Poisoning – or counter conditioning?

Updated August 2023

Yes or no, true or false?

“If you combine negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement, you poison the learning process.”

Do you agree?

Do you poison the cue? The environment? Yourself? – if you after a negatively reinforced response add a positive reinforcer (AKA combined reinforcement)?

Some of the readers of this blog may say “yes”.

Some may say “no”.

Some may say “huh?”

After all, that question doesn’t make sense if you’re unfamiliar with those terms. Stay tuned, I’ll explain them in a minute.

I think the right answer is “it depends”.

Is combined reinforcement poisonous?

Before we start untangling the potential pitfalls of combined reinforcement – why is this an important question?

Helping horses and their people.

This question is important because cross-over trainers (I’m thinking horse people here) may find it hard to transition from negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement without using combined reinforcement.

In the horse training world, the paradigm shift from negative reinforcement-based training to positive reinforcement training is a huge leap for both the traditionally schooled trainer – and the horse.

I’ve been told that many horse people try making that shift, fail and give up – reverting back to the familiar, old-school, negative reinforcement-based training.

In my book, the failure to incorporate positive reinforcement in any training regime would lead to potential unnecessary suffering, and I can’t help thinking that a more gradual shift may perhaps be less difficult than an all-or-nothing approach in some cases. Maybe the difficulty in shifting from negative to positive reinforcement could be addressed by transitioning through combined reinforcement?

Making huge changes is difficult, and many horse people fail to make the switch from traditional negative reinforcement-based training to using mostly positive reinforcement. Perhaps a gradual transition, involving combined reinforcement, leads to more horse trainers successfully learning to use positive reinforcement in their training? The gradual transition would involve adding positive reinforcers, diminishing the aversives used, and learning to recognize subtle body language indicating discomfort.

In my opinion, combined reinforcement has the potential of either increasing or decreasing suffering, depending on how it’s carried out – and what the alternatives are.

I may be completely off track here. After all, I’m not a horse trainer, I haven’t lived through that transition personally. So, this blog post is hypothetical – but I’m counting on you, dear reader, to let me know whether you agree with me – or not (and yes, there’s been disagreement, keep reading!).

But first, some definitions – just to make sure we’re on the same page.

Negative reinforcement – escape or avoidance

Negative reinforcement is when the animal learns to escape or avoid something unpleasant by performing a specific behaviour.

Escape or avoidance are technical terms in this context.

Let’s take a doggie example, just so that the dog people feel that reading on is relevant – after all, the same learning principles apply to all animal species, not just horses.

Say you’re walking your dog. He pulls ahead, and the leash gets taught, which is uncomfortable. So he stops pulling, which reduces the pressure on the leash. He just performed an escape response. Not ‘escape’ as in running for his life but as in performing a behaviour that terminates an ongoing unpleasant stimulus.

In other words, the dog who successfully performs an escape response has control over the end of the unpleasant stimulation. He has figured out how to end it.

Later he may learn what serves as a warning signal announcing that he’s about to experience the tightening of the leash – whether it’s a certain behaviour from the handler, or something that happens in the environment, such as seeing another dog. So he returns closer to the handler when he perceives the warning signal, and has thus avoided experiencing the increased leash pressure.

‘Avoidance’ is a technical term here. It means that the aversive stimulus is not applied. A horse who’s standing still as you’re saddling him is showing avoidance behaviour if he’s learned that shying away is met with unpleasantness. So, even though he’s just standing still, technically he’s showing avoidance behaviour (assuming his individual learning history involved unpleasantness as a consequence of moving).

So, for the animal, successful avoidance means controlling the start of the unpleasant stimulation. He has figured out how to avoid its onset.

An escape response terminates an ongoing aversive stimulus, whereas an avoidance response prevents it from occurring, often in response to a warning signal.

This concept of control is extremely important when it comes to empowering animals and maintaining high welfare. Empowered animals are resilient; they aren’t as emotionally affected by aversive events – they bounce back more easily. And vice versa, the welfare of animals who lack control over aversive events is potentially challenged.

It may sound as though I’m promoting negative reinforcement, as if it’s unproblematic. “It gives the animal control; the animal gets empowered and resilient”.

It’s not that simple.

Negative reinforcement is often carried out badly, and since it involves aversive stimuli, it has the same potential unwanted, unhealthy and dangerous side effects as punishment.

What dangerous side effects? I listed 20 problems with punishment here.

So, negative reinforcement potentially carries some serious fall-out, and there are often more effective ways of getting behaviour, such as using positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement – the preferred approach to get behaviour.

