Positive Reinforcement vs Negative Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement vs Negative Reinforcement

You also provide positive reinforcement for your horse by offering safety and comfort when he is confused, rather than pushing him or disciplining him for not immediately understanding. That’s what a strong, effective, fair leader does.

~Level One Friendly Game DVD from Parelli

I have seen the words “positive reinforcement” bandied about lately and the definition of this type of reinforcement seems to change depending on what type of horsemanship people are talking about.

I have heard people say that you do not have positive reinforcement if there is any kind of pressure involved. So if you are playing with the rope, tossing it gently over the horse’s back, then when the horse relaxes and you release, that is NOT positive reinforcement but instead is called “release or negative reinforcement.”

Here is a definition of release or negative reinforcement that I read today on the internet:

Release or negative reinforcement means that something is removed from the equation. 

Positive reinforcement is when something (that the horse likes, as in food) is added to the equation.


From what I read and understood positive reinforcement is ONLY happening when there is food involved. I find this totally fascinating as I have worked with horses that were not interested in food as a reward at all, until much later in our relationship… which makes me wonder what WOULD positive reinforcement look like to those types of horses?

If I have a very scared RB horse and need to bring about relaxation and connection how does one go about that when food is not a motivator and still use what would be considered positive reinforcement? Wouldn’t the horse itself tell me when I have rewarded well and appropriately by becoming relaxed and connected even if  I’m not clicking and offering food?

Billy showed me how food can actually muddy the waters of communication a bit. When I was focused on using food as an indicator of him finding the correct answer I found that the food itself became his focus. What ended up happening is that he was doing “tricks” to get the food, but didn’t feel confident and sometimes didn’t understand the pattern we were playing with. When I removed food from the equation and instead used rest and relaxation I found that his confidence came up and his focus was more on me and less on the food.

Don’t get me wrong – I do use food for certain things. Though I do try to steer clear of it when gaining confidence is an issue as the food tends to cause him undue stress.

Sometimes all the “rules” in the horsemanship world really confuse me and cause me a certain level of anxiety. I am constantly worried about breaking them and thus ruining my horse.

Sometimes I think that using FEEL to understand my horse and search out that relaxation and connection may be the way to go and toss some of those rules out the window.

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