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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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Why Punishment Has No Place in Learning


As previous readers will know, I have a two year old horse who I’m attempting to train using natural horsemanship, repeating a process I went through 12 years ago with Merlin.

To record my progress and to help me review, evaluate and learn from my performance, I decided to start videoing our training sessions. Being able to critically review my performance in this way has been a powerful learning tool!

Anyway, the other week this happened

It hurt. 

I showed the video to one of my very good friends who, concerned about how bad the accident could have been, asked why I hadn’t chastised or punished Talulah. 

I’ve been thinking about this and think I can explain why in three reasons:

1. It wasn’t her fault. 

Here’s why:

•    I knew she was afraid of the chickens that we’d just put in the garden quite close to the round pen and should have been better prepared for her reaction.
•    I’d had a busy day. Thinking about it now, I guess I was there for my benefit, rather than hers. But my inner voice wasn’t quiet, which meant I probably wasn’t listening as well as I should have been. 
•    My communication was unassertive, unclear and confusing. 

2. Learning should always take place in a safe space.

A learning space should be a space in which mistakes are not just permitted but welcomed because safe mistakes (I’ve started wearing a helmet in the round pen!) provide a fantastic opportunity for us all to learn. 

3. Punishment wouldn’t help us progress. 

Talulah’s actions were driven by fear. In that moment, she had simply gone into flight mode, instinctively reacting to feelings, rather than thinking – and I just happened to be in the way. 

Giving her something else to fear was never going to help her regain her confidence and trust in the situation or, indeed, me.

When it comes to horses, my first mantra has always been to focus on rewarding the right behaviour, rather than punishing the wrong. It’s an approach that, to date, has served me well.

I have two other mantras:  

1)    Never react in anger.
2)    Always try to finish every encounter with a positive. 

So, my priority was to respond to what had happened as calmly as possible and not to let fear or frustration dictate my response. 

My next priority, despite a quickly expanding lump on my head, was to carry on for another ten minutes so that we could end the lesson with a positive experience. 

And my third was to continue to provide a safe space in which we could work through our mistakes, understand why they happened and establish clear boundaries (without punishment) for the future. 

In case you’re interested, here we are two short training sessions later

Why am I sharing all this? Because I think the lessons that I learn from horses almost always apply to people.  

For example, our instinct to punish usually comes from fear and anger. It is often an ‘in the moment’ response – our own fight response. And it is often driven by ego and a sometimes subconscious desire for revenge or to reassert our dominance. 

When we do react in anger, we often regret it later. But those regrets might come too late to undo the damage that has been caused to both relationships and the trust that underpins them.  

With people, just as with horses, the better approach is almost always to pause, take a few deep breaths and give ourselves time to calm down, rather than react instinctively in the moment. If we can take the time needed to objectively reflect on what has happened, the causes (and what part we might inadvertently have played in those), we’re more likely to create a safe learning environment where we can work together to find a useful way forward.

Decisions made in fear and anger are rarely the best ones available. 

So, to round up and because we’ve been rewatching (again) all the Star Wars films (geek alert), I’ll throw in a quote from Yoda that seems relevant: 

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Until next time…

Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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