Positive reinforcement is when the animal learns to get access to some type of resource, or something pleasant, by performing a specific behaviour. For instance, the dog gets treats, praise, petting or eye contact when he stays close to the handler. He then spends more time close to the handler to get continued access to those resources.

This approach to teaching and training animals is a lot less problematic than negative reinforcement, and generally results in more enthusiastic learners and better performance.

Also, positive reinforcement is generally more forgiving if you mess up as a trainer. Not to say that positive reinforcement training is without potential pitfalls, though.

The difficulty of transitioning

So which choices are there?

Let’s say you’re a traditionally schooled horse trainer, skilled at using negative reinforcement… would you wake up one day and drop those highly developed skills, and switch to something you’ve never tried before – positive reinforcement?

As far as I’ve understood, and to their immense credit, many horse people actually do try this. They leave familiar ground and try something new, perhaps without an experienced coach mentoring them – and then their horse gets overexcited and starts mugging them, and many of those brave trainers quit.

Sound familiar?

Not being a horse person, I didn’t realize this problem existed until I started hearing it from my students, but it’s a story that keeps coming back.

What is the problem, then? Why is transitioning so difficult?

One part of the issue may be that the would-be cross-over trainer is changing too many things at once.

When teaching using positive reinforcement, we often shape behaviour. We don’t expect behaviour to change in leaps, but rather in baby steps. We change it by increments, making small adjustments to existing behaviour.

We avoid setting the animal up to fail. Success should be easy, at every step of the way.

We avoid frustration.

And yet – we expect cross-over horse trainers to make that huge leap, without shaping the transition from negative to positive reinforcement!

Setting them up to fail, as it were.

What I’m suggesting is that we help them start where they’re at, and consider “teaching-positive-reinforcement-to-a-transitioning-horse-trainer” as a shaping procedure. It has the added benefit of being a non-confrontative approach that might make the trainer who’s still on the fence about trying positive reinforcement more likely to listen to and implement suggestions for change.

A rough shaping plan for such a horse person may look something like this.

  1. For instance, if the trainer is using negative reinforcement, we first help them do it better. We teach them to read the subtle changes in body language indicating the animal’s discomfort. We help them improve their timing and the importance of applying as little pressure as possible. We teach them the distinction of escape and avoidance.
  2. If the trainer is using negative reinforcement skillfully (with such mild aversives that there’s no fear reaction), we introduce them to using combined reinforcement, adding a positive reinforcer to a negatively reinforced behaviour. For instance, if the horse yields to slight pressure without showing signs of discomfort, he also gets a treat. It’s important that the treat-giving serves to reduce any slight discomfort through counterconditioning, and doesn’t induce conflict by following a strong aversive that induces fear (as this potentially leads to the risk of poisoning, see below).
  3. If the cross-over trainer has gained some skills using positive reinforcement, the use of negative reinforcement can be faded as that new toolbox grows. Any poisoned cues may be retrained using new cues.

This rough shaping outline may sound easy to implement, and I realize it’s not. I’m not a horse trainer so I wouldn’t know exactly how to go about doing it in the real world, either; which exercises to use to help teach the required skills and getting momentum through this shaping process?

Beyond the difficulty in identifying the right practical exercises, I see three main reasons why it might fail.

  • Some would-be cross-over trainers feel guilty about having used negative reinforcement and want to stop immediately. They see no value in improving their use of this technique, and don’t want to spend any time on step 1 – or 2. But going straight to step 3 might simply be too difficult.
  • They may be unprepared that the previously well-mannered horse may get excited about food, conflicted and aroused, or start mugging. This makes some would-be cross-over horse trainers give up their attempts of using positive reinforcement altogether.
  • They may have heard that combined reinforcement (negative and positive reinforcement) may poison the training process, and so they won’t try it. This might also make many would-be cross-over horse trainers give up, because step 2 in the shaping protocol is omitted, and going from step 1 to step 3 is, again, difficult.

So, returning to the first question I asked: Is there some truth to the risk of poisoning?

Well. My take on this: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Hence this blog post – because that “sometimes, no” would bring back step 2 into the shaping process, and ultimately help more horse people start using positive reinforcement.

Poisoned cues

The potential problem is that the cue asking the animal for the response may become poisoned (as may the environment, including the trainer). Once poisoned, the cue is both a warning that if the response isn’t shown, unpleasant things will happen, and a promise that once the correct response is shown, there’ll be goodies.

The poisoned cue is ambiguous, since what follows may sometimes, but not always, involve unpleasantness.  And so the animal reacts emotionally (fearfully, showing avoidance) to the poisoned cue.

So how likely is a cue followed by combined reinforcement to become poisoned?

