on the road

on the road

Monday, June 29, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Correction vs. Punishment

I spent Saturday morning at the California 4-H Classic Horse Show in Elk Grove watching my youngest daughter, Emma, show her pony.  Emma's good friend Anna showed her horse, Cash.  Without going into great detail, both girls did well - and both had some challenges.  At one point, our conversation turned to what could have gone better in a particular class (as conversations inevitably go at horse shows!), and to who was to blame - the rider or the horse.  I asked Emma and Anna to explain the difference between correcting their horses and punishing them.  They struggled to answer my question, and I realized how difficult this is for me - and for most people who strive to become better stockmen (and women).

Punishment, to my thinking, involves memory and emotion.  The punished must remember what he or she did to merit the punishment.  The punisher, in my experience, is upset about the transgression suffered at the hands of the punished - and this emotion is directly conveyed.  Correction, on the other hand, must happen in the moment to be effective - and it must be done without emotion (as much as possible).

My experience with dogs, I think, may provide some illustration.  Here some examples of punishments that I've tried.  When housebreaking a puppy, I have (on occasion) stepped in a pile of puppy poop that was deposited long before my foot found it.  I've grabbed the puppy, shoved his nose in the pile, and put him outside - scolding him all the while.  I was mad (who wouldn't be with dog poop on his foot), but I'm certain the puppy had no idea why I was mad.  With my working dogs, I've watched a dog nip at a sheep's flank - entirely inappropriate behavior.  After the fifth or sixth time, I've called the dog to me - with an angry voice - and chewed him out.  You can guess how keen he was to come to me the next time - he obeyed (by coming to me) and got punished for it!

Now let's move on to correction.  For a correction to be effective, it must happen precisely when the undesired behavior is occuring.  Again, using working dogs as an example, when I'm training a young dog to go around sheep, he will sometimes dive in too close to the flock.  A harsh "uh-uh" will often interupt the inappropriate behavior.  A correction, at least with an animal (and I suspect with other people) is simply a way to communicate, "I don't like what you're doing right now - please try something different."  With dogs, if they've realized that I've given a correction and have tried something different, I immediately reward them - usually by letting them continue to work (the ultimate reward for a border collie).  Even if the different thing the dog tried isn't exactly what I wanted, I reward the dog for trying.

In many ways, working with horses is similar.  I'll often see a rider (including myself, I'm afraid) punishing a horse for misbehaving.  The rider is angry (emotion), and he tries to convey this anger through physical discomfort (and even pain) administered to the horse.  The horse, meanwhile, has no idea what triggered this outburst.  Correction, on the other hand, can be administered respectfully and in the moment.  This requires us as horsemen (and women) to be aware of subtleties.  My friend John Erksine, who trains farm horses in the Pacific Northwest, put it this way to me: "You've got to be totally calm and totally present to train a horse."  I love that perspective - and I've found that I have only made progress - with horses and dogs - when I'm calm and entirely in the moment with my animals.  When I'm distracted, things fall apart!

Finally, punishment is often administered in our own language - which animals rarely understand fully.  Punishment, at least when I've administered it, seems to require a loud voice and colorful language.  My canine and equine partners know that something's wrong, because their human partner is about to pop a vein!  I'm certain they are thinking, "What has he done now, and why is yelling at me about it?!"  Correction, on the other hand, requires us to find common language.  I'll sometimes growl at my dogs - their mothers growl at them when they are displeased, so I feel like maybe it's more understandable for them - and it seems to work.  With horses, I try a similar approach - I think about how other horses would convey correction.  Humans, because we have the "gift" of speech, seem to be far less perceptive when it comes to nonverbal communication - the types of cues our animals perceive.  I just know that I have much more to learn about this!  How exciting!

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