In my conversations, interviews, and observations of scores of horsemen, I’ve come to understand that ‘pressure and release’ or negative reinforcement, is a extremely effective method for working with horses. Since horses use negative reinforcement on each other, it’s easy to understand.
But a Practical Horseman article states:
“In most cases the trainer prompts the desired behavior by guiding the horse with pressure (a negative) and rewards the behavior by releasing pressure. But if the behavior is evoked with something positive, the horse learns faster and remembers better, says Dr. Sue McDonnell. “There’s no question that positive training methods are more efficient.”
That’s the theory behind reward-based systems like clicker training. The horse learns to associate a click with a food reward, so the trainer can instantly reward behavior using a quick click as a stand-in for the food.
Is positive reinforcement (like clicker training) more effective than negative reinforcement (pressure and release)?
One study reports that positive reinforcement is, in fact, less effective than negative reinforcement.
We put it to frequent contributors and Best Horse Practices Summit presenters as well as board members: Katrin Silva, Amy Skinner, West Taylor, Cindy Morin, and Dr. Steve Peters.
Please Note: What follows here is not a study, but a conversation with folks who work with scores of horses other many years.
Dr. Steve Peters:
Many of these training techniques are borne from Animal Behaviorism. Research involved simple stimulus response behaviors, many of which was reinforced with foods. Think pigeons tapping, rats in mazes, etc.
During its hey day, Behaviorism was never concerned with what was actually going on in the brain.
However, the world has changed and we are learning how animals’ central nervous system works. We are learning how to develop a language and conversation that works with what the horse can recognize and understand. It is reinforcing to the horse to simply realize that we are having a conversation and that certain behaviors result in certain changes from us.
I think a number of horseman feel that the simple clicker training type responses shortchange the horse and our ability to grow a working relationship that is dynamic and allows the horse to actively participate in a much more complex interaction.
I do agree with the principle that positive training methods work better than negative ones. If you’ve seen me work or heard me teach, you know that I’m always looking for a chance to reward a horse.
However, boundaries are also important, and I find horses actually like them. There are times when a firm “No!” is a perfectly appropriate response – with your voice, your leg, your spur, whatever is necessary. Then you move on, without holding a grudge, and look for a chance to reward again. This is not abuse. No horse will be psychologically scarred from an occasional correction in the form of a negative reinforcement.
A few months ago, I lost a client because I could not promise her to use exclusively positive training methods with her horses. She thought I was way too demanding. This woman is now working with a clicker trainer and has stopped riding her horses altogether.
Apart from the constant food rewards, my main problem with clicker training isn’t the positive approach – it’s the overly simplified communication style. Horses and riders can talk to each other in a much more subtle fashion, body to body, back and forth.
Good riding takes feel, sensitivity, timing, physical balance, etc., etc. It’s not about a tool that looks like a garage door opener, because horses are much more complex creatures than garage doors.
It’s possible that learning is faster with positive reinforcement, but there are so many negative side effects. You end up working harder to fix behavioral problems that you could have otherwise avoided.
The pressure and release training we do on the ground works well because it ties into what we do in the saddle. Everything connects and the horse can understand all the ties from ground to saddle. Clicker training does not allow that. Horses like things to be smooth, and clicker training forces you to chop up your work, to stop in mid-movement to reward with a treat, instead of asking a horse to follow a feel of a rope, seat, or bridle. I’m currently working with a clicker-trained horse, and I find he’s much less frustrated, much happier and more peaceful without clicker training, now that everything ties together for him.
Good points, Amy and Steve. Here’s another thought: I don’t think of “pressure” as something automatically “negative.” Framing it this way makes it sound like the horse is frantically trying to get away from the discomfort.
Instead, I think of training horses as communication. I think of the signals I give as conversation starters that prompt the horse to engage with me and to try different responses, some of which I will reward, many of which I will ignore, and a few of which I might reprimand. The horse does not try to “get away from pressure,” the horse tries to talk to me and vice versa.
George Lakoff talks about reframing as a tool to take back political power. We can do the same in the horse world!
Interesting that there are some people who swear by the clicker method. I “feel” it is a very small tool in the really big box of tools one needs for training horses. As with humans, there is not one training method that fits all. You need to understand your horse and how he thinks and the possible baggage he may have. Each horse is different.
I agree strongly with what’s been said here; I don’t think I will ever use it. It feels like something you have to do before you actually work on the issue at hand. And I don’t like treating my horse like a trick pony and feeding a million treats either.
Horses are not capable of discerning between positive and negative. These are human words that we like to apply. Therefore, I don’t think of anything I do with a horse as “positive” or “negative.”
Pressure is the invitation to the horse to seek mental relief. Pressure is applied and the horse starts seeking mental safety. As the horse seeks relief I am guiding the horse to mental safety.
Let’s say I am asking a young horse to walk on a tarp:
Pressure is applied to the horse to walk forward to the tarp. As the horse seeks mental safety he will start to explore his options: He may want to avoid the tarp. As he does so there is a slight increase in pressure. As the horse seeks again, he may turn back toward the tarp. Then pressure is released or lightened.
I want the horse’s mind to be seeking mental relief. Each time the horse shows interest or moves toward the tarp, he will experience mental relief as I lighten or totally release pressure. Each time the horse seeks this mental relief he is also rewarded with a dopamine release which then reinforces the behavior of seeking mental relief.
Again, I want the horse to seek mental relief each time he senses pressure. I am simply there to direct his mind to the mental relief.
In the end, the horse is not focused on the tarp. Rather, he is seeking direction from me as to where he will find mental relief. As a result, his mind will find this mental relief at the tarp. The closer he gets to the tarp the more mental relief and dopamine rewards he will get. Ultimately he will seek relief so strongly that he will walk right onto the tarp.
That being said, I know mostly nothing about clicker training. From my minimal observations, it appears to me that the horses are simply performing maneuvers expecting a treat, not seeking relief. Then the question is:
What if I am in a real dynamic situation with my horse and I don’t have my clicker or any treats and therefore my horse is not able to figure it out on his own?
I feel the treats we can do best with neurochemical. There is an endless supply already built into the horse, and if your horse has been taught to seek mental relief to get his treat of dopamine, now you have a horse that can solve his own problems and pressures in life. This also works super well with humans! Teach our kids to find mental safety within their own mind and beliefs is way more impactful than teaching them to run from the pressures of life.
Really well said! Clicker training involves performing movements instead of seeking and engaging. You hit the nail on the head, West.
This study reports that positive reinforcement is less effective than negative reinforcement.