Negative reinforcement in horse training probed

A Danish study has shown negative reinforcement to be beneficial in getting horses used to unfamiliar objects, but comes with a warning over stress responses in animals.

The results of the study by Janne Winther Christensen, of Aarhus University, have been published in the Equine Veterinary Journal.

Christensen said the ability of horses to habituate to novel objects influences safety in the horse-human relationship. However, the effectiveness of different ways of habituating horse had not been investigated in detail.

Christensen set about investigating whether horses showed increased stress responses when negatively reinforced to approach novel objects, compared to horses that were allowed to voluntarily explore the objects.

The research also set out to discover whether negative reinforcement aided object habituation.

Twenty-two 2 to 3 year old Danish Warmblood geldings were used in the study.

Half were negatively reinforced by a familiar human handler to approach a collection of novel objects in a test arena. The other half of the horses – the voluntary group – were individually released in the arena and were free to explore the objects.

On the next day, the horses were exposed to the objects again without a human to allow the rate of habituation to be investigated.

Behavioural and heart-rate responses were recorded during the study.

Christensen found that all horses in the voluntary group initially avoided the unknown objects, whereas the handler was able to get all negatively reinforced horses to approach and stand next to the objects within the first two-minute session.

The negatively reinforced horses had a significantly longer duration of alertness and a higher maximum heart rate in the first session. On the following day, however, the negatively reinforced horses spent significantly less time investigating the objects and approached a feed container, placed next to the objects, faster than the voluntary group, indicating increased habituation.

Christensen found that while the approach using negative reinforcement aided habituation in young horses to approach  novel objects, there was an  increased stress response during  initial exposure.

“Although negatively reinforced approach appears beneficial for habituation, the procedure should be carefully managed due to increased stress responses in the horse which may constitute a safety risk,” Christensen said.

“Further experiments should aim to investigate differences in stimulus intensity.”


Object habituation in horses: The effect of voluntary vs. negatively reinforced approach to frightening stimuli.
Janne Winther Christensen
DOI: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2012.00629.x



4 thoughts on “Negative reinforcement in horse training probed

  • July 15, 2012 at 10:18 am

    After a million years of evolution as a prey animal, of course their heart rate is going to increase every time they encounter something new! They have to determine the object is going to eat them or not!!

  • July 17, 2012 at 4:27 am

    I would appreciate a description of ‘negative reinforcement’. I’m confused. Horses are not alone when they encounter new things, if they have a caring owner.

    • August 27, 2012 at 8:17 am

      Zoe, ‘negative reinforcement’ is one of the quadrants of operant conditioning in the world of behavioural science.

      Here are the four areas:

      1. Positive punishment
      2. Negative punishment
      3. Positive reinforcement
      4. Negative reinforcement

      The words “positive” and “negative” are not used to signify positive = good and negative = bad. Instead these words are used in the same way as with mathematics: Positive = to add or introduce, and Negative = to subtract or remove.

      “Reinforcement” means doing something that will increase the liklihood of a particular behaviour being repeated again.

      “Punishment” means doing something that will decrease the liklihood of a particular behaviour being repeated again.

      In general terms, positive reinforcement and negative punishment are the two quadrants that are considered humane and less likely to cause animals stress and anxiety… and these are the quadrants that would be used by ‘positive’ trainers and natural horsemanship advocates.

      In contrast, positive punishment and negative reinforcement are considered less humane and more likely to cause stress, anxiety and to create unwanted behavioural side-effects in animals.

      As an example: Let’s say you’re under-saddle and your horse is acting a bit frisky. To ‘correct’ your horse by hauling back on your reins is “positive punishment” because you are adding pressure in an effort to get your horse to stop what it’s doing.

      Once the horse settles down and you slacken the reins as to release the pressure of the bit in the horse’s mouth, that is negative reinforcement. Basically you are removing the uncomfortable pressure to reward your horse for settling down.

      While negative reinforcement doesn’t sound like a bad thing in this example, the issue with it, is that it is almost always used/paired with positive punishment. You’re rewarding the animal by removing the unpleasant experience you put upon the animal in the first place.

      Hope that helps. 🙂

  • December 19, 2012 at 1:14 am

    I have a question ‘In what ways could positive reinforcement be used rather than negative reinfircement when training a young horse for riding?’ Any views gratefully received.


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