Positive Reinforcement

Can you explain the concept of positive reinforcement training? What exactly does it mean? I was recently in New Zealand, where I was with a group that seems "converted" to what they call "all-positive training." It sounds like good old-fashioned treats and bribes, just what I was taught not to do with horses.           via e-mail

Positive training and the "all-positive reinforcement" training movement you mention would include all those methods of training horses, or kids, or dogs, or even interacting with colleagues and family, using primarily positive reinforcement, with minimal negative reinforcement and, certainly, no punishment. You patiently wait for the desired response, or you prompt the desired response, then reinforce it. For loading a problem horse, for example, you get it to come into the trailer with positive enticement (usually a bucket of grain) and reward every step. Negative reinforcement, including pushing from behind, pestering with whips, rope, a plastic bag, or any aversive stimulus, are not used, or they are used only mildly. Punishment is generally avoided altogether--it's just not an option.

The reason there is so much talk about positive training, and the reason people often become quite evangelistic about new versions, is that it works very well if you can do it right. When you pay attention to how much time it really takes and the effectiveness of the results, on average, it wins over forceful methods hands down. Gaining results by using all-positive methods seems like a perfect human-animal partnership. You end up with a horse that seems highly motivated to learn new ways to please you and "loves to work hard" for the reward.

There are pitfalls. The timing and consistency of the reinforcement needs to be correct to teach the horse the desired behavior. If the timing is off, you can end up with a confused and food-nudgy horse.

For many horse people, the all-positive approach doesn't come naturally. It usually takes some thought and creativity in prompting and reinforcing the behavior you want, especially if you have been raised in a culture where punishment is the primary means of behavior modification, or if you have trained horses primarily with negative reinforcement and punishment. With time the positive alternatives can become second nature.

Unfortunately, it actually can become a "curse" in the sense that once you have learned how effective positive methods are compared to punishment, it is difficult to watch people battling with their horses or children or whatever.

There are several currently popular aids to help people adopt positive methods, including target and clicker training. These are just creative aids to change your behavior to prompt and reward the horse behavior you want. There are also several methods that claim to be positive that are not completely positive and, as with everything, cause some controversy.

Positive Reinforcement, Part 2

Recently, I was having coffee with friends Anna Twinney, noted horsewoman, and Darin Kindrick, a capable farrier and horseman. One of the topics we talked about was "casting" a horse (laying a horse down and keeping him there) for whatever reason, by training, bribery, trickery, force, or medication. We had diverse opinions on the matter. The discussion and evening ended with each maintaining their original opinions, however remaining open- minded. on the matter.

I've trained horses for most of my life, and I've looked to my experiences and those of other trainers to learn the pros and cons of casting. I have read articles in magazines on how to physically cast a horse, but I've never read an article on any adverse residual effect, psychological or physical. If there is such a study, I would like to know of it, as it would certainly support my training efforts, thereby enhancing my relationship with the horse.

I've laid horses down in the past, and I will do so again, if I feel the need. Without proof one way or the other, I would think one would have to consider intent, weigh the consequences, and find for themselves any value in the process. I am strong on my opinions, but I keep them open to persuasion. Do you have any updated information on the subject?     Jack Vance

I don't have updated information on adverse effects, either physical or psychological, of casting horses. So, I can just make a few comments off-the-cuff. Maybe some of our readers can add something.

When using physical force to drop and restrain a horse (for example, with ropes and rigging), there is considerable risk of physical injury to the horse, especially if not done by a skilled and experienced person. And, of course, even if the horse is not physically injured, there is the chance the horse will become more fearful rather than meeting your goal of them becoming submissive. If you read the literature, way back to the early practitioners of tripping and casting, there were a good number of failures expected.

Horses whose behavior has been shaped with positive methods to drop and remain in lateral recumbency are probably no more likely to suffer adverse physical or psychological effects than when trained to do anything else with positive methods.

You include medication as a method to lay a horse down. Since the horse loses consciousness before it drops, I doubt that there are any adverse psychological effects.

Positive Reinforcement, Part 3

I would like to breed my mare. This is not something I take lightly--I have been researching and planning for the last two years. She has many fantastic qualities that I would like more of in one of her offspring. One of her greatest attributes is that she doesn't act like a stereotypical mare. She's quiet and calm; as a matter of fact, in her seven years, I've only seen one display of her being in heat. Sounds great, right? My question/problem came up when someone told me if I chose to breed my mare, I could kiss her good behavior goodbye. In other words, she would become one of those mares that squeals, calls attention to her heat, and possibly worse. I fear it so much that I wouldn't breed her if that's the case. Do you think this will be the case? Does a mare change her behaviors after she's been bred once?            Pam Daly

 I don't know of any organized research addressing your concern, but I have been casually paying attention to mare behavior for many years with these sorts of questions in mind. I have not heard of this phenomenon of sexual exposure or breeding changing the tendency to show estrus in mares, other than for the young filly that might be intimidated by teasing and breeding under close confinement conditions.

These mares might get better at showing estrus when teased by a stallion and/or as they mature and/or after a pregnancy. In contrast to the advice you received, breeders sometimes report a positive change in general temperament (in the direction of calmer and more sensible) of young mares after they have been pregnant and had a foal. In that scenario, you don't know whether just another year of age and maturity could be a factor in the improvement.

So if it were my mare, I would not be concerned that breeding would adversely affect her behavior. I am not sure from your question whether the concern was about only the teasing and breeding, and not the pregnancy, but you could avoid the teasing and breeding by having your veterinarian follow the cycle with reproductive exams and have the mare bred by artificial insemination.

I should add that showing estrus is not exactly the opposite of, nor is it mutually exclusive of, calm and quiet behavior.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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