Negative reinforcement in horse training: pros and cons
The phrase “negative reinforcement” often causes misunderstanding. Yes, many people know this term, but hesitate to give it a clear definition.
So, let’s start from the very beginning: negative reinforcement is a learning tool in which painless pressure is applied until the horse responds in the desired way. When the horse answers, the pressure is relieved. Over time, the horse associates this particular reaction with a proper response.
As a simple example of negative reinforcement, you can give an unpleasant sound signal that appears if you do not fasten the seat belt in the car. He will annoy us until we buckle up. If you ride, negative reinforcement is used when you press your legs to the sides of the horse and then release this pressure when it starts trotting. Through the association, the horse learns that the equal pressure of the pendants on both sides of its body means “lynx”.
The horse’s brain is designed to look for associations, regardless of whether they are provided consciously or not. Since horses always strive to create these bonds, we must give them an idea of what is expected and what is forbidden. If a person does not make such decisions, the horse will do it for him, but her ideas about right and wrong may not correspond to ours.
Negative reinforcement is the most common form of associative training used in training horses. This is our natural “mode” by default, we “turn on” it with special ease. But let’s take a closer look at its strengths and weaknesses.
Negative reinforcement in practice
Negative reinforcement works best when applied in a form consistent with the nature of the horse. Researchers Andrew Macklin and Jane Christensen note that horses use “movement” among themselves as negative reinforcements. A dominant mare only needs to turn one ear to make the lowest-ranking animal move away from food. A horse drives you out, waving its head, stepping on you, pushing or kicking – it knows how to move you if you allow it to do so. Since horses use natural movement, we can use this feature to train them.
When riding, you use a type of pressure that takes into account the horse’s tendency to move. Take for example the pressure of the shenkel. Why aren’t we bicep-pulling or words like “faster” to speed up a horse? Schenkel pressure imitates the natural means that “move” the horse – the horse moves away from the pressure exerted on its sides, regardless of who uses it. If you push on the left side of the horse, it will move to the right and vice versa. Equal pressure on both sides will cause forward movement – the horse will seek to avoid pressure. Theoretically, a horse could choose a backward movement (even on a free occasion), but the reverse movement is not so natural for it and, therefore, such manifestations are quite rare in mature horses.
As soon as the horse reacts as required by the rider (for example, moving from a step to a trot), he relieves pressure, and the horse takes it positively. Horses do not like pressure and will work to avoid it. If you immediately release the horse from pressure, its brain will associate the action with the result. Next time, when you press on its sides with both pins, the horse will accelerate again, hoping to achieve the same result.
Balls and Rollers: How the Horse’s Brain Works
Physiologically, the connection between pressure and pressure release occurs when two neural networks become connected by simultaneous activation. One group of neurons in the horse’s brain is responsible for feeling pressure. You press, it feels, and certain brain cells light up. Another set of neurons is responsible for moving forward. When two networks operate simultaneously or side by side, they are connected by a process that we call “long-term potentiation”.
Long-term potentiation is a form of memorization. Activated neurons remain more awake for several seconds after the initial “arousal”. In this short period of time, they start faster and more intensively. The weakening pressure at this moment forces the two networks to connect. Too early – and the first network has not yet been activated. Too late – and memorization did not work. Correct timing is necessary to create a connection between your pressure and the horse’s response.
Trainers use negative reinforcement to train young and / or inexperienced horses to respond to any possible type of pressure triggered by humans. The first gallop under the saddle of a young horse usually confuses her. She moved step and trot, learning the basics of stopping, moving, turning, etc. But the climb to the gallop under the rider is something new ..