Do not eliminate the negative!

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative

Johnny Mercer

That advice may be very sound for living your life – but it’s not so valid when it comes to horse training.

There is a debate raging in the world of horse training – which is better: positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement?  People are very quick to leap onto the side of positive reinforcement, many going so far as to say that it’s the only “right” way to train … every horse … in every situation.  Sounds good, right?  Rewards over smacks.  Carrots over sticks.  Trouble is, it’s not a choice of “treating” over “beating” – and negative reinforcement has far more practical applications in horse training.

Let’s start with the definition, which is where (in my belief) people get confused:

  • a positive reinforcer adds a stimulus to increase or maintain frequency of a behavior
  • a negative reinforcer removes a stimulus to increase or maintain the frequency of the behavior

The use of “negative” does not equate to “bad”, as might commonly be assumed; it simply means to remove something. Confusing,

Great beauty achieved using negative reinforcement training
Great beauty achieved using negative reinforcement training

and rather clinical, I admit. Blame it on behavioral scientists! Both methods are actually considered as rewarding – in the first, the reward is a carrot or a scratch; in the second, the reward is the cessation of the stimulus.  Negative reinforcement is not punishment, and it is only “bad” if the stimulus used is stressful. It is, however, often a more expedient way to train and confirm a behavior (some studies have even shown better retention in horses with this method).

Behaviors are usually placed under stimulus control [with negative reinforcement] at the onset of training.  In positive reinforcement the animal is allowed to practice the behavior randomly before it is placed under stimulus control.

Andrew McLean, The Truth About Horses

It is standard practice, with positive reinforcement training methods, to wait for the animal to perform a behavior voluntarily.  For example, if I wanted my horse to learn to back up, I would stand with him until he happened to take a step back (or even shift his weight backward) at which point I would immediately reward him.  Most typically, positive reinforcement trainers will associate a sound (clicker or word like “Yes!”) with the reward.  Over time, the animal is expected to accept that marker in place of the actual reward (which might be a treat or scratch).  Sounds like a pleasant way to train, right?  Except, how long are you willing to stand,

waiting for that random step backwards?  And, since you are not yet putting a cue with it, you will have to repeat the waiting scenario many times before your horse begins to make an association with his random step backwards.

Neither positive nor negative reinforcement - this is flooding, and it has no place in horse training!
Neither positive nor negative reinforcement – this is flooding, and it has no place in horse training!

In the negative reinforcement scenario, I would begin to train backing up with either very slight pressure on the halter or very light taps on the horses chest.  Depending upon the horse’s sensitivity, I might be tapping or pressing for a while before I got a reaction.  If I received absolutely no reaction for some time, I would slightly increase the pressure or the taps (emphasis on “slightly”).  At the instant the horse makes a move backward, I immediately cease the pressure/tapping.  With this approach , I am not only giving the horse a “clue” as to what I want, I am also teaching an aid/cue from the beginning. Reliable response to a cue is what is meant by “stimulus control”, and negative reinforcement is a more direct path to achieving it.

Simple truth – riding is about pressure and release

The reality is that most of what you teach your horse, under saddle, is done using negative reinforcement. It’s the only practical thing

NOT negative reinforcement, since there is no release of pressure offered by the rider.
NOT negative reinforcement, since there is no release of pressure offered by the rider.

to do. Whether you ride with purely weight aids, or use spurs and double-bridles, you are using pressure and release – i.e., negative reinforcement. You press, lean or pull, and (if you are fair about it) you cease as soon as the horse responds.

I suppose you could start by getting on and waiting for your horse to take a step so you can give them a treat – but with some horses that I have started, you could be waiting for a very long time! Of course, you probably have a voice cue … but your goal is to develop a leg cue. Then there is stopping … you could start shaping that by waiting for the horse to happen to stop … could be a little dangerous. The fact is, negative reinforcement works well when you can easily touch your “pupil” – and riding is done in constant contact with the horse.

Don’t throw out the carrots!

That is not to say that positive reinforcement has no place. I find it very useful in situations where a behavior is likely to occur. For

Using positive reinforcement has helped Tally get over her spookiness (note the flapping flags behind her, yet soft eyes).
Using positive reinforcement has helped Tally get over her spookiness (note the flapping flags behind her, yet soft eyes).

example, most horses are likely to eventually approach a scary object, given enough time. They are naturally curious, and if the object does not give chase, they will eventually want to check it out. I have found it very easy to speed up this process (and thereby reduce actual “spooking” behavior) by giving a treat each time the horse takes a step toward a scary object. Gradually increase the time between each reward, so they have to advance further to get it, and you could soon have a horse that leads you to the scary object!

I have tried positive reinforcement for a number of training scenarios with both dogs and horses. The nature of the species has a significant affect on how they respond. Dogs are often more willing to volunteer behaviors in the hope of getting that reward, and therefore provide you with more chance of getting what you seek. Horses are far less likely to volunteer, and far more likely to get frustrated (or shut down) when the rewards are not forthcoming enough. I find that the “clues” provided by negative reinforcement help to minimize the horse’s frustration – and even get them more engaged. (On the other hand, dogs are not generally appreciative of the physical pressure, however light it may be.)

As my veterinarian recently said: the amazing thing about horses is that, whatever method you use, they seem to figure out what you want.  If you have only used positive reinforcement, and accomplished everything you wanted with your horse – kudos to you!  But, I feel pretty secure in stating that it will be the rare and talented trainer with a lot of time on their hands who has truly only used positive reinforcement in their horse training – a fraction of those who claim they have.  So, try to view positive and negative reinforcement in a new light.  Try both, and figure out your own formula … and, above all else …

Be good to your horses!



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