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Why Pressure & Release and Rest is not Positive Reinforcement.

Something that I’ve noticed is becoming increasingly common, are trainers, organizations and barns who use almost exclusively Natural Horsemanship, Negative Reinforcement(R-) and pressure and release in their training, claim they are using Positive Reinforcement(R+), because "rest is a reward"

To preface, I want to emphasize that this post is not to say that Pressure and release/R- is bad, or should never be used. This post is strictly to educate on the definition and science.

Mainly because not only do such claims create confusion for anyone who's looking for a positive reinforcement-based trainer, they also make it harder for people who want to educate themselves on behavioural science and learning theory to do so, and the ones who suffer from this are the horses.

Which is why I want to talk about it.


First off, let me be clear right away. Relief of pressure is NOT positive reinforcement.

Now why though?

Doesn't the horse want rest? isn't this a positive thing? Well, keep in mind that In behavioural science, Positive and Negative have nothing to do with good or bad. It's not a description of the overall training or on how the horse feels. It is simply the terms for Addition and Subtraction

Rest is a neutral state, it is the baseline for the horse.

You can't add the baseline of rest, you can only add TO it.

When pressure and release is utilized, we are adding pressure, which takes the horse away from a state of rest into being annoyed/uncomfortable/scared/in pain (depending on the level of pressure being used) aka. Something the horse doesn't like (an aversive) and once the desired behaviour occurs, said pressure is removed which allows them to return to a state of rest. So although “rest” is a reinforcer, meaning that it has improved, or strengthened a behaviour,

because the pressure is removed after the behaviour, it is negative reinforcement — definition: The removal of an aversive after a behaviour to strengthen said behaviour.

When positive reinforcement is is utilized, we initiate a behaviour (usually via shaping with something neutral, but sometimes we use lures) and once the desired behaviour occurs, we add something the horse likes such as Food, or Scratches. definition: The addition of an appetitive after a behaviour to strengthen said behaviour.

The important factor of which type of reinforcement is being used is that the reinforcement occurs AFTER the behaviour happens.

Since the motivation to repeat the behaviour in pressure and release is that the pressure/aversive went away/was removed, and nothing was added, it is considered negative reinforcement.

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