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Positive and Negative Motivation: Part 2

horseXperiences Stories Positive and Negative Reinforcement


In this article, Dr Nagy gives her expert explanation of positive punishment and negative punishment. These are two of the four methods available for motivating a horse. When applied correctly, these can be used to help your horse display the behaviours you want – or stop displaying the ones you don’t.

Before you go further, we suggest you read the previous articles in order:

Understanding Causes of Behaviour Problems in Horses

Helping Your Horse Better Understand Your Requests

Positive and Negative Motivation: Part 1


There are four main motivational methods we can use to make a behaviour appear or disappear, according to Dr Nagy. These are:

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

As we’ve mentioned previously, it’s key to keep in mind that you’re always training your horse, whether knowingly or not. The aids you apply (and don’t apply) in the saddle and on the ground are all types of reinforcement or punishment. The key to good communication is knowing when to use each method and with what intensity.

What does punishment mean in terms of communicating with horses?

The term punishment often causes a knee jerk reaction. The term ‘punishment’ has negative connotations so most of assume that punishment must be a bad method to use.

In psychological terms though, Dr Nagy notes that punishment just means any method used if we want a behaviour to decrease in frequency with time, instead of increase.

There are two methods of punishment to choose from: positive and negative punishments.

Negative punishment

“Negative punishment means we remove stimulus. An easy example for negative punishment would be, when the horse is not doing what we want him to do, we respond by not giving the reward. So perhaps we do not stop the exercise, or don’t give the horse a break until the correct behaviour is displayed,” Dr Nagy said. You’ve probably seen this in action when people work with a horse who won’t load, when a handler is making the horse lunge, walk backwards, or generally work when it evades the trailer.

Nagy says that negative punishment “also means that as soon as we have slightest reaction from the horse which exhibits slightly the behaviour we are aiming for, we stop asking for it. Stopping an exercise, or giving a break at the right time is a huge reward opportunity for the horse.”

Using the same example of the loading problems above, that means you’d let the horse stand and give it a break as soon as he took a step towards the trailer or went to sniff and investigate it.

See? Not so bad after all!

Positive punishment

Positive punishment is also used to decrease a behaviour.

Dr Nagy says that when it comes to positive punishment “it refers to the fact that if we are not happy with the behaviour of the horse, we add some stimulus. Like a whip aid, more work, or a difficult exercise like backing up. It is a form of correction.”

Keep in mind though, that using a whip as a back up to your aid, for instance, doesn’t have to mean that you’re being cruel. Instead, it can be used as a tool to help you refine your request. So if a horse stops at spooky jumps, you might add a leg aid or a tap with a whip when he starts to back off at a fence. Over time, the horse jumps without the need for the extra stimulus. This way, positive punishment has been used to train your horse to decrease an unwanted behaviour – stopping at a fence.

But remember, this can go both ways. Positive punishment could result in you accidentally decreasing the horse’s desire to perform a behaviour that you actually want. Let’s say that you’re an inexperienced rider, and pull on the horse’s mouth when he jumps. He then becomes reluctant to jump because the added stimulus is unpleasant pressure on the mouth. As a result, your horse becomes less likely to jump and more likely to stop over time. This way, you’ve accidentally used positive punishment to train a horse to offer an unwanted behaviour.

horseXperiences Stories FEI Jumping

Dr Nagy also says she “can’t emphasise enough that anything we do can be a reward or a punishment.” It is always relative, and depends on the horse and the situation. By not doing anything when a behaviour arises, we still send feedback to the horse on his behaviour and give him cues as to whether it is acceptable or not.

For instance, let’s take the scenario of a rider ignoring a certain behaviour from a horse. “Ignoring a behaviour can be punishment or reward” says Dr Nagy. “It can be negative punishment, like not acknowledging the good behaviour of a horse because of not giving appreciation signs. But it could also be perceived as positive reinforcement in a sense that there is no negative consequence of the behaviour and there is a nice relaxation period followed by the behaviour.”

How to tell if something is a reward or a punishment

Dr Nagy says: “We can always see what is a reward, and what is a correction or punishment by carefully monitoring what the reaction of the horse is to the given stimulus. Is the frequency of the behaviour increasing with time? If so, then whatever we did, the horse thinks his behaviour was being reinforced.

"If the behaviour decreases over time then the horse is thinking it’s not in his best interests to carry out that behaviour again. Or, the horse is simply not motivated to do it again.”

Lack of motivation to perform a desired behaviour “can arise simply due to our delayed timing of the reinforcers or rewards” Dr Nagy says.

“Unwanted behaviour can increase not just when we are unclear with our aids, but also when we reward the wrong behaviour. Or even if we do not reward or even punish the right behaviour. In most cases we make these mistakes through bad timing. For example, if we release our leg/whip/hand aids too early or too late, the horse may get completely the opposite message to what we were aiming for.”

That’s why pro riders are so good! They’re experts at knowing exactly when to apply pressure and exactly when to release it for optimum results – whereas if a less experienced rider applied the same pressure without such a well-timed release, you might end up with a confused, frustrated, or “naughty” horse.

Phew, difficult, right? As always, motivating a horse to give you the “right” answer depends on your asking the correct questions – and then rewarding the right answer appropriately. This is a skill which is learned over time, and relies on horsemanship and experience.


Original text and photos by FEI

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