Most of us use what is called “negative reinforcement” or as it is sometimes known “pressure/release” to aid in the training of our horse but many people don’t understand exactly what that means and are misled by the name.
The two words themselves seem to send a message of pain and force when in fact what it means is the removal of the stimulus. Think of it as a math function. The reinforcement means the stimulus that we are applying and the negative means we are removing (subtracting) the reinforcement.
So “negative reinforcement” means the removal of the stimulus.
Negative reinforcement is a key element in the training of our horse. It can mean anything from the use of a whip to the clucking of the trainer to get our horse to react to the stimulus. But it only works if the timing of the removal is correct and the stimulus itself is applied with a rhythmic, increasing pressure starting with the lowest pressure possible and then increasing until we get a reaction. AND then removing that stimulus as quickly as possible – rewarding the TRY of our horse.
It is important to remember that whatever a horse does to remove a stimulus is what he learns. So if for instance you approach your horse with an umbrella and he/she backs off and you take the umbrella away the horse has learned to back up and the pressure goes away. The umbrella should not be removed until the horse stops moving backwards. It is the pressure (stimulus) that motivates BUT it is the release of the pressure that teaches. The sooner we learn to apply pressure in a slow methodical rhythmic increasing pressure and then release that pressure as fast as we can once the horse responds to our aid the quicker the horse learns.
What we as trainers have to recognize is the difference between fear (panic) in our horse from a stimulus and discomfort from the stimulus. If we continue to apply pressure when our horse shows signs of panic (pulls the lead rope out of your hand) he/she is just building adrenalin and there is absolutely no learning going on – only thousands of years of self-preservation of FIGHT or FLIGHT. Horses are hard wired to react. They do not think about what scared them. They run and then look back at what frightened them. (unlike humans that freeze and then stare at what scared them)
So it is not only a waste of time to think you are training your horse at this point but we know fear is accumulative in horses so we are just adding fuel to the fire making our horse more fearful and reactive to us.
If however our horse only SLOWLY moves away from our stimulus then he/she is not in panic mode and therefore can learn. We can begin to replace some of the fight or flight instinct with a learned response. We can continue to apply stimulus until we get the reaction we are looking for or at least a try and then remove the stimulus rewarding our horse for the effort. In time our horse will learn that if he/she reacts to the stimulus in a “correct” manner the pressure goes away. We are giving our horse a chance to learn without the introduction of fear.
What is key is TIMING of the removal of the pressure. As I said before whatever the horse is doing prior to the removal of the pressure is what the horse has learned to do to remove the pressure.
We want to give our horse the best deal we can offer him/her when training so prior to applying an “operant” aid (one we can apply with increasing pressure to get a response – such as a whip) we should apply a “classical” aid ( one that once applied the pressure cannot be increased -bending our hip) I like to “SUGGEST” “ASK” “DEMAND.”
Suggest and ask are classical aids and the demand is the operant aid. If we always apply aids in this order then at some point our horse will respond to the classical aid which “IN HAND” might be my body language and “UNDER SADDLE” might be my seat. In time ALL my aids will become subtle and my horse can respond in a quiet, relaxed manner.
Take the time it requires to build courage, confidence and competence in your horse. This foundation work will prepare him/her both mentally and physically for training Under Saddle
Remember FOUNDATION BEFORE SPECIALIZATION.
Your horse will thank you