These tools can be described as a positive or negative. The word “positive” is being used in a mathematical sense in which something is being added to the situation. Whereas “negative” is used to describe that something is being subtracted or taken away. Therefore, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement will both increase the probability of a behavior because the behavior is being reinforced. Conversely, the implementation of positive punishment or negative punishment will reduce the probability of a behavior because there is a form of punishment following the behavior.

Operant conditioning is the most common form of learning theory that is applied to the animal training. For horses in specific, negative does not mean bad. It simply means that something is being taken away. Instead of using the term “negative reinforcement” most horse trainers call it “pressure and release”. Pressure is the added element in the environment of horse training which causes the horse to respond and if that response is the behavior the trainer was looking for, then the release of the pressure is the reward or reinforcer.

Pressure is an aversive stimulus to your horse and the release of this pressure is what your horse wants. So pressure is applied, the horse tries to find a way to get rid or avoid the pressure. When you are adept at releasing/removing the pressure at the crucial moment when your horse offers the behvaiour you are looking for, you are reinforcing the possibility of the horse trying that same behavior again when future pressure is applied. Eventually the horse learns to discriminate different forms of pressure and what action or behavior will culminate in the release of that pressure. Pressure and release, action and reward.

Here is a simple example of negative reinforcement, or pressure and release, training. We can start with the basic cue we give to our enquine partners to ask them to follow us on a lead. When we ask our horses to follow us we pull on the lead attached to their halters. The pressure we exert on the lead creates a pressure on the halter around our horse’s head, specifically at his poll and along his jaw. This pressure is the aversive stimulus. In order to avoid this pressure, your horse must take a step forward to release the tension in the lead. When that tension and pressure are released, the aversive stimulus is removed, and your horse has been rewarded with the lack of pressure on his head. Thus, your horse learns that to remove the pressure he must take a step forward. The lack of pressure is the reward, and this is what your horse will seek out because on a basic level he wants to be unbothered. The behavior of walking forward when you apply tension to the lead will strengthen every time there is a timely release of that pressure. Eventually your horse can learn that he can simply avoid the pressure all together if he follows when you move off without you needing to put on the lead.

Factors affecting the effectiveness of reinforcement

The release of pressure once the behavior is performed is essential. Due to the nature of negative reinforcement it is unfortunate that many horses are subjected to inadvertent punishment. Delays in the release of pressure can leave horses unsure of the correct response and can make the desirable response less likely. This is why we must be very prompt in our release of aids when working with a horse. You want to reward the smallest try in the beginning so your horse can understand what the pressure means and how to properly relieve or avoid it. If there is no release, or a delayed release, of the aversive stimulus, your horse will try anything in his power to get away from that pressure including the very response you are trying to avoid. To go back to our leading example, in the beginning you may release the pressure on the lead when your horse lowers his head or shifts his weight forward. This lets him know the approximate direction he should go to find that release/reward. If your horse pulls back on the lead or stats to take a step backward, you should maintain the pressure on the lead until he drops his head again or stops moving backward. Do not increase your pressure just maintain the same amount until you get a response in the right direction no matter how small. Then ask again with light pressure for him to move forward and reward the smallest try when he moves in that direction. There is often the largest amount of resistance right before the horse stops thinking backwards and commits to moving forward

Good timing and consistency will always serve as the best tools in the horse training. These tools will create a more sustainable and profitable training environment than can ever be accomplished with an increase in strength or use of more forceful aids. This is not to say that outside aids cannot be helpful or necessary in horse training. We have created different types of aids to help us create various forms of pressure including bits, reins, use of our legs and seat, spurs and crops. These are all tools we can add pressure but more importantly, they are aids for us to release or remove pressure. These aids should never be used as a form of punishment.

Punishment is often associated with emotional states like fear, anxiety and frustration on the part of the punished animal. When present at high levels, these emotions have been associated with an actual decrease in learning potential in horses. We have been in situations where a horse fears for its life, be it real or imagined, and there is no amount of soothing words, cajoling, or added strength to keep that horse from doing what it thinks it must to protect itself. If a horse feels extremely fearful, anxious or frustrated, its basic survival instincts will prevail and no learning will take place until the emotional level has decreased. Adding any form of punishment during or after this type of incident does nothing besides increase the emotional state of the horse and make him more fearful of the situation.

However, like everything there is a time and a place for even offensive things like positive punishment. In horse management there are elements of punishment that are implemented for the overall safety of the horse. Take for example, an electric fence. The electric fence provides a highly aversive form of punishment that if tested once, may never be ventured to test again. It must be noted though that this action and ultimate punishment are in complete control by the horse without human intervention. The horse has control over the situation and can move away or avoid the fence on his own terms. In general, when punishment is left to the control of people, it often provides a damaging answer to the problem and can leave animals at the mercy of the skill and mood of the person.