When it comes to training, there are a lot of different approaches out there.
Positive reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, training by reward, clicker training, liberty training....the list is long....
Lets have a closer look at some of the training approaches from a horses way of learning, in relation to how their brain works: Part 1 : Negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement relies on the use of pressure and timely release of pressure to train horses.
It's only called “negative” in a mathematical sense because something (pressure) is taken away during the training process to reward the horse for a correct behavioural responses.
Example: If your horse walks and you apply pressure with both legs your horse might change to a trot. You remove your legs, and your horse thinks "that feels good". Next time you apply pressure with both legs your hose will speed up, hoping it will achieve the same good feeling/release.
Lets have a look how that responds with the equine brain:
Negative reinforcement works best, when applied in a form that suits the horses nature.
Horses are familiar with displacements ( move away from pressure, or apply pressure to displace another horse/ human). They do this within a heard all the time.
Dominant mares pin their ears to displace another horse from the food, horses move/displace us with walking into us, swinging their head or hindquarters towards us etc.
If we apply pressure on the right side of the horse to move it , it will move to the left etc etc.
There are many more examples.
The important part is , to release the pressure immediately.
If we release it too early, the brain cannot relate the pressure and release, if its too late the moment of relating is gone. Timing is EVERYTHING!
Using negative reinforcement to correct Misbehaviour:
Another form of pressure for a horse is to work. Having a break/ rest is a sort of pressure release.
Thinking about a misbehaviour such as bucking under saddle when starting to ride. Of course bucking can have several reasons ( discomfort or pain, not fitting saddle....), just lets assume it is not a health or tack issue: If we push the horse into work, more forward, on a circle etc. when he start to buck ( if you are experienced and confident enough to do that, if not please ask trainer for help!!!!) he will associate bucking with more working.
As soon as he stops bucking around, you stop him and let him have a break.
Learning effect: Bucking- pressure, not bucking- release/break.
Then you try the manoeuvre again. If he bucks again, let him work harder, as soon as he stops , release him and have break. Your horse will learn that bucking is not a good idea as it leads to more work. Horses are energy saving orientated ( its their nature), so he will choose the more "relaxing" approach in the future. Remember, learning takes time, especially re- learning or " overriding" old/bad behaviour. Consistency and patience is the key.
The downside of negative reinforcement:
This training approach is effective but the release has to be done immediately. A lot of riders are not experienced enough to get the timing right and have issues with their own body coordination.
Think about riding lessons: Often we need the help of the instructor to tell us when to apply more pressure or release it as we are too busy in balancing our own body and coordinate our limbs on each side. It even becomes more difficult if you need to time the pressure and release simultaneously with your own body awareness and coordination.
Negative reinforcement is often used incorrectly when riders apply constant pressure but fail to release the pressure when the horse responds. This is a fatal mistake as it leads to "neural fatigue".
Signs of neural fatigue: The horse will stop trying to please, some will become nervous, others will start to buck/rear/bolt or start to fight.
When a touch becomes a constant pull on the bit it will annoy and even hurt the horse and human strength will be placed in competition with the horses strength. Not a good solution. Your horse will become "numb" in the mouth area, built up too much tension within the neck and will develop performance issues that will end up in sore muscles and the inability to perform at his potential.
Another problem is "accidental unintended reinforcement".
An example: You are cantering and want to start riding in a circle. You grab the left rein to begin a circle, but you grab it too hard and your horse turns too much and you fall out of the saddle onto the ground. By falling off, you relieved pressure of the rein which is a "reward" for the horse. Your horse learns that this is what you want, so it does it again next time.
This example just shows, what happens all the time while we learn to improve our riding skills. It also shows how important our own body awareness and balance is, to train our horses correctly in a fair and horse orientated way.
Finally, Negative reinforcement teaches a horse to OBEY and RESPOND, but it does not really built trust and connection between horse and rider.
It is a more "functional" approach. The horse learns to seek, identify and use humans cues. But your horse does not learn that you are on his side.
It learns to do the job.
Next time I will explain the Training by reward. BUT please leave your carrots, biscuits and apples in the pocket for now. Training by reward does not mean we use treats. More about this in the next blog.
All the information provided is my summary of more detailed information from the fabulous book:
"Horse brain. Human brain" by Janet L. Jones
Any comments, questions, requests please contact me. Always happy to help.
Stay curious, for the love of horses!
Britta Bruns, Invercargill