Saying “Yes” To Your Horse

With Positive Reinforcement we finally have the ability to tell our horse “YES”. We can tell our horse exactly what behaviors we like from them and give them incentive to do it. This makes it very easy to mark when they make good choices and communicate clearly what we want. This conditions all our training as something appetitive. As the only stimuli we’re including is appetitive. If they aren’t doing the right behavior, we simply ignore, redirect, or adjust the antecedents, we simply use the lack of “yes” to mean “no”…

Traditional/NH training gave us a clear “No”, we apply aversive sensations until the horse responds as desired, then we remove the aversive. So in this case we say “no” until they guess right then the lack of “no” means “yes”. This conditions our training as aversive, because the only piece we’re adding in the aversive, even though we also remove it. The experience felt unpleasant, even though they found escape in the end.

This seems like two halves of a whole right? Why not use both? We would think this would give our horses more clarity if we can use “yes” and “no”, right? Rather than two halves, they are actually opposites, they work against each other, not together. Behaviorally they both encourage the learner to do the desired behavior and not do the unwanted behaviors, but emotionally we see fallout. The aversive value and the appetitive value of the stimuli we add contradict one another, they don’t add clarity, they add conflict. Because one situation feels good and the other feels bad, putting them together, simply feels confusing, uncomfortable, and conflicting. In simple terms, a threat + a reward may get quick behavioral response, but not a good emotional response.

When we add both “yes” and “no” to the equation, both an appetitive and an aversive, we will create an emotional contradiction within the animal. We’ll see this in the form of conflict and avoidance behaviors, latency before the appropriate behavioral response, and reluctance to accept some reinforcement. If you start seeing conflict behaviors, avoidance, them not wanting the treats, being latency responding to your cues, or any disfunction, look for where the aversive might be sliding into your training. Maybe it wasn’t an intentional aversive, maybe they have a cracked tooth (like one of our ponies!) or something else going on. But if you’re tempted to help your horse out by adding a “no” into the equation, instead look into ways to set the scene to help make “yes” easier to find. Arrange your antecedents, use your shaping tools, and improve your timing, rate and criteria.

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