I’d say it depends on a couple of factors, and poisoning can perhaps be avoided by considering the following:

  • How unpleasant is “unpleasant”? Does the animal show a negative emotional response to it indicating fear or discomfort? (ideally, no – the unpleasant stimulus should be very mild)
  • Has the animal learned to escape and avoid the unpleasantness? (ideally, yes – he should have learned to control it)
  • How good are the goodies? Does the animal get a positive emotional response to them? (ideally, yes – he should be enthusiastic about them).

I think cues get poisoned when:

  • The unpleasant stimulus is painful and/or evokes a fear response.
  • The animal hasn’t learned to escape or avoid the unpleasantness.
  • The positive reinforcer isn’t potent enough to countercondition the unpleasantness.

One oft-discussed Master thesis examined the effects of combined reinforcement in comparison to solely positive reinforcement and found that with regards to combined reinforcement, the cue (and the environment) did indeed get poisoned. In that study, the unpleasant stimulus that poisoned the cue involved pulling the dog into a desired position by tugging the leash.

In the study, the dog was wearing a harness and was pulled into position if he didn’t respond to the cue. Later, he learned to avoid pulling by walking to the desired position on cue. In other words, he learned an avoidance response, but he never learned an escape response. Also, the tugging was aversive enough to lead to emotional responses.

And so in that study, the cue became poisoned, and there was a big difference between behaviours trained with combined reinforcement compared to behaviours trained solely with positive reinforcement.

What would have been the outcome if the intensity of the tugging wasn’t as aversive? If the animal learned to escape it – perform a behaviour to terminate it – learned to control the aversive?

Might we see counterconditioning rather than poisoning if the procedure were carried out differently? That’s question one.

Question two is – what’s the alternative? In that study, there was never a comparison with behaviours trained solely with negative reinforcement.

What are the options?

For many would-be cross-over horse trainers, the options aren’t to use combined reinforcement or positive reinforcement. Remember, the trainer who hasn’t transitioned isn’t skilled using positive reinforcement – yet.

The options for many traditional horse trainer would perhaps be to use make that transition using combined reinforcement – or revert to the old ways and continue using only negative reinforcement.

Combined reinforcement: good or bad? It depends.

So, the option for the would-be cross-over horse trainer isn’t between combined or positive reinforcement, it’s between combined or negative reinforcement. Again, combined reinforcement has the potential of either increasing or decreasing suffering, depending on how it’s carried out – and what the alternatives are.

If the alternative is positive reinforcement, the combined reinforcement may be the least preferred option.

If the alternative is negative reinforcement, then combined reinforcement may be the best choice, serving two different purposes.

One, teaching the cross-over trainer to incorporate positive reinforcement into the training, helping make the transition.

Two, counterconditioning the training situation so that it’s less aversive to the horse. After all, the horse will learn that uncomfortable situations are invariably followed by nice things happening – those discomforts become predictors of good stuff and therefore less scary.

Negative reinforcement to teach novel behaviour has a bad rap (often for good reason), and many cross-over horse trainers abandon this training technique as soon as they can when they’ve successfully learned to use positive reinforcement.

That’s great. Once you’ve built the skills of using positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement may be faded out of most training situations.

But if you haven’t yet made that transition, or you’re struggling? Combined reinforcement may be the intermediate step that will help you successfully learn to incorporate positive reinforcement in your training.

Combined reinforcement may reduce the risk that you’ll give up.

theory clashing with practical perspectives…

My perspective is mostly theoretical, but Maxine Easey’s (horse-charming.com) is practical, and she kindly provided some constructive critique to this blog post. She pointed out some reasons why my suggestion might be problematic, and the following is my interpretation of her main objections:

  • The power of reinforcement history – with regards to the person. People will often continue doing what they’ve done for many years – they’ll often revert to restraint and correction, or less optimal ways of using negative reinforcement (such as using too strong aversives, or not releasing pressure timely) – it takes conscientious practice and self-awareness not to fall into that trap. In her opinion, it’s better to teach them something completely new (AKA positive reinforcement), and make sure they get it right from the start.
  • Using light pressure might sound easy in theory, but it’s not in practice. In certain environments such as where there’s lots of competing motivators such as distractions – think grass! – or aversives, the animal might not respond to light pressure. Many trainers will then resort to higher-level aversives. In other words, despite the best intentions, those light aversives tend to become warning signals telling the horse that unless he complies, strong aversives will follow – so there’s a risk of emotional responses and fear learning. Extinction bursts for the trainer tie into this: if we do something and it doesn’t work, we do more of what we were doing. In other words, if we use light pressure and it doesn’t work, we escalate the pressure – and that escalation is negatively reinforced if it does work. Max told me that by promoting negative reinforcement, we set people up to escalate.
  • She suggests training some behaviours using positive reinforcement in an optimal environment, and improve the person’s skills using positive reinforcement in those types of scenarios (ideally starting with just counterconditioning so that the horse’s perception of people will change to the point of eating and being relaxed in the presence of humans, rather than being conflicted).
  • The big risk when combining reinforcement is poisoning: the ambiguity of the situation frustrating the horse and generating conflict. Although in theory (as outlined in this blog post) you might successfully countercondition the situation, in Max’s experience combined reinforcement more often leads to poisoning – and that’s the reason would-be cross-over horse trainers quit trying to use positive reinforcement.

