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Operant Conditioning in Horses; Learning right from wrong.

horse owners pet vs hobby, owning a horse

In a young stock module at university we had some really good lectures looking into what types of operant conditioning we use to train our horses and why. I always thought this was really interesting and I thought I would write a post about the types of operant conditioning, examples of how to use them and how useful I think they are when training horses.

There are two main types of operant conditioning; reinforcement and punishment. The reinforcement is seen as a reward for good behaviour and obviously the punishment is seen as a punishment for bad behaviour. These are then both broken down into positive and negative. The positive involves giving something and the negative involves taking something away. (Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment.)

From what I have just said, which types of conditioning do you think are commonly used by the horse industry?

If you aren’t familiar with these terms, you will probably have said positive reinforcement and negative punishment. If you did say these two, you are wrong. Although it is a common misunderstanding!

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is where you give the animal something nice when they do what you want. The perfect example is giving a dog a treat when it sits. This isn’t commonly used for training horses because it isn’t practical. If you’re riding and training your horse, you can get off and give him a carrot every time he does something good!

Another example of positive reinforcement is clicker training. The horse learns that the clicker means he has done something right and will be getting a treat. But this isn’t widely used in the equine industry.

Negative Reinforcement

This is the most common method for training horses as it involves taking away something bad when the horse does what you want. This could be releasing the pressure on the reins when the horse stops/slows down or stop kicking/squeezing with your legs when the horse goes forwards. I personally think this is most effective way to train horses as it is practical and clear to the horse exactly what you want.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment involves telling the horse off for bad behaviour. This could include a slap for biting you or a smack with a whip for doing something they know is naughty, such as running out or refusing a jump where the rider is not at fault. This method is argued about quite a bit in the horsey world with some claiming it’s cruel and abusive.

However I feel like it has its place. Some horses can just be naughty. I’m sure we’ve all known one who refused a jump just because he could, or bit you because he fancied it or barged through you etc. End of the day, we need to be above our horses in the pecking order to keep safe and have their respect, because studies have shown that horses don’t respect or listen to horses below them. This doesn’t mean abuse is okay. But a quick slap or shout will let the horse know (if he doesn’t already) that you don’t like that behaviour and that you will react to that behaviour.

Negative Punishment

I personally don’t think this method is any use when training animals at all. Negative punishment involves taking away something nice to punish bad behaviour. Good examples of this is when parents send children to bed without dinner or take away their toys/games. I don’t think this works for horses because I don’t think they are capable of relating the two. If Scottie was naughty in the school and then I put him in his stable and took his hay away or didn’t give him his dinner, he wouldn’t understand that I did that because of how he behaved in the school.


Lots of people don’t like punishment methods at all because they don’t think animals are capable of understanding when they are being good or bad. I don’t agree with this. How many dogs do you see what go and hide after doing something naughty even though their owner hasn’t noticed yet? Scottie knows when he has been particularly good/brave as once we have finished and I’ve untacked he expects a treat and won’t let you forget to give you something. He has never done this if we have had a bad ride.

So although animals might not experience guilt and pride the same way we do, because of how we train them they know what we see as good and bad behaviour and they can act accordingly.

Do you animals know when they have been good or bad? What do they do?

Last Updated on 05/04/2019

2 thoughts on “Operant Conditioning in Horses; Learning right from wrong.”

  1. Horses do not think like humans. Horses do not do things, naughty nor bad, you are putting thoughts and actions horses do into human terms and beliefs. Anthropomorphism has no place in the training of horses , nor any animals.Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. The horse does not do actions to the human just because he can, in a spiteful way.

    1. I don’t completely agree. While horses do not have a moral compass of right and wrong, because they spend so much time with and have been. trained by humans, they do know what they are going to be told off for and what they are going to be rewarded for. This can be dumbed down to being good or being bad.
      A good example is a horse who is an escape artist waiting until he thinks no one is watching before escaping into the other field. We label this naughty because it’s not what we want. And while the horse doesn’t understand it as naughty behaviour, they have learnt that if they do it when someone can see them, they are going to get caught and put back. But if they wait until the person has gone, they will be out longer.
      While no animal is born knowing right and wrong, I also think it is wrong for us to say they don’t learn what is right and wrong. Because they do through us training them.
      I also agree that most horses don’t do things in a spiteful way. But some horses, especially those a bit coltish or challenging you for who is higher in the pecking order (as they do with other horses) can show behaviours what could be described as spiteful. Again, morally they don’t see it as spiteful, they see it as a way to get what they want. But through their time with us they also know that this is a behaviour they are going to get told off for, yet they do it anyway to push the boundary. Obviously I would hope that anyone having these issues regularly would give their horses a full health check. But after that, you are left with the possibility of that horse just has a dominant personality and isn’t happy with their position in the pecking order.

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