Q: Does punishing horses work to deter them from certain behaviors, and when is punishment appropriate for a horse?
A: Punishment is doing some action with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring. This is opposed to positive and negative reinforcement, which are techniques meant to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior reoccurring.
Punishment come in two forms: positive and negative. Positive punishment is adding something, such as a physical correction. Negative punishment is taking something away, like holding back a reward. Here, I want to discuss positive punishment, because that’s mostly what we think of when we talk about punishing horses. A simple example is hitting a horse when he bites you.
Punishment as a method of behavior modification is very difficult to do correctly. When I say correctly, I mean that it must be appropriate in type and intensity to the undesired behavior, and it must be very precisely timed. The timing is absolutely critical (generally it’s said within 1-2 seconds of the behavior occurring) because the punishment must be close enough in time to the misbehavior for the horse to make the correct association.
Not only is it difficult to do correctly, but some behaviorists take issue with it because it only tells the animal to stop doing something and does not provide a signal for some other desired or more appropriate behavior. Because the horse is not being trained to do a desired behavior, even if that unwanted behavior is thwarted, he’s got a variety of other equally undesirable behaviors to try out.