When we want to do Straightness Training with our horse we need to teach him things, so he understands what we ask him to do. Besides that he has to understand the aids, cues and exercises, he also needs to be motivated to meet our requests.
Now how do we motivate a horse to DO something we want and to NOT DO something we don’t want?
A useful and helpful scientific concept and perspective on how to motivate a horse is the motivation quadrant:
The Motivation Quadrant
According to this scientific quadrant, you can motivate your horse through reinforcement (R) and punishment (P):
- You can motivate your horse to DO a certain desired behavior, such as performing the piaffe. From a scientific perspective the techniques to motivate your horse and to increase the behavior is called reinforcement.
- You can also motivate your horse to NOT DO a certain undesired behavior such as nipping/biting/pushing. The technique to demotivate your horse and decrease the behavior is called in scientific terms punishment.
From a scientific point of view both techniques can be done in a positive (+) and negative (-) way:
- Positive as the addition of something pleasant or unpleasant.
- Negative as the removal of something pleasant or unpleasant.
This leads to four scientific concepts:
- Positive reinforcement, +R, reinforcement by the addition of something pleasant (i.e. food, scratch, “good-boy”).
- Negative reinforcement, –R, reinforcement by the removal of something unpleasant (i.e. pressure).
- Positive punishment, +P, punishment by the addition of something unpleasant (i.e. physical, mental, energetic pressure).
- Negative punishment, –P, punishment by the removal of something pleasant (i.e. food, attention).
Before we dive a bit deeper in the four options, first some thoughts about the ‘words’ that are used in the motivation quadrant.
Words are symbols
Words are symbols to define something.
It’s a linguistic representation of something.
But some riders will feel comfortable with the word ‘positive’ and uncomfortable with the words ‘negative’ and ‘punishment’. That depends on their level of consciousness.
Reinforcement’ and ‘punishment’ are words that are used in science to describe certain concepts. In science these specific words are chosen to explain two concepts: a ‘reinforcer’ and ‘punisher’ are only defined by its effect on behavior – encouraging or eliminating the behavior – and not by how the trainer perceives it. So these words need to be understood in a scientific sense.
However, the association we as humans have with certain words is based on our past experiences, on our beliefs, and on our perceptions of the world. Because of our own conditioning, riders might choose to favor or to avoid a certain concept sometimes only because they understand the words from their own emotional point of view. For example;
- Nowadays it’s very ‘popular’ to be a complete opponent of ‘punishment’, just by the emotional feeling the word alone triggers.
- For the same reason riders are sometimes extremely drawn to ‘positive reinforcement’, again just by the emotional feeling the words ‘positive’ and ‘reinforcement’ triggers, and not because they have a complete scientific understanding of the concept, knowing all the benefits and costs in all possible contexts.
- Also when ‘negative’ is simply interpreted as ‘bad’, some people avoid using the concept of negative reinforcement. Some people even think that negative reinforcement is the same as punishment.
Now we have to respect these views on words and concepts and we have to respect past experiences, beliefs, and these individual ‘models of the world’, but we also have to take care that ‘words’ doesn’t color or cloud our view on a scientific concept.
We have to keep in mind ‘positive‘ and ‘negative‘ and ‘reinforcement‘ and ‘punishment‘ is a ‘word choice’, which of course can lead to a discussion, which in most cases is a more linguistic or semantic discussion, than a practical one.
But when doing Straightness Training I invite you to use the words as follows:
How to use the words positive/negative?
In the motivation quadrant it’s very important that when we see the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ we don’t think in terms of good/bad, but in ‘addition’ or ‘removal’.
- Positive means adding something.
- Negative means removing something.
How to use the word punishment?
The word ‘punishment’ is used to express the way on how to drive a horse to not do a certain behavior.
The words we use in ST and the concepts I describe here in this post are only meant to create awareness for the complex reality of training horses.
However, if you want to give the concept of +P a more neutral expression you could also replace the word ‘punishment’ with ‘correction’ or ‘redirection‘ or ‘intervention’ or ‘setting boundaries‘.We could still speak about the same concept, only using different words for ‘punishment’. It doesn’t matter; the map isn’t the territory anyway. This other word choice is not meant to ‘whitewash’ the quadrant +P, but to avoid the prejudice and nowadays tendency that the concept of ‘punishment’ is always wrong.
