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Positive and Negative Motivation: Part 1

horseXperiences Stories Equestrian Roger Yvs Bost

We look at positive and negative reinforcement...

Doctor Krisztina Nagy (or Kristin) is an expert in horse behaviour. She boasts a PhD in Equine Behaviour, and is also an accredited Level 2 International coach specialising in Classical Dressage. 

In our third piece with Dr Nagy, we’ll look at the different methods for motivating a horse, and the scenarios in which they can be applied. This part will focus on positive and negative reinforcement, two of the four different methods available for motivating a horse.

Check out Part 1: Understanding Causes of Behaviour Problems in Horses and Part 2: Helping Your Horse Better Understand Your Requests

How do we motivate our horses?

“It is important to know how we can motivate our horse. There are 4 main motivational methods,” she says. It’s like having “tools in our hands by which we can influence the frequency of a desired (or of course an undesired) behaviour - in order to make it appear or disappear.” These four are:

  • Negative reinforcement
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Positive punishment
  • Negative punishment

How do you apply the different motivational methods?

The first thing to realise is that the old adage that you’re either schooling or unschooling your horse every time you get in the saddle rings true.

“Riding, training, or just being around and spending time with horses puts us in a situation where we are constantly giving them, either knowingly or unknowingly, stimuli and feedback in regards to what is a desired or acceptable behaviour from them and what is not,” explains Dr Nagy. “With our actions, or with the lack of an action, we either reward or correct a behaviour.”

Think of this in a more “real world” scenario. For instance, imagine there is a child throwing a tantrum in a shop. Out of desperation, a parent might give them sweets or a tablet to distract them. Unfortunately, they’ve now rewarded the tantrum and given the child reason to do it again.

This is the same reason that horses so quickly learn to do something “naughty” like throw a buck or two if their rider regularly rewards it by getting off and taking them back to the stable, for example.


"Use your tools to reward or influence."

What does reinforcement mean?

The ethological phrase “reinforcement” is used if the frequency of a behaviour increases with time. So anything which makes a horse inclined to do a certain behaviour again, or more often in the future, or with time, can be regarded as a reinforcer. Whether that’s a behaviour you want or not! 

So it makes sense that you need to use your tools to reward or influence behaviour. But, Dr Nagy is careful to point out that “a reward is not always what we humans might think is rewarding to a horse, but more how the horse is feeling about it.”

For example, some horses enjoy the feeling of a stroke between the ears or on the neck. Or even the withers. For those horses, a scratch or stroke can be used as a reward. For others, Dr Nagy explains that “it puts them in a situation where they feel threatened and they feel really uncomfortable.” For those horses, “what we actually need to do is desensitise them to the touch of our hand before it can become a neutral or pleasant stimuli.”


There are two main types of reinforcers.

Positive reinforcement

One is called positive reinforcement, because we add a stimulus, like a food treat.

“This method is well used by those who teach with clicker training,” Dr Nagy uses as an example. “It can also be used in a really successful way to teach tricks to horses as well, and even to help them overcome fear or other behavioural problems.”

She cautions that if you use this method, you need to be very careful “as the incorrect use of food treats - such as not using a secondary reinforcer like a clicker along with the food reward - can easily escalate into a dangerous behaviour, such as nipping and biting.

Furthermore, incorrect timing, or the withholding of food reward may increase frustration and aggression in the horse and may put us again in a dangerous situation.”

With that in mind, Dr Nagy says that other positive reinforcers such as giving the horse relaxation time and rest, or stroking them could be considered as well. Verbal praise “usually acts as a secondary reinforcer, similarly to the clicker,” Nagy says. But if you do want to use verbal praise as one of your positive reinforcement tools “it’s important to use the same word with the same tone of voice. It should be a short, distinct word/sound in order to use it efficiently and to help the horse to understand its meaning better.”

So that means no switching from “good boy” to “well done” to “I love you!” as your method of verbal praise.

Negative reinforcement

The other reinforcement technique is called negative reinforcement. People often assume this means something cruel, but it’s actually just the opposite of positive reinforcement. That is, the reward is having a stimulus removed.

In fact, negative reinforcement is what most ‘horse people’ use when communicating with a horse. Dr Nagy uses the well-understood scenario in which we give a leg aid, and as soon the horse starts to walk or trot we take away or stop giving the leg aid. Or we pull or take the reins, and when the horse slows down, we release the pressure of the rein.

Here the removal of an uncomfortable stimulus is the main motivation for the horse to perform a certain behaviour. “If we use this method properly, in time the horse learns to react to the aid faster, and also, to react to a more subtle aid,” Dr Nagy explains.

She also adds that it’s possible to “increase the efficiency of the negative reinforcement method by adding positive reinforcement, such as a break, pet, or reward together with the removal of the uncomfortable stimulus.” So that means that if your lazy horse won’t go forward, using your leg and then taking it off and giving your horse a scratch and verbal praise when he does respond to your leg uses a combination of both negative and positive reinforcement and creates a powerful communication tool.

As with all horse behaviour, there’s no magic tool which helps you know when and where to use each of the four motivational methods. It comes down to good horsemanship, experience, and an understanding of the particular horse and their temperament, plus cognitive and physical limitations and abilities.


Stay tuned and be the first to get the final part on Dr Nagy's piece. Join the club!



Original text and images by FEI

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