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The positive aspects of correct negative reinforcement.

McLean, A.N., 2005. The positive aspects of correct negative reinforcement. Anthrozoös, 18 (3).


In the scheme of contemporary animal training, horse training is virtually unique because it relies on negative reinforcement (NR) rather than positive reinforcement (PR). Furthermore, horse trainers are largely unaware that they are using NR in training. Instead, they believe in the benevolent nature of the horse and see their task in training as one of improving the balance and gymnastic ability of the horse—outcomes that emerge when the rider is similarly properly balanced. Under these conditions, it is claimed the willing horse will perform its required maneuvers. These beliefs may be associated with several welfare issues and indicate areas requiring future research:

  1. The absence of release of pressure, the release of pressure at the wrong times, the use of opposing pressures simultaneously and the absence of shaping procedures are central to the development of acute and chronic stress responses in horses.
  2. Resultant conflict behaviors contribute to equine wastage statistics and include behaviors that are dangerous to horses and humans.
  3. There is a need for research into the mechanics of NR because it is poorly researched compared to PR.
  4. When NR responses are installed correctly, only mild pressures need to be used, and results are obtained in few trials.
  5. Many qualified animal trainers misunderstand NR and confuse it with punishment. They believe that PR has positive welfare implications and thus NR being “negative,” has negative welfare implications. So there is a need for horse trainers to understand learning theory and the principles that surround NR.
  6. Horse trainers are isolated from advances in animal training. Therefore they increasingly seek knowledge and solutions from the growing number of “horse whisperers” and unqualified “horse psychologists.” This is potentially detrimental for the welfare of the horse and the need is urgent for universities throughout the world to become the knowledge bases for equitation science.