We often hear riders say that they 'only use positive reinforcement' or that they do not use negative reinforcement, but it is also not at all unusual for the same person to state that pressure-release is the most effective way to train. So, what is the difference between pressure-release and positive and negative reinforcement and why is it important to know which reinforcement schedule we are using when training our horses?
The simple answer is that pressure-release is negative reinforcement and it is almost impossible to use negative reinforcement alone, or indeed positive reinforcement alone, when training a horse. We almost always use a mixture of both positive and negative reinforcement when training and we call this combined reinforcement.
The other method of modifying behaviour is via punishment and again this comes in both positive and negative forms. Punishment is the same as correction but, as when we use pressure-release rather than negative reinforcement, the term correction seems more appealing to us than punishment. However, it is important that we realise they are the same thing, simply because we know that horses learn better when reinforcement is used than they do when punishment is used.
The simple way to tell the difference between reinforcement and punishment is to observe what the rider or trainer is attempting to do in a particular situation. If the trainer is trying to make a behaviour more likely to occur in the future, then they will be using reinforcement (negative or positive reinforcement). If, on the other hand, the trainer is hoping to prevent the behaviour from happening in the future or make it less likely to occur at another time, they will be using punishment (again, either positive or negative punishment).
The same cue or signal can be applied as reinforcement or punishment, it is not, as is often assumed, to do with the severity of the pressure, rather the intention of the trainer.
Let's look at the example of tapping the horse lightly on the cannon bone as a signal. We could use this signal to teach the horse to back up from the ground by gently tapping the horse on the cannon bone and stopping tapping as soon as the horse took a step back - negative reinforcement/pressure-release. If we wanted to teach the horse to stand still and it took a step forward, we could also correct/punish the horse for stepping forward by tapping it on the cannon bone, thus making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future - positive punishment.
Negative reinforcement gets a bad rap because of the word negative but it simply means 'taking something away' and in most cases this means releasing the pressure (be it rein or lead rope tension, leg or seat pressure or even the pressure of our voice/verbal cue), thus the term pressure-release. Positive reinforcement simply means adding something and while positive reinforcement is often thought of as referring to the addition of a food treat, it applies equally to adding a scratch on the wither, stroke on the neck, a kind word or an opportunity to rest.
The same holds for punishment types. Positive punishment refers to adding something that the horse does not want. That might be a tap with the whip, a cross or loud voice or a kick with the leg. Where negative punishment means taking something, that the horse does want, away. This, while not seen as commonly as positive punishment, is evident with horses that are removed from their social group, deprived of food or water. A clear example of negative punishment is when a horse is put in social isolation, such as when a horse is tied to the 'tree of knowledge'.
Both types of punishment/correction are best avoided as horses are not known for their ability to contemplate their wrong-doings and thus alter their future behaviour. Rather, horses are masters at remembering what works well, what movements result in a release of pressure or a scratch or treat of some kind. In other words, horses are excellent learners when we make good use of combined reinforcement.
"I only use positive reinforcement"
If you halter your horse and certainly if you ride your horse, then it is almost impossible for you to only use positive reinforcement with your horse. The moment you pick up an ounce of pressure or even take the slack out of the lead rope or apply your leg under saddle, you are using pressure-release/negative reinforcement.
But why is this important to understand? The main reason riders/owners and trainers need to understand which reinforcement schedule they are using is that if you are not aware that you are using pressure-release then you will not have a timely release, often leading to confusion and frustration in the horse. If you approach every lesson understanding precisely the movement you are asking for, the pressure you are applying to get that movement and knowing when you are going to release that pressure and how you are going to reward the horse, then your lesson is likely to be clear and simple for the horse.
Trailer loading as an example of a combined reinforcement lesson:
Aim: Teach the horse to step on to the trailer
Pressure: Tap of the whip on the hip
Movement: Horse steps forward
Release: Step tapping when the horse steps forward
Reward: Stroke the neck and allow the horse to rest
This pressure-release-reward system can be applied to any lesson you want to teach your horse. By breaking lessons down into their most basic components, it not only makes it simpler for us as trainers, but it makes it much easier for the horse.
I try to break each lesson down to moving one part of the horse in one direction, using one form of pressure, releasing immediately I get the desired movement and adding a reward immediately after the release of pressure. This can be done from the simplest lessons, such as trailer loading, to ever more complicated lessons, such as flying changes.
If you, as a rider or trainer, are well enough acquainted with the lesson you are teaching to be able to break it down in this way then it is likely that you will be able to teach that lesson with minimal stress for the horse. It is only by recognising that you are using negative reinforcement, pressure-release, that you can be accurate with your signals and release. While the release of pressure (negative reinforcement) is a 'reward' for the horse, you can always add more reward (positive reinforcement) for the horse, possibly in the form of a scratch on the wither, immediately following the desired behaviour.
Those trainers and riders that are cognizant of the type of reinforcement schedule they are using are also considerably less likely to resort to correction (punishment) in their training. If you find yourself frequently correcting your horse or trying to discourage behaviours from occurring in the future, then you are being a very reactive trainer/rider. Here, the horse does something, for example steps forward when cued to stand, and we respond by stepping the horse back. Our focus is on what the horse is doing wrong and we react to that behaviour.
I find it helpful to turn the situation around and become a proactive rider/trainer by focusing on what the horse is not doing. In this example the horse is not maintaining self-carriage in the stand still or halt. I can then develop a lesson to teach the horse to stand, using combined reinforcement which will be simple and clear for the horse and not require the horse to use deductive reasoning ("what did I do wrong so that I was made to step back?").
As I can't force the horse to stand still, I can only correct/punish the horse for not standing, how might I go about training self-carriage in halt? I find the simplest way is to 'offer the horse the opportunity to stand', reward it for doing so, and cue the horse forward again before the horse decides to move off on its own. We know we can make the horse move. We also know that we cannot stop the horse from moving. Always begin with a lesson that you know you can achieve - movement of some kind and then offer the horse the opportunity to stand and relax, adding positive reinforcement when the horse is standing.
Proactive training is all about directing the movement and staying a few steps ahead of the horse, mentally. The horse can move each body part in six directions; up, down, left, right, back and forward, and we will only want one direction. Understanding this and knowing how you are asking the horse to move will give you a clear place at which to release pressure and reward the horse. While the release of pressure is a good thing for the horse, it is not actually the reward, simply a part of the negative reinforcement schedule. By being aware that we are using combined reinforcement, riders/trainers are considerably more likely to engage the horse with learning and reduce stress, frustration and confusion in the horse.
Our horses are learning with each and every interaction we have with them, and as we all know, they are not always learning lessons we wished to teach. To make yourself more mindful of your training and how your horse is experiencing your interactions, try being very aware of your own pressure-release-rewards patterns next time you are with your horse. When you put the head collar on your horse and lead it to the stable, be aware of when you put pressure on the lead, when you plan to release it and how you will reward your horse for stepping forward. It is through this type of mindfulness with our everyday activities that we begin to build confidence in our horses. A confident horse is one that, when it experiences a new pressure, perhaps a rein or leg cue, that it understands that it must find the correct movement to earn a release and reward. These horses willingly trial different responses and quickly develop self-carriage in all areas of their work and handling.