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How To Train Your Horse Using Negative Reinforcement  

Learn why negative reinforcement horse training—also known as pressure and release—works and how to use it properly.
a woman in an indoor arena practices negative reinforcement horse training while exercising a horse on a longe line.
Getty Images

Negative reinforcement, informally known as “pressure and release,” is arguably the most common horse training technique. It is how we can communicate silently to the horse basic things such as move forward, slow or stop, and turn under saddle, as well as advanced behaviors such as rollbacks, lateral work, or flying lead changes. It can also help us teach horses how to lead and tie safely, walk, trot, and canter in a round pen, load in a trailer, and more.  

As with other techniques, knowing how and why negative reinforcement horse training works can help us use it in ways that minimize harm.  

What Is Negative Reinforcement? 

As we discussed in the article How Horses Learn, all animals learn, or make changes to their future behavior, because of the consequences that follow their behavior. While undesirable consequences make behaviors less likely to occur, the focus of this article is on how we can use desirable consequences to make behaviors more likely to occur, thus achieving training goals.  

When a horse performs a behavior that leads to desirable consequences, he is more likely to behave that way in similar future circumstances. For example, when a person waves a flag behind a feral BLM Mustang in a pen and the Mustang moves forward, the behavior of moving forward will be more likely to happen again. When this occurs, it is because the behavior has been negatively reinforced. Negative in this instance isn’t a judgment statement. It just means something was removed (proximity to or waving of the flag). Additionally, when behavior occurs again as a result of desirable consequences, we say the behavior has been reinforced. 

Negative reinforcement horse training is also called escape or avoidance learning/training. This is because animals will behave in ways that help them escape from or avoid interactions with unpleasant stimuli. Those very escape or avoidance behaviors make it more likely the animal will behave that way again. This is because feeling “relief” can be a very desirable consequence.  

How To Use Negative Reinforcement Horse Training Properly 

negative reinforcement horse training can be used to teach horses how to safely do anything from lead and tie to load a trailer.
Negative reinforcement can help us teach horses how to lead and tie safely, walk, trot, and canter in a round pen, load in a trailer, and more. | Getty Images

We primarily use negative reinforcement to teach horses to move away from two types of pressure: direct pressure that contacts the horse or indirect pressure that does not. When riding, for example, we touch the horse with both our heels and the horse walks off. Or we wave a training flag behind a horse and he steps into the trailer. In both instances, we remove the pressure applied to the horse—the leg pressure or the waving flag—the moment the horse performs the desired behavior. This instant removal of pressure in such scenarios makes behaviors more likely to happen again in the future. 

If we follow good training practices, the first small application of direct or indirect pressure will cue the horse to perform a certain behavior. A light heel touch or small flag wave can reliably cue forward motion. This happens because the horse learns that responding at the first application of pressure results in them being able to avoid further pressure and not have to escape from intensifying levels of pressure. 

Problems to Avoid 

Hopefully, it is becoming clear that using pressure to train can be problematic. Pressure can be a euphemism. It can hide the reality that application of direct pressure can cause horses pain, and indirect pressure can scare horses. In fact, a good percentage of the cases I see as a clinical animal behaviorist are because people used negative reinforcement in ways that caused horses to develop behavioral injuries and lasting psychological trauma. This can occur when people escalate pressure to the point it hurts or scares the horse. It can also happen when the person’s timing for the release of pressure is poor.  

Situations that cause pain or fear can be serious welfare issues, impacting the horse’s health and happiness. It’s important to remember that when teaching horses, they do not know what we want. Therefore, we should avoid using negative reinforcement in ways that cause pain and/or fear, triggering escape. Reacting away from something painful or frightening is a very different type of learning than that which comes when the horse has the opportunity to calmly respond when pressure is applied. The latter can occur when we use negative reinforcement skillfully, alongside shaping, and when we consider alternate ways to achieve results without causing pain or fear. 

Take-Home Message 

It’s important we understand why various horse training techniques work. Techniques that involve applying pressure are inherently riskier for horses, making it imperative we know the potential harms. Through education, we can minimize the likelihood we hurt or scare horses during training while still obtaining the results we seek. 

Related Reading: 

Lauren Fraser, MSc, FFCP, has helped people understand horse behavior problems since 2006. With a background working as a horse trainer, an MSc in clinical animal behavior, and more than a decade working as an equine behavior consultant, Lauren’s approach gets to the heart of why horses behave the way they do and addresses issues using low-stress methods. Lauren also guest lectures at universities, presents at conferences, and creates educational programs for horse owners and equine professionals.   

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