Here's a riddle for you:
When does negative reinforcement become positive punishment?
When it's poorly timed.
OK, it's not a funny riddle and your horse won't think it is either.
So, what do I mean?
Let's say you use a whip tap to cue your horse to move its left foot left, as you would when teaching 'Hips to the Fence for Mounting'. If you haven't seen that video, there's a free lesson and you can get it here and watch the video (if you aren't yet registered for the free material then you will need to enter your email address).
You've got the horse lined up on the fence and you begin tapping the hip. If you stop immediately the horse makes the slightest step to the left with that left hind foot, you can ignore the other feet, then the horse will quickly get the idea and you should teach the lesson in five to ten minutes.
Let's say you 'miss' the foot moving left and continue tapping. The horse will continue looking for answers in movement and if you keep 'missing' an opportunity to release pressure, you will, at best, have a highly emotional, confused and frustrated horse.
The frequency of your tapping has to match your horse's arousal level. The tap is your motivation to change - too little tap and no motivation, too much tap and too much emotion. Each horse will be different. Some horses only need to see the whip and they begin to look for answers, others need a light touch. The cue should be ONLY enough to motivate the horse to move something and no more and you will be able to reduce the amount of pressure you apply each time you cue. That is, the horse will begin to learn the pattern immediately so what began as a tap on the hip, quickly becomes raising the whip.
Let's say you decide you want to time the taps, for example, you want to tap the horse once every 2 seconds. Umm, this is going to be impossible because there is now no reward or release and the cue becomes arbitrary, as does the release of pressure. What you will quickly find is that you will teach the behaviour that comes immediately after the tap.
In this case, you're most likely to teach rearing if you continue for more than one minute because the first thing your horse will do after the tap is raise its head. Next time you tap, the horse will raise its head higher because that stopped the tap last time - you see where this is going, right?
The behaviour your horse is doing when you stop tapping is the behaviour you are reinforcing. This is why bucking is easily learned - the horse gets an instant release of pressure when the rider leaves the saddle!
It's all in the timing.
Can you think of any other times that it's easy to teach things you don't want by delaying release, reinforcement or reward? If so, let me know in the comments.
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