Responsible horse training
If you are interacting with horses - be it riding, leading, feeding or breeding you have the added responsibility of learning about certain aspects of horse training. Every time a person interacts with a horse, they are consciously or unconsciously training the horse. If a person does not understand what they are doing they may actually train the horse to behave incorrectly.
This section of the website deals predominantly with the subject of Learning Theory - positive and negative reinforcement (pressure and release training) and how it can be applied to horse training. The relatively new movement in the horse world called Equitation Science uses Learning Theory - why and how horses learn new things - in order to understand why and how some training methods work and are better for the welfare of the horse.
Training is a fascinating subject and what you learn about training will help you in many ways (not just with horses). Horse training has evolved over centuries. Some people like to follow traditional methods and some prefer ‘newer’ methods. Whatever style of horse training you prefer it is important that you understand exactly what you are doing and think about your training from the horse’s perspective. By understanding how horses learn, training becomes an even more fascinating subject. The science of Learning Theory is now being applied to horse training and applying this to your training results in reduced stress for people and horses. When you understand how horses learn you can get the best from your chosen style of horse training.
Most forms of horse training (and domestic animal training) use negative reinforcement. Good horse trainers, however they label their own training method, already use negative reinforcement even if they do not give it it’s scientific name. Many of them call it pressure and release training (which is also a correct term). Many people (including many professional horse trainers) get the term negative reinforcement mixed up with the term punishment, thinking that they are the same thing but they are not. Negative reinforcement means that pressure (a stimulus) is put on a horse and is taken away when the animal gives the correct response. A typical example is that when riding you squeeze the horse with your legs and the horse steps forward, you then remove the pressure of your legs. Negative means the removal of the pressure and this is what the horse learns – that to get the pressure to go away the horse must give the correct response (in this case step forward).
Negative reinforcement is applied before the horse gives a response, in order to get the horse to give a response. It is also called ‘pressure and release’ by many trainers. It is the removal of the pressure that trains the horse.
Whereas negative reinforcement is a very powerful training tool when applied correctly, punishment that may involve the infliction of pain is NOT as it does not communicate to the horse what you want him or her to do - punishment says no rather than yes - and it can frighten the horse. In the above scenario, punishment would be hitting, kicking, jerking or shouting at the horse if the horse responds incorrectly (i.e. instead of stepping forward the horse steps sideways). Punishment can undo your training as the horse becomes afraid to try out responses. A horse learns by trial and error but if the horse becomes afraid to try then it becomes fearful and stressed. Eventually the horse may give up trying to respond and becomes ‘dull’ and ‘lifeless’. In scientific terms this horse has ‘learned helplessness’. This type of horse is often wrongly labelled as ‘lazy’, ‘stubborn etc. Another scenario is that the horse become highly agitated and behaves erratically. This type of horse is often labelled as ‘highly strung’, ‘unpredictable’ etc.
Punishment is applied after the horse gives an (incorrect) response. Punishment says no you did the wrong thing but it does not give the horse any clues about what the correct response would have been.
Positive reinforcement is when the horse is rewarded when they give the correct response. Again positive reinforcement is often confused with bribery by some trainers when it is not. For example bribery would be holding some feed in front of the horse and expecting the horse to follow that feed when trying to get the horse to load into a float. Positive reinforcement is where once the horse has stepped into the float they are rewarded with a scratch or edible treat. The horse does not see the reward until he or she has given the correct response. Think about why you get paid to go to work, you would not call that bribery, the money is the reward for working. With horses, negative reinforcement is usually still needed to get the horse to give the correct response, but when the horse responds correctly, they can be rewarded with a with a scratch or an edible treat. Dog trainers now use positive reinforcement extensively, and many horse trainers are adding this powerful training tool to their repertoire of training techniques.
Positive reinforcement can be added to negative reinforcement (pressure and release training) to create an even more effective training system.
These concepts will be explained much more fully in future articles and there are some excellent books and articles in the recommend reading and articles section on the more training info page. This subject is closely related to behaviour so make sure you also have a look at the Horse behaviour page and the more behaviour info page.
Our publication (available as an a PDF ebook, a kindle ebook and in printed form) A horse is a horse - of course will teach you more about horse behaviour and training.
Don’t forget to put yourself on our free mailing list (subscribe) so that you do not miss our updates to the site, newsletters, new articles, news about horse training issues and new developments on all things equine.