No Trademarks, No Intellectual Property Rights – Force-free training is NOT a Training Method!

Posted in: Classical Equitation, Clicker Training, Equine Training

I really struggle to get across the gravitas of this concept to others, I think perhaps because for so many people, their quest for finding a ‘horsemanship’ style that suits them and their horse has resulted in a journey exploring many different horsemanship methods. From Natural Horsemanship – Parelli, Monty Roberts, the age-old Classical Equitation, to more modern styles such as Mary Wanless Ride With Your Mind, Heather Moffett’s Enlightened Equitation or even Philippe Karl’s School of Legrete.

They are indeed all methods, or styles of horsemanship and have very dedicated followers. There is also A LOT to be learnt that is of value from them all as well as many more. I myself have studied them quite thoroughly over the years.

The one thing they all share is that they ALL use negative reinforcement as their main teaching tool of the horse. It wasn’t until I went back to my academic roots of Psychology, guided by some very special modern, professional animal trainers, that I begun to really understand about training animals.

The equestrian world is marketed to us as consumers, just the same as any other product or service is marketed to us through all the same channels of communication – online, social media, advertising and editorial in magazines, saddlery shops etc. And much of it is subliminal; below our conscious awareness – it occurs at a subconscious level.

Sadly for us, the horse training world is full of myth, smoke and mirrors, fairy tales and empathic language which does a fabulous job of marketing and selling to our subconscious. As an example, I was reading How 2 Train A …… by Dr Patricia Barlow-Irick the other evening and she has a whole section on “A translation of Ray Hunt into Applied Animal Behavior Analysis”. Plucking a few examples from her VERY extensive list –

Ray Hunt – “Admire the horse for the good things he does and just kind of ignore the wrong things. First thing you know, the good things will get better and the bad things will get less.”

Patricia Barlow-Irick’s explanation in behaviour analysis terms – “Reinforce the desirable behaviours and the animal will have less time to engage in behaviours that don’t gain access to a reinforcer.”

Ray Hunt – “Respect is understanding, not fear.”

Patricia Barlow-Irick’s explanation in behaviour analysis terms – “Fear is an emotional arousal that is always a problem. No type of training profits from it.”

Ray Hunt – “The horse was trying to figure them out, but when the rider wanted more and better without even rewarding the horse for what he had tried to do, the horse said ‘This is the wrong thing to do because I get punished for this’. So he quits. He bucks them off, or blows up, or freezes up, or rears.”

Patricia Barlow-Irick’s explanation in behaviour analysis terms – “If the (release of pressure/negative reinforcement) reinforcement is not forthcoming, the animal will get frustrated and try an alternative way to get relief.”

Interesting huh?! What we reward-based trainers do is VERY different to the marketing and sales oriented horse training market. We don’t share a method – instead we share the building blocks, the concrete and brick foundations, that give our clients an understanding of the individual tools and WHY they work to achieve the horse behaving (doing) whatever it is we want.

And yes, we also use negative reinforcement in our training too! But we call it what it is, and we use it carefully with that understanding and WHY it works.

There are no smoke and mirrors with us, just the truth as to why training works.

A friend of mine, Maxine Easey, shared the following post on Facebook recently, and I wanted to share it because she has eloquted it so brilliantly.


“People like me who share information about how animals really learn and who share the evidence from neuroscientists, applied animal behaviour experts, those with ethology expertise, endocrinologists and so on, are not doing so to sell a branded method of training animals or to compete with anyone who does.

It really isn’t about competing to sell something commercially, any more than an equine nutritionist is trying to compete for business with a horse feed manufacturer who laces their feed with molasses, or an advocate of keeping horses barefoot is trying to compete with the manufacturers of iron shoes and nails.

Most trainers who advocate training with rewards and using systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning, actively recommend each other as trainers. They stand shoulder to shoulder and propagate each others’ ideas for how to make this information known, whether they are training cats or dogs or horses or parrots – because all species learn in exactly the same ways and they all experience fear and pain and frustration and rage and disgust.

Force-free rewards-based training is not a method. It doesn’t carry the name of anyone, it is not owned by anyone, it does not have any trademarks or patents or intellectual property rights. The only intellectual property rights you might see applied, are to the work of individuals who choose to put a lot of effort into presenting the pre-existing information in accessible and comprehensible ways and in demonstrating how it’s done.

As someone with many years experience in fairly large commercial corporations, I know that the use of FUD techniques – the use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt by marketing experts employed to advise big corporations is very common. A company that has a vested interest in promoting a range of high value products that they have spent many dollars developing wants to ensure that their customers stay loyal to their brand and when other choices come onto the market – as they do – that existing customers stay locked in to the brand and that potential new customers are discouraged from looking elsewhere because they fear they will miss out on something and they lack confidence in their ability to make good purchasing decisions. Big corporations WANT you to feel fear, uncertainty and doubt about products from other companies so you will stay loyal and for that reason it is also in their interests to ensure you do not know what the alternatives are from perceived competitors.

That is why you will hear some animal trainers spread the (nonsense) ideas that if you train with food your animal will only do things if you have food on you. That the animal is not doing it for the relationship (the one based on you chasing the horse’s backside away with a stick until he turns and looks at you or yanking on his collar or kicking him and going “Pssssss” at the same time) but for the food. It is not in their interests to have you believe that you can fade out the food once the animal is no longer afraid or once the animal has learned to like doing something for its own sake. And anyway they are so committed to using aversives they don’t want to know. If they stopped doing that the entire house of cards would fall down.

