In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 6. This one is really an eye-opener! This is a phenomenon you only see in R+ training! (more…)
Posts tagged ‘negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement’
You would think that if one knows better, they will do better. Right? I think it is a bit more complicated than that. Here is why.
Natural horsemanship (NH) and traditional horse training are based on negative reinforcement. Negatieve reinforcement is strengthening behaviour by taking away an aversive (= something unpleasant). Pressure-release is an example of negative reinforcement. The pressure (aversive) is taken away to increase or strengthen a behaviour.
Clicker training is based on positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is strengthening behaviour by adding an appetitive (=something the horse wants). After the marker signal (the click) the horse receives a treat.
Learning through negative reinforcement (R-)
If you sit on a pin what makes you stand up? The pain? Or the release of pain? Would you sit down on a pin next time if you see one lying on a chair? Or would you have learned to avoid it and check your chair before you sit down? This is how an aversive works: you learn to avoid or escape.
Learning through positive reinforcement (R+)
If you find money on the street, you will be checking the streets or wherever you found the money the first time more often for money, until it wears out.
Positive reinforcement is strengthening behaviour by adding an appetitive, something pleasurable. In animal training we make use of a bridge signal, to ‘bridge’ the time gap between the desired behaviour and the appetitive. This is also called a marker signal, to ‘mark’ (click) the desired behaviour.
Downsides of using positive reinforcement
The difficulty with the use of positive reinforcement in training is that you have to let go of all traditional ways you’ve learned to train horses in the past. If the horse doesn’t perform the desired behaviour, more pressure is applied or even coercion until the horse does what he has to do.
When a trainer uses positive reinforcement, he has to stop and think when a horse doesn’t perform the desired behaviour. He can’t simply ‘click louder’ or ‘give a bigger reward’ before the desired behaviour has happened. R+ is not bribing. Bribing doesn’t give long lasting results.
A trainer has to investigate why the horse doesn’t do the exercise he was cued for: Is it physical? Can the horse perform the exercise? Is it a psychological reason? Is he fearful, does he have a negative association, is another behaviour more reinforcing, is he performing self reinforcing behaviour and so on.
Investigate the motivation of the horse
In other words; a positive reinforcement trainer is always investigating the horse’s motivation. Is it internal (eg hunger) or external (something outside the horse). He wants to understand the reason the horse isn’t cooperating, so he can solve it.
This takes takes skills: you have to have knowledge of the natural behaviour of the horse, his natural needs (how his body works) and recognize his physiological state (interpret body language). On top of that you have to have patience and know how you can motivate a horse with appetitives (things a horse wants to have and is prepared to work for).
Training a horse with positive reinforcement takes more skills than training a horse with negative reinforcement. If a horse doesn’t respond with the desired behaviour, the first reaction of the trainer is to apply more pressure, make the signal aversive in order to motivate the horse to move.
If you have been told over and over again to apply ‘more leg’ or ‘a light tap of the whip’ you have not learned to think about the reason the horse is not motivated. You just do as you’re told and that is what you keep doing.
Only if you run into real problems with the horse you are ‘forced’ to think about another solution.
Why are people are still using negative reinforcement?
1. The most obvious reason is that riders in general still are not taught about positive reinforcement. The horse world is still very set and traditional.
2. Another reason is that negative reinforcement used on the horse, is positive reinforcement for the handler/trainer.
Let me explain. Every time a rider applies an aversive leg aid (one that is trained traditionally with pressure-release until the horse reacts in the desired way) and the horse responds with the desired behaviour, the rider is reinforced positively.
The word ‘desired’ behaviour already tells you. It is the outcome the trainer/rider/handler wants. So every time a trainer applies pressure-release and the horse responds positively it is the trainer that feels rewarded and reinforced by the outcome of his action.
It is only when the trainer has to apply so much pressure that it becomes uncomfortable for him/herself that people start to question negative reinforcement. That is the moment training is not positively reinforced by what the horse does, that is the moment people start to search for ‘other ways’.
Hopefully they find positive reinforcement and discover that developing a relationship with a horse and training him can go hand in hand. Training can be a win-win situation!
