Positive or Negative Reinforcement? Some Thoughts About the Use of Pressure.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the use of pressure in horse training. It seems to me that there are two fractions in the horse world today – those who use pressure and release for training and those who condemn it. And I find this a pity because it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Many pressure and release techniques work in the way that the trainer builds up pressure to the point when it gets uncomfortable for the horse and it looks for a way to change the behaviour. That’s the idea of negative reinforcement: a stimulus is being stopped or removed and this reinforces the behaviour. In order for that to work, the stimulus has to be of a quality that is able to change the behaviour, so it must be an aversive stimulus and the horse tries to avoid a negative outcome. A discomfort is being created, either psychologically or physically. The goal is to reduce the aversive stimulus so much that the horse tries to react before the stimulus happens. It looks as if the horse responds willingly to a slight signal, when in fact he just tried to avoid the negative stimulus. He knows about the consequence and doesn’t want to experience it. The problem with this way of training is that from time to time, the horse seems to forget the consequence and has to be reminded.

What we see in praxis is often way too much pressure and in fact, youtube is full of training videos that claim to use negative reinforcement but actually use punishment. According to the definition, punishment involves either taking away a pleasant stimulus (“If you don’t clean up your room, there will be no TV for a week”) or adding an unpleasant stimulus, both in order to make a behaviour LESS LIKELY. Reinforcement looks to make a behaviour MORE LIKELY, with negative reinforcement taking away a stimulus and positive reinforcement adding a stimulus. So, if we are honest, much of the training that we see for spooky horses is in fact positive punishment, when a stimulus is being added to make a behaviour less likely (chasing the horse in a round pen when it is spooky or doesn’t pay attention). Horses trained in this way get to a very high level of stress before they start looking for help and they show strong stress signals. The appearance of calming signals, for example licking and chewing, is then mostly misinterpreted and it is assumed that the horse is now accepting the human as leader, when in fact the horse just returns to a calmer state of mind from an aroused state of mind. He often manages that DESPITE the person, not because of the person.

So we can see the use of too much pressure, too long pressure (we miss the moment for the release), or pressure in the wrong moment. That’s what gives the use of pressure a bad name, in my opinion.

Some riders say they do not use pressure at all and they train purely with positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means we add a stimulus to make a behaviour more likely. In fact, many riders find this idea appealing but they don’t learn how to do it properly. They just reward the horse for behaviour and don’t realise that they actually do a pressure and release technique (negative reinforcement) with a treat afterwards. That’s not positive reinforcement. A very simple example of positive reinforcement is, that I present the horse with a syringe such as used for worm paste. I want him to take the syringe in his mouth by himself. So I wait until he sniffs it, which I click and reward. In small steps, the behaviour is shaped until the moment when the horse takes the syringe in his mouth every time I present it. The use of food during positive reinforcement can put an enormous amount of pressure on the horse and horses can get very stressed, although we had the intention of only training in a positive way. Also, not being able to figure something out, because the steps might have been too big, can get a horse very frustrated. When it works, positive reinforcement produces shiny horse eyes and proud horses. But when we don’t make the effort to learn the technique properly, it can be just as stressful as other training methods and you can end up with a nippy and pushy horse.

Personally I like to use pressure and I think the usage of pressure doesn’t have to be uncomfortable for the horse. What is my idea of pressure here? Let’s say “an intention to communicate”. For example when teaching the horse to back, I can shift my own weight in the direction I want the horse the move to and see if the horse will react. If it does, I can reward the behaviour (with a treat, a praise, a comforting touch, depending on what works best with this horse). If it doesn’t, I can make my movement more obvious, then I can take the horse by the halter and apply a soft pressure with the halter. I can also first teach the horse how to step away from the whip and use the whip then to explain the backing. If I use pressure in this way, then I simply communicate and I don’t bring the horse in an uncomfortable emotional state. I ask him to follow my idea. The horse also learns from the release here (when I stop my signal), but it’s not because the signal created a discomfort.

