Approach-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of approach–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a goal is both desirable and undesirable—called also approach-avoidance; compare approach-approach conflict, avoidance-avoidance conflict

This is can occur when the appetitive stimuli is greater than the aversive stimulus e.g trailer loading when the horse is afraid of the trailer but we use a target and +R to get the horse in the trailer. The horse may still not be unafraid of the trailer. So we do need to use desensitisation and counter conditioning first before any attempt to load and travel a fearful horse.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of avoidance–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a choice must be made between two undesirable alternatives—compare approach-approach conflict, approach-avoidance conflict
This is where we use an aversive stimulus to get a horse to do something he doesn’t want do to. So trailer loading when we use aversive stimulus to coerce a horse in to a trailer. The horse is still afraid of the trailer but is more afraid of the external aversive stimulus. Pressure applied to a halter, tapping with a whip, using lunge lines or the rhythmic pressure often used in natural horsemanship.

If we don’t alter the horse feelings about the trailer he may still be afraid of traveling. If he travels enough times and has good experiences the horse may well habituate to travelling but the initial process is stressful.

The use of desensitisation with counter conditioning changes the emotional responses around the lorry/trailer. The following is an excellent article written by Dr Helen Spence.

Stable Door Kicking

Why do horse kick stable doors?

First look at what triggers the kicking and at what may be reinforcing the behaviour. If you can’t decide what the trigger is then contact a qualified equine behaviourist – some do consults via Skype and video but they will need to see the behaviour to assess why the horse is behaving as he is.

It may be frustration at being in a stable, limited turn out is not good for horses but is often needed in bad weather due to yard rules.

If the horse is kicking due to anticipating feeding then vary the time he is fed or ignore until he is quiet and then feed, he will soon learn that being quiet gets him attention/food but kicking doesn’t.
The behaviour can be reinforced by giving the horse attention or by feeding the horse first to stop the kicking.

Obviously never leave a horse hungry and make sure they have as much turn out as possible. Provide as much enrichment as possible so they can cope better with confinement. Vices can be helped by changing management – if it is possible – more turn out with friends, plenty of forage etc.
For examples of enrichment –

Punishment may work but is not ethical in my opinion, so don’t listen to those who say use a water pistol or electric fence tape or any other home made remedy.


We hear a lot about “respect” in the horse training world. Especially in natural horsemanship, but what does it mean?
It is a human concept that usually dictates what behaviours we don’t want our horses to perform. So if the horse wont standstill it is deemed disrespectful etc. What happens then is that the horse is “corrected” (euphemism for punishment). This does nothing to tell the horse what to do instead.


1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their qualities or achievements.
2. due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.

How do these definitions fit with the view of horses needing to respect their humans? Can horses have “due regard for the feelings wishes and rights of others”?
Do they have the cognitive abilities needed to have respect?

For me it is the we humans who need to respect the horse, we can have due regard for how our horses feel when we train them.

This link is revealing as they say if the horse doesn’t go forward we use increasing aversive stimuli, spanking first yourself and then the horse. So the horse learns to go forward to avoid the aversive stimuli – how does this instil respect?
How does that fit in with definition number 2? Do horses have no rights in our relationship? Is it “do as I say or else” suffer the consequences?

We all need to decide for ourselves what we are happy doing to our horses and often people do things to the horse rather than it being a partnership.

Does your horse have choice? Is your horse staying with you at liberty because he fears what will happen if he leaves? What happens if he doesn’t obey?

Only you can answer these questions but they do need asking.

We also need to look at the various emotional responses affected using negative and positive reinforcement.

In negative reinforcement there is always the underlying threat of an aversive, this triggers the FEAR system. It may be only mild anxiety but the emotions and accompanying neurotransmitters and hormones of fear are present. Fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting.  There are also appeasement behaviours and other signs that a horse is having problems.

In positive reinforcement we trigger the positive emotions, CARE, PLAY although done badly it can trigger RAGE in the form of frustration.

So respect is a human construct and really comes down to training what we want our horses to do.
They do what they have been reinforced for doing, so it your horses isn’t doing what you want then it is a training issue not a lack of respect. Training takes places every time we are interacting with our horses – whether grooming or feeding or walking them to and from the fields.

When using reward based training we can teach the horse what to do as an alternative behaviour, so we can teach him to station on a mat or stand at a stationary target. Once reliably performed a verbal cue “stand” or “wait” can be added. The more reinforcement history a behaviour has the stronger that behaviour becomes.
So instead to saying the horse is disrespectful think of him as being insufficiently trained.
What we wanted is a horse with good impulse control so we feel safe. Horses are large animals and can be dangerous if we don’t understand them.
They don’t instinctively know what we want them to do so we have to train for safety but without suppressing their natural curiosity.

Please ditch the term respect when talking about the horses relationship with humans as they don’t have the cognitive ability to know what “respect” is.
Instead describe what the horse is doing that you don’t like or don’t want him to do and then retrain with +R a behaviour you do want. Also remember all interactions with our horses is training – not just the formal sessions in the school.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

It may well be that – at this moment in time – it is not possible to use only positive reinforcement in equine training.
If people wish to compete in mainstream equestrian events then they will need to use -R unless they retrain or train from scratch everything with +R. There may well be a time when the horse world catches up with other animal trainers in the use of +R.
It isn’t something that many positive reinforcement trainers talk about and talking about -R on some Facebooks groups gets you banned. However we must know how -R works and how it can affect the horse.
If we work on the LIMA principles of using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive stimuli to train behaviour and apply behaviour modification programs then I think we are doing well.

Negative is just a mathematical notation – so subtracting something to reinforce a behaviour. Of course if we remove something the horse likes and wants that can be construed as negative punishment if the behaviour decreases, as it may well do if the horse can’t get what he wants.
 So to be reinforcing the stimuli removed must be something the horse wishes to avoid, so an aversive stimuli. The removal of the stimuli is felt as a relief to the horse and can be very light leg and rein and weight aids. So the leg is conditioned to mean forward and is reinforced by the removal of the aid.
Negative reinforcement does trigger different neurotransmitters and hormones than those triggered in positive reinforcement. Using Jaak Panksepps 7 emotional systems, that all mammals share, we can see which system is at work in any quadrant. 
So with +R we see the SEEKING system in action in a positive way – horse learn to solve problems, they are empowered to share in their learning. The PLAY system is important too as horses learn through PLAY just as other mammals do e.g human children.
So what system is -R using?
 If we use another behavioural model – Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model – we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepp would be the FEAR system, this does not have to be all out flight but aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid the stimulus.

diagram of the 3 circle model of emotional regulation

Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus and also by putting the behaviour on a command – so the horse can avoid any escalation. So in any training session the horse can be in the RED zone but we need to get him back in the GREEN zone. Horse stuck in the RED zone can become hypervigilant – if the HPA axis is triggered then cortisol is released and this takes a long time to dissipate, so a little bit of adrenaline keeps them motivated but too much and it tips into distress rather than eustress.

Positive reinforcement works on the DRIVE or SEEKING system, but we can also get horse stuck in this mode too – so they get frustrated if reinforcement isn’t forthcoming or we are slow with reinforcement.
 Whatever we use whether +R or -R we need to understand what is happening and how we can use them for the good of the horse.

Difference between a cue and a command?
A cue is used in +R training to tell the horse reinforcement is coming. In -R we use the word command as the horse rarely has a choice – so often it is a “to it or else” scenario, the horse performs the behaviour to avoid any escalation of an aversive stimulus.

Paul Gilbert

Jaak Panksepp

HPA axis