The lim­its of neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment

EQUUS - - Equus - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

This train­ing tech­nique teaches a horse to obey and re­spond to com­mands, but it builds lit­tle trust be­tween horse and rider.

The phrase “neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment” is usu­ally greeted with wrin­kled fore­heads and glazed eyes. Yeah, we know the term … but please don’t ask us to de­fine it. So, let’s start at the be­gin­ning: Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment is a train­ing tool in which pain­less pres­sure is ap­plied un­til a horse re­sponds as de­sired. When the horse re­sponds, the pres­sure is re­moved. Over time, the horse as­so­ci­ates that par­tic­u­lar cue with the proper re­sponse. A sim­ple ex­am­ple of neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment oc­curs when our cars train us to fas­ten our seat belts. The chime warn­ing that the seat belt is not en­gaged ap­plies con­tin­u­ing pres­sure to our ears, stop­ping only when we buckle up. When you ride, it’s used when you press your legs against the sides of your horse, then re­lease that pres­sure as he be­gins to trot. Through as­so­ci­a­tion, the horse learns that equal leg pres­sure on both sides means “trot.” Equine brains are built to seek as­so­ci­a­tions, whether they are pro­vided con­sciously or not. Be­cause horses are al­ways look­ing to make th­ese con­nec­tions, han­dlers must give them an idea of what is ex­pected and what is for­bid­den. If you don’t make those de­ci­sions, your horse will make them for you---and his idea of right and wrong prob­a­bly won’t match yours. Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment is the most com­mon form of as­so­cia­tive learn­ing used in horse train­ing, very likely the method you were taught when you be­gan to ride. Be­cause of that long history, it is our nat­u­ral de­fault mode, one that we fall into with lit­tle thought. Let’s take a closer look at its strengths and weak­nesses, then in our next in­stall­ment we will con­sider a more ef­fec­tive means of train­ing.


Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment works best when it’s ap­plied in a form that cor­re­sponds to the horse's na­ture. Re­searchers An­drew McLean and Janne Chris­tensen point out that horses use dis­place­ment in their nat­u­ral lives ev-ery day - a dom­i­nant mare needs only to pin one ear to get a sub­or­di­nate to move away fron her food. A horse dis­places you by swing­ing his head, step­ping into you, push­ing against you or kick­ing. In other words, he knows how to move you around if you let him. Be­cause horses use dis­place­ment naturally, we can har-ness that abil­ity for greater learn­ing. When rid­ing, you use a type of pres­sure that ac­com­mo­dates the horse's ten­dency to­ward dis­place­ment. Take leg pres­sure, for in­stance. Why don’t we use eye blinks, bi­cep curls or words like “hurry up, slow­poke” to get a horse to speed up? Be­cause leg pres­sure mim­ics the horse’s nat­u­ral means of dis­place­ment---the horse moves away from pres­sure to his sides, no mat­ter who ap­plies it. If you ap­ply pres­sure to a horse’s left side, he will move to the

right, and vice versa. Equal pres­sure on both sides will cue him to move for­ward to es­cape pres­sure. The­o­ret­i­cally, he could choose to move backward (even on a loose rein), but backward mo­tion is less nat­u­ral and con­se­quently rare in a green horse.

As soon as the horse re­sponds in a way that fits a rider’s de­sire, like mov­ing from a walk to a trot, we re­move the pres­sure. Ahh … to a horse, pres­sure re­lease feels good. Horses do not like pres­sure and will work to avoid it. If you im­me­di­ately re­lease, the horse’s brain will con­nect his ac­tion with your re­sponse. Next time you press with both legs, the horse will speed up again, hop­ing to achieve the same re­sult.


Phys­i­o­log­i­cally, the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween pres­sure and re­lease oc­curs when two neu­ral net­works be­come linked by si­mul­ta­ne­ous ac­ti­va­tion. One group of neu­rons in the horse’s brain rep­re­sents his sen­sa­tion of your leg pres­sure. You press, he feels, and cer­tain brain cells light up. A dif­fer­ent set of neu­rons rep­re­sents his move­ment for­ward. When the two net­works fire at or near the same time, they are linked through a process we call “long-term po­ten­ti­a­tion.”

