Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement and Otherwise

Restar Mountain Shelley IIIAn email headline reading “No Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Horse Training” immediately caught my attention when I saw it.  Really?, I thought.  I know a lot of people that have moved to so-called natural horsemanship from more conventional approaches and wouldn’t ever go back.  Upon further studying the article, though, I realized I had read a lot more into the title than was actually there.

When I read the headline, of course, I assumed ‘positive reinforcement’ was referring to natural horsemanship and ‘negative reinforcement’ was referring to more conventional horse training methods.  The opening sentence of the article to which the email referred did nothing to sway me from this assumption:  “As the concept of positive reinforcement gains popularity, researchers are trying to confirm its effectiveness at a more baseline level.”  (1) 

It turns out, though, that ‘positive reinforcement’ and ‘negative reinforcement’ are very specific terms used in the context of a type of learning called operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning “deals with the modification of voluntary behavior” (2) such as giving a treat when desired behavior occurs (positive reinforcement) or removing a stimulus (light tapping with a whip) when desired behavior occurs (negative reinforcement).  The researchers found that “training young horses to load into a trailer is equally effective and stressful whether they’re trained using positive or negative reinforcement.” (3)

I consider what the researchers were evaluating to be the ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approaches to horsemanship, which manipulate the flight and fight responses respectively.  The ‘carrot’ or treat approach uses bribes to counteract the flight response, and the ‘stick’ or whip approach manipulates the fight response.  However, there is another approach to horsemanship that works with the part of equine nature that dominates their lives –nurturing life – as opposed to just fleeing and fighting.  In my view, this is where natural horsemanship is grounded.  “Shared Decision Making with Ponies” in the most recent issue of The Partnered Pony™ Inquirer touched on this topic (click here), and the topic is covered in more depth in my Rural Heritage article “Neither Carrot or Stick” (click here).

Whether the researchers knew it or not, it appears from the article that they utilized natural horsemanship principles in the study design.  For instance, “To keep the stress level as low as possible and to avoid influence from environmental factors such as separation anxiety, the researchers used a trailer next to the horses’ pasture where they could stay close to their herdmates.”(4)  Using the power of the herd is something I do regularly to further my training efforts.

Despite my initial reaction, in the end, I’m not surprised that no difference was found in training effectiveness between carrot and stick approaches.  Both are based on very narrow views of equine behavior and psychology and ignore the very powerful tool of relationship.  I wonder if others, like me, will misinterpret the study’s headline.  Hopefully they too will read carefully and question the summary statement.

  1. Leste-Lasserre, Christa.  “Positive, Negative Reinforcement in Horse Training Compared,” The Horse, http://www.thehorse.com/articles/32383/positive-negative-reinforcement-in-horse-training-compared?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=welfare-industry&utm_campaign=08-15-2013, 8/14/13.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning with thanks to Kris Hughes for bringing this topic to my attention.
  3. Same as #1.
  4. Same as #1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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