.