This motivation quadrant has four quadrants, which gives the tendency to favor one quadrant over the other. For example we all love positive reinforcement, because we love our horses and it feels good to reward them, but even +R can lead to issues when used poorly.
So in ST we define each quadrant in an empowering way of using or applying the quadrant and a disempowering way of using or applying the quadrants, because all quadrants can be used in a balanced, centered way, but also in an extreme, imbalanced way. So every quadrant can be used in an empowering – green – way and in a disempowering – red – way:
It’s important to realize that there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ quadrant, because:
- ALL of these four quadrants have certain pitfalls and important points to note that you should consider before you start using them.
- ALL of these four quadrants have benefits and advantages.
- ALL of these four quadrants can be used in a balanced, centered and empowering way.
- ALL of these four quadrants can be used in a disempowering way.
Here are some examples of a empowering and disempowering use of the quadrants.
Empowered use of each quadrant
Each quadrant can be used in an empowered, balanced, centered and green way, where the horse stays together and connected, both physically and mentally:
- +R: By using rewards – both voice rewards, scratches and food – you can motivate your horse to give an additional effort in meeting your request. By using rewards your horse will get more eager to perform and it triggers his brain’s ‘investigating’ and ‘figuring out’ system.
- -R: Considering that a horse is very much used to deal with pressure/release in the wild, whilst living in a herd with other horses, this technique is very easy to understand for a horse when applied in a balanced way – which means with well adjust timing and dosing.
- +P: When a horse gets ‘off track’ its very valuable to be able to redirect him and say ‘No, let’s not waste energy in that direction, let’s find an alternative’ and to set clear boundaries. (See below the chapter about the ‘hot-cold game’).
- -P: A horse should always see a treat as a gift from you to him; he may never have the idea that he’s taking the treat from you, because that puts you in a vulnerable position. So if he’s too eager in taking the treat, we can remove the food, tell him it is ours, and that he has to wait, until he is in a more polite and well-mannered state.
Disempowered use of quadrant
Each quadrant can be used in an disempowered, imbalanced, extreme and red way, where the horse gets more or less opposed and disconnected in body and mind:
- +R: When the way a rider gives treats leads to horses who starts begging or shows aggressive behavior when you don’t give the treat when a horse expects it it’s an disempowered use of this quadrant. Or when it leads to horses who start ‘dropping’ consistently, because of too much dopamine that comes along with excessive food and/or voice rewards. When riders are scanning the physical behavior only, not being aware of the mental state, they might end up with horses accidentally trained to pin the ears while they work.
- -R: When trainers accidentally use too long or too much or sudden pressure this might lead to levels of stress. Or when there’s lack of release, the horse might perceive the trainer’s action as punishment. Or when a rider uses steady pressure and steady contact with the legs and the reins, the horse starts to act like a ‘puppet-on-a-string’, relying on the ‘side-wheels’.
- +P: Using punishment in the worst sense of the word when the rider is in an aggressive or frustrated state of mind is a very disempowering way of applying this quadrant. Or when the rider uses it in an extreme way in order to ‘control’ the horse, justifying it by saying ‘horses kick and bite one another when they are together in a group’, this can lead to aggression, fear, suppression and learned helplessness.
- -P: Riders who are thinking of something else whilst training their horse are not ‘present’ and not in the ‘now’ and this lack of attention and focus on the horse might feel as -P to the horse. Also when the horse is doing his ‘job’ and the rider is completely silent, this absence of vocal encouragement might lead to insecurity and lack of confidence in the horse, so he will perceive it as unpleasant.
Avoid the extreme, stay in green
In Straightness Training (ST) we embrace the balanced ‘green’ center of all concepts and all four quadrants.
Because also in nature nothing is static, everything is dynamic.
And there are unlimited possibilities of linkages between all kinds of variables:
- the level of skill of the horse,
- his mental state,
- his understanding,
- his motivation,
- the teaching zone,
- the schooling phase,
- the leadership style,
- the environment,
- and many more.
Nothing is black or white, all the magic is in the grey, or better, in the green!
So in ST, we don’t see the quadrants as ‘separate’, but from a holistic point of view:
There’s a time and place for every quadrant.
