My posts are often a bit of a brain dump of whatever it is I’m mulling over presently in my own horsemanship, often a result of researching, experimenting, and some very nerdy conversations with my favorite fellow nerds.￼
I used to be afraid to share these things, but I’ve had great feedback where people say, “This is what I’m thinking about, too!” or, “This is what I‘m experiencing, too!”
That’s where practicing vulnerability has paid off, even though it’s scary!
I often share things that are controversial or contentious, but I really don’t mean to be either of those things; I share so people know they’re not alone, and that’s definitely worth a little discomfort on my part.
You know that saying, ‘Be who you needed when you were younger?’ I try to think about sharing things that I myself needed five years ago, or ten years ago.
I don’t consider myself a master, but rather, an student and experimenter passing the torch of my current level of understanding to anyone it might resonate with. Some people aren’t ready for it, maybe others are beyond it. That’s ok. It’s for whoever it resonates with.
I’ve had a post brewing in my head about focusing on the animal’s emotionality, not our own, so here goes…
POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES AND PUNISHMENTS, OH MY!
One thing I’ve noticed is a trend amongst us positively-inclined trainers, whether we are purists or mixers, to evaluate our use of the quadrants by our own emotional response to them, instead of the animal’s; for instance, we might conclude that, while it might be ok to use Negative Reinforcement (-R), we should NEVER use Positive Punishment (+P).
I want to caution that it’s important we don’t give an emotional evaluation to terminology that is simply a mathematical explanation of a quadrant.
Positive doesn’t mean good, it simply indicates the addition of something.
Negative doesn’t mean bad, it simply indicates the removal of something.
Punishment doesn’t mean what we might automatically associate it with, either – maybe smacking a horse for biting, or whipping them for bucking; it simply indicates we are reducing a behavior.
QUADRANT RELATIONSHIPS: REINFORCERS VS PUNISHERS
It quickly becomes apparent that Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement are constructive and behavior-building, while Negative Punishment and Positive Punishment are deconstructive and behavior-reducing.
Understanding this relationship is very important, because it has the greatest effect on emotionality as we start becoming more aware of how much we are saying “No.” in our training, compared to how much we are saying ”Yes!”
Focusing on building behavior we DO want and saying “Yes!”, as opposed to focusing on managing behavior we don’t want and saying “No.” can profoundly affect emotionality, transforming a frustrated, defensive animal into one who feels confidently motivated.
There are a lot of different ways to say ”Yes!”
* Click and Treat
Positive Reinforcement is a great way we can say “Yes!” and offer a reinforcer the animal wants to work for.
Negative reinforcement can be a way for us to say “Yes!” by releasing the application of something the animal would rather avoid, like pressure.
If we are dealing with a fearful association, we can use retreat to say “Yes!” to help build behavior that helps the animal overcome their fear and create a new association. This is called Operant Counterconditioning, or CAT/CAT-H, Constructional Aggression Treatment for dogs, and Constructional Approach Training for horses.
QUADRANT RELATIONSHIPS: OPPOSITES AFFECT
What is less apparent initially is that there is also a relationship between Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment, as well as a relationship between Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment.
Scientifically and practically, we cannot separate those pairs. They are like conjoined twins – individual, yet inextricably linked.
NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT AND POSITIVE PUNISHMENT – INEXTRICABLY LINKED?
Let’s look at an example…
If we apply hair-light pressure with our hand on a horse and release when they yield away, this is Negative Reinforcement; we are saying “Yes!”, we are reinforcing and building behavior, we are constructing behavior.
BUT… this also has the effect of reducing the behavior of whatever the horse was doing at the time we applied the stimulus, so it has an element of Positive Punishment.
If a horse is doing an unwanted behavior and we apply hair-light pressure to stop them, this is technically Positive Punishment because we are saying “No.”, we are reducing that behavior, we are putting up the stop sign.
BUT… because we release when we get the behavior we want, we are also practicing Negative Reinforcement.
Is anyone else’s head spinning?
Honestly, I think it took me years to really understand the quadrants.
Basically, stopping behavior with pressure is Positive Punishment, while initiating behavior with pressure is Negative Reinforcement, but technically and practically, they always have an element of each other in their application and effect.
NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT VS POSITIVE PUNISHMENT
Here’s something to think about…
Hypothetically, if we are prioritizing Positive Reinforcement in our horsemanship, and trying to avoid the use of aversives as much as possible, Positive Punishment should actually be viewed as more ethical and acceptable than Negative Reinforcement within that paradigm.
After all, if we reserve the use of aversives for emergencies where we have to stop behavior that is a threat to our well-being, blocking a horse coming into our space, let’s say, that would be Positive Punishment.
Negative Reinforcement, which is building a behavior, could be argued to actually be less ethical, because we can always build behavior with Positive Reinforcement instead.
Granted, these aren’t necessarily my beliefs, but an example of how we can manipulate the value that we put on the quadrants.
The truth is, between the two, one isn’t any more ethical than the other just because it’s in a different quadrant.
