Reward, Reinforcement and Punishment


Horses are intricate and complicated animals and their views and perceptions of the world around them can be quite different from our own. Being prey animals and flight animals, horses are highly sensitive to all forms of pressure: physical, mental and environmental. They are lightening fast learners, which can make them very easy to train or un-train. Unfortunately, horses learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things and we have to take responsibility for that.

Horses learn by making associations between one thing and another. Sometimes they make intended associations, like, “When I feel the rider close her legs on my sides, I should move my feet faster.” The horse has learned to associate the movement of the rider’s legs with the movement of his own legs. But sometimes they make unintended associations, like, “When I buck, the rider stops me.” In this example, the rider has reinforced the horse’s bucking, and the horse now associates bucking with what he wants—getting to stop.

Inadvertent associations by the horse and learning the wrong things cannot always be avoided. Having a more thorough understanding of how horses learn, what actions on your part may reinforce a response, and what actions may discourage a response will help keep your horse learning the right things. A horse is always learning, for better or for worse, but the more you understand how your horse perceives reward, reinforcement and punishment and their roles in training the horse, the more effective you will be.

Just Rewards
It is far too simplistic to think of giving a horse a treat as a reward. Waiting for a horse to give the correct response and then giving it a food-based reward, is an example of “positive reinforcement.” A positive reinforcer is something that is added to the equation. In general, horse trainers prefer to stay away from food-based rewards since horses also establish dominance by taking away food from others. Also, while it may be quite handy for training tricks to a horse, offering a food-based reward loses its practicality when training complicated and intricate maneuvers while riding the horse. To me, a pet on the neck, verbal praise and letting the horse rest are far more effective rewards.

Because horses are sensitive animals that feel pressure quite keenly, horses can also perceive a release of pressure as a reward. This is known as “negative reinforcement,” because pressure is removed when the horse gives the correct response—apply pressure, wait for the correct response, then remove the pressure. The release of pressure is the reward and this turns out to be the most expedient and practical means to train a horse, because they are so very sensitive to pressure of all kinds. Contrary to what many people think, negative reinforcement is not punishment, in fact, reinforcement is the opposite of punishment (more on that later).

One of the biggest problems the inexperienced/uneducated/unaware horse trainer has (anyone who handles a horse is either training it or un-training it, because of how quickly they learn) is rewarding a horse’s behavior unintentionally. Because a horse seeks safety and comfort more than anything else in this world, it’s quite easy to reward the wrong behavior.

A horse will always associate a release of pressure with his actions that immediately preceded the release. For example, let’s say you’re trying to load an uncooperative horse in a trailer and as you approach the trailer, he throws a wall-eyed fit. At that point, many people will stop, turn the horse away from the trailer and circle back in a second attempt. Unfortunately, what the horse learns is that when he throws a fit, you will take him away from the trailer. He does not make the association that after you circle him back, you approach again. It’s too late. In taking him away from the trailer (releasing the pressure) when he threw a fit, you rewarded the fit.

Releasing the pressure, allowing the horse to rest or allowing him to get closer to what he wants (safety) can all be perceived as a reward to the horse so it pays to be conscious of what the horse’s motivations are, what her perceives as a reward and how he interprets your actions.

Reinforcement Vs. Punishment
A reinforcement is an action that increases the likelihood of a response, while punishment decreases the likelihood of a response. There’s a very big difference in reinforcement and punishment. For example, if I ask a horse I am riding to turn by first looking in the direction of the turn, opening my shoulders and arms, twisting my torso and letting the signal sink all the way down to my feet, I have given him many cues to turn—none of which involved a pull on the reins. If he does not immediately turn his nose, I will give him a slight bump of the inside rein—a touch of his mouth—to reinforce the cue to turn that I just gave him. Look, turn my body, then bump the rein. The rein contact is the reinforcement and because I gave the cue first, then reinforced with the rein contact, it increases the likelihood of the response. The reins are reinforcement, not the cue. In very short order, through reinforcement, I have a horse that turns without rein pressure (a beautiful thing for both you and your horse).