And all quadrants need each other to keep the balance, to keep the yin in the yang and the yang in the yin.
Therefore, in ST it’s about:
- Understand first: A deeper understanding of all four quadrants is much more powerful, than a blind dedication to only one ‘favorite’ quadrant.
- Think first, act later: You have to decide what might work best for you, your horse, in a particular learning situation. If the horse shows you that an approach is working and he feels okay, keep using that approach. If he shows you that it’s not in a certain situation, change your approach.
- Observe first, produce later: When you apply a certain quadrant, observe what the results are, how it effects your relationship bank account, observe how it ‘benefits’ you or what it ‘costs’ you, and how you possibly can change your approach, so you can limit the costs to a minimum.
- Keep yourself in an empowered state, all the time, no matter what. Use the quadrants in a balanced, centered ‘green’ way and remain flexible in your approach, to each horse, and to the unique training situation.
Extreme dedication to one quadrant
In ST, all riders from all equestrian disciplines are welcome, because all horses are asymmetrical by nature and need Straightness Training.
But we do meet students from certain disciplines who are on a ‘blue’ level of consciousness and are using a one-quadrant-policy:
- Some natural horsemanship practitioners use ONLY –R and the pressure/release technique and for some of them it’s a strict rule to NEVER use food as a reward.
- Some students are totally against any form of pressure and use ONLY +R. This category includes trainers who use clickers, targets and markers. And some of them have strict rules: ALWAYS use a bridge in combination with food and NEVER use any kind of pressure, neither +P nor –R.
Nowadays it’s very ‘popular’ to use a one-quadrant-fixes-all approach, where students have an extreme dedication to one quadrant.
But in ST we always understand / think / observe first, so we can decide for ourselves and not just follow a certain ‘doctrine’, not just joining a ‘one concept camp’ that’s against another ‘one tool tribe’.
Now of course, everyone is at different stages of learning, and when you are a novice rider it might be wise to stay strict and to stick to one approach for a period of time, to not get confused or to not confuse the horse.
But it happens that riders stick to one quadrant, and have an extreme dedication to one concept when training their horses for the rest of their lives.
But if you want to start doing ST, I invite you to embrace a higher level of consciousness, where you avoid thinking in extremes and in a strict black/white way, speaking in terms of good/bad/right/wrong/always/never.
And it’s important to realize that it’s not the quadrant that will harm a horse, it’s the human with his intentions and emotions who applies it.
It’s always the human behind the quadrant
If we start to judge a quadrant, we should judge the human in the first place, because it’s always the human behind the tool. All tools and quadrants are neutral until a human starts to use it. Just as a whip lies down on the ground, it won’t hit a horse, until a human touches it, also all quadrants are neutral, until a human starts to apply them. Then they turn out to work or not.
Therefore, even the ‘best’ quadrant can lead to drama when applied in a disempowered, extreme and imbalanced way.
Now because it’s never the quadrant, but always the human behind the quadrant, this means that:
- The limits of a quadrant are the limits of the human.
- The excesses of a quadrant are the excesses of the human.
So we need to school ourselves in applying each quadrant properly.
Avoid the ‘avoidance’ strategy
When doing ST it’s not about applying any ‘avoidance’ strategies when we find it difficult to use a quadrant, but it’s about learning how to keep ourselves in a balanced, centered and empowered state – all the time – no matter what. Then we can use each quadrant in an empowering way and then we can apply pressure, release, rewards and moments of relaxation in a way the horse always wants to stay together with us. So it’s mostly about refining our timing and dosing of pressure, release, reward and moments of relaxation. So in ST we do not avoid certain quadrants.
It’s also important not to judge a quadrant or judge ‘pressure’ to make ourselves seem more loving, empathetic and kind to horses. If we do so that immediately will bring ourselves in a disempowering state. Thinking that it’s about the quadrant, and avoiding the use of it, makes us close minded, because we forget that a certain quadrant only comes alive until we step into that quadrant.
