What is an Aversive?

Many people struggle with the concepts of negative reinforcement, pressure/release, how and if it is aversive, and to what degree. Negative Reinforcement relies on the removal of a stimulus to reinforce a behavior. This means something was taken away that made the horse feel enough relief that it reinforces the behavior. Which in turn means, the thing that was taken away must have been aversive to the horse. This means it’s something they want to avoid, something they dislike. If the stimulus had no value, its removal wouldn’t influence the behavior.

A stimulus must be aversive, for its removal to reinforce the behavior. So negative reinforcement requires an aversive. Often we, the human, add the aversive stimuli so we can remove it at the desired time. We’ll use stimuli like pressure, tapping, invading their space, swinging a rope, waving a stick, or otherwise something of concern to the horse. This is where some people struggle. They think “I only just touch lightly” or “I never actually hit them, I just swing the whip/rope” so think that because they are being gentle the negative reinforcement isn’t aversive. But remember, if its not aversive, it won’t influence the behavior. If the rope swinging elicited behavior, then the removal of the swinging reinforced the behavior (as seen by the behavior happening again in a similar scenario) we know the stimulus is aversive.

But how is it aversive if I haven’t even touched them? Or I touched them lighter than I brush them, they like to be curried firmly, so I know the tapping isn’t that bad?

Remember, “Pressure” isn’t the problem, physical contact isn’t necessarily aversive. Pressure in the form of currying, massage, itching, rubbing, all may be physical contact the horse might even enjoy. It’s up to the horse to decide if the stimulus feels good or bad. So pressure isn’t necessarily aversive, but if it’s working to reinforce the behavior, the thing removed must have been aversive.

This is where we see “Unconditioned Responses” and “Conditioned Aversives” in action. An Unconditioned Response is a reflexive reaction to a stimulus that is inherent from birth, not learned. This is a natural, instinctive response to the stimulus. For horses a quick moving object is something that naturally elicits the fear response of fight or flight, this is often used in training. The stimuli is still aversive, it’s naturally, unconditioned, aversive, even without a learning history. We also have the opposite which can be in effect, Conditioned Aversives. This is when the horse learns that a stimulus can be aversive and to respond to a warning signal. This can be done through pairing or escalation. So we apply a very mild stimulus that the horse doesn’t necessarily care about, it could have little or no value, but it’s escalated to the point of being aversive or paired quickly with an aversive. So we might wiggle our finger then slowly add more and more aversive pressure on the lead rope until we get the response we want from the horse. Soon they learn to respond to the warning before you ever need to utilize the aversive. That’s because the warning signal, is threatening enough on its own, it’s become conditioned as an aversive, even though it wasn’t inherently aversive. So while the signal we’re using may very extremely benign, it could be verbal cues, hand signals, or whip signals, but they carry with them the heavy threat of the aversive it was previously paired with.

So whether you’re using direct pressure/release, using unconditioned responses to elicit an instinctive reflex, or using conditioned aversives as a threat, all of them are still aversive. We know this because it works. If its removal reinforces the behavior, we know it was aversive in some way, even if there was no contact or very gentle contact.

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