Positive reinforcement for the horse is also positive reinforcement for the trainer: the trainer gets the desired behaviour from the horse and (s)he gets to feed the horse. Feeding an animal from our hand is something we all love to do!
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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There are so many myths in the horse world it is hard to choose where to start debunking them. Since I have seen several advertisements on Facebook with videos of horses at liberty and instructors talking about ‘freedom’, ‘connection’, ‘positive training’ or ‘friendship’ while carrying a whip directing a horse with a swishing tail and a lot of tension in its body, I will start with the whip (it-is-an-extension-of-my-arm) myth.
‘The Whip is only an Extension of My Arm’
Equestrians say this and often they add ‘… but I don’t use it.’ Or they add ‘… I don’t use it to hit my horse‘ or ‘I only use it to get his attention‘ or ‘It is a useful tool in the right hands‘. We have all heard this and maybe even said it! I know I have said it many times and believed it too.
That was before I understood the principles of motivation and learning.
There are only 2 ways all living beings are being motivated. 1) we are motivated to avoid pain/discomfort/unpleasant things (these are called ‘aversives’) and 2) we are motivated to get pleasure/wonderful things/things that make us feel good (these are called ‘appetitives’)
Your horses’ point of view
Unfortunately the horse just sees a whip. Or the stick.
Your horse has made an association with this tool based on his experience.
That is his motivation. I think I it is safe to generalize here and say the majority of horses have aversive associations with whips and training sticks. In other words: they have learned that they cause pain and want to avoid it by anticipating their behaviour. That is the real reason horses often do better when there is a whip nearby. They have learned how to avoid it.
Your point of view
You can call it ‘carrot’ stick, but to the horse who knows perfectly what a carrot looks like, tastes like and smells like, your carrot stick is just a stick. With a string. And it is (or has been!) used to touch the horse, not only in a good, friendly way (to give scratches) but also often in aversive ways. That last part is the part we tend to forget when we say ‘It’s only an extension of my arm.’ That is the part that makes us feel uncomfortable as horse lovers: that we do use aversives to get our way.
That is what negative reinforcement training is: taking away an aversive in order to strengthen a behaviour. The whip or stick is meant to (and used) to apply aversives with.
Aversive: something an animal actively wants to avoid or escape from
The Magic of Work at Liberty
Who hasn’t seen wonderful clinicians that work at liberty with one or more horses. Their horses seem to do everything s/he wants. They have that magical bond and offer to teach this to you too! If you look closely you see they are carrying a whip or a some kind of stick. Sometimes it is really thin or white. It is designed to be almost invisible to human eyes. Not to horses! They learned to watch those tools very closely and pay attention to those ‘extensions of arms’. Why? Because in training sessions they are often applied to give aversives with and the horse remembers! If you watch the body language of those horses closely you can see that it is that tool that gives the commands (‘Do this, or else…’) instead of giving cues with (‘Please do this, so you could earn an appetitive’)
Whips are made to use as aversive
Most horses have the experience that a whip is (has been) used (in the past) to apply aversives with. Yes, I mean inflicting pain or discomfort (No, I really mean pain. Whip yourself and you know what I am talking about).
By waving your whip or ‘just carrying’ it, your horse will anticipate this behaviour because of his learning curve, the association with the whip is based on his experience in the past: Whips can hurt. This is why riders can’t and won’t ride without it: they simply don’t get the same results.
Sorry to burst your bubble
Now you know why… I am so sorry to burst your bubble. When it happened to me I felt really guilty, but when you know better you can do better. I know you can do it, I could too.
This is exactly why clinicians who work at liberty carry one or two whips in their hands while working at liberty with their horses. It is not magic and it is certainly not positive reinforcement: the horse can tell what is coming next if he does not obey the commands. There is no magic in at liberty work in natural horsemanship! It is science and it is based on negative reinforcement training.
Don’t let your other senses fool you
You are being fooled by the beautiful, emotional music in the videos/performances, your eyes are distracted by what your ears hear.
The music is purposely chosen to trigger wonderful emotions in you and is meant to distract your eyes from what they see: a horse that displays tension in the muscles, swishing its tail, stressed expression in their eyes. or horses that vent their tension on the horse next to them.
