Is Negative Reinforcement Really So Negative?

Have you ever wondered if the training you are doing with your horse is considered positive or negative?

Have you ever heard someone strongly debate the fact that negative reinforcement used in training is a form of punishment and therefore cruel?

Negative reinforcement does offer some confusion, given the name implies it is already unpleasant. So let’s delve a little deeper into what it is, how it differs from positive reinforcement and punishment, and when you may be using it with your training.

Negative Reinforcement in horse training

What Is Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a training tool that SUBTRACTS an stimulu, usually a level of discomfort, in response to a desired learned behaviour.

AHA! There it is, that word! Discomfort!

But let’s delve a little deeper into the that as well.

The adverse stimuli, or discomfort, doesn’t necessarily mean HARMFUL. Let’s think of a few human experiences where negative reinforcement comes into play:

  • On a certain day of the week, you leave home earlier to avoid particularly bad traffic. Leaving home early is the learned behaviour, and bad traffic is the negative stimulus or discomfort.

  • You partner or housemate rinses their dishes in the sink before loading the dishwasher, to stop you from complaining. Washing the dishes is the desired learned behaviour, your complaining is the negative stimulus.

  • You grab a child’s arm (negative stimulus) to stop them from going near the kitchen near the stove, and release when they go the other way (desired behaviour). (Note, this may take many tries. Thank goodness I work with horses, as they are usually quicker at catching on!)

When we apply these examples to horse training, you get:

  • Pull on the reins (negative stimuli) to make the horse stop (desired behaviour). When the horse stops, we stop pulling on the reins - thus, making it negative reinforcement.

  • Applying pressure with the legs to make the horse go. When the horse moves, we stop applying that pressure.

See where I’m going with this?

The big issue is when people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment, and vice versa.

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What Is Punishment?

Punishment, on the other hand, is the infliction of discomfort in RETRIBUTION for an offence, which, in the case of training, is not complying with the desired behaviour. The level of discomfort is also usually excessive than required if negative reinforcement was used.

To take one of the human examples, punishment would be to continue to shout and nag at your partner/housemate regarding the dishes, even after they get up and do them. Or to continue to shout and nag at them because it’s not “good enough” even though they are trying their best. And then continue to hound and nag at them for more tasks to be done with no appreciation of the effort they’ve already given.

In the case of the use of punishment in horse training, I can see you now conjuring the trainers or riders using excessive force with whips and spurs, buying stronger bits and nose bands and generally bullying into submission. Perhaps even using whips around the head for a horse not behaving, or locking the horse up and not feeding them. Not only are these methods unethical, but you cannot teach a behaviour using them - in fact, you weaken the behaviour, or weaken the personality that will exhibit the behaviour.

And this isn’t what horse training should be about.

Positive Reinforcement in horse training

What About Positive Reinforcement?

This one tends to make us feel warm and fuzzy, simply because of the word positive. And to be honest, it is a critical tool in the trainers box that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Positive reinforcement is to use a REWARD for the application of a desired behaviour.

In people world, when someone thanks you (hopefully) for holding the elevator doors open, that is positive reinforcement. You are more likely to repeat the behaviour as you received a positive stimuli in response.

We use positive reinforcement with our horses when we:

  • Give them a treat for standing still when catching them in the paddock

  • Give them a pat and a kind word for trying or executing the requested exercise.

To use solely positive reinforcement with an animal that outweighs you 5 to 1 is unlikely to succeed quickly (or safely), but a combination of positive and negative reinforcement, with the exclusion of punishment, will provide a safe, stable and comfortable training experience for both horse and human. Therefore, the correct use of negative reinforcement can be classified as positive training.

One last thought…

The trick to using positive and negative reinforcement correctly is to not become emotionally engaged in your horses behaviour or results (i.e. frustrated and angry) this creates a situation where either you must win or the horse will win. We are creating a situation where we both win because what we want and what the horse wants are the same thing.

Be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to achieve with your horse, the purpose of the exercise, what the pressure will be applied for and what it will be released for.

Be ready to adjust your expectations to what your horse gives you willingly.

Timing and follow through. This is key to the success of negative and positive reinforcement. We have to time the release and reward for the behaviour we want and maintain the pressure for the behaviour we don’t want.

Comment below with your thoughts!