Long-term po­ten­ti­a­tion is a form of prim­ing. Ac­ti­vated neu­rons re­main more fully awake for a few sec­onds af­ter ini­tial fir­ing. They are primed to fire more quickly and in­tensely dur­ing this brief mo­ment. Re­leas­ing pres­sure dur­ing that mo­ment causes the two net­works to be­come con­nected. Too early, and the first net­work isn’t ac­ti­vated yet. Too late, and its prim­ing is gone. Equine brain func­tion de­mands care­ful tim­ing to cre­ate the link be­tween your pres­sure and your horse’s re­sponse.

Train­ers use neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment to teach green horses to re­spond to hu­man pres­sures of all sorts. A young horse’s first mounted can­ter is usu­ally con­fus­ing for her. She has been rid­den at a walk and trot, learn­ing the ba­sics of stop, go, turn, cir­cle and loop. But can­ter­ing with a rider is some­thing new---sud­denly the trainer is us­ing the pres­sure of only one leg, yet his up­per body po­si­tion and light rein tell the horse to speed up. If horses used con­scious thought, they might won­der, “Hmm, that’s dif­fer­ent from the usual trot cue. What does it mean?”

With steady pres­sure from one leg, and some awk­ward mo­ments at a jar­ring ex­tended trot, the young horse will even­tu­ally try a can­ter. Imag­ine her say­ing, “OK, it’s not the fast trot he wants be­cause his leg is still press­ing only one side. I can try throw­ing my head; no, that’s not it. How about a stop? No, he pushes with both legs when I do that. Well, let’s try some can­ter.…” The mo­ment the young horse starts to can­ter, the trainer re­leases leg pres­sure and moves com­fort­ably with the horse. The horse now knows, “Aha! That’s what one leg means.” Her brain uses longterm po­ten­ti­a­tion to con­nect the two net­works and learn the les­son. Over time, of course, we will sharpen that horse’s per­cep­tion of our cues in many ways. But at the very be­gin­ning--af­ter suit­able ground­work---one leg, a light rein and some stick-to-itive­ness is all the mounted can­ter takes.


Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment works best in early stages of horse train­ing, but it is used com­monly at later stages as well. The half halt, or down­ward tran­si­tion, is a case in point. Sup­pose you are trot­ting and wish to walk. You use your seat in a still­ing tempo that re­sists the horse’s back move­ment. He feels that pres­sure and re­sponds by slow­ing down to ac­com­mo­date your rhythm. When he walks, you re­lease seat pres­sure and move with him once again. He learns the half halt in this way and will re­spond more

One group of neu­rons in the horse’s brain rep­re­sents the sen­sa­tion of your leg pres­sure. You press, he feels, and cer­tain brain cells light up.

read­ily each time, as the two neu­ral net­works con­tinue to ac­ti­vate si­mul­ta­ne­ously through prac­tice.

The eques­trian seat is a crit­i­cal source of pres­sure. A good rider’s seat vari­a­tions change by many new­tons of phys­i­cal force and in all dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions---up, down, left, right, for­ward, back, di­ag­o­nal and cir­cu­lar. Even­tu­ally, a highly trained horse will re­spond to seat vari­a­tions of every an­gle and force within 360 de­grees per vec­tor. When that hap­pens, a skilled rider is able to place each of the horse’s shoul­ders, hips and feet at any lo­ca­tion with her seat, in real time---at a walk, trot or can­ter. Squeeze the outer cor­ner of one glute, and the horse will change leads. Lift a quar­ter cir­cle with the ad­duc­tors, and she will jump an inch higher to clear the hard­est ob­sta­cle on the course.