Tip Watch your favorite video without sound and pay attention to the horses. What do you see? Does the horse look happy or tense? If you mimic his body language how does that make you feel?
Then there is often a voice-over or words to read in the video (also meant to distract your eyes from what the horses’ body language is telling). They use beautiful words like ‘connection’ or ‘harmony’, ‘partnership’, ‘friendship’, ‘love’ and so on. Words that play with our emotions and make us long for what we want: be accepted by our horse.
We all want that magical connection with our horses so badly that we want to see ‘the magic’, we want to believe what they are saying. We all want to hear that we too, can achieve this. We believe the ‘leadership’ and ‘friendship’ myths that they are selling us.
Then, after we bought the program, we refuse to see what it really is: negative reinforcement training. No place for the horse to have a say in their training whatsoever. If they do they get more aversives. Really sad actually because if you use positive reinforcement you can get all this and more!
Negative reinforcement for the horse is positive reinforcement for the trainer
We humans are heavily positively reinforced by the Oh’s and Ah’s and admiration from our friends at the barn or our instructor, so we carry on with it. It also gives us a powerful feeling that a horse -an animal 8-10 times our own size- obeys us.
On top of that, who wants to admit that they are forcing their horse to work at ‘liberty’?
This is what I use to say
‘No, no. It is An Extension Of My Arm’, I explained to every one when I changed my whip for a training stick. ‘I am just being a good leader’ and ‘I am mimicking the behaviour of the alpha horse or lead mare’ and so on. I believed it myself!
The more someone asked critical questions the more I repeated the marketing nonsense I bought into myself. That is called cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t be further from the truth.
Listen to your Inner Wisdom
My heart…. my heart couldn’t be fooled by the smart marketing one-liners. It was that little voice in my heart that kept telling me ‘This is not friendship, this looks more like a dictatorship to me. It is not magic when the horse walks without tack, he really knows that if he runs away from you and your whip/stick that you will react with, more pressure, more running around than ever.’
The horse just chooses the smart choice: self-preservation. Being near the human simply means getting rid of the pressure when you work at liberty.
The myth debunked
Sorry, I was distracted and getting carried away, let’s get back to the whip myth.
I am not saying you are using it to apply aversives with, but in our world I don’t know any horse that has seen a whip but never has had an aversive encounter with it. None. Not even my own horse.
This what I am referring to: every horse in this world will encounter a whip as an aversive tool sooner or later in his life. Unless we all turn to 100% positive reinforcement!
A whip is simply designed to be used as an aversive tool! It is designed to inflict a lot of pain without causing a visible injury. Every equestrian who ever accidentally (or on purpose) has been whipped by herself or someone else knows what I am talking about: it hurts! Badly!
What equestrian has never been so frustrated that they used their whip to motivate their horse into the desired behaviour? In other words: when you get desperate you use your whip to hit! What equestrian has never used a whip to flick the horse with in case of emergency or to get out of a very dangerous situation? Yes, that is totally understandable. Horses remember those things, even years later! Even when you felt guilty or felt very sorry about it, the horse simply learned a lesson and will remember.
Lose the extension!
When you know better, you do better. Loose the ‘extension’ because it doesn’t benefit your relationship with your horse.
When you don’t carry a whip around you feel suddenly less powerful and maybe even very vulnerable. I know this is how I felt, when I decided to work without a whip or a training stick. Have you tried it? It makes you think about other ways, more creative and hopefully more friendly ways to ask your requests to your horse, your friend.
The reason that a horse responds to a whip ‘as extension of your arm’ is because it has been used as an aversive in the past. And it is still carrying this value. If it hasn’t, your horse wouldn’t respond as well to it.
The riders who claim to ‘only hold it-but don’t use it’ why are you carrying it?
Why is nobody using a peacock or ostrich feather as 'extension of their arm' in training or riding?
People who claim they ‘don’t use the whip’ are still signalling a threat to the horse ‘behave or else…’ Why else would they carry such a useless device? Isn’t that distracting and interfering with the hand-rein-connection?
If you need a tool to act only as an extension of your arm why not use something that is not designed to dispense aversives? Something that makes it even impossible to inflict pain, something long and soft like a peacock or ostrich feather? I tell you why: the feather does not have the same power as a whip or stick. As soon as your horse finds out that it is useless to dispense aversives with it will lose ‘its purpose as an extension of your arm’.
