Shannon said something that really piqued my interest:
I don't really like the article on positive reinforcement that you linked. It relies far too heavily on B.F. Skinners original 1950 work. We have made great progress in the study of behavior since then, particularly in identifying the neurologic pathways involved in operant conditioning. There is little evidence that negative and positive reinforcement are any different from a neurologic perspective. Many behaviorists are actually pushing to drop the words "negative" and "positive" completely and simply go with "reinforcement". Both negative and positive reinforcement are reward based. The only difference in the two is the application of the stimulus: Negative = stimulus removed to gain desired behavior, positive = stimulus applied to gain desired behavior. Realistically, arguing negative vs. positive reinforcement is arguing semantics.
Both negative and positive reinforcement are part of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method by which a behavior is "shaped" (trained) to a stimulus which is irrelevant to the behavior. So, a rat running on a wheel when he hears a bell and a horse knowing to stop when he hears the word "whoa" are both examples of operant conditioning and have been trained by reinforcement, either positive or negative.
Clicker training is the use of a "click" as a stimulus. Whether or not it is positive or negative reinforcement is a matter of semantics. In the end, the "click" is no different from the "aids" that conventional trainers use. We are all using a stimulus and a reward to shape a desired behavior.
So - I acknowledge that it may be outmoded for me to differentiate between positive and negative reinforcement. I definitely see the point, that biochemically there might not be a difference between a click followed by a reward versus a release of pressure, but I don't think that totally invalidates what I wanted to talk about today.
Negative reinforcement definitely has an image problem, that's for sure. It just sounds mean, and many horse owners don't want to be mean. I mean, hell, I don't want to be mean! As firm as necessary, and fair, yes, but I don't want to be the mean hateful human. So let's call it -R (as opposed to +R, usually but not exclusively clicker training).
Still, I think -R is the most natural way to train horses. (Oh man I'm gonna get some hate mail for saying that!) Hear me out, though - we touch our horses more than we touch any other being aside from human family members. How often do you touch a stranger? Almost never. How often do you touch your dog or cat - and you can't count "the cat climbs on my lap every night" in this instance? You pet them, yes, and pick them up as necessary, but I bet you hardly ever lay hands on your house pets like you do your horse. Horses are one of the few creatures that we manipulate with our hands every single time we interact with them. The most intuitive, even "natural" way we have to communicate with horses is through direct contact.
Direct contact is -R. It can also be +R: scratching an itchy spot or massaging a tight muscle feels immediately good to a horse. And it can even be a form of clicker training - if your horse has learned to associate a pat on the neck with positive feelings, that's +R in my book (but just like the clicker noise, it's a learned association). But most of the time, when we touch our horses, it falls in two camps: "don't move, let me do this to you" or "move away from my pressure." Almost everybody indicates "move from pressure" with, well, pressure, repeated as necessary.
Here's where I think -R training diverges from clicker training. All the c/t stuff I've read says "don't nag." Ask (verbally or physically) and wait, and eventually, when the behavior happens, reward. -R behavior teaches your horse new behaviors (or reinforces old ones) by, in essence, nagging. If I want my horse to back up from the ground, I give her the verbal cue ("shhhhh"), the body language, and the physical cue (jiggling her halter backwards) - and I keep that up, escalating the physical cue, til I get the response I want. I start with a cue that's as subtle as I can manage, because I want to train her to respond to the lightest touch, but I ramp it up geometrically if she's balky or not paying attention. For some behaviors (i.e. moving the hindquarters at a tap), I don't ramp up the intensity of my request, but I keep asking over and over til I get what I want.
Clicker people: Is there a way to ramp up the request? Because if there is, I'll buy the "C/T is equivalent to -R training" argument.
So, back to my main point: the easiest way for me to ask my horse to do something is physically. I reach out and literally touch her and indicate "please move away from this pressure." She'll try different things to get a release from that pressure, and when she tries the right thing, I release to reward her. Sometimes, she doesn't get it and gets frustrated, so I go to my #1 Plan B: clicker training.
(I might write yet another long post about why I like clicker training, which will no doubt piss off both the hardcore c/t'ers and the traditional horsepeople. We'll see how tired I am tomorrow night!)
+R behavior modification - clicker training - is the only way to work with animals that you cannot regularly touch, like captive elephants or dolphins or even chickens (god bless all four brain cells). It's fabulous for working with animals that you do not want to touch all the time, like dogs doing liberty work (agility, off-leash training, etc.) It even works for horses - but why start there? We touch horses more than we touch any other creatures, so why not start with the intuitive -R pressure and release method? Sometimes it's ok to be negative.
All right, smart readers: rip it apart!