In the equine world (like many others), there are terms that can be easily misunderstood - like the word ‘correction’ for instance. It doesn't mean your horse has done something wrong and should now be in trouble. It just means helping them to learn the right answer, or the correct response. This blog stems from the concept of supporting your horse to learn the ‘correct’ response. It explores the terms of both negative and positive reinforcement, how it affects your horse and how the terminology can sometimes be misperceived.
What kind of reinforcement do you use? Negative? Or positive? A lot of people get this wrong. That’s not to say they are doing the wrong thing, but simply that they have a common misunderstanding between the two phrases.
Let us chat negative reinforcement first. It is pretty simple and is the way most people (myself included) use to train horses.
So what is negative reinforcement? Is it as bad and aggressive as it sounds? The simple answer is ‘No’. Negative reinforcement is a pretty gentle way of training if done right.
Negative reinforcement is about applying pressure until the horse responds with the correct answer, and that correct answer is then rewarded by the release of pressure. This can however, work in ineffective ways – such as accidentally rewarding undesired behavior by releasing pressure at the wrong time. Allowing the horse to practice undesired behavior and releasing pressure at the wrong time rewards this bad behavior, or the incorrect answer.
Some examples of negative reinforcement are;
Example 1: I asked my horse to yield. The way I ask for yielding in the simplest form, would be to apply leg. I want my horse to move away from this pressure, so once they do I will remove the pressure (my leg). This action has then thought them that yielding is the right answer.
Example 2: I am in the same scenario and this time while I apply leg to create yielding, my horse responds with rushing forward. If I remove my leg aid when they rush forward, the horse has just learnt that the leg pressure I applied means to go faster. It is always important to be thinking about what your horse is learning and gaining from every interaction with you. This will allow you to better mold your horses behavior in the ways you desire.
The way negative reinforcement works is all about how you reward and your timing. In the instance of negative reinforcement, all release of pressure is a reward. So if your timing is ‘off’ you can reward the wrong behavior quite easily. Since negative reinforcement is how majority of equestrians train, you can see why it is so easy for training to become less streamline or not effective, and why good horses can become bad horses - not due to their own faults, but it’s just the way their brain works. Not everyone naturally has feel. And not everyone has the knowledge. This is why no matter the level of rider, I believe that having a trainer is a must. Even Olympians get lessons! A trainer will be able to teach you how to recognize what your horse is gaining and learning from your interactions with your horse, and will help you become a better handler and rider for your horse.
Now lets move on to positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is less used in equestrian sport but most people would be more inclined to notice it in training a dog. Positive reinforcement is to encourage a body action without causing pressure, then rewarding the action with a treat or play or whatever your animal is going to accept as a reward. Anything your animal finds pleasure and enjoyment from can be used as a positive reinforcement.
Example 1: When you train a puppy to sit, using positive reinforcement, you would hold a treat above there nose. Moving backward over their head and keeping it out of reach until they sit down. You would use the pure motion of the body, and the want of the treat to trick them into doing the correct movement and then giving them their reward. The likelihood of a dog sitting when you do this increases the chance of them sitting each time you try it.
Example 2: To put this into an equine perspective, you would do the same thing with carrot stretches (not necessarily asking them to sit!), asking them to stretch their body to a particular place with no force, just using the treat as guidance and you wouldn't give them the treat until they reach their marker.
Positive reinforcement is a great way to get your horse to do some pretty neat stuff. But again like any training, there can be accidental flaws with the handler’s methods. If you don't reward consistently, then you can create problems such as food aggression or personal space issues.
At the end of the day whatever you chose to do, it is a great idea and highly recommended to get help from a professional. A mix of different reinforcement can work well together in training, as long as it is done correctly and consistently.
Remember, no one is above learning!
To sum everything up, negative pressure isn't "negative" in terms of abuse. It is not abusive or aggressive, and is a great way of communicating with your horse. Negative simply means to ‘take away’, what we call pressure, most people know it as ‘pressure and release’. This can be leg pressure, rein pressure, special pressure and so on.
Negative reinforcement is a term that can be easily misconstrued, like so many others in the equine world. Remember, that as you read an article that a trainer has written, or are watching a video on YouTube, that these terms have meanings behind them and are not always what they may seem to be through common perception.
Doing your research and hiring a professional trainer is the best way to up skill your knowledge of the equine world, and better your ability as an equestrian.