Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement
Dave Hickman     Feb 1/2019

A bit of info 504 x 251Most 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.Connection 2 250 x 141

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

Negative Reinforcement 1200 x 628 square corners


                                                                                        Your horse will thank you

Negative Reinforcement

by Dave Hickman | Foundation before Specialization

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Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement
Dave Hickman     Dec 10/2015

A bit of info 504 x 251Last week I talked about “NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT’ & what it meant. This week I am going to explain “POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT.”

Whereas Negative Reinforcement means the removal of a stimulus Positive Reinforcement means the addition of something pleasant or rewarding.

However, the biggest problem with horse owners in providing a positive reinforcement is “timing.” This is the case with not just your back yard horse owner but very high level competition riders. How many times have you seen a jumping competition where the horse clears all the jumps and only when the horse reaches the exit area is he/she rewarded.  And even worse the “reward” is more often than not in the form of a slap (pet). The timing from clearing the last jump to the reward can be more than half a minute. The horse has no idea why he/she is being rewarded. ( if you can call it that)Positive reinforcement 250 x 141

The horse can only associate the positive reinforcement with something well done if it is rewarded immediately after initiating the desired response.

I personally am not a big fan of giving food as a reward, as done incorrectly it can lead to horses becoming pushy and even aggressive such as biting. Also in many cases it is impossible to supply the food in a timely manner (to reward the behavior) as I mentioned above.

Remember whatever the horse is doing immediately prior to either the negative reinforcement OR the positive reinforcement is what the horse is learning to do to either remover the stimulus or continue doing to receive the reward.

However, in early training food can be used and in fact in time can become quite a stimulus to get a requested response as the horse learns that food follows the initial response request.

Again TIMING is the key to success.

When using positive reinforcement such as stroking your horse or using your voice remember:

  1. Try to use the same pressure each time you stroke him/her and learn how heavy or light your horse likes to be rubbed.
  2. Stroke at the withers. It helps lower the horse’s heart rate AND can be done on the ground or in the saddle – remember timing is everything
  3. If using your voice use the same words and same tone each time AND keep the number of words to a minimum.
  4. Stretch out the pronunciation of the word – goooood boy

Stable Management  Lastly remember when your  horse is stimulated he/she puts these stimuli  in a descending order and   gets rid of each stimulus one at a time starting with the one bothering him/her the most so under   certain conditions positive reinforcement will not be able to compete with other stimuli. Therefore   when you are working with your horse keep the training as simple AND as clear as possible.

 That is why I stress the use of continually trying to lighten your aid to get a  response and then reward   immediately. This way your horse will not be overwhelmed with the negative reinforcement. I.E spurs,   whip, crop etc.


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Dave Hickman     February 3/2019

A bit of info 504 x 251This is the third of the operant aids:

1) Negative Reinforcement – Designed to INCREASE the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring.

2) Positive Reinforcement – Designed to INCREASE the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring.

3) Punishment – Designed to DECREASE the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring.

Punishment is probably the most difficult to administer correctly because of the side effects, the timing and mostly the human temperament when it is applied.

It can teach the horse to escape (if he runs away). It can teach aggressiveness (if he can’t run away – remember fight or flight instinct) and it can teach apathy if he can’t run away and can’t fight back. (He just absorbs it inside – Learned Helplessness). And it can destroy bonding if the horse associates the punishment with you.

If timed correctly (and I mean during the unwanted behavior) as I said above it can make that behavior less likely to reoccur. The problem is it tells the horse to stop doing something but it provides no other aid to tell it what to do. This can lead to the horse trying other unwanted behaviors.

Using Negative and Positive reinforcement I can increase a low level pressure until I get the required response. If I immediately (key word immediately) release the pressure the horse begins to associate the release of the pressure with the requested response and therefore he is likely to repeat the requested response in order to remove the stimulus.

Remember whatever the horse was doing immediately prior to the release of the pressure is what he has learned to do to get release of that pressure. That is why timing is so important and why Punishment doesn’t work.

Rather than punishment which is usually done out of anger, uses extreme force, and usually done with extreme attitude, try using what I call “CONSEQUENTIAL” training.

An example would be – Make the horse move as a consequence of bad behavior. You cannot get a horse to stand still (which he likes to do) but you can get him to move his feet. Control the feet and you control the horse. This can be done with appropriate rhythmic increasing pressure (suggest-ask-demand), proper trainer attitude, proper positioning and body language of the trainer and it can be continued until you get the required response.

The difference between this type of training and punishment is:

  1. In the appropriate pressure used,
  2. Where the pressure is applied (towards the rear of the horse),
  3. The attitude and the body language of the trainer.

There is no anger, no extreme attitude, no instantaneous reaction (usually at the DEMAND level) and no resentment (loss of ego) such as punishment uses.

By using PREDADOR language I would push my horse and I would push him from the rear – a language he can understand. I am Playing Horse Games by Horse Rules and in their world – “who pushes who wins”.

I have no need to punish my horse at any point. I can use both POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT to build courage, confidence, and competence, to create a bond with my horse, and to provide a caring, consistent, clear leadership role.

Visit my website and take a look at the available videos demonstrating the building block approach to training your horse.


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