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Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime
Quote Mark

Chinese Proverb


Positive vs Negative reinforcement


In a survey of professional equestrians knowledge of learning theory in Australia, warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008) “ to assess the knowledge of learning theory among accredited equestrian coaches in Australia, a 20-item questionnaire was distributed to all coaches registered with the National Coaches Accreditation Scheme in Australia (n=830). Of the 206 respondents, 79.5% considered positive reinforcement to be “very useful,” yet only 2.8% correctly explained its use in horse training. When asked about the usefulness of negative reinforcement, 19.3% of coaches considered it “very useful,” with 11.9% correctly explaining its use. Punishment was rated “very useful” by 5.2% of the respondents, although only eight coaches (5.4%) explained punishment correctly.”


Further more, the study goes on the say, “Release of pressure was considered the most effective reward for horses among respondents (78.2%) these results indicate that many equestrian coaches lack a correct understanding of positive and negative reinforcement as they apply to horse training.”


Positive and negative reinforcement are the same sides of the coin, with punishment being on the other side of the operant behavioural coin, yet as this study clearly shows, and my own experience over 15 years of teaching the differences in these concepts would replicate these results, most people have at best very little understanding of these key communication tools let alone the correct application, not their fault they were never taught.


The rules, use and consequences of these elements of operant conditioning are researched, documented and scientifically proven, yet equine owners and enthusiasts are at the mercy of an industry that still for the large part has very little understanding of the differences caused by the application of these approaches, let alone how to define them or use them properly.


For me reinforcement isn’t good or bad, they are scientific principles, what causes the problem with either is the practical application. We are back to the old wise words we all know “it’s the hands that hold the reins” in this case it is the brain that understands the principles that determines the outcome of application.


For sure I find one of the most common problems between the horse human relationship is the incorrect use of negative reinforcement, either through poor timing or escalation, both of which lead to poor communication. But to be fair negative reinforcement is much more common in its use so I would see more problems I guess.


With the advent of increasing use of positive reinforcement I now am seeing proportionally as many problems caused by the poor timing of rewards and as I do with the incorrect release of pressure.


You want to be a better trainer, or want equine training to become more ethical then start using the tools correctly and understand them, other wise it is like holding a gun and not know which end the bullet comes out. We horse trainers are in a position to baffle with bullshit and play to the emotional concerns of clients, do one thing say another. Don’t get me wrong there are good trainers out there, but whether they are good or poor doesn’t depend on if they can correctly define positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, its whether they can explain it correctly to the client and use it correctly with the equine in their care. Best tip I can give equine owners find the definitions of reinforcement from a reputable, not equestrian source learn them, think of the practical application and then apply them check you methods and the methods you are advised to use very very carefully before commencing.


There success or ethical use is down to considering all the elements of the environment, individual horse, trainer skill, trainer knowledge, trainer attitude, immediate environment and desired results and desired relationship, desired thinking and learning mindscape of the horse you are developing and working with. It is us, it is always us. 

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