Punishment is defined as an unpleasant action in retribution for an offense, designed to decrease the likelihood of a response. Let’s say a horse I am leading suddenly bites me. To me, this is a punishable offense because it is dominant and aggressive behavior that can easily progress to dangerous and deadly behavior in the horse. The horse bites (an offense) and I harshly admonish him in punishment. If I used good timing (the punishment came within a second of the offense) and adequate pressure in the punishment, the horse immediately associates his action (biting) with the punishment and therefore he learns biting me is not a good idea, thus decreasing the response.

But let’s look at another common example where the horse feels punished, but the rider didn’t intend to punish. When riders are learning to canter, they often have reluctance—afraid of the speed or a lack of control. At the moment the horse takes the first stride of canter, his head drops down into the bridle. In that moment, if the rider is fearful, she often clenches the reins and either fails to give the needed release or actively pulls up on the reins, causing the horse to run into the bit. In this moment, the rider has just punished the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. Unfair? Absolutely. The action of the rider, although unintended, punishes the horse and decreases the likelihood of him picking up the canter next time he is asked.

While punishment may have its place in the training of a horse, particularly in dangerous behaviors, it has been shown not to be highly effective in the regular training of horses. Because horses are prey animals and flight animals, their fear level can be quite high. Training routine performance through punishment is therefore ineffective in horses because it can easily increase their fear level. Once a horse becomes fearful, he is not thinking well and therefore is not able to learn complex maneuvers.

Scientific research has shown us that “replacement training” is far more effective in eliminating undesirable behaviors in horses than punishment. For instance, if every time my horse tries to cut the corner of the arena or pull toward the center, I instantly turn him the opposite direction (into the fence), soon every time he thinks of turning toward the center, he thinks of turning the opposite way and picks himself up and starts moving in that direction. In this process, I have replaced one behavior (undesirable) with another (more desirable) in the horse and he thought his way through that, without fear.

Inadvertent or unintended rewards, reinforcements and/or punishments happen all the time with horses. Precisely because they are such fast learning animals, most poorly behaved horses have been trained to act that way by the unaware human. Thinking through the horse’s actions and motivations in the moment he is mis-behaving and enacting the appropriate response is not a simple matter. Accepting responsibility as the source of his misbehavior is unpalatable but necessary, if you hope to make progress.

It’s not always easy to know what the right thing is to do with a horse in the moment of his inappropriate response, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Understanding what the horse perceives as reward, what reinforces the behavior you want and what discourages that behavior will make you a better trainer. Understanding and accepting responsibility for your own mistakes, will make you a better person.

Avoid Training Burnout

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Ask Julie Goodnight

Question:
I really enjoy your lectures you are so much easier to listen to than many of the other presenters! I was wondering about the appropriate length of time that a training session with your horse should last. I realize that a lot of that depends on the difficulty of what you are teaching your horse and where your horse is in his learning life. I want my horses to enjoy our sessions together so I don’t want to burn them out or not have them challenging enough. My last question has to do with seat position in the saddle. When we talk about opening our pelvis, I cannot do that without tightening my glutes. Is there a way to open your pelvis without tightening up? Are there visualization techniques to open your pelvis but not tighten up or am I simply doing it wrong, which would not be out of the realm of possibility! Thanks for your help!
Heidi in Topeka, KS

Answer: Heidi,
Glad to hear you enjoyed the presentations. As for your horse question, a mature trained horse should certainly stick with you for an hour or more, depending on how demanding your training session is. The younger the horse, the shorter his attention span. If you give your horse mental breaks throughout your session for a few moments here and there, he will not get too burned out. There is nothing more powerful than quitting on a horse when he has really tried hard so that he comes back the next day with that same attitude. Finished show horses at the peak of their training will generally not have much training at all between shows, but just get light exercise on a longe line or something to stay in shape. That’s how they are kept from burnout.

Pay attention to your own horse’s attitude and watch for early warning signs and know that you may need to vary his work or lighten his workload if his attitude suffers. The best thing is to give frequent breaks during your session. The biggest problem I see with people that leads to burnout in their horses, is that we get too greedy and as soon as our horse gives a good response, we ask again and again and again, which leads the horse to resent you. When you get the response you want, reward the horse with a pet and a break and move onto something else.

