Reinforcement for Horse Learning

Horses September 30, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

Ashley Griffin, University of Kentucky

The trainer must decide the appropriate form of reinforcement to stimulate the proper response when a horse initially learns a new cue. The basic principle of reinforcement is that certain events are capable of strengthening responses to certain stimuli. It is doubtful any learning can take place without some type of reinforcement.

Reinforcement can be divided into two categories:

  • Primary reinforcement - has natural reinforcement properties. Examples of primary reinforcement are feed, pain, and returning to herd mates.
  • Secondary reinforcement - is performing acts of kindness. Examples of secondary reinforcement are a pat on the neck, a verbal "good horse," not asking the horse to perform the task again, and ending the training session. Secondary reinforcement will take a period of time for the horse to learn.Trainers primarily use secondary reinforcement in training horses.

Types of Reinforcement

  1. Positive - reward training - Rewards imposed on a horse during training must first be associated with a primary reinforcement for the horse to distinguish it. This type of reinforcement can be quite successful in training a horse. Today, more trainers use positive reinforcement in their training programs. There is a move to more natural horsemanship and an increasing desire to understand why a horse reacts to a situation based on its natural instinct.
  1. Negative reinforcement - This consists of adverse stimuli that, if given a choice, the horse will avoid.

Types of negative reinforcement

Avoidance Avoidance punishment is the most popular form of reinforcement used in working with horses. Avoidance works by giving the horse a cue. If the horse responds correctly, there is no punishment. However, if the response is incorrect or late, then punishment is administered. Highly trained horses are making avoidance choices. Well-trained horses require very little negative reinforcement because they have learned the correct responses.
Escape reinforcement With this type of reinforcement, the horse will move away from pressure. An example of escape reinforcement is when the rider squeezes his legs around the barrel of the horse and the horse moves forward in an escape response.
Punishment Used mainly to break bad habits, punishment immediately follows the unwanted response. The aim of this method is not the acquisition of a new response but to eliminate or weaken a response already in the horse's repertoire.


Intensity of punishment is critical. Correction should be sharp and quick and should fit the personality of the horse. One horse may be corrected with very light punishment and another may require more intensity.

Punishment must cause the horse to select a desirable alternative response that leads to reward.


Punishment must immediately follow the incorrect response. If too much time is allowed to go by, the reinforcement effectiveness is lowered. Punishment must be administered with care so that it will not become the stimulus for bad behavior. A horse can become panicky through negative reinforcement, causing the trainer to stop training before the desired response is reached. The horse will quickly learn that unmanageable behavior will stop negative reinforcement. The horse can also become so intent on watching and understanding the trainer that its performance may suffer.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.