What is aversive training and why you should stop using it

Not familiar with aversive training? Think again as you have heard of it but under a totally different name. First we must define two terms, aversive and operant conditioning. The term aversive means: Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behaviour by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behaviour modification. Remember this as it will pop up again later.


Operant conditioning is the scientific word to describe a type of learning which occur in both human and non-human animals. In operant conditioning, behaviours are strengthened or weakened as a result of their consequences. All horse trainers, regardless of the method they market, use operant conditioning to teach horses. It's a little bit like gravity, you don't need to accept it or know about it to be influenced by it. Operant conditioning is made up 4 quadrants which you may already be familiar with if you read our article: What is positive reinforcement and clicker training?

These 4 quadrants are made up two reinforcers (which increase the likelihood of a behaviour occurring again in the future) and of two punishers (which decreases the likelihood of a behaviour occurring again in the future). They can be positive, which in science means a stimuli is added or they can be negative, which means a stimuli is removed. These stimuli are either appetitive, meaning pleasant, desirable things or aversive, meaning unpleasant, undesirable things. Take a minute to look at the infographic to better understand the concept. 

A trainer using aversive training will discourage undesired behaviour by adding an aversive stimulus (Positive Punishment) and will encourage desired behaviours by removing an aversive stimulus (Negative Reinforcement). So if the trainer using such method wants the horse to perform a specific behaviour he will use something unpleasant enough to cause the horse to want to avoid it.  This method is marketed to horse owner under the euphemistic term "pressure/release". In addition, the removal of the aversive stimulus is often wrongly described as a "reward" by the trainer. This is incorrect as nothing pleasant is being added.

One thing many horse owners want is their horse to enjoy learning. If you are one of them, then learning how to use positive reinforcement should be a no brainer. Another thing most owners want is to establish strong bonds between them and their horses. The primary function of forming bonds is protection. So how can we expect horses to form a strong bond with humans that they associate with aversives events and stimulus that make them feel unsafe?


The take-home message: If we can train without aversive a hippo to brush his teeth, a rat to detect mines

and a fish to play football, then why not our horses?