In this blog you’ll find tips and solutions to improve your communication with negative reinforcement horse people.
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! Continue reading
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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Click the link to go to the blog and read what I have to say about the myth ‘The Whip is only an extension of my arm’.
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