Chicken or the Egg? Carrot or the Stick?

It’s the age-old question, isn’t it?

Stressed horseThe Carrot or the Stick?


Which should you use when it comes to training your horse?

Is it possible to develop a close relationship with your horse and still get him or her to do what you want?

These are questions I regularly get asked by students.  So, if you’re wondering the same thing, I’d like to answer it for you in today’s blog.

To do this, we first need to discuss what is meant by positive and negative when it comes to training your horse.

You see, in behavioral learning terms, positive simply means adding something and negative means taking something away.

So with horses, if you ‘adding’ a treat – you are using positive reinforcement.

But, if you are ‘adding’ a tug on a rope – that’s positive punishment.

On the other hand, if you are ‘taking away’ or removing pressure – that is negative reinforcement.

And if you ‘taking away’ food – that is negative punishment.

So which of these combinations of positive and negative, reinforcement and punishment should you use to train your horse?

Well, we can immediately make it a lot simpler by removing 50% of the choices by stopping the use of punishment because who wants to be punished?

I didn’t like it as a child and I’m sure you didn’t either, so why do some people still think it’s fine to punish their horse.

When the US Army sniper school switched to a positive style of teaching from their prior negative style of yelling at students, aka punishment, they saw their graduation rate rocket from 70% to 99%.

Think about that for a moment…

If hardened military men performed better in a positive environment, just think what it will do for your horse?

So the next time you hear someone say you need to show your horse who’s boss, you can relax knowing that is unnecessary and ineffective.

That leaves us then with positive and negative reinforcement, so which should you use and when?

British researchers into horse behaviour discovered that negative feedback helps shape learning best, while positive feedback best helps with retention.

In other words, use application and removal of pressure to teach your horse and treats or other rewards to him or her to remember it.

But, I’m not keen on the word reinforcement or the word feedback.

I find them too sterile, don’t you?

Words have a huge impact on how we feel and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, our intentions are also a very powerful force when working with our horses.

So I prefer to use the terms Positive Encouragement© and Negative Encouragement© in my training programs to help keep the whole experience positive, for both my horses and for me.

When I hear the word encouragement, my brain automatically thinks warm, happy thoughts, doesn’t yours?

As we are using a mix of these 2 approaches, I have called this combination Blended Encouragement© as it helps the learning process by making the lessons both more enjoyable and easier to remember.

This also makes it a lot more enjoyable for me as a trainer to use as I can see how much happier it makes my horses.

I hope you found this helpful and do
let me know if you have any questions.

Until next time, happy horses!

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In my experience many horses suffer from Equine Stress, the consequences of which can be very detrimental to their well-being. The sad thing is many loving owners are often completely unaware of this.
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