It is the same with some dressage horses who will quickly learn that their rider won’t use their whip as soon as they are riding within the small white dressage ring fences. They become instantly dull to the leg aids because they know there will not be a ‘follow up’ with the whip. The rider is negatively punished by the use of the whip because it can cost points. The horse has learned that he is ‘safe from the whip’ in the dressage ring. Until that one day the rider gets so frustrated and decides to use the whip ‘really good’ to show the horse who’s boss in the ring….
Most people complain if they have to start carrying a whip or training stick during riding or training. Why not get rid of it if you don’t use it…
Or, admit the advantage of your whip. Not to me, to yourself. And to your horse (although your horse already knows why you really carry it). Be honest!
Visit Ní Dhuinn Imagery on Facebook, she made the beautiful drawing of the ridden horse above.
[Riding lessons] Why do kids start with a whip?
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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It was 1999 when I heard about clicker training for horses. I knew dolphins were trained with a whistle and fish to reward them, but that was about everything I knew. I decided to try it out with my 21 year old pony Sholto. I learned about learning theory during my study Animal Management, but no one could tell me how to start with Sholto. So I just started…
How I started clicker training
I can’t really remember what my thoughts were at the time, but I do remember I started with some really difficult trick training exercises: touching a skippy ball, Spanish walk and a Classical bow. The skippy ball became a ‘target’ and it was really hard to change ‘touching’ the ball into pushing the ball. That didn’t take my pleasure away, though. The Classical bow was a coincidence and I was lucky to ‘capture’ that behaviour. I can’t recall how we got to a Spanish walk.
What I learned using R+
When I started clicker training I had no idea what impact it would have on my future and my whole training approach. The most remarkable changes (in hindsight) are:
- I learned to ‘listen to my horse‘ by studying his body language
- I learned a lot about learning theory.
- I love to approach behaviour now as a matter of motivation: is the horse moving away from something or moving towards something? Is something else (than the training/trainer) more enticing? By looking at the motivation of the horse, I can now skip the whole ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ discussion in training.
- I learned to think out of the box and became more creative in training. I now have so many different ways to elicit behaviour and put it on cue.
- Shaping. I learned the power of shaping, a wonderful tool in training.
- The power of using a marker to mark (a step towards) the desired behaviour.
- Planning and the power of keeping a journal.
I truly believe that I wouldn’t have grown so much as a horse trainer if it wasn’t for positive reinforcement. One of the best changes is that I learned to focus on what goes well instead of what went wrong! A change that bears fruit in all facets of my life!
How about you?
What are your most remarkable changes since you started using positive reinforcement for your horse? How did clicker training influenced you as trainer, horse lover or in your personal life?
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently I started training the rescue horses at the BC SPCA. I was asked to help (re)train the horses with positive reinforcement, since that is my specialty.
Would my training benefit the rehabilitated horses in terms of welfare? Is negative reinforcement training better in terms of welfare or is a horse better off with positive reinforcement training? I found a possible answer in a study done at the University of Wales, UK.
Negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement
The aim of their study was to compare these training strategies (negative versus positive reinforcement) on equine behaviour and physiology as the first step in establishing an optimal rehabilitation approach (from a welfare perspective) for equids that have been subjected to chronic stress in the form of long-term neglect/cruelty.
They trained 16 ponies with basic tasks like trailer loading, lead by hand, traverse an obstacle course, etc. During training the heart rate was monitored and ethograms were compiled. In addition each week an arena test was done. The training lasted for 7 weeks.
After all data was compiled there was a significant difference between the two methods. They found that ‘animals trained under a positive reinforcement schedule were more motivated to participate in the training sessions and exhibited more exploratory or ‘trial and error’ type behaviours in novel situations/environments.’ (in comparison with the horses trained with negative reinforcement).
These results support my own experience with positive and negative reinforcement. The end result of the training may be similar but the experience for the horse is significantly different between positive and negative reinforcement.
To read the full paper go to: Negative versus positive reinforcement: An evaluation of training strategies for rehabilitated horses, 2007, Lesly Innes, Sebastian McBride