What is negative reinforcement and how can we do it positively?
Most training methods use some form of negative reinforcement, and just because it has the word negative doesn’t mean it is bad. Negative simply means taking something away in terms of when we’re talking about reinforcement. Reinforcement means wanting your horse to repeat a behaviour. So, reinforcement means “I want you to do that again.” Punishment means “I don’t want you to do that again.” Negative means “I’m going to take something away to help encourage that,” and positive means “I’m going to add something”. So, for example, positive reinforcement would be “you cantered” when asked so you get a cookie at the end of your canter. Negative reinforcement would be squeezing (pressure) to move forward and then when there is forward movement the squeezing stops (release of pressure).
Pressure and release (negative reinforcement) can be an effective way to train a horse, as long as body language and feel is used effectively. It’s an easy tool to use, but like most things how it is executed can make it good or bad. Some examples of negative reinforcement could look like this, pulling back on your reins to get your horse to stop when he stops you stop pulling. You want your horse to lead forward with the halter, you pull on the halter and the rope and your horse starts following you, so you stop pulling (release the pressure). These are all very common practices of pressure and release.
Pressure and release training or negative reinforcement have been studied and researched and when used appropriately does not cause a negative emotional response and can be a very effective training tool. It’s been shown that for scared horses, pressure and release can often be more effective than positive reinforcement. And for horses that are lazy and lack motivation, positive reinforcement can work better for them. Harmony Horsemanship uses a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement. It’s important that horses know how to give to pressure, for example, if they accidentally step on their lead rope, you want them to understand how to find their release without reacting by lower their head to that pressure.
Pairing positive reinforcement with negative reinforcement can be even more effective. Not only will the horse get the reward of the release but also the reward of a cookie, a pat, or a scratch. This is more enticing and keeps the motivation to continue to make the right choices. For the horses that tend to be more prone to freezing or locking up, offering them a treat reward can be helpful because it gets them licking and chewing and causes them to become more present.
A lot of negative reinforcement comes down to thresholds. Keeping the horse in a thinking frame of mind is very important. Because if we can keep our horses in the thinking frame of mind, they’ll be able to respond to our cues and they’ll be a lot safer to train. When horses have so much pressure put on them that they start to go into an emotional response, a panic response then they stop thinking clearly and are at more risk of hurting themselves or hurting us. A lot of the times when a horse isn’t responding, it’s because they’re either in pain, or they don’t understand what they are being asked to do, or the person’s not asking clearly. So, if your horse isn’t responding, adding more pressure is probably the wrong answer. This could cause the horse to explode out of pure frustration, or anxiety.
You have to be careful when the horse is showing signs of being confused or scared. You have to figure out how can you make it clearer, break it down to help them understand or take a step back and figure out where there might be a hole in your training. If your horse is resorting to blowing up, you are using negative reinforcement to the extreme and ignoring the thresholds and causing that horse to become fearful.
In Harmony Horsemanship instead of saying “ask” “tell” or “demand”, we say “ask” “tell” and “clarify”. Then you can adjust or motivate depending on why the horse says no. Is your horse confused? Is your horse not able to do what you are asking? We want to use negative reinforcement in a positive way which means that when you ask your horse to do something, and you add that little bit of pressure we need to be clear in our ask so there is no confusion and no need to add more and more pressure.
As mentioned, you could add positive reinforcement to your negative reinforcement. So, your horse stops and does a good transition for you. You use positive reinforcement and say “hey, you listened to my pressure cue of the reins so here’s an extra reward.” You can still use negative and positive reinforcement together. A reward adds a little extra motivation and helps the horse to understand what it is you are asking them to do.
Remember that whenever you’re using negative reinforcement, which is the pressure and release mentality, you want to keep that horse in that thinking frame of mind and not push him into extremes, where he becomes terrified, and starts bolting, bucking or rearing. We don’t want to glorify these behaviours or normalize them. Ideally, these negative moments with horses would be very minimal and they would try to be avoided and our training methods would be more gradual such that the horse doesn’t ever feel like getting into that panic state. We want to be trying to build our horse’s confidence, and increase pressure gradually. And when we noticed them starting to get tense that we soften, wait, clarify and give the horse more of an opportunity to move forward or find the right answer.
If you want to learn more about incorporating pressure and release and positive reinforcement, check out HarmonyHorsemanship.com. Remember, you can always check out more great free resources and other information at