It may well be that - at this moment in time - it is not possible to use only positive reinforcement in equine training.
If people wish to compete in mainstream equestrian events then they will need to use -R unless they retrain or train from scratch everything with +R. There may well be a time when the horse world catches up with other animal trainers in the use of +R.
It isn’t something that many positive reinforcement trainers talk about and talking about -R on some Facebooks groups gets you banned. However we must know how -R works and how if can affect the horse.
If we work on the LIMA principles of using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive stimuli to train behaviour and apply behaviour modification programs then I think we are doing well.
Negative is just a mathematical notation - so subtracting something to reinforce a behaviour. Of course if we remove something the horse likes and wants that can be construed as negative punishment if the behaviour decreases, as it may well do if the horse can’t get what he wants.
So to be reinforcing the stimuli removed must be something the horse wishes to avoid, so an aversive stimuli. The removal of the stimuli is felt as a relief to the horse and can be very light leg and rein and weight aids. So the leg is conditioned to mean forward and is reinforced by the removal of the aid.
Negative reinforcement does trigger different neurotransmitters and hormones than those triggered in positive reinforcement. Using Jaak Panksepps 7 emotional systems, that all mammals share we can see which system is at work in any quadrant.
So with +R we see the SEEKING system in action in a positive way - horse learn to solve problems, they are empowered to share in their learning. The PLAY system is important too as horses learn through PLAY just as other mammals do e.g human children.
So what system is -R using?
If we use another behavioural model - Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model - we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepp would be the FEAR system, this does not have to be all out flight but aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid the stimulus.
Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus and also by putting the behaviour on a command - so the horse can avoid any escalation. So in any training session the horse can be in the RED zone but we need to get him back in the GREEN zone. Horse stuck in either the RED or the BLUE zone can become hypervigilant - if the HPA axis is triggered then cortisol is released and this takes a long time to dissipate, so a little bit of adrenaline keeps them motivated but too much and it tips into distress rather than eustress.
Positive reinforcement works on the DRIVE or SEEKING system, but we can also get horse stuck in this mode too - so they get frustrated if reinforcement isn’t forthcoming or we are slow with reinforcement.
Whatever we use whether +R or -R we need to understand what is happening and how we can use them for the good of the horse.
Difference between a cue and a command?
A cue is used in +R training to tell the horse reinforcement is coming. In -R we use the word command as the horse rarely has a choice - so often it is a “to it or else” scenario, the horse performs the behaviour to avoid any escalation of an aversive stimulus.
Paul Gilbert http://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-3-emotion-regulation-systems/
Jaak Panksepp http://mybrainnotes.com/fear-rage-panic.html
It is useful to learn how to read horse emotions and not let them get to the point of being worried or fearful all of which can lead to aggression.
Jaak Panksepp is a good source of learning about the 7 basic emotional systems of all mammals.
1. SEEKING - can be a positive or a negative emotion depending on whether the horse is seeking something they want or seeking to avoid something they don't like.
2. FEAR - can be as little as mild anxiety or a full flight response.
3. RAGE - fear can escalate into aggression or frustration if the horse can't escape or get what he wants.
4. GRIEF or panic system may be seen in separation anxiety.
5. CARE - the mutual grooming and nurturing side of horses.
6. LUST - may be seen in the over arousal of clicker trained horses before impulse control is established, or in the normal behaviour of stallions and mares.
7. PLAY - this is self explanatory and something we can tap into when training.
So we can see that chasing horses round a pen (with no means of escape triggers the FEAR system, how much FEAR there is depends on the horse. It may be mild anxiety or full blown flight. Many genres of horsemanship utilise this aspect of a horses natural flight response to train, to gain what they call respect. Yes it may well work to suppress the horses natural reactions but do we really what to use FEAR in training.
Most top level practitioners are experts at reading horses and using flood desensitation - although they rarely admit that is what they are doing. If the horse has no means of escaping the aversive stimulus (other than stopping and trying to appease the trainer) then it is flooding. It may well work if done correctly but the danger is people with less knowledge and expertise copy this and often it fails, failed flooding can make horses more reactive and in some cases dangerous.
We all need to learn what appeasement behaviours look like, I have just bought a book on calming signals. Well worth looking at "Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses" by Rachael Draaisma.
Until we are good at doing this we often miss some very subtle signs that the horse is uncomfortable with we what we are asking them to do.
This is also useful when training using positive reinforcement and doing liberty work, we need to keep the horse at or under his emotioinal threshold, so not invoking a full flight response nor causing frustration (part of the RAGE system).
