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Bridging the Reinforcement Gap

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Positive versus negative reinforcement - the divisive trend that causes articles to go viral and heated arguments between advocates of each side.

In my own journey, I have explored both approaches and variants thereof, and what has occurred to me is that we seem to be focusing the divide in the wrong place.

Let me explain...

Firstly, we need to understand the basic definition of each quadrant to avoid any confusion about what the words mean in this context:

By definition then:

  • P- is the removal of a stimulus (negative) to decrease undesired behaviour (punishment).

  • P+ is the addition of a stimulus (positive) to decrease undesired behaviour (punishment).

  • R- is the removal of a stimulus (negative) to increase desired behaviour (reinforcement).

  • R+ is the addition of a stimulus (positive) to increase desired behaviour (reinforcement).

Stimuli range on a sliding scale from very appetitive to mildly appetitive, to neutral, to mildly aversive to very aversive. An example would be being given a carrot (more appetite) versus soaked hay (less appetitive). Or a single fly landing on the skin (less aversive) versus being stung by a bee (more aversive). The way a stimulus is perceived depends on each individual horse and situation eg. One horse might experience a single fly on their leg as neither irritating nor enjoyable i.e. neutral. While another might find this single fly more irritating thereby making the stimulus more aversive.

All the focus on the divide between R+ and R- seems to be based on the fact that R+ is generally perceived by the R+ advocates as more enjoyable for the horse and mostly without aversives, while the R- advocates believe the horses are only performing for the food they receive and any stress the horse shows is solely blamed on the fact that food is involved.

R- is generally perceived by the R+ advocates as being driven by unethical aversive pressure and, at best, offering the horse moments of relief from the pressure, while the R- advocates believe that their horses are engaging in the training "just for them" and that it is the only way to develop "true connection".

I would like to offer a different perspective.

What if, instead of pitching R+ and R- against each other, we open-mindedly learn about both approaches from trainers who use them ethically with objectively good results?

We might start to see that what makes training good, in terms of the horse's mental, emotional, and physical well-being, is whether the training is rooted in the essence of reinforcement versus punishment, not whether it is purely an R+ or R- approach.

If we center our training around the essence of reinforcement, we are creating a space of safety where our horse finds us, and the training we offer, an interesting and enjoyable experience. We base our guidance on setting our horses up for success to find the right answers and look for any opportunity to appreciate every small step in the right direction using both the addition of a reward and the offer of release and relaxation between efforts, depending on what benefits the horse most in the moment.

If we center our training around the essence of punishment, we are focusing on what our horses are doing wrong, their slightest tries in the right direction are not enough or go completely unnoticed. Our horse's feedback is corrected as "bad" or undesired behaviour, and we base our training aids primarily around using aversives as coercion i.e. withholding reinforcement or applying an aversive stimulus until the horse has complied with our request.

Relationships, partnerships, learning, and communication are much more nuanced than a two-dimensional chart of four quadrants. There are gradients within each quadrant and situations that call for the ethical use of complex combinations of all four. In any relationship, we need to find a balance of all four quadrants from a space of safety and togetherness for all involved.

If, in a relationship, we are not allowed to praise, give gifts, or do nice things for the other person, for fear that they "will only do what we want for the reward" there is an underlying issue that needs addressing. Similarly, if we are not allowed to say "no", disagree, or set fair boundaries for physical and emotional safety, the relationship would be considered unsafe and even toxic.

Even if we take it a step further into learning and training - it is wonderful to be given praise for achieving a result when learning something new, but it also feels great to have a break and a rest, even when we are enjoying the activity. Both reward and rest are integral parts of learning. Similarly, it is helpful to be given time and space to figure out something new without constant cheering on, but being redirected at the right moment by a trusted teacher or coach can avoid unnecessary mistakes and foster confidence. Both space and guidance are beneficial parts of learning.

R+ doesn't automatically make training good or ethical and it also doesn't mean the relationship has less value just because there is food involved. R- doesn't automatically mean that the training is inherently aversive or unethical and it is also not some mystical approach that leads to a deeper connection that R+ training cannot access. We need to take a much deeper look than this superficial understanding.

The biggest difference is not whether we use reward or release to reinforce our horses, (and in fact, I believe these two are stronger together), but rather, what is our fundamental guiding ethos: Reinforcement-based or punishment-based? Relationship or compliance? Choice or coercion?

We need to ask ourselves how we perceive our horses and our relationship with them in challenging situations - do we see the situation as "us against them" with one coming out as the winner? Or as two beings facing a common challenge together as a team?

Do we see our horses as the enemy - being naughty and deliberately uncooperative? Or do we see them as our partners and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources that have been provided to them?

It is easy to put the blame on tools and methods and judge a trainer by the treat pouch or the stick they are carrying, and it definitely seems to be the trend! But the challenge is to see beyond the surface-level tools and exercises. Look at the way safety, connection, and reinforcement are being offered to the horse, look at how relaxation and motivation are in balance in the conversation, and look at how much choice is provided and respected by the trainer. Being attuned to that will provide a very different and much more nuanced picture which we can then use to map out our own unique journey with our horses.

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