Work is an­other form of pres­sure to a horse, and rest is a re­lease from pres­sure. Sup­pose Missy oc­ca­sion­ally bunny-hops un­der sad­dle. If bronc rid­ing is not your forte, hire a trainer to cor­rect this be­hav­ior. But if you have the skills to man­age it, don’t stop or slow down when the tricks be­gin---in­stead, put Missy to work. As soon as she bucks, trot her hard and fast for 60 sec­onds. When she flows for­ward eas­ily with­out buck­ing, stroke her neck and let her walk on an easy rein. Then try the ini­tial ma­neu­ver again. Each time the horse be­gins to buck, push her for­ward into harder work. We are not try­ing to tire the horse; we are teach­ing her that she will be re­lieved from the pres­sure of work as soon as she stops buck­ing.


Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment is use­ful with horses who are just learn­ing how to carry rid­ers and in­ter­pret their cues. It is also help­ful with horses whose rel­a­tively mild mis­be­hav­ior needs to be cor­rected. Many horses are trained ex­clu­sively with neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment and man­age pretty well. But neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment can cre­ate prob­lems. First, it has to be done in the mo­ment. Most am­a­teurs have trou­ble co­or­di­nat­ing their move­ments with a horse’s move­ments. Think back on your first can­ter, pound­ing along at a bone­jar­ring trot that

The eques­trian seat is a crit­i­cal source of pres­sure. A good rider’s seat vari­a­tions change by many new­tons of phys­i­cal force and in all dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

threat­ened to shake the teeth out of your head, wasted mus­cles flop­ping in the breeze. About that time, the in­struc­tor says, “Press with your left leg, just be­hind the girth.” Oh, sure. I’ll get right on that. Many of us at such mo­ments aren’t even sure our legs are still at­tached to our tor­sos.

Sec­ond, co­or­di­na­tion be­comes even more dif­fi­cult while si­mul­ta­ne­ously tim­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion and re­lease of pres­sure. Be­cause long-term po­ten­ti­a­tion is so brief, tim­ing must be very pre­cise. Imag­ine you are teach­ing a horse the leg yield, in which the horse stays straight head-to-tail but moves di­ag­o­nally away from leg pres­sure. To teach this ma­neu­ver, the rider ap­plies her out­side leg dur­ing the swing phase of the horse’s out­side hind leg. The “swing phase” is that teensy mi­cro­mo­ment when the horse lifts a leg off the ground but be­fore he sets it down again. So, you ap­ply out­side pres­sure be­hind the girth as the swing phase be­gins, and if the horse re­sponds by mov­ing his out­side hind di­ag­o­nally, you re­lease your pres­sure just as the swing phase ends. This in­ter­val lasts for less than half a sec­ond at a medium trot. That’s pre­cise tim­ing!

Ac­ci­den­tal un­in­tended re­in­force­ment is a third prob­lem. You’re fly­ing along at a gal­lop and need to touch the left rein lightly to be­gin a large cir­cle. Whoops! You “touch” too hard, the horse turns on a dime (ex­actly as you in­ad­ver­tently re­quested), and you are sit­ting on the ground where the horse used to be. By coming off, you’ve re­lieved pres­sure in abun­dance, pro­vid­ing a po­tent les­son. If the horse could speak, he might say, “Holy wow! She wanted me to turn right out from un­der her. I did, and she re­leased all pres­sure in­stantly. I’ll do that again next time.”

Strong rid­ing skills pre­vent un­in­tended re­in­force­ment. By rid­ing with weight in your heels, up­per body straight, arms and hands soft, legs and seat mov­ing with the horse, you can de­liver clear cues. You can re­peat those cues con­sis­tently time af­ter time, giv­ing the horse prac­tice at a new les­son.

Fourth, rid­ers some­times mis­take “pres­sure” for “pun­ish­ment.” The pres­sure of neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment might have to be an­noy­ing or dis­plac­ing at first, but it must never be painful or dam­ag­ing. Pun­ish­ment, as an ed­u­ca­tional tool, can cause se­vere prob­lems and must be used only by highly qual­i­fied train­ers in the rare event of egre­gious equine be­hav­ior. It is the least ef­fec­tive means of train­ing a horse.