Note that in the comments below, several people offered additional insights and reflections. Nathalie said: “…when you want to shift to R+, start in a new and distinct context (e.g. special place, special equipment). Start with very basic stuff and continue with R- in all other contexts. That is, to really create a special “space” for R+ and never mix the quadrants in this space. Then, when both horse and trainer are comfortable in this context, gradually expand it. But always do so consciously.”

To further add complexity to this discussion of whether or not to combine reinforcement, Alexandra Kurland creatively uses combined reinforcement and tactile cues in a procedure that she calls Shaping on a Point of Contact.

Some of my students have voiced the difficulty of finding R+ horse trainers to help make the transition, being ridiculed for attempting to use R+, and the pressure of keeping the horse physically fit enough to carry a rider being especially daunting during the transition period. Perhaps they can get some ideas here, today!

… what are your thoughts on this topic, horse people? Is counterconditioning a real possibility, or is the risk of poisoning too great? Have you found another way of shaping the transition that might help the would-be cross-over horse trainer who’s reading this? Please share with us in the comments’ section!


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45 Replies to “Poisoning – or counter conditioning?”

  1. One thing I think people forget is that a reward doesn’t have to be food. It’s very difficult to give a food reward while riding without interfering with the balance of the rider and horse (which is vital for the riden horse to be able to travel in an ergonomic posture), and without disrupting the flow of the training, which is why many riders get stuck using the old training methods. But verbal praise and/or pats can be equally effective if enough value is given to them by the horse. Trainers need to get creative with how they “load” these rewards. For example, I taught my horse a bunch of tricks at liberty (eg; lift a front leg) using food, pats and praise (and shaping), but he enjoyed the learning process, and performing the tricks, so much that verbal praise and pats are now something this horse really enjoys and values. When riding, it’s impractical to use food everytime the horse responds appropriately to the rider’s cues. A more effective method would be to use praise and pats. Changes in vocal tone when giving praise, can also allow riders to change the value of the reward. This can help to improve learning as the rider can now effectively tell the horse they’re on the right track (even if they’re not quite there yet). But all of this only works if the praise/pats are actually valuable and reinforcing to that horse, and that’s where trainers need to get creative with how to build that strong positive association with praise/pats in a way that motivates their horse.

    It’s also worth considering that pressure isn’t always punishment. Spend some time watching horses in a herd and you’ll see they constantly use pressure in their everyday communication with the each other. You’ll see everything from “dirty looks” or gently moving into another horse’s space, to rushing at them with ears pinned and legs flying. And the horses on the receiving end of this pressure are rarely frightened, hurt or stressed by these interactions. Pressure is a natural part of communication for horses, and good riders are able to apply pressure solely for communication and with frightening, hurting or stressing the horse.

    1. Thanks for sharing your reflections on this, Kathryn! Great point about there being other reinforcers than food… Great that you spent time actually teaching your horse to enjoy patting, since for some horses it could actually be a punisher rather than a reinforcer (but wither scratching seems to be reinforcing in and of itself for many horses, at least when delivered from a well-known person).

      If we define punishment to involve a reduction in behaviour as an effect of a stimulus being added (or removed, as in the case of negative punishment), then no, not all pressure involves punishment. Sometimes negative reinforcement occurs though – behaviour increases.

  2. Dear Karolina, this is such an important subject! Thank you for taking it up, again.
    In my own experience, the combined pressure/release and positive reinforcement training absolutely works. I have now done it for almost ten years. It changed my horses and me hugely for the better.
    What is important is the human‘s mindset. You cannot apply the old self using escalating pressure, „encouragement“ with spurs and whip, and bad horsekeeping practices. I had to change toward being playful and always looking for the good, and it changed my health and mental outlook profoundly. I also really had to learn and educate myself on how to do the training in a smart way in order to avoid all the pitfalls you mention: frustration, excitement, etc. In the beginning, I gave up riding for a while in order to focus on the new method and change the mindset of the horses.

    One of the reasons pressure/release and touch work so well with horses is that they do it to each other to communicate. Sharon Wilsie explains that very well in her Horse Speak book. The important part is HOW you do it, what the intent is behind the touch.

