Positive vs Negative Reinforcement for Horses

Every time you work your horse, you’re either training or un-training.

This quote by Gordon Wright very accurately encompasses the equestrian experience. It also leads to the next question, which is better for horse training: positive or negative reinforcement? 

Sometimes the questions and confusions are from a need for more understanding of the two methods. Let’s take a closer look at some examples of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

What is Positive Reinforcement in Horse Training?

A rider positively rewarding her horse with a pat

Reinforcement is doing anything that increases the likelihood of the desirable behavior recurring. Positive reinforcement is adding something that the animal wants, called the reward so that the behavior you desire is more likely to recur. An example of positive reinforcement is asking a dog to sit and giving them a treat when they are sitting.

Understanding Negative Reinforcement

If positive means adding, then negative means taking away. Negative reinforcement is the method most people need clarification on. This form of reinforcement removes something to try to increase the likelihood that a behavior will recur. 

In negative reinforcement training, you remove something from the training equation when a desired task is completed. An example of negative reinforcement could be when you add leg or rein pressure and the horse responds, the pressure is removed.

Positive vs Negative Punishment

We think of punishment as hitting or yelling, but that’s not how behaviorists define it. Punishment is doing anything that decreases the likelihood of the particular behavior recurring. 

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is adding something aversive or bad to decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. The animal behaviorist community has a general consensus that this method is not the most effective. An example of positive punishment is smacking a horse on the nose when they bite you.

Negative Punishment

This is operant conditioning or trial-and-error learning. Negative punishment is removing something the animal wants to reduce the possibility that a behavior will recur. 

An example of negative punishment is the horse that mauls you for treats. If you reinforce that behavior by giving them a treat, they will do it more. However, if you either ignore them or take away the treats, it is considered negative punishment.

Another common area you see negative punishment is with horses being pushy at feeding time. You open the door to give hay, and they stick their head out and try to grab the hay. If you wait until he backs up and moves his head away to give him the hay, this would be negative punishment (not giving the hay) and positive reinforcement when he backs up (giving the hay).

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.