As we bring the concepts and skills of R+ into the traditional equestrian world, one of the first confusions to arise is often, “What is truly positive reinforcement? Is using pressure to create behavior, then rewarding that behavior, a form of positive reinforcement?”
Both ‘treat’ and ‘reward’ have been used in a multitude of ways with a multitude of meanings. That muddies the waters right off the bat. I try to stick to more scientific terms to keep it clear.
R- (pressure/release) can be done well. I have met plenty of well-adjusted horses who have learned solely through R- that was done with extreme patience, sensitivity and extraordinary timing. The problem is that most people don’t have timing that is accurate enough to be precise. Or they don’t recognize and adapt to the more sensitive horse, keeping him under his fear threshold. Then you throw in riding and most people are not good enough to be in complete control of their movements. Subsequently their timing typically and unintentionally falters when doing under saddle work.
That said, teaching using R- is NOT R+. The difference is in the impetus for the behavior to be repeated. One of the R’s (reinforcers) is creating the behavior/response. If the pressure and release comes first, before the reward, the trainer is indeed training through R-.
The food is nice and typically negates any potential unpleasant side effects of the R- if the entire process is done keeping the horse under threshold. But not everyone recognizes the teeny, tiny early stages of going over threshold, so that is a separate issue. Of course this isn’t R+ training. This is what I refer to as R- with a cherry on top.
To confuse things even further, you can train using R+ and tactile cues that involve pressure. But the difference is that there is no escalating or continuing pressure. If I want to teach a typical cue for a horse to go forward with a lead rope, that movement is going to involve a degree of pressure. The weight of the lead rope alone is a sensation of pressure. I can softly lift the lead rope and then present the target. The horse is moving toward the target by choice, not because of escalated or continued pressure.
Another consideration is that most horses that switch to R+ training have had a lifetime of R-. Plenty switch right over without having to go back and retrain their well-established behaviors. If they are comfortable and below threshold with haltering and leading, for example, I don’t worry about it. I will reinforce good responses to work on classically (or counter)conditioning the behavior. But if I see a big reaction, I will go back and retrain that entire behavior using R+. I treat them like a horse who is brand new to the halter. This goes for any behavior. Sometimes I will take the horse back to the very beginning and reteach everything from scratch. And sometimes we start where we are and move forward. It depends on the horse and their overall demeanor and worry.
One thing that is for sure, training utilizing R- with a horse who is over threshold and adding in food, clicker, etc. is a good way to wreck the value and potential power of the R+ training.
We prefer to train with R+ at Terra Nova Training Center. In collaboration with our experienced eventing and dressage trainer Gilly Slayter, we are constantly striving to come up with R+ solutions to all traditional training situations from training babies and young horses to husbandry behaviors and all the way to upper level riding and even competition.