    The process has been challenging but also hugely rewarding. I now have horses that I can ride with a light touch, they are motivated and responsive, and well behaved and much safer than „before“. Combining the methods can definitely be done well without poisoning anything, but the challenge lies in the HOW and the skill, attitude and mindset of the human.

    1. Hi Nicki, so glad you enjoyed the post – and that it resonates! 🙂 Seems there are multiple ways to be a crossover horse trainer..! 🙂

  3. Ah, a case for including full written “transcripts” of your course’s audio!
    I’d read those and most certainly I would save them as a cherished reference for which to return. 😉

  4. People generally have horses to ride them. This attitude already sets the system up for ethical failure as the human has an expectation, they feel they have the right to ride. Good R+ training is an holistic approach to the horse, management included. If you’re trying to keep riding your horse using mixed training methods then you’ve missed the point – what if your horse doesn’t want to be ridden? That’s a hard one for the ego to accept. I feel a total start-over, while challenging, is the best way to truly teach the horse that it now has a choice and a voice. Using R- maintains a level of ‘or else’ that is hard for the human to move away from. I love the idea of crossover training, but I agree with Max’s comments. It’s extremely hard to keep the horse’s emotions and opinions foremost when you are using escalating aversive stimuli for your own ends. I’ve seen talk of ‘non-escalating R-‘ which sounds fab, but if people genuinely won’t escalate the pressure applied then what’s stopping them from switching to R+ and tactile cues?

  5. I made new cues for the old behaviours/movements, teaching them from start (even though he already knew the movement for example but it was taught with R- in the past) and then only with R+.
    And then expanded to more and more behaviours, taught all over again but this time with R+.

  6. I’m a dog guy….. if this pertains.
    I don’t like all the quadrant stuff. It complicates simple endeavors of leading, guiding and teaching a dog. Situations speak for their selves as to what to do. Dogs are not stupid, they clearly understand tones (of voice) and clear directions. Like people it may take repetition and/or adjustment to progress or proceed. The tone (of an expression…. they don’t understand the words at first) IS the communication, weather it be approval, disapproval, instructional, gratitude and of course loving. If a dog is having serious issues of behavior…….. the real task is to CHANGE HIS OR HER WHOLE VIEW, UNDERSTANDING, AND PERCEPTION FOR HIS LIFE AND YOU/THEIR RELATIONSHIP. It takes a DEEP of understanding and empathy for the world in their mind.

    1. Two important points you’re making, Don! Both the quality of the relationship, as well as having emotional needs met, are really important! 🙂

  7. One thing I have found concurrently is that people do not take into account that horses do not naturally go for long periods of time without food. Food is everywhere and all of the time. Grasses to graze underfoot, hedges and hedge bottoms to forage and browse through. Dogs and cats are hunters or scavengers. They have to learn skills to earn their food and can go long periods of time between eating whether wild or domesticated.
    This leads to a whole different concept for horses to have to learn when we appear with our treat bag and clicker!
    Marker training started incorrectly causes horses to get frustrated easily, increases mugging behaviours, biting, and can horribly lead to resource guarding, etc.
    Most trainers/owners give up because of the increase in “unwanted” behaviours and sadly gives credence to those who say you cannot train a horse with food.
    More education is needed to help those people wanting to start R+ training so that they understand how slowly you have to go at first using very low-value food. Most start with Carrots and apples (Ferrero Roche!) and therein lies a big problem. Hungry horses will struggle to control their impulses to dive in at you when pony nuts are in those pockets.
    It is a shame that dog trainers/owners can struggle with positive horse training because the species are so very different on that innate hard driven basis. No account has been made for their vastly different basic natures.

    1. Hi Melanie, and thanks for bringing such an important perspective to the table! As you say, they’re grazers, not predators – and I would guess that they have less frustration tolerance (since food is typically abundant and there’s little need for food competition, comparatively) compared to predators or scavengers (where food is limited and many, if not most, predation attempts fail).

  8. You describe the transition as a horizontal process. It sounds like the trainer uses the techniques for ALL tasks they are asking the horse to do at a given day and then shapes her techniques closer and closer to 100% R+ for ALL tasks during the following time.

    What I have experienced to be more practical is what one could call vertical transition. Use the new technique on a single task only but do that single task using 100% R+ from the beginning, no intermediate step of combined reinforcement. Then gradually add more and more tasks taught with R+ whenever you learn a new procedure.

