Positive & Negative Reinforcement with Horses

Reinforcement…, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

There are pros and cons to all teaching methods. Any kind of reinforcement used incorrectly can make a situation dangerous. Now let’s be honest, really honest, positive reinforcement people think every time someone uses negative reinforcement they are abusing their horse and the reverse is that negative reinforcement people think that positive reinforcement people are babying their horse. There is a serious misunderstanding out there of what these methods actually mean. If you don’t have appropriate timing or severity to what your doing yes that’s abuse but I’ve seen it many times in the reverse when the horse becomes the abuser too. Very very honest now, people in situation generally bring it upon themselves when bad things happen. There is a balance of both positive and negative reinforcement used when teaching anything and anyone. It just needs to be performed correctly.  

In the human world, we want everyone to be equal and fair to each other in all relationships. It’s the same in the animal world too. We have subordinates that need to be treated with equal respect as we hope those we are subordinate to would treat us. Some people may not like the term subordinate but in the horse world, your horse is looking to find a leader, however, if they don’t find one that can lead better than they can, they will do the job. Be the leader for your horse they feel more comfortable with that relationship (less responsibility but they will consistently test you).

If your having trouble with your horse and they are the abuser type something to think about is how good of a leader are you in the relationship. It’s the relationship that has to be adjusted to adjust the behaviors. I would call this “the ugly”. You should already know your having trouble but some people do mistake some behaviors. Some behaviors include biting, kicking and trampling. If any of these are happening you may want to adjust your methods. 

I’ll admit it, I will use a negative reinforcement method in situations that put myself or the horse in danger to prevent the situation from escalating. I am also a big fan of sweaty saddle pads. What I mean by this is that generally when you are working with an inexperienced horse it is good to put their mind and body to work instead of having them focus on spooking or a negative behavior. Pros to this is that your horse being a naturally lazy creature that would much rather be grazing and playing their entire lives than working; would rather not have to build up a sweet. This builds a mindset of  is it really worth it to spook and run or be naughty, if I’m going to have to work way harder than if I just didn’t. The negatives on this is that timing is everything. If you are to late to react the horse will see you as abusive and not understand why they are working so hard. Secondly, if you are too harsh for what the situation calls for them you have a horse in fear which will escalate and could become dangerous. 

Positive reinforcement is a very kind and wonderful method so long as you have clear boundaries. Who loves giving treats? I’m pretty sure most of us want to share a happy moment and snacks with the ones we love. So my biggest argument against treats is that they can be over used. When you give a treat for a good behavior that’s fantastic but if your doing it because they are cute it could turn into some really bad behaviors. We all know what those are .., walking through the barn and hooves are banging the gates and you get a little nip as you pass by. Yes, I’m going to say it, no more treats. There are other ways to show a horse you love them.

Positives reinforcement is this if you do what I ask you will be rewarded otherwise I will ignore you. Yes, there is a negative side to positive reinforcement. 

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