-R vs +R… wading through the conflict of advice and evidence.


It can be so confusing trying to decipher all the advice available surrounding equines training and management. I have certainly struggled with settling my thoughts in what is the correct way to train my horses when I read or speak to people from ‘natural horsemanship’ backgrounds and then with people supporting learning theory and positive reinforcement.

All sides of training will be able to find ‘research’ that supports there perspective and some may not know much about the other perspectives because they are not looking for them. Most articles will have a bias due to the magazine or company ethos or customer base and the personal opinion of the writer, therefor they may only pick the points from the research paper that endorses what it wants to publish.

All you can do is read as much from different sources as possible (not just about the approach you currently follow) then consider your horse as the prey species he or she is, their personality, what you want to achieve and what you believe about the rights of other species.

Then consider the four quadrants – adding punishment (+P), negative punishment (-P), negative reinforcement (-R) and positive reinforcement (+P). If you could learn how to reward behaviour and never feel the need to use force or something unpleasant, why would that not be the first place you would want to start?

Some people would like to pick andup choose from the quadrants but if you think about it this can be confusing and reduce efficacy. Animals that have received punishment for their efforts often worry about getting the answer to your question wrong and experiencing something negative. Whereas horses only trained with +R have an increased willingness to offer you behaviours because they are confident you wont hurt them.

A debate continues about whether you can use any form of pressure alongside positive  reinforcement and the view to which I agree and explained to me by a highly experienced and registered horse behaviourist (who has past experience from other quadrants as well) was that pressure is ok if it does not hold any negative connotation to the individual horse i.e. if the horse is young, unhandled or raised on +R you can teach them that your touch to their flank in order to ask them to step sideways (for example) is just the cue for the action that is followed by the reward. However a crossover horse that has come from more traditional training backgrounds will experince a conflict of emotions as you apply pressure and give them a reward but they have past experience that pressure was a negative thing and therefore you are better off trying to teach them to move towards a target and later add a verbal cue so as it is clearly differentiated.

Whatever you decide we must remember not to ridicule those whose perspective differs. We are only as good as our knowledge and experience at that point and some people may not have had much exposure to what you believe in. However, do discuss your views with rational and evidence. Do not be shy about moving away from the crowd.


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