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Horse Training: Reward vs. Release of Pressure

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.

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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.

Reward based training is newer to the horse world but has been used extensively in marine mammal training, zoos, law enforcement and performing arts for many years. It reinforces behavior by marking the correct behavior with a sound or word and then following up with a desired reward, usually food or toys. Well known horse trainers include, Alexandra Kurland, Shawna Karrasch, Hanna Dawson, Beezie Madden, and The Pony Fairy (Monty Gwen). Examples of the training in performing arts include horse shows like Cavalia, Sea World (marine mammals) and Hollywood movies.

To further clarify how learning theory works, we need to look at how the two training systems are different.

Pressure: In learning theory, pressure is categorized as an aversive stimulus which is removed to increase behavior. Scientific wording can be regrettably blunt, so keep in mind that “aversive” does not mean unkind or mean, it simply means something that is uncomfortable or unwanted. The pressure of a fly buzzing around the face can be categorized as aversive, and it need not even touch you. Pressure is just something the horse does not want, even if the pressure is gentle and respectful. (You put your legs on, the horse moves forward, you remove the pressure.) When timed correctly, the horse learns that he can remove the pressure by responding to it, so this reinforces his response. His learned behaviors are continually maintained through the correct timing, placement and release of pressure.

Reward: In learning theory, a reward is a pleasant stimulus that is added to increase behavior. It involves giving the horse something they value in order to get them to perform a specific behavior. This is usually food (a primary reinforcer), but can also be scratches, a favorite toy, or chance to do something they find intrinsically pleasing (these are called secondary reinforcers). Once the behavior is learned, the primary reinforcer is phased out and only given intermittently, such as for exceptional effort. Meanwhile, the use of secondary reinforces can be increased. Doing so maintains the behavior and keeps both performance and excitement high, without requiring constant use of the primary reinforcer. (Similar to a slot machine).

While it seems clear as to what differentiates the training systems, it is fairly common that people categorize releasing pressure as a type of reward. (I.E. A riding instructor saying, “Let go of the reins and reward him!”) To further confuse this, they may even label things like comfort and safety as types of rewards. However, this is incorrect on several points, including practical application, emotion and neurochemistry.

Application: For example, if I offered to give my husband a bag of licorice after he cleaned the dishes, he would likely get up and do it without further prompting. On the other hand, I could also choose to remind him every 5 minutes, with increasing tone and language, to get up and do the dishes. He would certainly wash them to get me to lay off. Both strategies had the same outcome and both would also increase his likelihood in the future to clean dishes; either to earn licorice or to avoid me bugging him. But one used a reward (pleasant stimulus) and the other used pressure (aversive stimulus). Therefore back to horse training, putting pressure on a horse to cause him to “seek comfort” is a relief from pressure, not a reward.

Emotionally: On a more simple level, the outcome of receiving a reward is usually associated with pleasure where as the outcome of pressure release is associated with relief. While it might seem like pleasure and relief could be very similar, this can be easily clarified in looking at how horses respond to pressure and reward differently.[1]

The correct release of pressure results in compliant performance; enough to get the pressure released and avoid future pressure. This does not imply that the animal will perform mediocrely, but rather most will do just enough to get relief. Quality of the performance will be based on the skills of the trainer. However because the process is not principally pleasant, the learner can certainly exhibit fall out behaviors, even under gentle pressure. The severity of fall out behaviors is based on the abilities of the trainer to recognize and avoid causing emotional distress and frustration, which could impact performance. [2]

In contrast, the use of reward results in a different emotional reaction; the animal will offer or repeat behaviors out of motivation to earn a reward. This does not mean the behaviors will somehow end up better, as this again depends on the skills of the trainer, but rather there will be a trend towards cooperation and effort. The catch here is that trainer has to ensure that they are rewarding correct behaviors, and not letting the trainee get over stimulated with excitement. This too can cause frustration and emotional distress.

Neurochemistry: There is also an important difference in what is going on in the brain. Brain chemistry plays a significant role in learning and memory retention, separate from the emotional aspects or perception of the learner. This is fairly complex and I found it quite challenging to decipher the scientific studies without muddling it, but here goes:

When a horse (or any mammal) performs a behavior and is reinforced for it, the brain produces dopamine, which is a compound that helps transmits signals between nerve cells in the brain. [3] This is required for the learning process and the retention of memory. [4] However the release of dopamine does not impact the same cells in the same ways when using different types of reinforcement. Reward reinforcement affects certain cells in certain ways, while pressure reinforcement affects them differently.[5] [6] [7] This doesn’t imply anything about emotions or how the horse feels about the reinforcement, but it does appear to demonstrate that something different physiologically happens when we use rewards or pressure.

So who cares? Some people may still question why differentiating release vs. reward really matters or why it would matter if someone chose to combine both in their training. Sure it would be ideal if we could do both, but according to scientific study [8] and anecdotal evidence from both dog and horse trainers, combining positive and negative reinforcement isn’t a good idea. While you can occasionally add a reward or use a bit of pressure in your training, you can’t combine both regularly or you risk frustrating and confusing the trainee. This doesn’t make for a good learning environment and could result in fallout behaviors, poisoned cues and a breakdown in trust.[9]

Ultimately whether we use pressure or rewards, we all have the ambition to improve our relationship with our horse and also improve our communication/training skill sets. To achieve these ends we should strive to be educated in how learning theory works and honest with ourselves about how we will impact our horse. Only then can we make the most successful training decisions and avoid the pitfalls of mistakes.

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