Now both categories of students, the +R dedicates and the –R dedicates, have their ‘quadrant specific issues‘, which are most of the time best solved with a strategy from ‘the opposite’ quadrant, and even with +P or -P. Of course, they’ll say that most of the issues, challenges and problems that occur in their favorite quadrant can be solved and eliminated with their #1 quadrant if one is experienced and skilled enough. But sometimes Einstein’s law comes by:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Plus there’s no concept that works for all horses, all situations, and all training issues. There is no ‘one-quadrant-fits-all’. There is no single right way that suits every horse, because some approaches won’t be useful in specific situations.
- Once you end up in a very stressful and dangerous situation, then treats don’t work anymore, because in a state of fear and survival, the production of saliva is inhibited and food is not interesting for a horse. Of course you could say that you should avoid scary situations, but when you go for a ride outside your comfortable arena, you’ll never know what might pop up unexpectedly that might scare your horse. And then you don’t want to feel limited by your approach.
- There is nothing more motivating for a horse than the ‘addition’ of rewards (scratches, voice encouragement, food). When the only motivation is the ‘absence’ of pressure, the horse might lose their eagerness to perform and start acting like a ‘robot’.
So there is a downside from extreme dedication to a single quadrant, from having a strong preference, from having the tendency to ‘stigmatize’ other quadrants, from believing in a ‘one-concept-fits-all’, from avoiding the use of other quadrants:
- It ignores the drawbacks of their number #1 favorite quadrant.
- It ignores and doesn’t use the benefits of the three disapproved quadrants.
- It ignores Einsteins law.
And what matters most is what your horse thinks of your quadrant!
It’s a matter of perspective
What matters most is how your horse perceives your tool/approach/quadrant. It matters what your horse thinks of your quadrant and not which one of the four quadrants you are using. Because your intention might be that you are using -R (seeing the ‘young’ woman on the picture to the right), but the horse experience it as +P (seeing the ‘old’ woman).
All ST Trainers have the honest and pure intention to help their horse, but from the horse’s perspective their guidance can be perceived as ‘reinforcing’, ‘neutral’ or ‘punishment’.
Even when we think what we do is ‘reinforcing’, it might be perceived as ‘neutral’ or ‘punishment’!
So it doesn’t matter what you think is pleasant or unpleasant, but how the horse feels about it.
Here are some examples:
- Any kind of request can be perceived by the horse as unpleasant, not only a request with physical touch; for example too much or too long pressure coming from a strong focus, powerful energy, or a strong ‘telling’ style might be perceived as very unpleasant to the horse.
- ‘Punishment’ or experiencing something as ‘unpleasant’ are subjective words and it can vary from horse-to-horse; What is unpleasant to one horse may not be perceived as unpleasant to another. Also what both horses perceive to be as unpleasant can vary from moment-to-moment.
- A rider might think that he applies negative reinforcement, but if he applies too much pressure or holds the pressure too long, this might feel as punishment-for-no-reason from the horse’s point of view; He behaved well and no release is given, and that might confuse the horse and even lead to a level of fear or aggression and emotional imbalance.
- Some riders use positive punishment, when they think they use negative reinforcement. Both quadrants use pressure, but when pressure is used to increase desired behavior, it is called negative reinforcement; When pressure is used to decrease undesired behavior it’s called positive punishment. Especially when these riders make ‘the undesirable’ difficult for the horse, they use positive punishment; they add pressure to demotivate the undesirable.
- Positive punishment happens accidentally and without intent, for example when a desired response is not rewarded with a release, because the rider applies too much/too long/steady pressure on the rein.
- Negative punishment happens unconsciously and without intent, for example when the rider is not talking and encouraging the horse while doing a certain (new) task. Taking away encouragement and attention can be very confusing for the horse, because we forget to let him know if he’s still on the right track, and that might make him feel insecure, unconfident or uncomfortable.
- A rider might think that his +R approach in teaching is appropriate physically seen. But when he’s only looking at if the horse is physically performing the requested task and is not scanning the facial expression while performing this task, he might reinforce ‘undesired’ emotional behavior when the horse is in the moment of the reward emotionally out of balance. And this might lead to confusion and undesired outcomes.
- A rider might think that his +R approach is pleasant for the horse mentally seen, but when the rider is producing look-a-like dressage tricks that may be damaging on a physical level. When the dressage is not used to strengthen the horse according to sound principles, but when fancy look-alike are produced, this might harm the horse in the long run. Especially when +R is used in combination with the telling style, the horses will obey, but doing exercises whilst losing sight of the important essence and that is degrading and damaging the horse’s true nature.
