This evening I read a post on HippoLogic titled “The Difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement” by Sandra Poppema.  It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts on this subject.

After explaining (accurately) the scientific difference Sandra goes on to make her case for R+ being a better approach than R- for training horses leading to a conclusion that R- should be avoided.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a huge advocate for positive reinforcement.  I hand feed a LOT of food while training horses – much to the chagrin of many ‘never hand feed’ traditionalists.  However, I don’t necessarily agree the R- is something to be avoided.

In her post, Sandra states,

“The ‘release of pressure’ is not a reward: the horse will not offer ‘more behaviour’ in the hope of a more severe aversive ‘in order to earn a bigger sense of relieve’.”

I take some issue with this because that isn’t how it works when done well.  I will explain.

This anti- negative reinforcement mind set assumes that the horse is not actively engaging in the training.  He works only to avoid aversives and does the minimum to stay out of trouble.  I will grant that many horses do seem to be operating like that.  However, it doesn’t need to be like that.

The way that I learned horsemanship assumes and cultivates a mentally engaged horse.  For the engaged horse discovers that there is, in fact, something in it for him.  Like us, horses appreciate being acknowledged.  Horses are intelligent, curious, and are wired to want to get along.  As such they appreciate and seek out harmony.   They like learning and cooperating when they are appreciated for their effort.

When a horse is brought along thoughtfully using ‘feel’ they become attentive to the timing of the release.  They will see it as information.  They offer more behavior when the release is offered sooner in their thought process.  If you offer a release when THEY OFFER more behavior, or better the thought of more behavior, then the horse will soon become more energetic and willing.  It isn’t necessary to escalate the aversive in order for the horse to “earn a bigger sense of relief.”  There comes a point when the horse actually gets it.  He’s working with you, observing, feeling, seeking the path to greater harmony.  The great horsemen refer to the horse ‘seeking the release’  and it is an ACTIVE learning state.  I posit that this is the very same state we clicker trainers seek to instill in the horse.

When I was first starting out on my own journey of horsemanship, I did not ‘get’ this.  I heard the words “reward the slightest try” but I wasn’t understanding them.  It wasn’t until I started to study clicker training that it began to make some sense.  It finally fell into place when I read Bill Dorrance’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel.”  In fact, I can tell you the specific page I was on when the light came on (pg 147).  Bill wrote:

“The pictures at the top of the next page could remind a fella about the importance of rewarding the a horse for his try.  It’s not unusual for a horse to put more effort into something if he feels supported for this attempts to understand what was expected of him.”

At the top of the next page is a series of photos.  In the photos the handler is using a rope looped under the left front fetlock.  The intent is to ask the horse to pick up the left front foot.  But the horse in the photos, on the first try, picks up the right front instead.   The captions that hit home state, “The horse always deserves the benefit of the doubt” and then “Reward with a release for this try, even though it is not quite what you had in mind.”  Duh!!

See, I was thinking that R- was ‘something else’ separate from R+ and what I finally discovered was it was simply the flip side of the same coin.  These horseman knew, perhaps instinctively, what I discovered through clicker training:  Set the horse up for success by focusing on the behavior you WANT.  Break the problem down into small achievable steps.  Make the right thing OBVIOUS.  Give the the benefit of the doubt.  Reward immediately and lavishly.

I was doing this as a matter of course while clicker training.  When I started applying the mental paradigm shift I’d gone through by way of clicker training to ALL of my interactions with horses my ‘traditional’ training skills shot through the roof.  And I should quit that…why?

At this point I would add another thought.  The scientific definition of negative reinforcement states that ‘the removal of an aversive stimulus’ is what reinforces behavior.  True, but.  None of the traditional trainers that I admire uses R- exclusively.  There is always some element of desirable offerings involved (massages and scritches anyway) and conditioned reinforcers (good boy + scritches).  Good horsemen are offering more than just relief from aversives.  It may be more of a ‘halo’ of good feelings (as opposed to the laser sharpness of a click) but it is still positive reinforcement for jobs well done.  And, horses get a lot more than just relief from aversive pressure out of quality training.  I think we underestimate how valuable harmony and cooperation are to horses.  Done right, the horse doesn’t just move from an aversive state to a neutral state, but rather, to a place that feels good.  A place they can actively seek out once they know that they can and will find that state.   It is our job to show them the way.

It is important, IMO, to start showing the horse the way to this better feeling place, right from the get go.  I like to incorporate clicker training to speed that process along.  I take no pleasure in keeping my hands off of my horse.  It is always a little surprising to me that some people seem to take some pride in not touching their horse during training.  Whereas my goal is to ‘dance’ with an equine partner, I want to start early ‘feeling of’ the horse, and installing a response to relax and release in response to my touch.  This will pay off down the road when that touch are the riding aids.

So to sum up.  From my point of view the best of horsemanship has always combined R- and R+.  This is why I have no qualms about integrating clicker training with traditional training.

All the best,