On positive-only reinforcement vs positive and negative reinforcement in horse training:
What I think I need to explain better is that the idea isn’t just “if horses are rough, I can be rough”, it’s that horses should be approached and dealt with in a way that makes sense to how their minds work. I’ve always felt that my biggest teacher for how to treat and train horses has been the horses themselves, and this is one area in which that’s very true. By default, a human wants to mold personal relationships to work like human relationships, but just the same as that, dogs approach their relationships like they would with other dogs, and horses approach relationships like they would with other horses. I’m not suggesting that a horse actually thinks humans are the same things as horses: of course they recognize us as a different animal from themselves, and especially if they aren’t used to humans or have been abused by humans, see us mostly as a predator. But once they start to trust us and form a relationship with us, it’s going to be natural for them to apply horse logic to us because that is how horses think, that’s the only way they know how to form a relationship in their natural state. In the wild, they don’t form relationships with any predators or animals that aren’t horses. Their brains are wired to apply a certain type of logic to interactions with their herd mates, and while they can be taught over time to build up a different knowledge base for interactions with humans (and in many areas this is certainly necessary for safety reasons and for the fact that we ask them to do such strange tasks), I feel strongly that wherever one can, it is important to try to talk to them in their language. I have had results just using traditional ideas to mold horses to human mentalities, and I have had results from using a level of the ridiculous concepts that now make up what is hilariously called “natural horsemanship”, but I have had by far the best results by observing horses and speaking to them in their own language…which does include at times, in a clear and decisive manner, inflicting a minimum necessary level of pain or even a low level of fear to achieve a response.
We had one horse who was horribly, horribly abused his whole life and responded only to positive reinforcement unless you spent literally years slowly working with him and gaining his trust. I never gained his trust because he was my mom’s horse so I worked with him minimally, and I saw that as she gained his trust, he started acting like a horse would, sometimes he would try to push her around and she would slap him on the shoulder/butt and he didn’t panic on any level, just calmly stopped trying to be bossy. If I were to try something like that, he would full-on panic without fail, because he looked at me as a predator and looked at her as a makeshift herd mate.
What I remind people I’m teaching is that we simply cannot apply human mentalities and ideals to a horse, and thinking that hurting somebody to get our way is morally wrong to a human, but morally wrong doesn’t really make sense to horses who do it literally all the time with each other and still get along. I think that core concept is where our ideas take the major turn, it’s whether or not horses want to apply a completely new set of rules to their new and strange human companions. I have tended to find that they are most comfortable and it makes the most sense to them when they don’t have to. When I work with a horse, I envision myself as another horse out there guiding my horse, and while it is my second language, they seem to be glad they’re not the ones learning a new language.