Horsemanship

What Makes a Horse Learn Effectively? A Research Summary on Using Reward vs. Punishment to Train Your Horse

Horses, like all animals, are capable of learning through a variety of channels and in response to different environmental triggers. Whether it’s reward, punishment or something in between, what is the most effective way to train your horse?

Continue reading to find out the factors that affect learning and the research supporting the use of reward vs. punishment to train your horse.

Factors that Affect Learning When You Train Your Horse

There are a number of factors that are thought to affect learning in horses:

Given the different factors that affect a horse’s ability to learn, there are certain techniques you can use which are more effective when training your horse.

Let’s dive straight into what the research says about how you should train your horse. If you find some of the terminology confusing, then take a look at the Learning Theory Guide below.

Do Horses Learn Quickly?

Yes!

Horses are flight animals and have ethologically developed to move away from negative pressure. They also move back to positive resources like food and water. Over the years of domestication, we have manipulated this natural instinct to our advantage when training horses. 

Horses are more advanced learners then we realize, and learn from the day they are born.

Let’s take a look at using reward-based learning when you train your horse.

Learning via Positive Reinforcement (Reward)

Horses learn extremely quickly when rewarded. Some horses prefer a food-based reward, while others are content with a scratch at the withers or a vocal ‘good boy’.

The reward has to be timely, as horses have limited ability to recall behaviors, including the behavior they displayed 5 minutes ago. Ensure you give the reward instantly when you train your horse. This increases the likelihood of your horse repeating the wanted behavior.

Horses will remember a positive training session for a long period of time. A study from 2010 found experiences from positive reinforcement training leave lasting positive memories in horses. They retain and recall this positive experience up to 8 months later. 

Horses can also learn from pressure-release, let’s take a look at the research. 

Learning via Negative Reinforcement (Pressure-release)

Horses also learn quickly from the correct use of negative reinforcement, according to Andrew McClean in 2015

The thing to remember here is the correct use of negative reinforcement. For horses to learn effectively via negative reinforcement, the timing and strength of the stimulus and the timing of the reinforcement are crucial.

Applying a stimulus for too long, without releasing the pressure, will confuse and panic your horse. Horses are large animals, and will likely release this pressure themselves during the panic. This rewards their ‘panic’ behavior. 

Andrew McClean and Paul McGreevy note that timing is also important because delayed removal of the stimulus simulates the effect of punishment.

As a professional horse behaviorist, I see this type of learning first hand with clients’ horses labeled as ‘headshy’ or ‘difficult to handle’. What’s really going on is an inexperienced handler incorrectly using negative reinforcement, resulting in the horse releasing this pressure itself. 

Remember, horses learn quickly via negative reinforcement. It doesn’t matter whether you are actively training leg aids or passively training an unwanted behavior. 

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Punishment to Train Your Horse

The type of reinforcement used to train an individual horse has a major effect on that horse’s future perception of familiar and unfamiliar people.

Carol Sankey and her team of researchers found that training via negative reinforcement has been associated with an increased emotional state, measured by heart rate and behavioral indicators. These horses also sought less contact with people after the training.

The opposite effect was found in horses that were trained via positive reinforcement. The horses showed an increase in interest towards humans and wanted attention from them after training. This response happened only after 5x 3-minute sessions and was still visible after 5 months. 

Further, Jo Hockenhull and Emma Creighton found that horses that are rewarded often have less ridden behavior problems than horses that are punished.

A team of researchers from the Netherlands found that young horses that are trained with sympathetic methods like positive reinforcement are less likely to experience stress while training in comparison to conventional methods such as negative reinforcement.  Both methods resulted in equal performance, highlighting that using sympathetic training does not impede learning speed but may improve welfare.

Likewise, a study in 2014 found behavioral measures taken during training exercises showed that horses trained through negative reinforcement experienced more negative emotions than horses trained through positive reinforcement. Sabrina Freymond and her team concluded that knowledge of how different training styles impact animal mental health will ultimately lead to improved welfare. 

There is enough peer-reviewed research out there to prove that horses learn by both positive and negative reinforcement, without a major difference in learning rate.

Interestingly, positive reinforcement (reward) training has lasting positive memories for a horse and can improve their welfare.

But what do the professionals think?

What do Professionals Think About Using Reward vs. Punishment to Train Your Horse?

Professional bodies such as the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) both encourage using positive reinforcement techniques to train horses. 

Both negative reinforcement and negative punishment have their place in training animals but should be used correctly, ethically, with minimal force and in line with Animal Welfare legislation. 

They rule against the use of positive punishment, as it has no place in training animals. 

Any trainer or horse behaviorist that is a member of the above professional bodies will operate under their advice and use positive reinforcement methods to train your horse.

Train Your Horse Ethically and Effectively

Even though there has been an extensive history between horses and humans, we have made little progress with adopting new training styles based on the science of learning theory. Equestrians still base their training styles on traditional methods using negative reinforcement.

If the professionals are encouraging positive reinforcement techniques, and scientific research supports it, then isn’t it time you used reward-based methods to train your horse?

We should look to positive reinforcement methods first, and avoid using positive punishment at all when you train your horse.

We’d love to know in a comment below how you train your horse and what your horse loves as a reward!


There are two categories of learning—non-associative learning and associative.

Non-Associative Learning

In this type of learning, the horse is exposed to a single trigger to which they can become habituated or sensitized. This type of learning is important when you train your horse.

The process of habituation involves becoming less sensitive to the trigger, whereas sensitization increases sensitivity to the trigger.

For example, a young horse will become habituated to a saddle on it’s back. It will become sensitized to your leg aids.

Associative Learning

One type of associative learning is known as classical conditioning. This is where the horse learns to make an association between different stimuli.  

Evelyn Hanggi from the Equine Research Foundation in 2005 highlights that an unimportant stimulus is paired with another stimulus and initiates a response during classical conditioning.

For example, your horse learns that the sound of hard feed filling a bucket means they will be fed soon. This results in anticipatory behaviors like pawing, kicking the stable door or vocalization.

There is another type of associative learning called operant conditioning. This is where the horse makes an association between a stimulus and a response. A horse learns to perform a behavior to elicit a certain response.

Within operant conditioning, there are 4 learning styles called the operant quadrants. The operant quadrants are the basis of reward vs. punishment training.

Operant Quadrants

The operant quadrants are known as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Take a look at the handy diagram below.

It makes it easy if you think of these terms in a true mathematical sense.

Positive =  + = addition of something

Negative =  – = taking away something

For example, positive reinforcement adds a reward.

Operant Quadrant Grid
Operant Quadrant Grid by Caitlyn Cuthbert

Positive reinforcement is the addition of a reward. Your horse performs the correct behavior and gets rewarded with a vocal ‘good boy’ or a treat. 

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus with the removal acting as the reinforcer. It is commonly known as ‘pressure-release’.

For example, you ask your horse to ‘walk-on’ and you apply leg pressure. When they move forward, you remove the leg pressure. The removal acts as the reinforcer when the horse performs the correct behavior.

Positive punishment is the addition of a punishing stimulus. Continuing with the above example, your horse doesn’t move forward when you apply leg pressure, and you then use a whip on their hindquarters. The use of the whip is positive punishment. 

Negative punishment is the withholding or removal of something the horse wants. This can be withholding a treat or your attention until the horse performs the correct behavior. When you give them the treat, this merges into positive reinforcement.

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