Can I Mix Negative and Positive Reinforcement?

This is a great question and one we get asked a lot. Many people coming to reward-based training have horses who already understand many different behaviors and they always want to know if they have to start training everything again from scratch. As always, the answer comes to down to emotions of the individual horse you’re working with. Watch the video for the full explanation…

This video is an excerpt from the Connection Training Conference: Riding with Connection 2016

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9 thoughts on “Can I Mix Negative and Positive Reinforcement?”

  1. I really appreciate how you (Shawna) explained how horses trained in R+ method will need to be exposed to R- methods @ sometime in their lives. It’s important to realize that not everyone trains the same or has the same ques for horses… there are a number of verbal, clicks, body positions and whistles, and a wide variety within all of those. The important thing is to expose your horse to as much as you can and try to teach the horse to think, be calm and be engaged while he/she is with people. I really really enjoy R+ training but do mix it w/ gentle and soft R- training…always looking for the smallest of “try” while doing so.

  2. Thank you for this excellent explanation. I’m just starting the basic course, although I’ve been using r+ training with my animals since way back in the 70’s, when I took a “Lab in Animal Learning” class (rats in Skinner box) during my freshman year of college and wondered, “Why can’t I do this with my horse?”. I’m working now with a middle-aged pony with a lot of pre-existing training and a few “hot-button” issues. It has seemed to me that r- training when it is well done is similar to the way that horses communicate with each other; and I am not willing to completely give it up! I liked the concept of backing up and retraining with r+ on behaviors that the animal goes over threshold on; that’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do with Chili.

  3. I’ve spent a lot of time working with mature pack llamas that came with a lot of “baggage”. They tend to be very aloof, not particularly motivated by food, and not remotely interested in spending time with me at first… usually the only thing that seems motivating to them is the removal of my offensive presence. With them, “pressure” is just focusing on them, and the release is turning away, backing up, and assuming a very humble stance. I’ve found this to be a very effective tool at the beginning when they really have no notion that there is anything in it for them if we spend time together. Later in our relationship, I can usually find a food that they can’t resist and we can go on with the clicker training. I’m curious about how one could use r+ with an animal that is not much motivated by food and already has a strong aversion to spending time with humans.
    I’m attaching a link – I hope that this is OK – to the video that introduced me to this type of r- training, although nobody called it that at the time. I attended a lecture that Dr. Miller gave here in Idaho many, many years ago; and he showed us this video. . I’ve been dancing that dance – although in a lot subtler way – with my horses and llamas ever since, and it’s a tool that I’d have a hard time giving up.

  4. Dr. Miller’s video demonstrates the “join up” technique used by a number of “natural horsemanship” trainers but I don’t think this is the best way to approach a horse that you want to be your friend, your partner, and with whom you want to have a trusting relationship. In essence, he is chasing and frightening the animal until it gives up. The mule finally submits (and I think in this particular case, he’s a little intrigued – he isn’t really all that afraid, but kind of curious about this different approach). If you try this with a truly terrified or abused horse, you may eventually get the horse to submit (and some never submit – my mustang was started this way by the prisoners at Canon City and he never submitted – they told me he was “untrainable”), but the horse will be that much more afraid, resentful, and mistrustful. I’ve done this in my past life with such horses, and I got a grudgingly compliant but suspicious and unhappy horse. When I started using positive reinforcement, I turned that behavior and that attitude around so quickly, I truly couldn’t believe it. I think the best thing he said in the video is that you give the animal a treat *after* you get the halter on. And ideally, you set it up initially by doing that in an enclosed, safe area where the animal would learn that putting the halter on is a good thing because he gets rewarded, and you don’t do anything mean to him afterwards, but make it a pleasant experience until you have extinguished the running away behavior. I now have horses that run TO me when I call them. It’s a huge difference in approach and philosophy.

  5. That makes a lot of sense. The horses I did this with weren’t scared of me; they were more like “nah, I don’t want to today”. It seemed more like a little game we were playing, and it got really subtle really fast – they’d look away, I’d give them a hard look, and they’d kind of go, ” Oh shucks, you got me”, and come right up.

  6. The problem that many people end up having with the “natural horsemanship” or R- training is that they really do not see the horses initial “try” or “tries” Most have not spent enough time around horses to know that an almost in-perceivable muscle tightening is a “try”…If they miss that que from the horse and keep that pressure on, the horse then moves on to a different action to get away from the pressure. Or the persons reaction time is too slow to remove the pressure, the horse is then confused, and often the person will apply more pressure thinking the horse didn’t get it…the spiral of frustration and confusion has started…
    Positive training is much easier for the person (and the horse). It allows the person that hasn’t yet developed the skills to “see” the horses “tries” more time to react and reward the horse and the horse gets a very definite que that he/she has done the right becomes a win/win situation.
    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Shawnas analogy about having people act like horses and trainers @ her clinics.The goal would be to get a “Horse” (person pretending to be a horse) to perform an action (i.e. sit in a chair) and try both methods of training to see which one got results faster, noting feelings of frustration and confusion or the lack there of. The positive training won out… I tried it with a few of my clients…it was a great learning tool!)
    Ultimately I think that it depends on the horse and the trainer/owner…right now I use both methods, but it depends on the horse on what type I use and when…But I always try to make sure that the horse is exposed to and understands the R- because as Shawna points out, there may be a time when that horse will need to understand that type of handling, which is still the predominant way of handling horses.

  7. You are right Joli – I trained quite a bit with Lesley Desmond, she is one of the gentlest -R trainers I know. In a demonstration she would ask the horse for something and release at the slightest ‘try’ and always, many of the spectators would ask “why did you release there?” because they had completely missed it. A lot of potential students wouldn’t stick with her because they couldn’t use her methods themselves, they could only see the results gained by very forceful -R. I’m waiting for Lesley to embrace +R she would be so fabulous at it – but she gets such nice results with her current methods she may never come to it

  8. Hmmm I just watched the start of the mule catching video…does he not set the mule up to fail in the first few seconds by forcing it to run from him out of the holding pen? He could easily have caught it there…

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