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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Reinforcement Training with Horses

Updated: Feb 13

Young girl leading a pony
Using Negative Reinforcement with a Soft Feel

When we handle horses and especially when training, we are often using some form of reinforcement. There are two main types of reinforcement training done with horses, Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement. Sometimes we don’t fully understand the principles behind these, so I’m hoping this article can fill the gaps.

Firstly, let’s start with some definitions. In this context, the term ‘Reinforcement’ refers to something the horse likes, it results in an increase in a behaviour. ‘Punishment’ refers to something the horse doesn’t like; it results in a decrease of a behaviour. ‘Positive’ means adding something and ‘Negative’ means to remove something. The words punishment and negative have very different meanings here than in their common usage.

So, putting these together in relation to horses.

‘Positive Punishment’ means adding something that reduces a behaviour.

‘Positive Reinforcement’ means adding something that increases a behaviour.

‘Negative Punishment’ means removing/withholding something resulting in a reduction in a behaviour.

‘Negative Reinforcement’ means removing something resulting in an increase in a behaviour.

These forms of reinforcement always come in pairs; they can’t be solo, and punishment always comes first.

Let’s look at how the training method of Negative Reinforcement works. An example would be applying pressure to the lead rope to ask a horse to walk forward. This is firstly adding something, so it’s a Positive and it’s a Punisher because the pressure is something the horse doesn’t like, and it decreases the behaviour of standing still. Therefore, this first part is Positive Punishment. The horse walks forward, so we remove the pressure, making it a Negative, which increases the likelihood of the behaviour increasing in the future, so it's a Reinforcer. This part is Negative Reinforcement.

Now let’s look at Positive Reinforcement training. Using the same example, we use a cue then withhold the treat, so that’s a Negative. The horse doesn’t like not getting the treat, resulting in decreasing the behaviour of standing still, so that’s a Punisher. Making this first part Negative Punishment. When the horse moves forward we give the treat, so that’s a Positive, and it’s a Reinforcer because by giving the treat the behaviour is more likely to be repeated in the future. This part is Positive Reinforcement.

I hope I’ve managed to explain this clearly enough, it’s a tricky concept to wrap the brain around. One of the great benefits of understanding this, is a reduction in judgement. At present there are people in the ‘Positive Reinforcement’ world who judge people using ‘Negative Reinforcement’ as being mean to their horses. And there are people in the ‘Negative Reinforcement’ camp judging those using ‘Positive Reinforcement’ saying they’re spoiling their horses giving lots of treats.

I want to debunk both these views. Both camps are using a form of punishment, and both are using a form of reinforcement. In this world there is an infinite variety of horses and people, so having multiple styles of training horses is desirable. What suits one horse may be totally different to the next. And with one single horse some things might work better using ‘Positive Reinforcement’ and some with ‘Negative Reinforcement’. I’ve combined the two up with the same horse many times.

Ultimately, it’s not what we do but how. People can use ‘Positive Reinforcement’ to turn horses into robotic slaves who’ll do anything for the treat and ‘Negative Reinforcement’ can be applied painfully to horses. It’s up to us to use any training method with compassion, respect, and lashings of patience when using reinforcement training with horses, that’s the important part.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

Considerate Horsemanship

Ph: 0401 249 263

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