Home » Not All Pressure Is Aversive In Horse Training!

Not All Pressure Is Aversive In Horse Training!

Start With My Previous Blog On Behavioural Chains…

My previous blog explained how through behavioural chains Positive Reinforcement can be used for continuous work (find it here). I mentioned briefly at the end what happens when negative reinforcement becomes a part of a behavioural chain. Before I can get into that subject it’s important that I talk about pressure.

Pressure Does Not Automatically Equal Negative Reinforcement:

First off not all pressure is aversive. It is a common misconception that all “pressure” cues are aversive, which means they have to be utilizing Negative Reinforcement. Those who use Positive Reinforcement do use cues that involve touch (rein cues, seat cues etc.). These cues are often called tactile cues. Which means the cue involves some kind of touch/pressure.

An example of a tactile cue is: Touching the horse’s neck to ask him to move his shoulders a few steps away from the human. Many would assume this is automatically negative reinforcement because there is a touch, and possible pressure element. But if we look a bit deeper we find it’s not that simple.

When assessing a tactile cue its important to ask these questions:

  1. Is touching the horse’s neck a green light for the horse telling him he gets to perform the behaviour of stepping away so that he can receive a reinforcer (food etc.)?
  2. Or is the hand on the neck aversive pressure cueing the horse to perform the behaviour of stepping away to be reinforced by the removal of the hand/aversive pressure?

Questioning The Cue:

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement cues and behaviour can look exactly the same. The difference between them is the motivation behind them. To find the motivation we need to ask more questions.

  1. Is the pressure or touch aversive to the horse?
  2. How was this cue trained, and what happens right before and right after the behaviour?
  3. What happens if the horse doesn’t do the behaviour?

Not All Pressure Is Aversive:

First off not all touch/pressure is aversive. Think about how hard we sometimes need to press when scratching our horses, or how hard they bite when scratching each other. The horses who enjoy scratches will even lean into that pressure. Now imagine how lightly a fly walks on a horse’s hair, and how quickly he swishes his tail to remove it, the fly applies the gentlest pressure, but horses often find it aversive enough to do a behavior to remove it. Now imagine taking a step towards a feral horse, the horse can be 20 meters away, and run even further because one step from a human 20 meters away is aversive enough to motivate running. In short not all pressure is aversive, but even the lightest pressure can be aversive…

The important thing to note here is that there is no concrete answer to what is aversive and what is not to horses. We can’t say certain pressure is always aversive, and other pressure is always not. It is 100% up to the horse. The horse decides what they find aversive and what they do not.

Fox loves scratches in the spring when he is shedding. I’m using a lot of non-aversive pressure here. I know this because of Fox’s expression, and how he leans into the brush.

Fox steps towards the cone after the verbal cue. As he stepped away from me to touch the cone I clicked and reinforced with hay pellets. Next I added the cue of touching his neck while he was already stepping over after the verbal cue. I then slowly faded out the verbal cue and the cone. Pretty soon he would step over with a touch on the neck.

Continuing Our Cue Investigation:

The next two questions are: How was this cue trained, and what happens before and after behavior?

With Positive Reinforcement the behaviour must be already happening when the tactile end cue is added. To train the shoulder stepping away behaviour the behaviour must be shaped so that the horse is offering stepping over without the cue of touching the horse’s neck.

For this example, the human is shaping with a cone target positioned on the other side of the horse from the side the human is on.

The human cues the cone touch behaviour, as the horse steps away from the human towards the cone the human clicks and feeds the horse. When the horse is consistently stepping towards the cone, then the human would add the tactile cue, placing their hand on the horse’s neck, while the horse is already moving away. They then go through a cue transfer and systematically fade out the verbal cue and cone. So that when the human places their hand on the horse’s neck the horse moves his shoulders away.

Done well, the hand touching the shoulder can cue an unlimited number of steps away until the human clicks, and feeds or gives another cue. In short, the touch has been paired with a behaviour that was motivated by the opportunity to receive reinforcement so the touch should also be associated in that way. The touch will also cue the behaviour. The touch is never escalated to more than a hand placed on the horse’s shoulder. The above answers the question of what is motivating the behaviour… the touch cues a behaviour that is immediately followed by an appetive reinforcer.   

Teaching The Same Behaviour With Negative Reinforcement:

With negative reinforcement (R-) the human often begins with the cue and uses the cue in the shaping process. In this case if the human has already desensitized touch correctly and the horse does not find the hand on the shoulder aversive, the human would need to escalate the pressure a little to make it aversive enough for the horse to want to step over (sensitize the hand). As soon as the horse stepped away the human would remove the extra pressure, or the hand all together. Through repetition the horse would learn that the hand placed on the neck means move over.

If the human did not completely desensitize the hand, holding the hand up near the horse’s shoulder may be enough aversive pressure for the horse to step over. Over time the human could add the hand on the neck cue, or just stick with the hand in the air cue. The hand in the air looks more magical to those who don’t know that there can be aversive pressure without ever touching a horse. Think about how aversive it can feel if someone is standing too close to you, even if they don’t touch you.

What Happens If The Behaviour Does Not Follow The Cue With R+:

Now we are at the final question. What happens if the behaviour does not follow the cue. In R+ the human may try the cue once more. If there is still no response they will return to cuing with the cone. They will assess if the behaviour happens there. If yes, then they would work up to reinforcing the tactile cue again. If not, they will have to look deeper into why the behaviour is breaking down. They will not hold the cue longer, or increase the cue in order to get the behaviour to happen.  

What Happens If The Behaviour Does Not Follow The Cue In R-

In R- if the behaviour doesn’t happen with the hand on the neck cue, the pressure behind the cue will need to be escalated to keep the latency of the response low (this escalation can be a tickle like a fly, it doesn’t need to be a whack with a whip). If the horse reacts in a less than desired way to the escalation, the human can further escalate the pressure until the horse moves, or stop and asses why the behaviour is breaking down.  

Using a hand cue to teach haunches-in while riding. I was experimenting with this here. I tabled it for a little while as I needed to improve my alignment first. Good alignment from me ensures that the final tactile seat cue will be precise and work with my horse. I revisited it later.

Why Does R- Require Some Form Of Escalation?

The reason why the pressure/touch would need to be escalated is because the horse can become desensitized to the first pressure/touch. This means it is no longer aversive and will no longer work to motivate behaviour. In this case the pressure needs to be escalated briefly to remind the learner that the first gentle pressure is a promise of more to come (escalation can be something as small as holding a bit longer, or tickling like a fly, or moving air, it doesn’t have to be extreme).

Great examples of this desensitization are dull lesson horses, or dull pack horse. They have experienced so much random meaningless pressure/touch, that they don’t recognize it as a cue and don’t respond. This is why it is very important to be mindful about using cues softly and with intention when using R- . It’s important that the responses stay sharp, and the need to escalate is very low. It is also important to move out of escape training and into avoidance training fairly quickly. (Note, that I prefer R+ and teach R+ but I am educated in all of the quadrants. I believe that it is important that we understand them even if we don’t use them in our training plans.)

In closing:

Finally, not all pressure is aversive pressure. Some pressure can be non-aversive pressure. Non-aversive pressure can be a firm scratch, or a touch on the horse’s shoulder saying if you step over you can have more food. This goes for R+ rein cues, seat cues etc… In all quadrants it is important to be intentional about what the cues are, how they are being taught, and how they will work in continuous work…

Next in this section I will talk about how to test a tactile cued behaviour to see if it is R- or R+, and talk more about behaviour chains…

Have A Lovely Day!



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