All of the science – theoretical and applied – of how animals learn, and that we use today can be likened to freeware. It is completely in the public domain. You could find out everything you need to know about learning theory and about how to apply it to train animals without using aversives or flooding, without spending a penny, if you were willing to read even 1 percent of everything that has been written and published on the Internet and you knew what language to use to search for it or whose websites and youtube channels to watch. Wikipedia for instance has a very excellent section on Operant Conditioning with many links to other related subjects – like Avoidance Learning or Learned Helplessness.

If you buy into a canned method – someone’s personally branded or trademarked method of training – it is not in their interests to use the language of the science, because then you won’t need their material. You could just use any old search engine to find it and read it or watch it for free, if you had the desire to do so.

The point of advocating force free, science based, modern methods of animal training is not to sell more educational material or to convert people – as the marketeers of the canned methods would like you to think – from one product or service to another. We aren’t Apple trying to get one over Google so that people buy more and more of our sexy new product every two years, even though it doesn’t do a lot more than the one you had before except that it’s in a new package and you need to buy a whole new load of accessories to go with it. And, by the way, when you haven’t even worked out how to use the last one properly yet. That would be me and my iPhone 4.

No one “owns” learning theory or the ideas behind affective neuroscience or ethology. You won’t find anyone bringing out a new repackaged must-have compelling new version of the science of learning, behaviour and emotions every year or two. You might find some new books or courses appearing that explain it better but there is very little that is new about the underlying science.

What we do does not come in a can, but if it did, it would be exactly what it says on the tin. Debunking the pseudoscience, myth busting, exposing the perverse so-called psychology and flawed concepts of pack or herd leadership, respect, trust (as if an animals are capable of the concept of respect or are going to trust someone who hits them with a stick until they move away, or who punches them in the throat) of some of the prominent animal trainers who are using escalating aversives, flooding, fear conditioning, force, threats and intimidation has nothing whatsoever to do with putting other people down to make what we do look better.

If you have come up with that as an idea, that is pretty much a dead giveaway that you are just falling back on the tried and tested good old FUD techniques to protect your own product. As is complaining that people who advocate positive reinforcement trainers aren’t true to their beliefs because they aren’t all nice to people all of the time. I’m just grateful that people who seem committed to using escalating pressure with horses ARE actually almost all nice people who care about their animals and would probably much rather not have to escalate if they knew there was something better.

The debate to be had is not about whether positive reinforcement is sometimes also negative reinforcement or whether negative reinforcement is sometimes also positive punishment. Or whether any of this is bad anyway when we all all experience these consequences all of the time. Which is true. It’s way simpler than that. It has much much more to do with making people aware that they have more choices so that they can offer their animals better ways of choosing to do things other than because of what will happen if they don’t.

1) You can choose if you still want to be training animals, intentionally using escalating aversives to form and reinforce behaviour. This is something that we know without doubt involves using pain and fear and threats to cause and reinforce, or to discourage behaviour in animals. You can choose if you want to be someone who gives an animal the choice between the lesser of two aversives when persuading the animal with one form of aversive to do something that he finds aversive in and of itself. But many people are completely unaware that they also have another choice. They can form behaviour using carefully designed stage-setting (could be as simple as a pole on the floor) and / or a target and reinforce the animal, by doing something for the animal that the animal finds rewarding. And get those behaviours on cues that have never been associated with any aversives.

2) You can decide to using flooding – intentionally restraining or confining animals and exposing them to things of which they are afraid to the extent that they try to escape and fail, until they either get over it and calm down or they remain in a state of prolonged and chronic stress, or they go into a state of learned helplessness and become apathetic, unresponsive and obedient – for lack of any other option. Which also, by the way, we know may never work to help an animal relax and accept a situation. As anyone with a horse or dog with a life long history of chronic separation anxiety or chronic fear of loading and travelling in trailers or cars can tell you. Many horses and dogs never get better no matter how many times or for how long you leave them shut in alone.

Or you can learn about and get some help if you need it to go about a programme of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning to help your animal to learn not just to accept the human, the saddle, the rider, the plastic bag, the clippers, the farrier, the fly spray, the being left alone, or whatever but to learn to actually like those things and anticipate them with pleasure or at least to cope with them much much better. I fully intend to carry on sharing information that celebrates the rapid rise of force free training and the exposure of those who are still perpetuating pseudoscience and harmful practices.

Because there are many people out there who succumb to the marketeers’ persuasive language of love and leadership and who do not know that anything else is even possible. And I think their animals need our help. If it had not been for the meteoric rise of social media as a fantastically vibrant instantaneous accessible channel for education and for the creation of communities and networks, I would probably still be missing a whole lot of information that made ME completely change direction in one sense, while keeping everything that was good about what I learned before.

This is about giving people choice and letting them know what to avoid and why, so that they don’t need to make those mistakes at the expense of the animal who has no choice, who did not apply for his job and who did not get to choose between the forceful and the force-free owner.

At least then we know that there is a chance their animals might experience something a little better and different. Even if it does take a while to sink in.”