Crime and punishment

I often start several drafts of posts at one time – sometimes they make it in, sometimes I go back and have lost the original inspiration.  This one was drafted several months ago … and I had forgotten just how far I’d gone with it.  Since I hate to waste anything, here it is.

I recently ran across an interesting post on natural horsemanship – the good and the bad of it. In it, the author talks about punishment not being an effective learning tool, which I cannot dispute. What I found interesting was one of the commenters who took issue with the definition of punishment.

I think you need to define punishment more clearly. If horses learn from negative reinforcement, than at what point do we call it punishment?

An example. My horse is on a training lead and rope halter. I point left to ask him to move off a feel and circle left. If he does not move off my feel, I will swing the end of my rope towards his shoulder (I am putting pressure on him). If he still does not circle, the rope will get longer until eventually it is hitting his shoulder. This will continue until the horse moves. Is this punishment?

In fact, there were several people who called for an explanation of punishment, or even challenged the notion that punishment is not an effective training tool. I found it interesting that punishment is not self-explanatory, but not surprising that some people would still see it as effective in training.

First, the definition. My mother raised me (no kidding) to always look words up in the dictionary, if I had any question about the meaning. That stuck so well, that I occasionally even look up words that I think I know, just to see how accurate my understanding is. So, as well as I thought the author answered the comments, I still wanted to confirm the actual definition.


  • To make someone suffer for a crime or bad behavior
  • To impose a penalty on for a fault, offense or violation
  • To deal with roughly or harshly

The person who I quoted earlier in the post is clearly having difficulty with the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement.  As I wrote in a recent post, I believe that negative reinforcement has a place in horse training – but negative reinforcement is NOT punishment.  Negative reinforcement is used to reinforce a desired behavior – the pressure comes before the behavior, is created in such a way as to encourage the behavior (e.g., pressing on the rib cage to encourage the horse to step away) and is released as soon as the behavior is accomplished, or at least attempted.  Punishment, by definition, comes after a behavior, and is meant to prevent the behavior in the future.  Depending upon the behavior, the resulting punishment, and your timing in applying it, this may or may not be a successful strategy.

Does punishment ever play a role in horse training?  I believe that it does, but in the narrowest of circumstances, and carefully applied.  For me, punishment is only useful as a brief response to a brief behavior.  If my horse nips me, he gets a swat.  That stops the biting at that moment.  Punishment is my defense for a moment in time.  But I immediately evaluate the situation to figure out what might be causing the behavior.

When Tally returned from the trainer, tightening the girth caused her to nip at me.  I reacted, as I described above, as an initial “Don’t do that!”  I then pondered her history, and figured that this behavior, not seen before her stay at the trainer, was probably conditioned through a pain association.  My goal then was to approach girth tightening in such a way as to NOT engender the behavior AT ALL.  For her, this meant tightening the girth very incrementally, and rewarding her each time I was able to tighten without any negative reaction on her part.  I can now tighten the girth with no concerns.

Why does punishment not work as a training method?  Because punishment is meant to extinguish a behavior.  It can be very effective at that, but if overused or not balanced with replacement behavior, it has terrible side effects – like loss of trust, and even aggression. (For more on that, read this long but very well written dog behavior post.)  The goal in training should be to create the behaviors you want – and that requires some form of reinforcement.  Reinforcement comes after the behavior, either as a reward (positive reinforcement) or release of some form of pressure (negative reinforcement), eventually leading to reliable repetition of the behavior.  (In spite of bad press, the latter is actually most practical for most horse training, as I discussed in my previous post.)

The other difficulty with punishment in training is making the “punishment fit the crime”.  I was very used to horses, and how physical they are.  A thump when a horse is standing on your foot typically gets nothing more than a lethargic move away from it.  When I started living with dogs, it became rapidly obvious that you never hit a dog … ever … for any reason.  Verbal corrections work just fine for most dogs. However, a sharp yank on the leash of a dog who has leaped toward your horse’s hind legs might be forgiven, as the alternative could be much worse.

As I stated above, you also have to time the punishment perfectly, with a clear connection to the “crime”.  When one of my horses forgets themselves and takes a nip, it’s just instinct to take a swat.  If, instead (as I’ve seen many people do), I stood and yelled at the horse for a while and then took a swing, I’ve now separated the punishment from the crime.  This takes a great deal of discipline on the part of the trainer, because sometimes the opportunity is lost before you react – and you have to be willing to let it go!  A coworker raising a Border Collie puppy is frequently regaling me with tales of her puppy laying with a shoe she has carried out from the bedroom – not chewing, just laying with it.  The coworker’s answer to this situation is to take the shoe and beat the puppy with it.  Trouble is (aside from NEVER beat a puppy with a shoe!) the crime, carrying the shoe from the bedroom, happened a while back.  What she wants to stop is the picking up of the shoe – instead she just punished a happy, resting puppy!  The puppy does not understand why she is being beaten.

More than anything, punishment should be extremely rare, quick and generally mild.  It should always be followed by analysis of why the behavior occurred, and a plan to replace the unwanted behavior with more desirable behavior.  The goal of training should always be to create desirable behaviors, and develop a positive relationship.  The more successful you are at accomplishing that, the less likely you will ever have to use punishment.  And who wouldn’t want that?

Be good to your horses!


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