When I have a bit of time and space to myself, like when I’m driving to and from the barn, walking my dog, after training sessions with my horses or teaching students, I often ponder horse and life philosophies that arise in my heart and mind. I’ll attempt to share some of them here.
February 22nd, 2020
Steve and I recently made a trip to Florida to visit the Naples Zoo which was a wonderful experience, as we were given a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo, but more importantly, we got to witness two of the zookeepers working on one of the giraffe’s feet. Giraffe’s feet are much like horse’s feet, but in stead of a frog they have a gap, splitting the foot in two. So the hoof care side of things if very similar to horse hoof care. But the big difference was the way the giraffe are trained and handled. It’s zoo policy to only train giraffe with positive reinforcement. And when I say this, I mean REALLY only positive reinforcement, i.e. not even moving one’s own body towards the giraffe to get them to step back. To me, this was both fascinating, but also a little disappointing. As you can imagine, with only positive reinforcement, the trainer is limited to using a target, treats, and commands that have been taught to the giraffe by capturing their offered behavior. Needless to say, this training has taken a long time, and the outcome in one trimming/training session is somewhat unpredictable, as the handlers make sure that the giraffe do not get stressed, and the giraffe is free to leave at any point in time. It was fascinating to watch the trainer, who was on a platform at giraffe-head height communicate with the trimmer below in order to set the giraffe up in the right position, moving his foot on a block and curling it over to expose the bottom of his foot. I have the utmost respect for both giraffe keepers for their diligence and patience to achieve this. They have made a real difference to the wellbeing of these animals, and the feet are much improved since they started to work on them in this way. Being a horse trainer and hoof care provider, this way of handling animals strikes my as being extremely one-sided, with a lack of a real relationship with the animals. This works well for wild zoo animals, as the aim with them is to allow them to live as naturally as possible. But if I were to apply these ideas or methods to horse training or trimming, I would not get very far and would certainly not be able to make a living as I do.
This made me realize just how one-sided “positive-reinforcement-only” training is, as literally ALL the compromise is on one side, the human side. The human doesn’t get to say “here, just try a little more and see if you can do it”, the human doesn’t get to say “I know what I’m asking of you is hard, but trust me, I’ll take care of you as you try”, but instead, as soon as the animal leaves the comfort zone, the training basically ends. So I have to say, I love my toolbox of +r, -r, +p, and -p as it gives me so many ways of explaining and asking more precisely rather than waiting and hoping. I love guiding a horse through an exercise that he thinks he cannot do and see his lightbulb moment happen when he realizes that he can, and that moment of pride and satisfaction that comes right after it. Animals communicate with negative reinforcement, so they understand it extremely well. It is us, humans, who need to use it wisely, politely and clearly.