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The Sixth Most Important Thing You Need to Know to Train Horses & Mules by Steve Streadbeck

The Sixth Most Important Thing You Need to Know to Train Horses & Mules by Steve Streadbeck

By on Nov 10, 2012 in Lessons |

The Sixth Most Important Thing you Need to Know to Train Horses and Mules by Steve Streadbeck


There are three main methods that people have used to train.

1. The Punishment Method.
Years ago most of the training was done through strict discipline and punishment by making animals do what one wanted through force.. In fact that was the way that I learned to train horses. When I started training almost everyone used this method so I accepted it as the way to train. We would tie a horse to a snubbing post, saddle them and get on. They were considered broke when they would stop bucking and you could get on and off safely. This method was very common and you can still find individuals training with this method today. The reason that it is so effective is because through the infliction of pain, which is one of the things that I talk about as one of the 5 primary reinforcers, animals will do most anything to keep themselves pain free. Whatever the method you can find both good and bad in the method. (The Punishment method is good because one of the primary motivators for training is the use of pain, and because animals don’t like pain they respond very very quickly. BUT the problem is that they don’t want to be around you, they don’t obey you willingly, and they do it mostly out of fear of the punishment.)

2. The Reward Method.
Modern Trainers have wanted to get away from using punishment. It was not hip or in fashion. The whole movement gained serious popularity and people got on the bandwagon to protect animals and punish those who would do anything to hurt them. And so they began training only with rewards, mainly using food as the reward. Some have even wanted to become purists and so they never ever punish and only use rewards. They say things like, if you can train a Killer Whale to perform you can train anything with this method. The internet is filled with people trying to train with this method. There are hundreds of videos on you tube showing how effective this method is. (The Reward method is good because the animal willingly obeys your commands and wants to be around you. BUT the exception is when the animal doesn’t want to perform for a treat, there is nothing that you can do or say that the animal will respond to. The Killer Whale may take you to the bottom of the tank and there is no command for “Please release me,” or “Don’t kill me, Here have a fish.”)

3. The Natural Training Method
This method is where the trainers use the natural psychology and natural language of the animal to communicate and to train their behavior with. Some argue that there is nothing natural about training an animal to do unnatural things and so why call it natural training? (The Natural method is good because you are using the natural psychology or language of the animal and it understands quickly what you are asking. BUT the problem is that we are not animals and we can’t teach them the same way they do with each other. Namely, biting, kicking and fighting with each other in order to claim dominance.)

4. The Combination or Balanced Training Method.
I dosen’t make too much sense to only use one of the methods rather than use the best of all and that is where we get Balanced Training. The percentage of punishment and reward is somewhat controversial yet the majority are in favor of using positive rewards the majority of the time and only using negative reinforcement when and if necessary. It is taught in a natural language way using the knowledge obtained through the study of natural behavioral patterns.

So with my training program and with full intention to truly take the best of each method only after careful and scientific experimentation and evaluation, without having some political agenda to attend to, to develop and conclude the best training program.
Therefore I take a small part from the first or punishment method because animals learn quickly, will remember the discomfort and will respond even when they won’t respond to food or other rewards.
I take from the second because they learn to love to be around us and are willing participants when you reward their efforts for good behavior.
I take from the third method because they learn quicker in a natural language that they understand.

The only thing left to determine in finding the best training method was to determine the percentages of reward and punishment that should be used. I have talked to and read literature form many trainers and have determined that the best percentage is the 80% / 20% Behavioral Training Method. This is where we use Reward training 80% of the time OR MORE and pressure or negative reinforcement 20% of the time OR LESS. Remember that Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean that it has to be painful but know that it may be, if and when necessary. Why the broadness in the percentages. It is simply to take into the account the temperament and intelligence of the animal being trained. Various breeds vary from hot to cold, range of intelligence,and sensitivity to external stimulus. Therefore a somewhat varying percentage of reward and punishment. This is where your training and experience comes in. How much of each and when to give it, or as we call it “timing” are the two most critical aspects of training horses and mules. Experience is the best teacher here.

Training is Like a Checking Account
A dog trainer taught me this way of thinking about training. Imagine it as a checking account, where your deposits are positive rewards and your withdrawals are negative. You need to make a lot more positive deposits than you do withdrawals to have a healthy checking account.

The Law of Pain and Suffering
How many times have you been treated badly in your life? Perhaps you have suffered the pain of a spanking, fight, or someone has done you seriously wrong in some way? You can probably remember every occasion. Now think of all the times that people treated you nicely or did a kind thing to or for you. It is harder to remember good or nice things isn’t it?. It is natural to remember pain and suffering more than pleasure or reward. Why? Because pain and suffering is one of the 5 primary reinforcements. We are highly motivated by pain or suffering and spend much of our time trying to avoid it.

A horse, dog or child will not remember all the nice things you do for them like they remember the times you make them feel uncomfortable for doing wrong. If you only use reward to teach your horse, you most definitely will get him to do what you want, but the result will be an inconsistent horse. Reward is only a percentage of the equation even though it being the majority percentage.

Clinton Anderson a great horse clinician said, “ If you never make your horse feel uncomfortable for wrong behavior, nothing motivates him to stop making the mistake.”

Making your horse feel uncomfortable on occasion, but only when necessary, is what I call insurance. It is the insurance in your checking account that makes it complete. 80% or more positive deposits, and less than 20% negative withdrawals (unpleasantness) with just a touch of insurance (physical discomfort). Don’t get upset because I have given you a definite number. It is not an absolute. I said 80% or more and 20% or less. So I give you this thought. Remember this saying in your training. “Be as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary.”

Here is an example of what I mean. For example if you were training the behavior “yielding the hindquarters”: You have already taught your horse to yield it’s hindquarters by teaching it in small steps and rewarding as you go, with pats and strokes and yes even with food if you so desire but when your horse becomes lazy and doesn’t want to or won’t work for rewards, and ignores your efforts through the use of pressures, then it may become necessary to use a pinch of insurance to get him to move his feet. You will often find that it only takes a pinch.

This concludes the lesson on the 80% / 20% Behavioral Training Method

This is the intellectual property of Steve Streadbeck and The Art of Training 2010