    1. I agree with your approach Ines.
      About 40yrs ago when I was training my first horse my teacher said I had to make her do stuff and my horse (Siobhan) kicked her all round the stable when she tried to pick her hooves by force. I told a friend about this and said it didn’t seem right and she told me about training with kindness and lent me an amazing book (only wish I could remember what it was). I cut bread crusts into pony nut sized pieces and worked round her gradually patting her and rewarding her then working down her legs until in the end she offered me her feet. Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time it was my first experience of R+. I never fully became a force free trainer at the time but added FF approaches. Now I’m a dog trainer and learned properly about training and can see how in incremental approach could work.

  9. I think R- would be a much smaller problem if the aversive used before would not be in many cases the trainer.
    Many traditional horse people have no idea how to get wished responses from the horse without >annoying< it. (Target training works very well also for Spanish Walk). There is no tradition in horse training to shape a position in distance without sending horse away with pressure. I think it is important to show these trainers how to train these behaviours without pressure/release.
    There is also the opinion, that a horse has to be molded to stay healthy (with bridles and legs, something about biomechanical, but often people only say what others told them, not proved, only believed, and something easy to prove to be wrong) and there are very few people who work on teaching horses to shape and strengthen their body by shaping and targeting (and gymnastic equipment like seasaws and balance boards).
    I think that arousal around food is often caused by no clear criteria for reinforcement, raising criteria too fast so that horse looses realistic chance for reinforcement and gets aroused/angry.
    I think examples (videos) how to notice and solve these problems would be very helpful.

  10. From a dog trainer’ perspective (committed to + R since 2000), I like your theory a lot ! but Maxine Easy speaks from my heart when she writes …….”with regards to the person. People will often continue doing what they’ve done for many years – they’ll often revert to restraint and correction, or less optimal ways of using negative reinforcement (such as using too strong aversives, or not releasing pressure timely) – it takes conscientious practice and self-awareness not to fall into that trap……”
    It breaks my heart often enough! But in the right hands, like Helen Whitaker, yes, it’s a good tool.

  11. I’ve been down that transitioning road as a horse trainer and my best advice is: when you want to shift to R+, start in a new and distinct context (e.g. special place, special equipment). Start with very basic stuff and continue with R- in all other contexts. That is, to really create a special “space” for R+ and never mix the quadrants in this space. Then, when both horse and trainer are comfortable in this context, gradually expand it. But always do so conciously.

    In my experience, this way you can avoid poisoning and can savely increase you skills. Horses are very good about distinguishing contexts (as probably all animals?), it’s usually us humans who fail to recognize this.

    Also, as someone else already mentioned in a previous comment: choosing the right type and amount of food for rewarding is very crucial for a successful start, as many horse owners start with very high value in very little amounts (e.g. carrot snippets) and quickly stop the training due to “unpolite” horses.

    Moreover I think a lot of horse people are interested, but don’t quite get the essential of R+ and R-. Most people think, that pressure alone makes R-, whereas in fact it is the response of the horse and the impact on the future behavior that makes the difference. Therefore, merely sitting on a horse (which of course creates weight pressure) is not necessarily R- (neither P+, as some think as well!), but can be trained as R+.

    The riding part is still the most difficult topic in the R+ horse world, I think. In my opinion, this is due to the fact that the vast majority of the rider thinks that they need to control the movement of the horse in every tiny tissue and every single step in order to get “healthy” movement. I think it needs a paradigm shift towards functional movement: teaching the horse to find a healthy movement for itself. Then I don’t need to control every single step and therefore I don’t need classical riding aids at all.

    But of course, as someone pointed out, such a horse will not be happy with any horse person. So if it is likely that the horse needs to be handled by other persons as well (that might not understand or use R+), then I think it is best to prepare the horse for R- training as well. But again, probably in different contexts rather than with a blended approach.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Nathalie! Great point you’re making about the misconceptions about R- (or R+) – it’s VERY widespread in my experience..!

  12. I really enjoyed reading Carolina’s text and all comments. I am right now at the ISES-conference in Rome for a few days of equine research. I will bring with me to the discussion both your very wise and research based “from outside the horse world” thoughts on horse training and all comments on how to apply the learning principles in practice.
    Thank you all
    /Jenny Yngvesson

    1. Jenny – sounds really interesting! I’d love to hear about it – and not only me, I’m thinking..! What did you learn – which were the discussion topics?! 🙂

  13. Whatever training anyone does, with *any animal* they should first have a reasonable knowledge of both learning theory and that animal’s behavioural repertoire (ethogram). Without this, however you train, you are likely to have real problems.

    Where neg R is used, so long as this is mild, brief and non-escalating, it can be part of the training method, though PR is better, really useful and horse-friendly, when combined with shaping.

    1. In the best of worlds, people should have that knowledge reservoir, I agree! Not so sure that they do, though… They make the best of what they know – and as you say, often end up having real problems.

