Why Would a Horse Prefer an Aversive?

Some people tell me, “I tried bitless, but my horse prefers using a bit” or “my horse prefers R-, I tried R+ but traditional training just works better for him”. This seems counter-intuitive to us who understand that these situations are actually aversive to the learner. Our horses are not masochists, so why would they choose the more aversive of two options? Why would a horse prefer force over treats? Why would a horse prefer an invasive tool over a softer external tool?

There are alot of answers to these (Are you using the right tools? Did you choose one that is actually gentle? Do they fit right? etc…) but the simplest one underneath it all is “the devil you know”. The devil we know is always better than the devil we don’t, because we understand how it works, we understand how to avoid the bad and reach the good. A horse who “prefers” the bit isn’t truly saying they like having an invasive and uncomfortable bar placed inside their mouth and used to manipulate their head and neck. They are saying they understand this, they know how to respond to these aids and avoid extreme pain or discomfort, reaching relief more quickly. Quite simply this is uncomfortable but safe. While they may actually prefer a gentle bitless side pull (ya, we know not all bitless options are kind! So don’t swap one aversive for another) they may not actually understand these new sidepull cues as clearly as the bit they knew well. They may not recognize the warnings before the aversiveness of the tool needs to escalate. These are new and different aversive sensations they don’t yet understand how to avoid and can be much more concerning than a stronger aversive they do know how to avoid. They may need to go through the learning process again, either through R- or R+ to learn how to respond appropriately to the tool and avoid the aversive created by the tool. Even gentle sidepulls are still something wrapped around their head and manipulating their movement. This devil they don’t know may ultimately be much kinder, but because they don’t understand it yet it can be or seem much worse. The fear of the unknown outweighs the known bad they have learned to control.

This same principle applies when people say their horse prefers to use negative reinforcement. What humans mean by this is that the horse finds the right answer more quickly (faster results) and with less negative emotional expressions. Why does this happen? Negative Reinforcement works by applying an aversive which maintains or increases until the horse performs the correct behavior, at which point the aversive is relieved. This learning method requires an aversive to work, if they don’t want to avoid it they won’t work for relief. So, why would any being choose this over working for a reward? Why would anyone prefer avoidance over seeking? Quite simply because they understand it better. Not because R- training is better or more clear, but rather because that one human (their trainer) is more fluent in and better at using R-. The human may be more clear, more consistent in their timing, clearer criteria, and better rate of negative reinforcement, making it easier for the horse to succeed. While the human (who is often very new to understanding R+ and behavioral science) may be clumsy, have poor timing, poor antecedent arrangement, too low a rate of reinforcement, unclear criteria, and so on, making earning reinforcement difficult and frustrating for the horse. So the horse is not preferring the aversive R- over the appetitive R+, but they are preferring the clarity and understanding, the safety in knowing how to respond appropriately and the consequences of their behavior. There is comfort in clarity and consistency, even if its consistently unpleasant. As opposed to unclear, confusing, sometimes good, sometimes terribly frustrating.

So what do we do about this? We need to recognize first that these are not the horses’ problem, this is something caused by the person. The person handling the horse may be better at using R- or not willing to take the time to retrain known R- behaviors or to retrain new, gentler tools so then the horse doesn’t understand these new tools or forms of communication. So the horse seems to prefer the “devil they know”, but in truth they just don’t know what gentler tools mean or how R+ could be wonderful if done right. So no, your horse does not prefer the more aversive tools or techniques, they prefer the clarity and safety in understanding how to avoid them. So we need to educate owners on how to use R+ properly, how to adapt it to different horse personalities and different human goals. We need to help people understand how to get what they want with consistent timing, clear criteria, and appropriate rate of reinforcement.

We often get horses at our rescue who are retired work horses, they understand a life of R-, we often use these cues and their previous learning, because this is a language they know and taking it away from them can be confusing, scary and overwhelming if done all at once. We need to retrain their language a piece at a time and not turn their world on their head, especially if we are working with them in anyway (like the vet or farrier). So we use what they knew until we can replace it with a kinder language. But there are some things we will throw out immediately, the things just for us, for our benefit, i throw those out because i won’t subject a horse to aversives for my own pleasure (this is my ethical line). So things like riding will wait until i retrain it with R+. I will also choose the kindest tools i feel safe with to train with R+. Because any behavior can be put on any cue with R+, we can use any tool (or no tool) to work with our horses. More on this here…