Negative reinforcement is a staple of all training programs. Now I do not mean that anything cruel and unusual is happening, but that negative reinforcement boils down to the aids themselves. For example, teaching a horse to yield from pressure is applying a stimulus and then the horse moving away from that stimulus. The reward then is the removal of that stimulus. These are the basics of all aids. Every aid is one of negative reinforcement and then the horse’s reward for complying is its removal.
That is not to say when you put your calf on the horse is neighing “Oh! The humanity!” up to the sky. Obviously that ‘negative’ reinforcement is not very negative at all. It is soft pressure if you are doing it correctly, and one that is quickly removed upon the horse’s compliance and understanding.
Auxiliary aids such as the whip and spur are necessary when emphasis needs to be put on a certain aid and the understanding of how to use these tools is incredibly important. In a previous post I spoke on how all riding is training (click here).
So that means that the whip and spur are training aids. They are the true negative reinforcers and should be used as such. Horses are incredibly sensitive creatures by nature. Of course there are some that are more sensitive and others that have a more laid back disposition, but all know when the fly lands and bites. They know when you are tapping them with the whip or spur as well.
A very, very common scenario with the whip is as follows: the instructor tells the student to give their horse a tap because energy is lagging, and dutifully the student complies. The whip taps a few times. The horse does nothing, or gives the most mediocre of reactions. The student feels good about having done as the instructor requested. But the underlying lesson to the horse is one of desensitization. The horse has just been taught to ignore the whip, to not react, to do the exact opposite of our true purpose.
The same situation occurs with the spur, the student will fall into the habit of maintaining whatever gait with the spur, instead of using the spur to heighten the horse’s reaction to whatever aid is being applied. The spur, which is supposed to be the repercussion for ignoring or reacting dully to seat and calf aids, instead becomes the aid itself. From there, there is no where else to go except apply harder, get bigger spurs, add the whip as well etc. We lose the sensitivity and move in the opposite direction from our goal of a sensitive horse who reacts with correctly and with clarity from the smallest aid possible.
Speaking of reactions, the type of reaction is also paramount to goals within training. For example, I was riding a horse who was ignoring my half halts to lower his croup. I gave him a tap with my whip and he bucked. Now that is the wrong reaction, not only because bucking is not the most pleasant sensation but because my point with the aids was to lower his croup and the tap of my whip sent his rear upward. This happens constantly in training and is part of the training process.
A reaction is good. It tells you that your horse is thinking. But you need to continue thinking as well until you both are working with the same set of rules. What were the aids you put on before you used the whip or spur? Was it to move forward, collect more, turn left or right, leg yield? What do you want? I do not think that most riders, even experienced riders have that true clarity. Know what you want before you apply those aids and then you can judge whether the reaction was to your liking.
Another common scenario is the whip or spur will be applied and the horse will swish his tail, or shake his head and the rider will stop, happy that they got a reaction. But the last thing you want is a horse who is slowly moving around the ring while madly swishing his tail, so why be happy with that reaction?
Positive reinforcement is also important but should be used in moderation. For example, with young horses and very insecure horses, I will chat up a storm. I speak to them to give them comfort and confidence, to ensure that their tension does not affect my breathing patterns or muscle tone (You would be surprised how often you will hold your breath when your horse does and visa versa.). I will also pet and give vocal rewards.
But as the horse ages and gains confidence I will speak and reward less and less. That is not because I am any less pleased, but because I want my positive reinforcement to be just as powerful a tool as my negative reinforcements. If I am speckling every ride with a hundred “Good Boys” then it will not take long for my horse to tune out that praise. It is not special anymore. I want him to know when I am pleased. This works wonderfully when you are teaching a new skill and the horse is stressed but trying and does it successfully. Ample praise then is incredibly important to their confidence and does wonders to set up their mental state for the next attempt. If I had been chatting every ride up until that point, it would not have had the same powerful positive affect on their mental state.
So the carrot and the stick, that positive and negative stimuli, only work if the carrot stays sweet and the stick is unpleasant. We should all work to ride our horses in a state of quiet, without nagging negative reactions or noisy chatter. This will give our horses the freedom and ability to listen to what we actually have to say. And it is up to you to learn and reinforce that vocabulary through an independent seat and aids that work to be continually more quiet. Happy riding!
- How To Half Halt (dressagedifferent.com)
- Confidence In The Show Ring: The Audition Mentality (dressagedifferent.com)