- When a trainer uses +R only, following the scientific rules in a strict black/white way but with lack of feel, and by ‘telling’ the horse what to do with a series of voice commands, the horse can start to act like a conditioned soldier or robot.
- A rider might think that ‘punishment’ will lead to mental and emotional imbalance, but it depends on the relationship between the rider and horse, the sense of control the horse has over the situation (not feeling helpless), the timing and dosing of the pressure and release, and it depends on the perspective of the horse. Most horses appreciate when it’s clear what the rules are and where the boundaries and limitations are. Compare it to an electric fence: this fence will say “I would not touch me if I where you’, but when the horse decides otherwise, well there’s a consequence. But that doesn’t mean the horse is ready for the mental institution or traumatized after the fence’s correction. It’s just very clear for the horse to not cross the line and it provides safety for the horse.
- Every rider uses negative reinforcement, even if they don’t want to admit it. Even pure +R trainers use –R, for example:
o When they lead a horse from A to B with a halter or rope.
o When they brush their horse and ask their horse to move over to the other side.
o When they pick up the hooves.
o When they ride their horse, because of their seat, leg, neckrope, or stick cues.
Bottom line is, that whatever perspective we have and whatever we think is true, we should always consider the horse’s perspective.
How our horse feels about our approach is more important, than just focusing on trying to only use one concept, one quadrant, in what may be our own belief about what is ‘best’.
If our horse experiences our actions as pleasant or unpleasant, that’s what matters. And it’s the outcome that matters: a cooperative, open minded horse, that likes to work and train with you and is in balance in body, mind, heart and soul.
So when using a quadrant – we should observe how the horse feels about how we use this quadrant:
- If it causes the horse to have good feelings about it and follows our suggestions and ideas and stays together with us, we keep using it.
- If the horse reacts in an opposed (defensive/offensive) way to the use of pressure or treats, we should change our approach.
No matter what quadrant we use, when it’s used in a way that it doesn’t work for the individual horse, at that time, in that situation, we need to change our approach.
Situational & Tailor made approach
Training must always be tailored to the individual horse, the situation and learning process. And having the flexibility of choosing the appropriate quadrant out of our toolbox leads us to tailor made teaching.
All quadrants are just tools in a toolbox, and in ST we prefer not to only have one tool in our toolbox, because
teaching is not a one-approach-fits-all. There’s no quadrant that works for all horses, all learning situations, and all training issues.
It’s most important that we adjust to fit our individual horse, and find a way to work with him. The most important thing is that the horse enjoys being with us, and enjoys his training and learning process. Therefore we prefer a situational approach in ST, so we can choose the quadrant that works best for the horse in a given situation at a certain moment in time.
The more we have the dynamic ability to go through all quadrants in an empowering way, the more we are free on the entire spectrum to choose the approach that suits the horse and the learning situation best
So how do we combine all quadrants in ST?
The Hot-Cold Game
When we teach and train a horse in ST we combine the quadrants in the Hot-Cold Game. Perhaps you did this game yourself when you were young. It’s about asking questions to figure out where something is in the room. ‘It’s in this room and it’s blue‘, so you start asking: Is it on the left side of the room? Hot. Is it on a table? ‘ Cold, and you keep asking questions and get verbal clues until you found it.
Now especially when teaching a horse something new, he needs to figure out what he needs to do. So he’ll respond to your request, and some of his actions might be ‘on track’ and ‘hot’ and some of it might be ‘off track’ and ‘cold’:
- When our horse is ‘hot’ and ‘on track’ we use the Reinforcement Triad: release, reward, relax (RRR). So we capture his slightest attempt in the right direction with RRR. So we release any form of pressure (focus, body language, aids, cues), which is -R, and we reward with our voice, a scratch or a treat, which is +R, and we give the horse a moment of relaxation. And whatever you reinforce, you’ll get more of it in the future! Therefore we capture and reinforce every step in the right direction (‘hot’) by using RRR: we release, praise, give him a treat, a scratch, give him a break, a moment of relaxation, we just let him know he’s on the right track.