  14. I love this article, thank you. Have you written any books on the subject? I would be very interested if you have. I don’t particularly enjoy online courses, I prefer to read and learn.

    1. Thanks for the comment! No, no books unfortunately. I understand your frustration with online courses – they’re sometimes not so effective…

  15. The majority of horse owners, myself included, have horses that were initially trained using R-.
    The horses were trained to accept a halter and lead rope, follow a handler on a lead, pick up feet and stand tied up. We cannot ever undo this training, the equipment itself tells the horse you must do this. So in effect we are already using both R+ and R- whether we like it or not!
    I made the transition to R+training in precisely the way you describe, though at the beginning R+ had not been my goal. I refined my R- skills and trained myself to observe the smallest response from my horses to my requests, and also to acutely observe their general overall demeanor. I also learned through R- to break things down in to smaller chunks and then put the small pieces together.
    I would not use or advocate using R- for training any animal, but often we are unable to erase past history and the fact that we are still maintaining R- taught behaviours is unaviodable. I think it is important not to “ throw the baby out with the bathwater”, but to encourage transitioning trainers to seek the most ethical, least intrusive methods.

    1. Great – you’re pointing out something really important – just like the trainers, the horses have a history too!

  16. I’ve always used mild aversives followed by treats in my horse training, my horses have always seemed eager come work with me, despite being out 24/7 at grass. I always have treats and give grooming/massage sessions regardless of if I’m going to be riding or training that day. They are always interested in what I have to offer.

    When it comes to riding I never understood how it would be possible with out teaching the horse to yield to pressure or seek the bridle (reach into or follow the contact, bit or not), it’s like a physical body language. It’s important for the horse to stay balanced and aligned under the rider and engage his haunches and core, as the rider follows the horses movement with their own body and influences it. I never thought about how non-equestrians, or even some riders who haven’t had formal riding education may not understand this language and see it as un-necessary prodding, pushing, pulling only (which if it looks like that its bad riding, or hopefully just a bad moment requiring of escalation of the aversive).

    Helen is right it is about communication, at least that is how it is supposed to be. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to have the physical body language between horse and rider and have it be positive reinforcement, or is it always considered combined at best? I have seen riders click and stop their horse to give a treat while riding and giving traditional cues like leg pressure and rein contact. Riding is a real-time event that requires instant communication and understanding from rider to horse. There is already so much feedback between the bodies of the horse and rider just from being on the back of the moving horse. Even riding bitless with a cordeo still involves yielding to a pressure at the base of the neck, and of course the riders weight shifts and legs. Riding can never be pressure-cue free and hands-off just on principle I think.

    1. You’re making a great point – riders do add body weight and changing pressure when seated on the horse. Does this necessarily mean that negative reinforcement is involved? I’m not so sure – it depends on how it was taught. “move away from pressure and it will stop” or shaping using positive reinforcement and then adding a tactile cue..?

      Many of my students are adding “get on” and “get off” behaviours where the horse can indicate whether he wants the rider to mount or dismount. It would be interesting to see how those behaviours are affected by the type of training the horse has gone through..!

  17. It is an interesting topic! From the dog side, I see people using positive rewards and positive punishment all the time. Does it poison the cue and everything else? O, ya! But some of these trainers are very adept at using positive punishment, so they get the results they want. I think when these trainers try to move away from the “negatives”, they revert back because they are not well educated in positive reinforcement problem solving. They flat don’t know how to fix “problems” with positive reinforcement. So, when a problem arises, they revert to what they know. They have no coach, as you point out, when they need it to help them problem solve. And so, they sometimes conclude positive reinforcement “does not work” and they revert to their old way of training – tragically.

  18. For me the difference in enthusiasm, body language, confidence, engagement in training between behaviours taught with positive reinforcement and those previously taught with negative reinforcement was glaringly obvious. This has prompted me to almost completely abandon using negative reinforcement altogether. I am lucky enough that my horse lives with a permanent herd, outside with lots of space, natural enrichment and constant access to forage. I think that this, having a great mentors, support and getting started with relaxation as our focus could be some of the reasons why we have managed to avoid over arousal. Being a qualified Equine massage therapist, healthy posture is also important to me we have trained lots of exercises with target training. Since crossing over to training with positive reinforcement and giving my mare more choice, her ability to problem solve and raise criteria is wonderful. Training with positive reinforcement changed everything for us.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I think you’re really pinpointing the potential problems of using negative reinforcement inexpertly: fear, avoidance, shutting down.

