The Negatives of Negative Reinforcement

I stumbled upon a wonderful article written by Kellie Snider, editor of Animal Behavior Answers, and positive reinforcement dog trainer. In her two part article she discusses the unwanted teachings of negative reinforcement. She very clearly discusses and defines many issues surrounding the use of negative reinforcement as a teaching method, bringing to my mind a few similarities occurring in the horse world.

Traditional training techniques, whether for people or animals, often rely largely on negative reinforcement.  You want your dog to sit so you pull up on his leash and push down on his butt until he caves to relieve the pressure.  You want your horse to turn so you yank on a rein attached to a bit in his mouth so he turns his head to relieve the pressure on the tender flesh in his mouth.  Quite a few trainers have given up training because their dogs started hiding when it was time to start work.  Others have either just provided more pressure, or even just gotten rid of the dogs.

Many breeders have opted not to breed dogs that fall apart under that kind of pressure.  The result is that certain breeds have been created that are willing and able to tolerate forceful teaching techniques.  Laborador Retrievers fit in this category.  Many of them can endure a whole lot of pain and not fall apart.  This is only a gift to the dog if he has no alternative but to be born and endure aversive training.  But even these dogs can learn with positive reinforcement and you won’t end up with the kinds of problems associated with aversive training techniques. (Kellie Snider, 2005)

I’m wondering if Quarter Horses are our equine Labradors.  If you notice these are the horses of choice for most clinicians, especially the natural horsemanship clinicians.  They hold up well under pressure.

This characteristic of the Quarter Horse and the popularity of pressure/release based training, I’m afraid is making things tough on the other breeds that may fall apart under pressure.

I can’t think of any big name clinicians that are actively using Arabians, Lusitanos, Andalusians or other sensitive breeds dubbed as hot or spirited. Those breeds are found in performances like Cavalia, where they use positive reinforcement techniques. In my experience, Romeo, my Paso Fino gelding, would melt down, even under slight pressure, but practically over night became a dream horse with positive training methods that did not involve pressure.

The contrast for me was so clear. With pressure-based communication my horse acted like he was standing in a hive of angry bees. With attraction-based communication he became a solid citizen with an amazing work ethic. Before I figured this out, I did long for my easy Quarter Horse days of youth. But, once Romeo and I got on the same page, I never looked back, in fact I bought another Paso Fino!

I think,  just as the dog training world has expanded to include positive reinforcement techniques, I think there’s also room in the horse world to do the same. It’s my hope that all horses, regardless of their genetic tolerance for pressure, will experience the joy of interacting with handlers that can train using methods that feel good to the horse.



5 thoughts on “The Negatives of Negative Reinforcement

  1. Cheryl
    You make so many good points here. I suppose it was easier and more convenient for natural horsemanship trainers to get traction for a movement of sorts when they had such tractable horses to deal with. While I understand that QHs vary in their reactions to reinforcement as much as other horses do, I agree with you that they often accept much more abuse before calling it quits than other breeds, draft horses possibly excepted.
    There is much to explore here in your post! I have linked to you in a post of my own, to appear tomorrow.
    Thank you again for writing such good material.

    • Thank you!

      The way I’m seeing this is that horses and humans (all creatures) basically repeat behaviors they’ve been reinforced for. Training with negative reinforcement, is very reinforcing for the handler, I think because getting the behavior is so visible. The handler stomps, the horse immediately moves, instant pay off for the handler. Pull up on the leash, push down on the butt, the dog sits…behavior achieved. The handler has gotten what it wanted.

      What I want to know now, is how does the animal process this? Is the release of pressure a pleasing reinforcement for the animal? Does the animal view the release as a reward or simply a relief. I know that the behaviors my animals ‘choose’ to do, or figure out on their own are soooooo much stronger and they practically volunteer to show me what they can do, I think because, all the way around they have good feelings associated with it.

      Pushing a tractable animal around is very reinforcing, because they offer such little resistance. This has the effect of making the handler feel successful. The issues with the sensitive horses is that they don’t make anyone’s job easy with pressure-based communication. They can make people look bad.

      Again, my goal is to be able to morph the training style to meet the horse’s view of the world (pressure) so both horse and handler feel good!


  2. I find this a very interesting topic. Can either of you give me a lead on where to start with green horses – 3 and 4 year olds. I like the idea of asking them to “go in a circle” but where do you draw the line between them willingly (I don’t think it is ever willing) and the ‘pressure’ method? I must be bad at lunging because neither Harmony or Tobi will do it fo me. They turn and face me with a very obvious displeasure on thier face. I know training is much more complex, but what it comes down to is that the ponies are HERE and live with us (reluctant to say “we own them”) and I don’t have money to pay a trainers. So it is up to me to learn this stuff. And I know all horses are different, so what works for you might not work for them, but it’s worth a try.

    • Hi Kerry,
      I like to train everything that is usually taught through pressure with attraction-based methods first. Lunging is a perfect example of a behavior where the horse has to move away from something undesirable, the stomp of a foot, wave of a hand, snap of a whip. In my mind this probably isn’t on their top 10 list of things that feel good. Then, as if moving away from something not too fun wasn’t enough, most of the time horses taught to lunge are confined by round pen or lunge line, which if taught incorrectly can lead to all sorts of fall out like learned helplessness or avoidance issues.

      So here’s what I do to hopefully create only happy sensations surrounding lunging. For starters here’s a video of DaVinci learning to lunge by targeting or following a long target stick, affectionately known as my “spunge whip”,( A lunge whip with a sponge duct taped on the end.)

      For more in depth info on targeting you can read my post Teach Your Horse to Target.

      Once your horse understands how to target a ‘spunge whip’ I give it a verbal cue such as “move out”. Once the horse is fluent with the verbal cue and consistently targeting the sponge in a big circle, I’ll introduce a second lunge or driving whip which I hold in my other hand. I’ll ask for ‘move out” with the spunge whip while holding the driving whip behind. Eventually I can lose the target stick and just lunge using a whip from behind, which resembles traditional lunging, but I think has a completely different association in the horse’s mind. This way the horse is learning about moving away from something while moving toward something. I’m hoping the horse is not viewing the driving whip as pressure, but as neutral cue to “move out in a circle”.

      It’s worked really well for both DaVinci and my young Clydesdale. Predominately, I lunge using the target stick. I think it engages the horse’s brain more and creates more of an interactive environment. However, if someone else is lunging my horse, the horse will be fluent in both methods.

      Here’s another video with my Clydesdale’s early targeting/lunging work.

      I hope this helps! Keep me posted.

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