Recently I posted an article to a horse forum that I follow presenting the idea of using more positive reinforcement in training horses. Although I was not surprised by the variety of opinions expressed in response to my post, I did get the impression that perhaps the true meaning of positive reinforcement, and the intent of my post were not completely understood.
So I decided to take the feedback that I received on the forum and rewrite this article so that hopefully my true intent for the writing will be more clear.
Let me begin by saying that I believe the term “positive reinforcement” is often connected to feeding your horse lots of treats and petting him a lot, which to many horse owners sounds like a bunch of ineffective fluff. Likewise, “negative reinforcement” sounds bad, so it is assumed to mean something abusive.
Let me start by defining the four componets of operative conditioning, a method of learning described by behaviorist B.F. Skinner.
Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers, positive and negative.
Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward.
Negative reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavorable event or outcome after the display of a behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something that is unpleasant for the subject.
In both cases of reinforcement, the behavior increases.
Punishment, on the other hand, is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of punishment:
Positive punishment, sometimes referred to as punishment by application, involves the presentation of an unfavorable event or outcome in order to weaken the behavior it follows.
Negative punishment, also known as punishment by removal, occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs.
In both cases of punishment, the behavior decreases.
As you can see through these definitions, you must not think of “positive” and “negative” in a literal sense, more in a mathematical sense to understand these definitions.
What I want to do is give you a few examples of the above reinforcers and punishments as related to horse training.
Positive Reinforcement: It doesn’t necessarily mean treats. Positive reinforcement can be rest, praise, or food. You can use safety and comfort as positive reinforcement, which can be very effective with horses. Example: You are just starting to teach your horse to jump, after a few tries he has a nice effort, so you praise him and end the ride for the day.
Negative Reinforcement: Pressure and release, you squeeze your horse’s sides and when he walks forward you release the pressure
Positive Punishment: Your horse bites you and you smack him (an unfavorable event for the horse)
Negative Punishment: You were scratching a young horse and he reaches around to groom you back, but is too rough so you stop scratching and walk away.
As you can see from the examples, every one of these four parts of “training” has its place in our interaction with horses. I do make the argument that a lot of common riding and training is done mostly through pressure and release (which is negative reinforcement), with very little positive reinforcement. I would like to cite two studies that looked specifically at positive reinforcement for horse training.
Positive Reinforcement Improves Horse Memory
Positive, Negative Reinforcement in Horse Training Compared
I also wanted to mention my favorite book on positive reinforcement, Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. Karen does an excellent job of explaining how behavior is shaped and changed, and shows how what influences our behavior as humans is not that different from how other species are influenced.
We all get stuck doing things the way we have always done them. I am certainly no exception to this! My intention for this article was simply for us all to take a step back, look at what we do with our horses and ask ourselves – What could we do differently? What might be better for our horses? There are many great resources and knowledgeable people out there, new and old, that we can learn from. Let’s just keep open minds and know that there is always more to learn!