My wife Christine often speaks of the time she worked at a local dinner/horse show. One of the ponies was taught to “count” by pawing the ground. The trick was, when the pony reached the required number, his handler stepped towards him and give him a reward of carrot pieces and the pony stopped counting.
One day, Chris gave the pony a handful of carrot pieces before the show. The handler rushed over and said “Don’t give him carrots now. He won’t perform if he’s already had his carrots.”
The motivation for the pony to paw the ground was to relieve his “hunger” for carrots. This is sometimes called positive reinforcement – positive, because something (carrots) is added after the horse performs the desired behaviour (pawing the ground).
In this example, the horse finds it pleasant to receive a treat and he learns how to gain that treat by performing certain tasks. However, the horse must be “hungry” for treats, otherwise he won’t perform.
When you train your horse, you can also use negative reinforcement – negative, because something is taken away when the horse performs the desired behaviour.
An example of negative reinforcement is squeezing your horse with your legs, then removing the pressure of your legs immediately your horse moves forward.
In this example, the horse finds the pressure of your legs slightly unpleasant. He moves forward because he learns that the pressure will be removed. And so, moving forward is more pleasant for your horse.
From a horse's point of view, there’s really no difference between using positive and negative reinforcement. Both systems rely on replacing slightly unpleasant situations with more pleasant situations. In both cases, there must be some motivation or the horse won’t respond. Your horse has no understanding of negative or positive reinforcement. He just does whatever he finds easy and pleasant.
In each of the examples, the horse’s motivation is to make things more pleasant for himself. Remember, horses always look for the easy way.
In the first example, the horse’s motivation is a desire for treats. If he’s already had his fill of treats, the horse’s motivation is diminished and he won’t perform. The only thing the trainer can do in this case is withdraw all treats until the horse’s desire for treats returns. Withdrawing treats isn’t detrimental to the horse.
In the second example, the motivation for the horse is to relieve the unpleasant pressure from your legs. A horse may learn that a squeeze on his side isn’t particularly unpleasant and so his motivation to perform is diminished. In this case, the rider must increase the level of unpleasantness in small increments until the horse performs the desired behaviour. If a squeeze doesn’t work, you must give your horse a kick, or a tap with a stick, or a touch with a blunt spur.
If you’re consistent and your horse understands what you want him to do, using negative reinforcement and reinforcing your lessons is not detrimental to your horse. When used at the appropriate time, squeezing, kicking, tapping with a stick or touching lightly with a blunt spur, won’t worry or frighten your horse.
Whether you use positive or negative reinforcement, everyone’s goal should be to have their horses confident and relaxed at all times. The most important thing to remember is that you must be consistent and, every increase of unpleasantness must be in small increments.
Never increase the level of unpleasantness unless you’re absolutely certain that your horse understands what you want him to do. It’s cruel to hit or spur any horse when he doesn’t understand.
READ MORE ON THIS SUBJECT HERE : www.fearfreehorsetraining.com/blog/you-must-reinforce-your-lessons