Parelli Methods - Positive or Negative Reinforcement Techniques?

This is from our 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional Jesse Peters written on behalf of Parelli Natural Horsemanship.  

I received a question about Parelli's use of positive and negative reinforcers, how the techniques are applied, and why.  I asked Jesse to help me give the best answer possible to the question!  Jesse does a fantastic job of explaining the logic behind the Parelli techniques and methods, and the use of positive and negative reinforcement in training.

Please comment below with questions or feedback! 

"The questions below comes up from time to time about the Science of Psychology as it relates to Parelli and Horses. First of all, let me say that Pat and Linda Parelli have done a BRILLIANT job boiling down exactly what the horse needs from us humans so that the Parelli program is “So easy even Adults can do it!” Not everyone’s learning style requires scientific in depth detail so the Parelli program sets learning up simply, easy, step by step in a manner that Horses and Humans can have a quality relationship based on the social structure and language that the horse can understand based on their herd dynamics. The Parelli program is based on the basic principles of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Question part #1: I read somewhere that Parelli is based on negative reinforcement (pressure/release or avoidance learning). Operant and classical conditioning, I can't find anything on their website. I have studied some psychology and understand negative and positive reinforcement and punishment.

In negative reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. Aversive stimuli tend to involve some type of discomfort, either physical or psychological. Behaviors are negatively reinforced when they allow you to escape from aversive stimuli that are already present or allow you to completely avoid the aversive stimuli before they happen. One mistake that people often make is confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. Remember, however, that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative condition in order to strengthen a behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, involves either presenting or taking away a stimulus in order to weaken a behavior.

In Pat’s teaching he states that punishment does not work with horses. Here Pat is referring to punishment (in terms as our culture sees it) as something that brings up a frustrated or aggressive reaction from the human and is not appropriate. Why? Usually when a human uses punishment (sometimes with emotions as they would with another human) on horses, their timing is very late in the application of the punishment and the horse cannot attach the punishment to the behavior. When we are boiling the program down to technical terminology, then yes of coarse the Parelli program uses negative reinforcement/punishment/avoidance learning as you understand it from the psychology books. Punishment (by definition only)/Negative reinforcement or as we call it, pressure is used in Parelli’s Games #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7. 

We recommend that students start each of these games (behaviors) with a confidence building activity (Friendly game, Game #1). Then change our body language to an assertive posture, just like an alpha mare would do in a herd, and apply pressure appropriately using increasing phases of pressure. The moment the horse begins to respond appropriately to the request, the pressure is released and we return to a relaxed body posture and return to a friendly game (Food, scratch, grazing, rest, gentle rub or Rhythmic motion with not pressure).

Question Part #2: Some say they also use positive reinforcement but it seems not to be as I understand it. Positive reinforcement is giving an appetitive reward after a behaviour is performed, but needs a marker signal at the exact time of the behavior.

In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened. One of the easiest ways to remember positive reinforcement is to think of it as something being added. To understand the various positive reinforcement methods we use in the Parelli program one must first understand what motivates a horse. 

According to Pat Parelli there are four things that motivate horses, and they are also in this order of need/importance also 1. Safety 2. Comfort 3. Play and 4. Food There is more detail and concept available for each of these categories of motivating factors available and how they are used for in depth study of horse psychology in the Parelli teachings of Horsenalities. So notice that food is listed last on the list. In other words, if a horse is worried about their safety because a garbage truck has scared them, then food is not an appropriate motivator in that moment. Safety in their environment is the most motivating reward for their situation in those moments (the release of the perceived pressure). 

Question Part #3: So as I have seen it Parelli advocates a rub or a scratch as being reinforcing but does not appear to use a marker signal - so how does the horse know which behaviour is being reinforced?

The positive reinforcement (Food, Scratches, Gentle Rub, Rest, Grazing, Treat, etc…) should be presented consistently and should occur frequently. The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. Keep in mind that as students of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, we are all doing the best that we can and we too are learning how to present the games (behaviors) the best we know how on each given day. As our consistency improves and our timing improves with the application of pressure or the presentation of a reward. The behaviors will improve and then the “Games” become play and recreation for not only the human, but the horse too."

Thank you for reading!  Remember, if you comment to please keep it respectful and positive! 

Me and Aspen, back in Montana a couple years ago :)