How do horses learn? Like any animal, the horse learns through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the learning process by which behaviors are modified through reinforcements and punishments. Operant conditioning was studied by a psychologist, B.F. Skinner, in 1938. Learning happens from day one, beginning with the foal learning to stand and nurse and it all happens through operant and classical conditioning. It is a science based approach to training.
It is important to understand the quadrants of operant conditioning so we know how behavior is modified. All interaction with horses is-is behaviors.
So what is reinforcement and punishment? Let's start with the most commonly known quadrant: pressure and release, which is called negative reinforcement. Negative (-) means you are removing or subtracting an aversive stimulus as reinforcement for a behavior. For example, when you ask your horse to stop, you pull back on the reins and when he stops moving, you relax the reins. The aversive stimulus is the pressure of the bit from the reins, the response of stopping is being reinforced because the discomfort in the horse's mouth went away when he stopped. In -R you are trying to increase a behavior.
The other type of reinforcement in operant conditioning is positive reinforcement. Positive (+) reinforcement is adding something pleasant following a desired behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior. An example of positive reinforcement is giving your horse a treat when he comes to you when you call. The desired behavior is the horse coming to you and food is a pleasant, primary reinforcer that is added following the behavior to increase it.
Many people believe they use positive reinforcement by petting the horse or saying, "Good boy!" However, if the learner does not find this reinforcing, it will not increase the behavior. Usually, petting and praise mean little to a horse. This is why we use a primary or secondary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is something that is biologically significant to the horse such as food. A secondary reinforcer is a neutral stimulus that has gained its value through its pairing with a primary reinforcer. This is called classical conditioning. More on that later, but next we will cover punishments.
Positive punishment can be used to decrease undesirable behavior. An aversive is added (+) following an undesirable behavior. The horse learns to associate that behavior with a negative consequence and refrains from performing the behavior again. For example, if a horse crowds you, if you smack him on the neck, he will learn that getting to close results in getting smacked and will soon stop crowding.
Punishment should not be used as a primary training method because it does not help the learner to figure out what the correct response or behavior is. It only tells the learner what not to do, not what to do. When punishment is used too much and is mistaken as negative reinforcement/pressure and release, many horses will appear uninterested, disengaged or shut down. This happens because many responses the horse has offered were punished so he quits offering any at all, since he has equated his offering a response with an aversive. Many problem solving methods such as trailer loading, buddy and barn sour solutions, tying, etc. are commonly mistaken as negative reinforcement/pressure and release, when actually they involve the use of work being added as an aversive as a result of the horse refusing to do what is being told. For example, in barn sour horses, the horse is punished when he goes towards the barn because the aversive of working near the barn is added after the behavior of going towards it, in order to decrease the behavior of leaning or pulling towards the barn.
It's easy to confuse negative reinforcement and positive punishment because in both techniques an aversive is used. If you are trying to increase behavior, the aversive is applied first and removed as reinforcement. If you are trying to decrease a behavior, an aversive is added after an undesirable behavior.
To use negative punishment, you remove something pleasant as consequence for a certain behavior in order to decrease it. For example, if a horse becomes mouthy, sometimes leaving (i.e. removing your presence, something the horse finds pleasant since he thinks you are a chew toy) can be a form of negative punishment. The horse will learn that the behavior of mouthing and lipping at you causes you to go away, so he is less likely to continue the behavior. Not rewarding behavior can also be considered negative punishment. If the horse does not perform a behavior on cue, he will not receive a food reward and this in itself can count as negative punishment.
Now that we have covered the quadrants of operant conditioning, I'd like to point out that negative and positive are being used from a mathematical perspective. Since operant conditioning was studied by scientists, they used these terms to denote the addition or subtraction of appetitives or aversives to the equation in the use of behavior modification. Negative does not mean bad and positive does not mean good- it means add or subtract. Reward based trainers use practically all positive reinforcement in their training. It is proven to be an extremely effective, stress free form of training.