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What is ethical training?

I've seen quite a bit of debate lately on the subject of ethical training. To my mind, the definition is simple. Ethical training is fair and balanced. It makes sense to the horse and is in the animal's best interest. 

Simple, but not easy.

I don't make a moral distinction between R- and R+ training because I don't think there is one. It's all in how they are used and the ethics of the person using the reinforcement.

R- is negative reinforcement, aka pressure and release. R+ is positive reinforcement, aka clicker training with food rewards.

Horses in a herd live in a negative reinforcement society. Visual, body language based pressure followed up with a swift kick if the warning isn't heeded. R- is and always will be the main way that horses communicate with each other, how they establish boundaries and herd hierarchy. It is and always will be an effective training method for these reasons.

R- is important to establish and maintain boundaries. But R+ is infinitely more motivating, and for the work that we do with horses, we need ethical means of producing that motivation. We need to look beyond pressure and release.

We've already established that horses live in a negative reinforcement society. This fact is often cited in arguments against using positive reinforcement with horses. And while technically true, I would not compare our interactions with horses to horse-on-horse interactions out in the pasture. Horses do not ask each other for the level of specificity and precision that we require from them to perform patterns, develop their gaits, or maneuver through trail obstacles. 

R+ greatly improves communication, and is a means of creating infinite motivation in a non forceful way. It creates a positive feedback loop in the animal's brain and shapes behavior - which is what training is - by marking the precise second at which the animal offered a valued behavior. Additionally it helps us with our timing and recognition of a "try" and when animals know that we are listening and dialed into them, they are more willing to return the favor.

Ethical training should not shut down the horse physically or emotionally. Boundaries can be enforced while still taking into account the horse's current mental capability and their preferences. Emotional regulation is an important life skill, but it is a learned skill and takes time to develop.

While unethical training can certainly impact an animal's welfare, the more life skills a horse has been able to develop, the better they will fare in a life of domestication. A well trained horse has a far better chance of ending up in a good home than a half feral backyard bred pasture pet. Horses that lack even the bare basic skills of allowing themselves to be haltered in the pasture, leading, standing, picking up feet and standing tied can end up going without basic needs like vet and farrier care. Horses that don't reliably load on a trailer may have to be left behind in an emergency evacuation.

Is there ever a time when using force is appropriate? Only in matters of medical necessity. Otherwise, step back, reassess, take the time to work through the issue. Use of force when trailer loading (for non emergent purposes), when doing obstacle work or at a show environment that the horse is struggling in is never justifiable and I see these instances commonly. Force is not training. 

What about things like rope work or laying a horse down? I believe in teaching horses as many life skills as possible and being able to emotionally regulate and not panic if their leg is caught is a life saving skill. Therefore I agree with introducing this kind of work in a safe, controlled setting, respecting the horse's emotional and physical limits. I like to break this kind of work up as it can be mentally and physically taxing for the horse. I don't believe in trying for a lay down the first day. It's more important to me that they understand and can emotionally regulate through the process.

None of this is easy. Horse people have a tendency to speak in absolutes, but nothing is absolute. The line between ethical and non-ethical training is one that we toe each day. All of us have failed and ended up on the wrong side of that line, and we will fail again. But more of us are aware and are trying to do right by our horses than ever before. I think it's important that we continue to raise awareness and be honest with ourselves and others about our journey, our successes and failures. We have a tendency to either let our ego get in the way or beat ourselves up, when in reality we need to remain as objective as possible in order to be the fair and balanced partner that our equine friends deserve.

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