PS very few people only use +R but we do aim to use it most of the time. So follow the LIMA principles.
I do think the danger is that people misuse the whips, sticks or ropes and chase horses or threaten them. This is common in some forms of liberty training that use negative reinforcement.
Whips and ropes and even people can become conditioned aversive stimuli, so just the presence of the tool or person affects how the horse reacts.
I used to carry a dressage whip when riding my mare, I never touched her with it but she knew it was there (previous training had taught her how to avoid the whip). Do we really want to train using avoidance? Or do we want a partnership with the horse, horses can become excellent puzzle solvers once we give them a choice.
So for me (and it is a personal choice) I only use a stick occasionally as a target to form certain behaviours. Once on a cue we can fade out the target and use a variable schedule of reinforcement, and a variety of reinforcers - these may be scratches, food or even a favourite behaviour.
Horses do like to play, as long as we can keep them under their emotional thresholds. Too much activation of the SEEKING system can also cause distress, just as activation of the FEAR (flight response) system can.
If we use aversive stimuli to train then horses can become very vigilant as they work out how to avoid the whip, stick or rope. This hypervigilance is exhausting and often we see very animated horses with liberty trainers and as soon as the trainer stops the horses seem to go to sleep, people then mistake this for a happy relaxed horse. We must be careful to watch the horses emotional state in all training.
Negative reinforcement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used sparingly and correctly. However we must be aware of how and why any reinforcement works and how it affects the horse.
Positive reinforcement stimulates the cognitive area of the brain, whereas negative reinforcement stimulates the flight/fight response especially in situations where the horse is driven away or chased with a whip.
Many people start natural horsemanship as they think it is a kinder way to train horses. Kinder than what is the question? Traditional horsemanship is based on negative reinforcement but often does not teach the correct use of negative reinforcement. So it may be that there is no relief from the aversive stimulus used to form a behaviour.
Natural horsemanship does teach that it is the relief from the aversive stimulus that reinforces the behaviour, so for those people happy to use aversive stimulus to train it may well be the better option. Unfortunately if this is all we have in our toolbox we will have to escalate at some point.
Natural horsemanship uses some very descriptive language and seems to be more horse friendly but is it any different?
No I personally don't think it is, it still uses negative reinforcement which escalates if the horse does not do as asked.
So we have the traditional people teaching back up by putting pressure on a headcollar or poking the horse in the chest and the NH people doing the same but calling it a game.
Of course horses respond very well to negative reinforcement because they do not wish to be poked or pushed or hit with a whip.
It is entirely up to a persons conscience to decide what amount of averisve stimulus to use or whether they wish to use positive reinforcement.
All we can do is tell them the facts - why negative reinforcement works. It works due to the fact that any animal will work to avoid aversIve stimuli because it doesn't feel good.
What would I do if my horse had a behavioural problem?
Firstly check for any physical reasons for the behaviour - pain, ill-fitting tack, back problems, teeth, feet etc. Then check the environment is right for the horse - has he got friends, freedom and forage? Is he free from stress - e.g stabling for too long without enough forage can cause stress related problems such as gastric ulcers and stereotypies.
Look at the diet, is he over fed for the amount of work he is doing?
Then look at why he performs the behaviour, what is the purpose of the behaviour, is it a fear based behaviour, does he feel insecure, does he have separation anxiety etc.
Often changing the environment will make a huge difference.
Only then can a plan be made to help.
Training alone may never get to the root cause of the problem, at best it may put a sticking plaster over the problem, by suppressing the behaviour.
Yes, we can train alternative behaviours to ones we don't want, we can punish the behaviour e.g adding an aversive stimulus every time he performs the behaviour until he learns how to avoid the aversive and the behaviour stops. EG adding pressure to the halter every time he tries to run away. The use of aversive stimuli can either stop a behaviour (punish), or its removal can reinforce a behaviour. So are you punishing the running away or reinforcing the stopping? It pays to know the difference.
Get professional help from an equine behaviourist well versed in the correct use of positive reinforcement and classical conditioning. Find one who can help you use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. This will change the emotions associated with fearful situations.
Horses are big, strong animals and we do need to stay safe but that does not have to mean using pressure halters or other controlling equipment. Yes they may work as the horse learns to avoid the pressure but without examining the underlying cause of the problem it may reappear later.
Suppressed behaviours do have a habit of spontaneous recovery.
Horses need to feel safe, our relationships should be built on mutual trust, not on dominace and submission.