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  • Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.


Updated: Dec 13, 2019

Whenever your horse does something that you've asked for it's imperative that you give a reward. This reward lets the horse know that they gave the correct response and 'marks' the spot where the behaviour occured, making it more likely that the horse will offer this response the next time you ask.

Most people know how to train a dog. You ask the dog to do something, the dog does it and you give a treat. That’s called positive reinforcement, you reinforce the behaviour with something positive. This form of training can also be used with horses. The most popular method of positive reinforcement with horses is called ‘clicker training’ (also used with other animals). The same method can be used without a clicker, perhaps the words ‘good boy’ to mark the behaviour then the treat given or a rub between the ears. This is easy to understand and the importance of the reward is understood to promote learning.

However for some reason this all falls apart with negative reinforcement. This is where a negative stimulus is applied, the animal responds and the negative stimulus is removed. In this situation the removal of the negative stimulus is the reward. Sometimes when I’m doing lessons I see people apply a negative pressure, then not remove the pressure when the horse responds. These same people understand to reward if using positive reinforcement, but don’t realise it’s exactly the same for negative reinforcement. The pressure must be removed as soon as the horse responds or the horse will be ‘detrained’.

An example is where the rider puts pressure on the horses sides with their legs, the horse increases their pace, and the rider continues using leg pressure. From the riders perspective they want more, the horse hasn't given them as much as they want, so they continue applying the aid. From the horses perspective they responded but it didn't result in the negative pressure going away, so they give up trying as nothing works. Eventually the rider ends up doing more and more while the horse does less and less. The rider will sit there kicking the horse just to get it to walk. At this point they blame the horse and say they’re lazy or stuborn. What has happened is that they’ve taught the horse not to respond to the leg pressure, because they have not rewarded. Rewarding the horse when using negative reinforcement is essential to ensure they learn and retain their skills.

It’s been described well by one Australian horse training legend Tom Roberts. He asks the question, ‘why do you jump up when you sit on a drawing pin?’ Most people would answer ‘because it hurts’. But the true answer is because you know that if you jump up it will stop hurting. This is what you are looking for with your action, the stopping of the pain from the drawing pin (the negative stimulus). It’s exactly the same for the horse. They don’t do what we ask because we apply a pressure, they do it because they know that the pressure will stop if they do it. If you don’t remove the pressure, there is no longer any reason for them to do it.

Another Australian trainer, John Chatterton, talks about the principle of 1%. When people don’t remove the pressure when the horse responds because they want more, they keep applying the aid after the horse has started responding. This results in not releasing. If your horse gives 1% of a response you must reward it. This lets the horse know they have done the correct thing. Without it they won’t know. If you release after they’ve given 1% then the next time you ask you might find they’ll give you 5%, then 10% then 20%, and on and on it goes until you reach 100%.

Rome was not built in a day and horses are never trained in a day. The rider who is willing to build on a behaviour will end up with a horse that responds fully to the lightest aid. The rider who expects it all today will end up with a resistant, dull horse who is unhappy and no pleasure to ride. This is a very important principle, resulting in a happy horse who is a pleasure to be with and is responsive and light to all aids.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

Lismore, NSW, Australia

Ph: 0401 249 263



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