The answer to your opening the pelvis question is an easy one! You do NOT use your buttocks muscles to do this. Instead, you use your upper abdominal muscles. Sitting in your chair right now, cough or clear your throat strongly. You will feel your pelvis open when you use these muscles. Those are the muscles you use for pelvis control while you are riding, not your buttocks muscles. There is a set of muscles deep within your abdomen called the psoas muscles and these are the ones you use for opening your pelvis. I also demonstrate this technique in my first two Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVDs available at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

You are correct that you should never clench your buttocks, not only is this destructive to your riding, but it sends a message of alarm to your horse and pretty soon, you are both clenching your butts! Practice opening your pelvis with your abdominal muscles; using the cough or throat clear will help you get this feel. Check out, Zen and the Horse, Applying the Principles of Meditation to Riding, by Tom Nagel. This book is a quick read and has many great exercises that teach you to isolate the psoas muscles. It is available through www.zenandthehorse.com. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Pulling On The Rein

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Question:
I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to, he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse. I bought him in June and I would say the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. It is a very busy stable…. I guess what I am trying to say I kind of feel bad about looking to someone else for an answer. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but when she bought him she had had his teeth checked and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend and with him pulling on the bit causes me to not enjoy my ride.

Sincerely,

Lori

Answer:

Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.

The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn’t as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.

The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.

Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing to always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, “what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?” Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.

The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become engrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he’ll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you’ve thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.

If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.

Good luck.

Riding Skills: Time Length & Help To Open Pelvis

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hello Julie,

I really enjoy your lectures you are so much easier to listen to than many of the other presenters! I was wondering about the appropriate length of time that a training session with your horse should last. I realize that a lot of that depends on the difficulty of what you are teaching your horse and where your horse is in his learning life. I want my horses to enjoy our sessions together so I don’t want to burn them out or not have them challenging enough. My last question has to do with seat position in the saddle. When we talk about opening our pelvis, I cannot do that without tightening my glutes. Is there a way to open your pelvis without tightening up? Are there visualization techniques to open your pelvis but not tighten up or am I simply doing it wrong, which would not be out of the realm of possibility! Thanks for your help!

H.T.
Topeka, KS

Answer: Heidi,

Glad to hear you enjoyed the presentations. As for your horse question, a mature trained horse should certainly stick with you for an hour or more, depending on how demanding your training session is. The younger the horse, the shorter the attention span. If you give your horse mental breaks throughout your session for a few moments here and there, he will not get too burned out. There is nothing more powerful than quitting on a horse when he has really tried hard so that he comes back the next day with that same attitude. Finished show horses at the peak of their training will generally not have much training at all between shows, but just get light exercise on a longe line or something to stay in shape. That’s how they are kept from burnout. Pay attention to your own horse’s attitude and watch for early warning signs and know that you may need to vary his work or lighten his workload if his attitude suffers. The best thing is to give frequent breaks during your session. The biggest problem I see with people that leads to burnout in their horses, is that we get too greedy and as soon as our horse gives a good response, we ask again and again and again, which leads the horse to resent you. When you get the response you want, reward the horse with a pet and a break and move onto something else.
The answer to your opening the pelvis question is an easy one! You do NOT use your buttocks muscles to do this. Instead, you use your upper abdominal muscles. Sitting in your chair right now, cough or clear your throat strongly. You will feel your pelvis open when you use these muscles. Those are the muscles you use for pelvis control while you are riding, not your buttocks muscles. There is a set of muscles deep within your abdomen called the Psoas muscles and these are the ones you use for opening your pelvis.

You are correct that you should never clench your buttocks, not only is this destructive to your riding, but it sends a message of alarm to your horse and pretty soon, you are both clenching your butts! Practice opening your pelvis with your abdominal muscles; using the cough or throat clear will help you get this feel. Check out, Zen and the Horse, Applying the Principles of Meditation to Riding, by Tom Nagel. This book is a quick read and has many great exercises that teach you to isolate the psoas muscles. It is available through www.zenandthehorse.com. You’ll also find my first two DVDs in the Goodnight’s Principles of Riding series helpful! Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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