      Great that you found some strategies to avoid over-arousal, too! Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to involve food..! 🙂

        1. Great point! There are a number of ways to reduce arousal, and changing the reinforcer is one of them..! 🙂

  19. This topic is indeed fascinating. I just went through 2 negative-positive-negative-positive training years. My young horse had been trained with negative reinforcement by a horse trainer for a year. At 4 he was shut down, aversive, and at times uncooperative. I decided to take off all tack and began a year of teaching him only with positive reinforcement. He went through initial stages of excitement to ultimately being self confident and very cooperative. I gave him choices and he loved it!! I then introduced back regular training with negative reinforcement. Interestingly I needed very little pressure and training went along very smoothly. I now use both training methods, one for play and one for work. I balance them out like a ying and yang and my horse has been so easy to train. The balance of both has also strengthened our bond. He enjoys the work and also enjoys our playtime. I am going to use both methods to train my next young horse.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story! Indeed I think that very light pressure may be a non-issue to the horse – it’s when that pressure escalates that we see the fallout of using negative reinforcement..! So, making sure to conscientiously minimize the use of aversives is crucial.

  20. A great post and very well written. I ,like Helen, love the classical work and I would agree that for most people using what I call tactile communication , so Helen’s information not compulsion , is where I would love the horse world to get to. I have traveled a bit deeper down the R+ rabbit hole over 20 plus years of clicker training and I now shape and capture much of the lateral and inhand work at liberty and then do a cue transfer process to reintroduce (as most of my horses are crossover or rescue) the ‘normal cues, so that they now understand and can function in a more normal world. I do feel it is very important, like Ken Ramerez says, to train for life so they do need to understand normal pressure cues, but I have taught them how to find the release in what I think is a nicer way. Starting out and shaping people like you said in the blog to become more positive is also the way to get more folks on board and making sure that setting them up for success re where to start and how to set up the environment for success is critical. Thanks for writing this!

    1. Thank you! That’s an important point you’re making – “train for life”. Unlike dogs and cats, many horses do pass through several owners’ hands and it makes sense to teach them to respond to the cues that they might expect from the next owner.

  21. Very interesting artical! Actually I believe that combined training is not only the best way to start positive reinforcement training for horse trainers but, if they are training horses for riding, then I believe that it’s also the most welfare friendly way to continue to train too, although always following your guidance above about the use of pressure.

    I’ve been clicker training my horses for over a decade now and think of myself as a primarily positive reinforcement trainer but I do, and probably always will, use negative reinforcement as information, for mostly practical reasons, and I believe my horses gratefully accept it as that – as a means of communication not that I’m trying to make them ‘do’ something, simply that I’m trying to explain more clearly what I’m after.

    The problem with trying to train with only positive reinforcement with a horse that you are going to ride is, as I see it as I like to think a fairly well educated rider, one of biomechanics. If I’m going to ride my horse I believe that it is in the horse’s best interests to learn how to carry himself, and me, in an altered balance from the one he’s in to carry himself around the field grazing. He needs to overcome his natural asymmetry, so he’s not overloading one lateral or diagonal pair of legs, and shift more weight onto his back legs and engage his abs and lift his back, so he’s not overloading his front legs, to make carrying me easier and less damaging for himself.

    This is taught using lateral work, teaching him to place one hind foot under his centre of gravity in movement individually, and then both together within a movement. It involves teaching fairly precise lateral bending of his body. Trying to do this by getting the horse to target with different body parts is complicated but probably just about doable, but translating that to when you’re riding, when your own balance and seat is so critical too ……???

    The biomechanically ideal and least complicated way to train the horse from the saddle is to train him to move away from your leg, yield to pressure on his mouth or nose and to follow your seat and weight aids. That’s why classical horsemanship has been done this way for many centuries. I actively study classical dressage and often argue with mostly negative reinforcement trainers that the old masters in history would have leapt on clicker training with huge enthusiasm, as a way to get results with far less effort and far more enthusiasm and much less resistance from the horse. Historically training horses biomechanically correctly for riding has always been primarily about working through resistances and, as a clicker trainer, I don’t find that to be the case at all. My horses are always trying their hearts out, it’s always my lack of skill or my weight not being in the right place that causes any problems that we come across, and I’ve proved that to myself time and time again!!!

    So, after many years of experimenting with my horses, personally I do believe that the kindest, most sustainable way for me to train a horse for riding, to make life the most comfortable for him that it can be and to keep him sound and happy into advanced old age, is combination training, teaching him to yield to, and move away from, pressure, but using light, non escalating pressure, as information, never as compulsion. I still want a volunteer not a conscript, who enjoys our work together as much as I do, and achieves physical, mental and emotional balance through it.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Helen! You raise some very valid points that aren’t all that obvious to non-riders like me: the need for optimal physiology and movement in the ridden horse.

      I like the meme “information, not compulsion”. That shifts the whole perspective, doesn’t it?

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