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Horse Training: Reward vs. Release of Pressure

March 27, 2017

What initiated this topic are recent articles suggesting ways you can reward your horse, using natural horsemanship strategies, or combining NH with reward training.  While these articles are trying to be very forward thinking, which is great (we all want for our horse to enjoy training), I have also found them to be misleading.  There seem to be some strong misconceptions about what constitutes a reward vs. what is a release of pressure, and this could be impactful to training results. To be fair, these authors weren’t intending to confuse anyone, but they were unfortunate victims of colloquial thinking.  Understanding these nuances no matter how insignificant they seem, can make a huge difference in animal training.


So let’s start with some science based “learning” definitions.       


• Reinforcer: Something that increases the probability of a behavior being repeated.

• Punisher: Something that decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.  

(Taken from



Image from


Behavioral scientists have categorized both reinforcers and punishers into two categories: Positive and Negative.  This does not mean “good and bad”.  It means something is added or subtracted to influence behavior. Nothing in any of the four quadrants should be interpreted as bad or good, they simply describe how to influence behavior. 


Unfortunately because words like positive/negative still leave a connotation of good vs. bad, I’m going to categorize horse training techniques as either reward based training (positive reinforcement) or pressure based training (negative reinforcement).   


Pressure based training is the most popular method used to train horses and is often called by the name Horsemanship, but also includes classical dressage and other forms. This style of training reinforces behavior by removing pressure when the horse responds correctly.  Well known trainers include Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, Jonathan Field and Clinton Anderson to name a few.