In fact, the emotionality of the animal in response to either can appear to be completely neutral, possibly because they’re using the pressure cognitively as information.
The emotionality can also be positive if we are pairing it with positive reinforcement, or it can be negative if we are escalating the pressure into something the animal finds aversive.
So what point am I trying to make?
That as tempting as it is to put an absolute valuation on the different quadrants, it’s the learner who ultimately decides the emotionality attached, and it has less to do with the quadrant, and more to do with the application, which often comes down to the handler’s intent.
Are we trying to empower the animal, by communicating yes this, no that, or are we attempting to overpower the animal through force and intimidation?
Trust me, the animal appreciates the difference.
HOW DO INACCURATE JUDGEMENTS OF THE QUADRANTS COME ABOUT?
Inaccurate or misleading interpretations of the quadrants in the literature are often to blame for a lot of our misformation and knee-jerk reactions.
For instance, we often see specific emotionality attached to specific quadrants as an absolute, which is scientifically inaccurate.
Many of the circulating graphics we see of the quadrants are subject to our unconscious bias and emotional projection, or even outright propaganda and emotional manipulation; for instance, associating ANY use of Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment with fear states as an absolute.
The FEAR neurocircuit don’t present as an absolute in the Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment quadrants any more than the RAGE neurocircuit presents as an absolute in the Positive Reinforcement quadrant.
MISAPPLICATION AS THE BIRTHPLACE OF JUDGEMENT
Inaccurate judgments about any of the quadrants most often stem from us seeing them misapplied, similar to how biases form against different disciplines in the horsemanship community.
Anyone who hates reining has probably seen it done badly.
Anyone who hates dressage has probably seen it done badly.
Anyone who hates natural horsemanship has probably seen it done badly.
Here we have a mathematical phenomena similar to Critic’s Math, where we fixate on a negative minority instead of a positive majority.
Every quadrant can be used ethically and effectively, and every quadrant can be missapplied and lead to dysfunction and abuse.
Those who judge Positive Reinforcement have probably seen it misapplied or used when it wasn’t a good fit for horse or handler in a given situation.
We’ve all seen the frustrated and even dangerous cookie monsters stuck in dopamine overdrive, or the frustrated animal who just refuses to participate.
Those who judge Negative Reinforcement have seen how we can exploit the horse’s forgiving nature to accept touch as information, escalating pressure beyond what is needed, appropriate, or even ethical.
We’ve all seen the shut down or soured horses from this because there’s too much pressure and not enough release.
Sadly, quitting a session with these horses is the biggest reinforcer of all because they really don’t enjoy us.
And of course, we’ve all seen the consequences of handlers fixating on just stopping behaviors with Positive Punishment, instead of thinking about how to construct new behaviors.
These horses are shut down because all they ever hear is “No.”
It’s not a question of whether or not we should ever say no; it’s a problem when that’s the only tool in our toolbox.
ADDRESSING THE BIGGER ISSUE: DUALISM AND REDUCTIONISM
The problem is, none of this fits neatly into our tendency towards dualistic thinking, black-and-white, us versus them, good and bad, only-ever-aversive-or-appetitive.
We want horsemanship to be reduced to something simple enough we can absorb it immediately, instead of taking the lifetime it requires￼.
We also want someone or something to give us the answers, what we should or should not do.
We want a method.
The same tendencies that made method clinicians so popular affect everyone’s horsemanship.
SCIENTISTS ARE VULNERABLE
I began this post by talking about vulnerability, and we’ve come full circle.
We want science to give us all the answers, but any scientist knows this is impossible.
Science is the art of observation and experimentation, not an absolute truth.
You see, behavioral science and an understanding of the quadrants can be used as a foundation for our own experimentations in training, but it cannot actually make choices for us; the discernment that comes from experience has to do that.
This is why those who earn a degree don’t go right out into the field and start practicing. They have to apprentice, because they still have to build the practical experience around the science they learned.
What I see many of us doing is falling into the trap of wanting something besides time and experience on our journey to give us the answers.
We want absolutes.
A lot of this comes down to us not wanting to feel vulnerable or unsure in our horsemanship.
We want to know we have the answer.
What’s scary is, the idea that the answer might change with the next horse.
Well, I think I’ve purged most of my thoughts on this.
Hopefully it helps someone else clarify their own thoughts on the quadrants, particularly in relation to prioritizing emotionality of the learner, not the emotional evaluation of handler or observer.
Hopefully it helps others view controversial subjects like Positive Punishment objectively and mathematically, instead of through a lens of fear and emotional projection.
The only emotional lens we should be viewing our horsemanship through is the horse’s.
Some of my favorite fellow nerds warned me not to publish this. I realize publishing something controversial makes me look like a glutton for punishment…
While I was writing it, I joked it was so long I should just turn it into a book and title it “Glutton for Punishment,” by Sir Andrea Mix-a-Lot
Some of you are going to get that joke, and some of you might even think it’s funny.
For the rest of you, I hope I got your clogs turning￼.