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Monty Roberts on Positive Reinforcement training

December 21, 2015

I just finished reading an article by Monty Roberts, where he said that he would not recommend training a horse with treats (ala clicker training). While he liked the idea of a marker (clicker), he was adamantly against the use of food. I have to admit that coming from such a great horseman, this is very disappointing to read. I understand that he had to deal with a clicker trained horse and that it was very aggressive and biting. In fact, he stated that "when food is associated with the human body it produces horses that bite." So in his mind, it was the food based positive reinforcement that produced this problem.

First, I really thought he would know better, after all, he is a master of timing, and that is what this is all about. Treats do not create a biting horse, it is the poor timing of ANY reward or reinforcement that creates a bad behavior. This includes the timing of "release" in modern horsemanship.  Secondly, clicker training has only been around a short while, and before that, there were plenty of dangerous horses being created by people attempting natural or traditional horsemanship.  Monty has been working with problem horses long before clicker training came about, and not all of them were created by spoiling with food.

Food is not the devil for horsemanship.  When you understand animal learning theory, you know that food is just a primary reinforcer, and when given during a specific behavior, it *will* reinforce that behavior, because  food is highly desired.  This is what makes it so powerful with horses.  As such, what truly matters is WHEN the food is offered. For example, if a disrespectful horse invades your space and mugs you, and you immediately give him food, then you have rewarded his muggy, disrespectful behavior. Clearly, if you continue to do this, it could escalate out of control.  An experienced clicker trainer knows this theory and avoids this situation.

In modern horsemanship, the same theory applies, only in this case, the method is using negative reinforcement.  (Negative meaning something is removed, not that the method is "bad").  The rider removes pressure when the horse performs a behavior.  The horse then learns to repeat his response to avoid pressure.   

In either method, a poorly timed treat or a poorly timed release will get you things you don't want.  

Regardless of which style of training a person ends up using, criticizing a training method, unless it is outright abusive and cruel, serves nothing and only limits us in what we can achieve with our horses. Everyone has a different take on what should be taught and how, but that doesn't mean someone else's way is inferior or bad.  After all, when you see someone bring in an poorly trained horse and they said they followed the Monty Roberts would be a fool to say that Monty's method was terrible. In reality, someone with poor skills has only their skills to blame, not the style of training.  Sure some styles might be easier to follow than others, and a horse and person might excel un