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Negative Reinforcement - Is it a Good thing or Bad?

Horse training.  You either pay someone to do it for you, struggle through it yourself, or unknowingly do it every day.  Most likely, if you have a horse, you are unconsciously training him or her every time you go out to the barn.  Every action you do around your horse sends him a signal which he tries to interpret in order to protect himself or get what he wants.  If you break it down to the simplest of elements, your horse is a very basic creature: he wants to eat, sleep, and basically be left alone.  Sure there are social behaviors where horses play and interact, however, in general, a horse just wants to go about his daily business without being saddled and ridden around in a circle with you on his back. This basic desire to be unbothered is the conventional means of horse training, and the name it goes by is operant conditioning.
First, a little background.  Operant conditioning is a learning theory based on the work done in the early 1900’s by the  psychologist B.F. Skinner.  This theory is based on the idea that learning stems from an individual’s response to a stimuli, and then the change in behavior that comes from this interaction. The behavior can be strengthened (more likely to happen) or weakened (less likely to happen).  

The strength of the behavior change is directly related to the consequences, good or bad, that occur after the behavior is performed.  Reinforcement and punishment are the core tools used to modify a behavior in operant conditioning.  Any form of reinforcement is used in operant conditioning to strengthen a behavior; while any form of punishment is used to weaken it.  These tools can be described as positive or negative.  The word “positive” is being used in a mathematical sense in which something is being added to a situation.  Whereas “negative” is used to described 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 animal training.  For horses in specific, negative reinforcement is the form of training most often used.  Remember, in this situation “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 when pressure is applied, the horse tries to find a way to get rid of or avoid the pressure.  When you are adept at releasing/removing the pressure at the crucial moment when your horse offers the behavior you are looking for, you are then 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 equine 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 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 be strengthened 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 pull on the lead.
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 responses 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 starts 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 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 isn’t 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 use to 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’ve all 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 a problem and can leave animals at the mercy of the skill and mood of the person.
Now when you go out to the barn, pay attention to the little things you are doing that get a response from your horse and how, in turn, you respond to his behavior.  Know that your horse will try to figure out what it is you want him to do if you present it in a simple manner of pressure and timely release.  In the beginning reward the smallest try.  Be sure not to ask more of your horse than he is physically and mentally prepared to do.  This will help build trust between you and your equine partner.  He will understand that you won’t ask more than he is capable of, and you won’t punish him when he tries to figure it out.  You, in turn, will see your horse truly work for you, and the possibilities of what you both can achieve together are endless.  

Studies/articles on Operant Conditioning in horses:
Interesting article on punishment in horses:


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