In my opinion, instead of fighting over which technique is better, we should rather learn to communicate with the horse in a way that he doesn’t get uncomfortable of stressed. All training techniques can overlook the emotional state of the horse. Instead of chasing a horse in a round pen when it is not connected to us, we can practice leading and following and explain to the horse what we would like him to do, give him direction and be kind and consequent. Instead of trying one bit after the other and finding the one that the horse can’t fight against, we can explain to him how to react on the bit. I meet many horses that never got an explanation of how to react from pressure of the bit. The same goes for leg aids, which should be explained to the horse instead of putting on sharper spurs. We can use different means of how to explain ourselves: a touch with the hand, our body language, a wiggle with the rope, a brush with the whip or just showing the whip, a voice signal, an inner picture, bringing our energy up or down. In all of it, we can look for a soft response from the horse, not a mechanical or emotional one. I believe this will bring us much closer to training with lightness and harmony.

So these are some of the thoughts on pressure I had lately. When you reflect on your own use of pressure, as objectively as possible, what comes to your mind? How is the emotional state of your horse when you use it? Do you have good results or are you always on the look out for a better technique? You can let me know in the comments if you like 🙂


10 Comments on “Positive or Negative Reinforcement? Some Thoughts About the Use of Pressure.

  1. Hi Bee, I found this very interesting. I am a novice with my two ponies (although I’m old lolz) they are my hobby to keep me fit and active. So I’ve been studying the pressure release method and I relate to your POV. I’m not good at getting the timing right at all. And then both me and the pony get confused. It’s a subtle thing. Thank you for sharing. 🙏🏻💐

  2. I honestly love everything about this post.

    I do not think punishment has any place in training horses, and there can often be a fine line between what people view as negative reinforcement and positive punishment. By the same token, I know a lot of people who claim they are +R trainers don’t use -R at all, but I just don’t understand how that’s physically possible if you’re a rider. Your weight distribution, your leg, etc. all plays into -R. For some horses, just having a person in their space can be considered pressure.

    I am still new to the +R side of things and I am enjoying it a lot, however it’s something I have folded in as an additional tool to -R rather than prompted me to throw the baby out with the bathwater there. It gives me a new way to view a task and how I might break the steps down to achieve it. I aim for my use of -R as if a friend is taking your hand and leading you somewhere you don’t know. It’s not uncomfortable but the pressure is gently showing you which way to step next.

    • Good luck on your journey to explore +R 🙂 For me it becomes really interesting when we can correctly navigate our way around learning theory and discover what the individual horse prefers, and also what fits to us as a person. For example, many people use a “pure” -R approach, but I’m much to soft for that. I would often not manage to apply the amount of pressure necessary or make the horse uncomfortable until he’s looking for a way out. Other people however work very successfully and also nicely with that.

  3. Horses can have one of three reactions to stimuli: fight (aggression), flight (run), or freeze (emotional shut-down that appears as passivity). In my experience, horses that freeze are the most difficult to train because don’t appear to react to stimuli at all, so the human increases the pressure to evoke some response. Actually, the horse in “freeze” mode is already responding–he’s learned that showing no reaction provides self-preservation in situations that he’s learned he can’t escape.

    The challenge is to invoke a desired response from a horse that is “frozen” emotionally. That’s when humans generally get frustrated at the lack of response and, as a result, resort to increasing negative pressure. In such cases, the human has to learn to happy with a very small response from the horse. In time, as the horse realizes that he’s allowed to respond to you because he can get away if he wants to–then you’ll make progress. Most people either don’t recognize a “frozen” horse when they see one, or else they lack the patience needed to progress in very
    small increments.

    • There are a lot more responses to stimuli I think. Fight, flight or freeze applies only to stimuli that scare them or that they are unsure of. I hope my training doesn’t fall into that category 😉 But you are absolutely right that introverted horses can be a challange to work with for an inexperienced rider, as the reaction is not so obvious. But right now, a lot of good literature comes out about horse language and calming signals, so that these things are slowly more obvious for many people.

  4. I like your thoughts. First, many (professional)trainers use R+ as a new marketing tool. Just like”natural” horsemanship, “positive” reinforcement sounds pretty. I’ve studied from dog training and marine mammal training as well, and animals like killer whale it really has not much choice and they use R+ only. We human use positive and negative reinforcement/punishment on daily basis in our life with other humans, just like when you smile at your boyfriend it’s a big R+! I like R+ with my horse and I believe it’s been working amazing, but just like human relationships, I use both mixed. I don’t think R- R+. it should come naturally as human-horse communication. Of course I make mistakes, I have had lots of trials and errors and I will keep learning and developing it throughout my life. If I treat my horse with true empathy, just like helping out my best friend who is in trouble, one day we should be seeing wonderful connection between horse and human, I believe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: