Negative Reinforcement: Good For Some Lessons, Not For Others

by | 12.17.2017 | 12:30pm

Negative reinforcement is a training tool that is often misunderstood, or even met with negative associations. In its simplest form, negative reinforcement applies painless, but unpleasant, pressure to the subject until the desired behavior is achieved. For example, when our cars produce an unpleasant beep or tone until all passengers put on their seat belts, that is negative reinforcement in play. When riding, it can be applying pressure to the horse's sides by the rider's lets to ask the horse to transition from the walk to the trot.

Negative reinforcement is the most common form of horse training, and often the one that students first learn when they are taught to ride. It is not, however, necessarily the best training method to use when attempting to build trust between horse and human.

While negative reinforcement is good for teaching a green horse the basics, it is a reactive training technique that needs to be used in the moment. So, for an inexperienced rider, it can be difficult to correct even the most minor behavioral infractions as they happen, let alone something more significant, such as a buck, prop or rear. If negative reinforcement isn't timed properly, the horse won't understand the connection between his behavior and the unpleasant negative reinforcement response.

In that same vein, a less-skilled rider can also inadvertently give an unintended reinforcement, delivering cues, such as rein or seat pressure, due to becoming unbalanced rather than because of asking for a behavior.

Read more about negative reinforcement and its potential pitfalls at Equus Magazine.

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