Boundaries, and Blocking, and Negative Reinforcement, Oh My!

Are boundaries and positive reinforcement mutually exclusive?

Absolutely not.

Boundaries are simply the physical space we require in any given situation in order for us to feel comfortable or safe.

Everyone’s boundaries are different, and they change in different situations with different horses.

We should never let someone convince us that our boundaries should look like theirs.

Boundaries are individual.

That being said, boundaries are OUR responsibility to recognize and communicate.

When a horse comes past our boundaries, it’s not because they are disrespectful, it’s because we haven’t communicated space and reinforced it often enough that it’s become a habit for them to recognize it.

If we want a horse to become consistent, WE have to be consistent first.

Good habits in horses are built with good habits in the human first.

To me, there are three types of boundaries:

  1. Boundaries when we’re using food reinforcers.
  2. Boundaries when we’re not using food.
  3. Boundaries in emergency situations.

If we are using positive reinforcement and need to establish boundaries around food reinforcers, the most important thing is to not deliver the food reinforcer unless the horse is doing what we’ve decided our boundary is.

Simple, though not easy if we aren’t being mindful.

One of the biggest saboteurs of positive reinforcement training is feeding treats indiscriminately.
I often tell people I NEVER hand feed my horses… I use positive reinforcement training, which is completely different! 😉

Protected Contact, where we train with ourselves or the horse behind a barrier, is a great way that we can manage the environment to help us establish space and ‘food manners’ safely.

If we feel safe working without protected contact, we can also use our own body to passively block the horse and create a passive ‘barrier,’ which is what I chose to do with Sassy here.

One thing I’m really hesitant to do when establishing boundaries when using food is anything that is aversive and escalating in pressure (unless it’s an emergency situation). This can poison the positive associations we are trying to build.

I can passively block or create a passive barrier, but I’m not fond of aggressive punishment anymore. I really discourage that.

If we feel ourselves needing to do that to communicate boundaries, it might be time to use protected contact.

When I’m not using food, of course I’m using passive blocking and probably pressure and release (negative reinforcement) to communicate space.

We shouldn’t feel bad for blocking a horse’s access to our space if we need to.

For me, gone are the days when I was aggressive and thought I needed to establish boundaries and ’respect’ as the ’boss mare.’

But also, gone are the days when I was transitioning into positive reinforcement and wasn’t really sure how to protect my personal space and communicate about boundaries without being ‘mean.’

I have people messaging me constantly about how to deal with boundaries when they’re using positive reinforcement.

Remember, just because we’re using positive reinforcement doesn’t mean our self-preservation should go out the window.

We should establish boundaries around food by using the food as the reinforcer, we can establish boundaries when we aren’t using food by using passive blocking and negative reinforcement, and there are also emergency situations when we need to communicate boundaries NOW.

In an emergency situation, we may find ourselves escalating as much as necessary to keep ourselves safe.

Here, blocking Sassy actually helped her find the answer much sooner and with less frustration than if I were free-shaping. It helped clarify the answer.

Of course, free-shaping with a very high rate of reinforcement is also an option, but with this client horse, I like that we are beginning to establish a way to communicate focus.

The trick with using touch for shaping is making sure we are actually using it for clarity, and not just muddying the waters with ambiguous or negative associations.

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