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Reasons to avoid the use of positive punishment


Let's talk a bit about using positive punishment.

Positive Punishment is the application of an aversive stimulus after a behaviour to weaken said behaviour. Unfortunately it is still commonly used in the horse training/education world, but there are several reasons we should avoid the intentional use of if.


Examples of positive punishment are:

•Making a horse run in circles in response to any unwanted behaviour

•Hitting/smacking/wacking a horse for being pushy/nippy/biting

•Using a whip after a horse refuses a jump

•Jerking the reins if a horse doesn’t stop/doesn’t stop quick enough or any other unwanted behaviour

•Quickly yielding a horse’s hindquarters for any unwanted behaviour

•Jerking on the lead rope for a horse walking too fast, walking into a person, being distracted etc.

•Utilizing Sharp sounds such as “no”/“Ah!”/“Tsh” to stop a unwanted behaviour.



So why should we do our best to avoid utilizing these?



•Firstly, It doesn’t always work

Unfortunately unwanted behaviour exist for a reason, they have a purpose for the horse, and such are being reinforced through some means. If this reinforcer is strong enough, the behaviour will continue to occur despite use of positive punishment.


Which means that-

•The aversive utilized in positive punishment often needs to be severe to work. Especially because animals will habituate to low levels of aversives, which means the use of the aversive for punishment will stop working, or not work in the first place.


•Its also reinforcing for you, the trainer, to utilize positive punishment. Whenever the individual using punishment gets a momentary pause in the unwanted behaviour, they are being negatively reinforced for using it. In other words, the trainer will be encouraged to continue using positive punishment on the horse despite it not actually being successful in changing the behaviour.


•It can quickly become abusive. Intentionally utilizing aversives on an animal without successfully changing the behaviour constitutes as abuse.


•It can easily create mental injury

Utilizing positive punishment has a wide variety of potential negative effects on the horse, including but not limited to fear of the handler and/or environment, increased reactivity, trauma, confusion, avoidance behaviours, distress, learned helplessness. Not to mention the negative consequences it can have on the horse’s relationship with humans.


•It doesn’t help adress the underlying cause of the behaviour.

As mentioned before, all behaviour has a purpose and cause. Utilizing punishment *may* be successful in surpressing the unwanted behaviour, but does nothing to resolve the underlying physical or emotional cause. Plus, the behaviour can reoccur if the cause of the behaviour stays unaddressed.


⭐️It very often is unnecessary to use positive punishment! Reinforcing better/alternative behaviours, resolving underlying causes such as pain, fear, environment stimuli, or rearranging antecedents are usually enough and more successful to change these behaviours.


For these reasons I strongly recommend against the intentional use of positive punishment in equine education. Instead of punishing unwanted behaviours, let's focus on what behaviours we can teach instead that are incompatible with the unwanted behaviour.


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