After reading a lovely Instagram post by Elinor I asked her if she wouldn't mind writing up a blog post to share on this topic for my readers! I'm so excited to be able to share some of the studies and statistics on the presence of positive reinforcement within the herd, to combat the general idea that "horses learn by pressure and release because that's how they communicate with each other", true, but it's not the whole picture!
A popular argument against positive reinforcement in horse training – and for the use of negative reinforcement – is that positive reinforcement is not used by horses within a herd. This idea is an unfortunate by-product of the fact that positive reinforcement (+R) can be difficult to see. And on top of that, negative reinforcement (-R) is VERY easy to see.
Horses use both +R and -R on each other, but positive reinforcement is used much more than negative reinforcement. As humans, we can struggle to recognize when this is happening, because the affiliative behaviours used as positive reinforcement can seem very quiet and ‘normal’. Affiliative behaviours are interactions between two or more horses with the purpose of developing, maintaining or enhancing social bonds. They include mutual grooming, playing, group resting, drinking together, sharing resources like a tasty plant or patch of grass, nursing and sharing close proximity. If you weren’t specifically looking for +R, you might just think this was ‘horses being horses’.
Negative reinforcement (and positive punishment), on the other hand, is very obvious. -R by horses comes in the form of antagonistic behaviour – all of which is easily visible to humans. Antagonistic interactions are related to fighting, attacking, defending and escaping, and include pinned ears, biting and kicking.
Most interactions between horses are affiliative – they use much more +R than -R. But if you were to observe a mare with her foal, it might be easy to think she is just using negative reinforcement to teach him, because pinned ears and kicks are very obvious. As far as teaching the foal goes, this is actually a very small proportion of interactions. Instead, the foal is rewarded for polite ‘horse manners’ with affiliative behaviour like nursing or grooming.
It can be even harder for people to see positive reinforcement in a herd setting because the proportion of -R compared to +R can increase when there is competition within the herd. When there is limited space, limited water or grass, a small number of scheduled feedings rather than continuous grazing or changes in herd structure (due to new additions or transfers out), there is an increase in antagonistic behaviour. A horse is more likely to fight for a resource out of necessity, rather than say “sure, you approached me nicely, let me share with you”.
This sort of maladaptive behaviour is similar to that seen in prisons and, in the same way that normal human behaviour cannot be based on how people behave while incarcerated, we cannot hold the behaviour in many domestic herds as ideal. But in a healthy, stable herd in optimal conditions, affiliative behaviours are much more prevalent than antagonistic ones.
It may also be hard for people to spot horse-horse positive reinforcement because it is still an alien concept to much of the equestrian world. Traditional horse training and Natural Horsemanship use negative reinforcement, and subsequently places a larger emphasis on antagonistic behaviours. If nobody has ever talked about +R in herds – or perhaps it has been glossed over in favour of something else – it may simply not occur to them to be looking for positive reinforcement.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the forms that +R between horses takes are innocuous simply because they are ‘horses being horses’. We think nothing of two horses sharing a hay net or lying next to one another. Isn’t that just what horses do? We don’t usually think about how the approaching horse has to ‘ask’ to share the hay net, and the other horse uses positive reinforcement to reward a ‘polite’ request – “sure, have some hay.”
The reason that positive reinforcement it so valuable to horses in a herd is because the majority of a horse’s life is spent moving towards something rather than moving away from something. In other words, they spend their time seeking desirable resources/environment/contact (which then rewards the seeking behaviour) rather than moving away from aversives such as an antagonistic horse. A demonstration of this is the effectiveness of enrichment, such as hay balls/food puzzles, as rewarding activities.
Positive (affiliative) interactions in general have a significant impact on horses. As a social species, the bonds they form have an evolutionary advantage by reducing conflict and promoting stability within the herd. The use of +R between horses rewards ‘polite horse manners’ which contributes to the social cohesion of the group, by helping the individuals learn to get along. This is mirrored in the long-lasting, positive impact that +R can have on the horse-human relationship.
It would be really nice if a flashing neon sign appeared above a horse when it was using positive reinforcement, proclaiming “POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT WAS HERE!” Surrounded by a horse culture which is generally skeptical of +R or simply lacking in the experience needed to recognize it, it can be hard to spot. If that can’t happen (and I’m fairly certain +R neon signs are going to remain in my imagination) we all need to talk about it more. And, even more importantly, we need to NOTICE it more. The more we can acknowledge it is happening, the greater significance we will give it in our training.
- Elinor Austin
 van Dierendonck, Machteld, and Berry M Spruijt, Coping in Groups of Domestic Horses: Review from a Social and Neurobiological Perspective, Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2012)
 Cozzi, Sighieri, Gazzano, Nicol CJ & Baragli, Post-conflict friendly reunion in a permanent group of horses (Equus caballus), Behavioural Processes (2010)
 Burla, Ostertag, Patt, Bachmann & Hillmann, Effects of feeding management and group composition on agonistic behaviour of group-housed horses, Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2016).
 Henshall & Cathrynne, The role of ethology in round pen horse training—A review, Applied Animal Behaviour Science
 Manteuffel, Langbein & Puppe, From operant learning to cognitive enrichment in farm animal housing: bases and applicability. Animal Welfare (2009)
 van Dierendonck & Goodwin, Social contact in horses: implications for human-horse interactions, The Human-Animal Relationship (2005)
 Sankey, Richard-Yris, Leroy, Henry & Hausberger, Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus, Animal Behviour (2010)