- When our horse is ‘cold’ and ‘off track‘ we let him know by saying: ‘No, let’s not waste energy in that direction‘, which is a form of +P, but it’s a balanced, centered variant, because it’s said with the intention of ‘redirection‘, so we let him know that when he chooses an alternative and find his way back, RRR is available and waiting for him. When he tries to grab the treat, we use -P to tell him that he can have it, but only when he chooses alternative behavior and is more polite and gentle. So we do not simply ‘correct’ this behavior with a simple ‘NO’, but we ‘redirect‘ him by telling him: “No, that’s ‘cold’, I understand you deeply because of your past learning experiences, but let’s not go there, let’s not waste your energy, let’s not go off track, let’s stay in the right lane, there’s a far better alternative to find and when found, RRR is available for you, how cool is that!”.
In this 1 minute video you can here more about redirection:
What about ignoring undesired behavior?
When our horse goes off track (‘cold’) we can choose to ignore the behavior, but only when the behavior doesn’t have the tendency to become a bad habit. Ignoring might lead to repetition of the behavior we don’t want, and repetition is the mother of ALL skill, not only the skills we want. So we need to avoid that the horse repeats behavior that is not helpful and useful and we need to avoid the creation of bad habits. Remember; once learned, it will be in the horse’s nervous system, then the more difficult it is to break the pattern.
And another reason why we mostly do not ignore, is that when you ignore the horse when he is going off track it makes this ‘hot-cold’ game more difficult for him. Compare it to yourself, when you do the hot-cold game: if you only get answers when you are ‘hot’, but it’s total silence and they ignore your question when ‘cold’, you start feeling confused and left in the dark. Also when a horse only gets information when he does things right, but is kept in the dark when not, this might feel like negative punishment, because attention and vocal encouragement are completely withdrawn.
Prevention is key
Of course the best possible option to avoid undesired behavior is prevention. It’s best to set the training up for success and to prevent the horse from getting off track and to prevent the horse from behaving in an undesired way, so it never shows up.
Prevention is the opposite of ‘repetition’ and is meant to prevent the horse from rehearsing undesired behavior, such as nipping and pushing and begging.
So the shortest route to have a well-behaved and cooparative horse is to NEVER allow him to practice and rehearse any undesired behavior.
Repetition is the mother of all skill
Repetion creates not only bad habits, but also good habits, such as standing still during mounting, taking a treat in a polite and gentle way, or doing the trot or canter, or piaffe or pirouette.
So it’s wise to repeat and rehearse desired behavior until your horse understands it completely.
Now the more you have done a certain exercise with your horse, the more likely he will able to do it again because of the neurologic connections that has been formed in the brain. So the more you repeat the same thing, the more a neural pathway becomes a neural highway and he will never forget what you have taught him.
The combination of release, reward, relax, repeat and redirection is very powerful for
- Encouraging desired behavior
- Creating good habits
- Transforming undesired behavior
We combine the concepts in the so-called 5R formula:
Again, it’s most important to set the training and teaching up for success, because prevention is key when it comes to avoid undesired behavior. But when the horse goes ‘off track’, we can use concept of redirection which gives the horse the opportunity to choose an alternative that leads to the reinforcement triad RRR – by just changing his behavior.
Just let him know in a balanced, centered way that he’s off track and when he figured out his way back, you reinforce that behavior with release, reward and relax. Then you repeat the behavior to create neural pathways and good habits.
You can apply this 5R approach with all horses:
- With a young horse you can use RRRRR to teach him how to behave well and how to do the ST exercises. When this horse is in the teaching phase it’s important to capture every step in the right direction with RRR, so to capture the slightest try.
- A well trained horse that has a high mental ‘figuring out’ state will hardly go off track anymore, so in the end you’ll hardly have to redirect a horse in the training process. On advanced levels you also do not have to use RRR for every step in the right direction, you only use it to capture the slightest better to keep him eager and motivated to put effort into meeting your request.
- Also with horses that have been misunderstood or mistreated the 5R concept is very powerful, because you let these horses know that you understand them deeply and that you take them very seriously, but you’ll also guide them towards a path of transition and transformation so they can rehabilitate and rebalance in body, mind, heart and soul.
In this one minute video you can hear more about the 5R formula: