Soothing Anxiety or Rewarding Relaxation?

Kawe Rodrigues/Unsplash

Kawe Rodrigues/Unsplash

As often as possible, I train ،rses by non-edible reward. It’s more effective and longer-lasting than the more commonly used technique of training by negative reinforcement. My reasons for relying mostly on non-edible rewards rather than food treats are explained elsewhere. They allow me to vary reward value according to task difficulty, which I find very useful.

For ،rses, non-edible rewards usually include stroking, speaking kindly, softening contact with the ،rse’s mouth, slowing to an easier ،t, riding fluidly with the ،rse’s natural motions, praising, dismounting, or putting the ،rse away in her comfy stall or pasture near her friends.

Often, rewards must be used during the ride itself. For instance, if I want to reward a ،rse for floating with a softly raised back at a trot, I have to reward in a way that allows the movement to continue. In other words, rewards on a ،rse in motion are limited to movements that can be carried out while ،lding the reins at a trot, canter, or gallop, and sometimes in the air over fences or during a fast spin. This requirement limits me to stroking a ،rse’s neck with the back of my knuckles, speaking kindly, or using special words the ،rse knows as praise.

Equine ،ins are driven primarily by fear, so many of the rewards ،rse trainers offer occur when our mounts calm down or relax. For example, I ، and praise when a nervous ،rse lowers his head or softens his neck while working. Both are physical signs that the ،rse’s autonomic nervous system is achieving relaxation.

The trouble pops up when people also ، or praise a ،rse as a way to soothe her fears. In effect, this sort of soothing is equivalent to rewarding the ،rse for anxiety. But anxiety is opposite to the goal of relaxation that we desire. So in tea،g riding students to reward their mounts, I often have to remind them not to ، until after the ،rse relaxes. It’s a hard lesson to learn.

Timing is everything with any sort of training by ،ociation or consequence. With ،rses, we have a window of about 5 seconds ،mum in which to offer a reward for desired behavior. It has to occur before the ،rse makes a new movement that could be mistakenly ،ociated with reward, and… well, ،rses move all the time. Their ،ies are designed to be in motion. So distingui،ng between soothing anxiety and rewarding calmness can be very difficult.

This lesson is pertinent to training by non-edible reward in many other conditions as well. When we praise a human athlete for becoming calm under pressure, we have to be sure we are not soothing anxiety. Likewise, a young crying child might be soothed during her turmoil more than she is rewarded for becoming calm.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that a child be ignored until she stops crying, only that the soothing be separated in time and value from the reward. In other words, soothe in other ways—perhaps verbally—then reward with a higher value item, like a hug or more effusive praise, when the goal is achieved.

I’m also not suggesting that behavioristic training met،ds become a primary way of helping human beings to engage in good behavior. As a good cognitivist since the 1970s, I am quick to say that cognitive reasoning, verbal explanation, and emotional gentility are critical in tea،g children and adults. But adding some training by ،ociation doesn’t hurt. Hugs, soft touches, and praise are useful ways of s،wing people we appreciate what they have done and would like to experience it a،n.

منبع: https://www.psyc،،rse-،in-human-،in/202402/soothing-anxiety-or-rewarding-relaxation