Strong rid­ing skills pre­vent un­in­tended re­in­force­ment. By rid­ing with weight in your heels, up­per body straight, arms and hands soft, legs and seat mov­ing with the horse, you can de­liver clear cues.

Per­haps most im­por­tant, neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment teaches a horse to obey and re­spond, but it does not build much trust or attachment be­tween horse and rider. It leads a horse to seek, iden­tify, and use hu­man cues---all very im­por­tant abil­i­ties---but it does not of­fer the added ben­e­fit of teach­ing the horse that you’re on his side.


Pres­sure re­lease is the most crit­i­cal part of neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment. The tech­nique is used in­cor­rectly when rid­ers ap­ply pres­sure but fail to re­lease it as the horse re­sponds. This is a fre­quent er­ror. Horses do not re­spond well, in the wild or in the arena, to con­stant pres­sure. Some lose all mo­ti­va­tion to try; oth­ers be­come too jit­tery to per­form; a good num­ber act out by buck­ing, rear­ing, freez­ing or bolt­ing. The prin­ci­ple of cor­rect-and-re­lease is help­ful here.

Cor­rect-and-re­lease works for all forms of equine per­for­mance, from lead­ing to lev­ade. Hold­ing a cor­rec­tion ---for ex­am­ple, when a touch be­comes a steady pull on the bit---im­pedes learn­ing, an­noys or fright­ens the horse, and places hu­man strength in com­pe­ti­tion with equine power. No mat­ter how strong you are, you will never out­pull a half-ton horse. In­stead, he’ll de­velop a hard mouth, an in­verted neck and a sullen at­ti­tude---and you will de­velop some very sore arms.

To avoid steady pres­sure, try us­ing a se­ries of touches, re­leas­ing the horse from the se­ries when he re­sponds cor­rectly. (Re­mem­ber the seat belt alarm? It doesn’t need to play con­tin­u­ously to cause us to buckle up; it can ex­ert

No mat­ter how strong you are, you will never out­pull a half-ton horse.

Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment is the most com­mon form of as­so­cia­tive horse train­ing, but it re­quires su­perb co­or­di­na­tion, tim­ing and eq­ui­tation.

pres­sure just by beep­ing on and off re­peat­edly.) Add other meth­ods of slow­ing to help the horse de­ci­pher your cues: low­er­ing your body weight, bend­ing your el­bows, soft­en­ing your legs, post­ing more slowly, adopt­ing a more ver­ti­cal po­si­tion.

Neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment is the most com­mon form of as­so­cia­tive horse train­ing, but it re­quires su­perb co­or­di­na­tion, tim­ing and eq­ui­tation. It teaches a horse to re­spond like a good sol­dier, but it rarely mo­ti­vates the horse to want to please through ex­cel­lent per­for­mance or to build a bond of trust with his han­dler. For that, we train by re­ward. In my next ar­ti­cle, we’ll ex­plore the ways in which a horse’s brain learns by re­ward, then ap­ply that knowl­edge to ev­ery­day horse han­dling. Now, if only cars would stop beep­ing and just drop a bite of cheese­cake from the ceil­ing as we fas­ten our belts!

About the author: Janet L. Jones, PhD, is a cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist who ap­plies brain re­search to the train­ing of horses and rid­ers. Now pro­fes­sor emerita, she taught the neu­ro­science of per­cep­tion, lan­guage, mem­ory and thought for 23 years and is the author of three books. Jones be­gan rid­ing at age 7 and has schooled hun­dreds of young horses, com­pet­ing in hunter, jumper, hal­ter, rein­ing and western plea­sure classes through­out the West. She uses ba­sic prin­ci­ples of dres­sage with every horse. Lo­cated in Colorado, Jones cur­rently owns a 17.1hand off-the-track Thor­ough­bred who makes every day in­ter­est­ing. Reach her at ride­with­y­our­[email protected]

Leg pres­sure mim­ics the horse's nat­u­ral means of dis­place­ment - the horse moves away from pres­sure to his sides, no mat­ter who ap­plies it.

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