Positive Reinforcement for Humans

Equestrians aren’t always renowned as the friendliest bunch and there seems to be a worrying trend in parts of the equine training world.

Many of those who staunchly promote the use of positive reinforcement methods for horses seem to be very often incapable of using this approach towards other humans. It can reach the stage where these armchair bullies completely alienate other horse owners and make them scared to share their experiences for fear of criticism.

Remember earlier this year, after a celebrity’s tragic suicide, the hashtag #bekind was trending? Why is this so rapidly forgotten? Why do we pick and choose to who and when we show compassion?

Those who expound the virtues of positive reinforcement for horses are not wrong. All evidence suggests that it is the most effective way of creating a calm, happy horse, of successfully creating new neural pathways in the brain to encourage active learning, and of building a strong human-animal relationship. However, those who ‘preach’ this are doing themselves and their horses an injustice when it comes to encouraging aligned thinking with this method of training.

We are not just responsible for our actions, we are also responsible for our reactions. We might not be able to choose how we innately feel in response to someone’s actions, but we can choose how to respond to other people’s behaviour.

One thing that Covid19 has taught us is how humans respond to confinement and isolation – they become anxious, depressed, develop strange coping mechanisms, act like coiled springs, become short tempered…all reactions that horses can often develop in the same situation. We know, from vast amounts of scientific evidence, that horses will always choose space, free movement and company of their own kind over any other option. So if horses also prefer positive reinforcement, learn better through that method and remember humans that have treated them kindly¹, why should humans be any different?

Being criticised is akin, for a human, to being punished, and punishing a human will not result in behavioural change. Human behaviour change models clearly outline that people must be aware of a problem before they contemplate change² and this contemplation must arise in their own time, as a result of their own thinking, albeit carefully and considerately sculpted by a change agent, not because they have had people tell them “you’re an idiot, you’re doing it wrong.” That kind of feedback just makes them feel alienated and defensive, which will engage their fight or flight systems and, just like horses, they can’t learn if they’re highly stressed.

The saying ‘know better, do better’ unfortunately isn’t commonly acted upon because knowledge alone is not always enough. We need to lead by example, be the change you wish to see by showing not telling. Kindness to people can create kindness to animals. Help to guide people along the path of change to encourage them to realise that becoming open to new ideas and learning new things can aid them in building a better relationship with their horses.

Positive reinforcement encourages positive change. Criticism blocks change. Let’s try and create a supportive, friendly community of equestrians where every small, incremental step towards positive change is embraced and encouraged rather than dismissed as not being enough, because what really matters is that we are all trying.

References:

¹Sankey et al., (2010). Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.12.037

²DiClemente, C. C., & Prochaska, J. O. (1998). Toward a comprehensive, transtheoretical model of change: Stages of change and addictive behaviors. In W. R. Miller & N. Heather (Eds.), Applied clinical psychology. Treating addictive behaviors (p. 3–24). Plenum Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-1934-2_1

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

2 thoughts on “Positive Reinforcement for Humans

  1. Beautifully explained and well written. Thanks for this timely reminder.
    This is something we can apply to all areas of our lives – but it takes practice, and a commitment to change within ourselves. Being negative and criticizing is far more natural for our brains so it takes some effort to learn to be less critical. Do you have any suggestions for ways of doing this?

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    1. Thank you so much for the lovely feedback. I completely agree it takes such practice as being defensive and critical can come more naturally and it almost requires re-wiring our brains to not automatically judge negatively. I think familiarizing ourselves with human behaviour change models such as the COM-B and Trans-theoretical model can help us remember the steps people need to take to change their thinking and actions, to remind ourselves that criticism rarely is successful in achieving positive change. Also taking the time to understand people’s motivations for their behaviour can help us judge less harshly. Sometimes people want to change but don’t know how or don’t have the opportunity. That’s why it’s so important to offer non-judgmental support and help sow those tiny seeds within equestrianism! It’s not easy and I definitely don’t have all the answers unfortunately! I think opening the conversation up so that people feel less silenced or judged can definitely help 🙂

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