Training Theory: Reinforcement Theory

Here are three of the basic psychological principles of learned response training.

Pavlov’s Paired Response Conditioning: The now-famous story of Pavlov’s dogs demonstrates dramatically how one stimulus can take the place of another to elicit the same response. When the hungry hounds were fed their delectable meals, they salivated in anticipation of the repast. While preparing and presenting the dishes, Pavlov rang a bell. Very soon, the dogs would actually salivate every time a bell was rung, meal or no meal. The bell could elicit salivation equally as well as a piece of meat could make them slobber.

Clicker Training uses much the same basic psychological principle. Offer your horse a treat while you click a clicker. The treat will cause his brain to produce “pleasure” hormones., and he will be flushed with good feelings. Soon, just the clicker will elicit the same hormone production.

After this paired response training has conditioned him to the clicker, he will begin to perform for just the clicker sound and will no longer need the treat to feel rewarded. (He has combined the treat with the clicker and will work as diligently to receive the click as he did the actual primary reinforcer: the treat.)

Skinner’s Negative Reinforcement: Skinner worked with pigeons. When offered an unpleasant stimulus with no retreat except a specific learned action such as pecking a red button, the birds learned to perform the maneuver to “turn off” the negative stimulus. This speaks directly to Release Training Pressure is perceived to be negative. Releasing the pressure is a reward (reinforcer).

Paired Cues: When a negative outcome is garnered for a particular unwanted response (ie: bit pressure for a high head), an animal will begin to avoid the wrong response and find one for which a reward is offered. If the principle of paired cues is employed, body cues, leg cues, crop cues all begin to signal the coming negative outcome. The animal will no longer wait for the negative outcome if it can be avoided by listening to the preceding cue. Thus BVB (Body cue; Voice cue; Bit cue:) turns into BV or just B-body. With frequency and consistency, the negative bit outcome is no longer needed.

Skinner’s Positive Reinforcement or Reward Training: Skinner also proved that reinforced behavior is more likely to be repeated than behavior that is not reinforced – again with application to clicker training in which the secondary reinforcer is the clicker for a positive reinforcer (reward). When an animal is given some form of pleasurable reward, he is more likely to repeat the behavior in an effort to receive the same positive response.

Combinations of all three of these Reinforcements occur during horse training. Consider teaching your horse to yield and flex his neck. As you pull his head around to the stirrup line, he may resist. The constant unpleasant pull (pressure on the opposite side of his face which he is resisting) will eventually wear him down until he relents and presents his face to his rib cage. At that moment, he is released from the negative pressure and rewarded with the cessation of the pressure. If you add a good scratch of the cheeks under the halter straps while he is voluntarily holding his flex to the mid-line, he will have experienced both the end of negative pressure and the addition of a positive reinforcement (the cheek rub). If he has been clicker conditioned, a clicker could also be sounded, further flooding him with rewarding brain chemicals. Flexing couldn’t be more satisfying for this horse.

By virtue of the fact that most training takes place with the rider astride the horse, positive reinforcers such as cheek rubs and mouth treats are not very practical. However, there is no theoretical reason not to use them when possible. Some trainers might scoff at “treating your horse like a dog”, but reinforcement theory is reinforcement theory, and what works works.

Don’t be afraid to experiment if you understand the principles. There’s no reason your partnership with your horse need always be one-sided. Doing something positive for him is often a very rewarding experience for both of you.

Extinguishing a Response – UNLearn: When a horses has learned a response, he will continue to perform that response if he is rewarded for doing so. During early learning of any maneuver, he must be rewarded quickly and continually – every time. As the training progresses, his reward can be less consistent. ie: instead of EVERY time, reward him every other time. (Dropping the consistency is dangerous for a novice trainer whose understanding of WHEN may not be fine enough). It is a proven tenet of learning theory that an animal will work harder for intermittent reinforcement than he did for continual reinforcement.

In order to un-learn (Extinguish) a behavior, all reinforcement for that behavior must be denied over a long period of time – long enough that he quits trying for the intermittent reinforcement he thinks is coming eventually. Extinguishing a behavior takes DENIAL OF REINFORCEMENT ABSOLUTELY, CONSISTENTLY, LONG-TERM. NO GIVING IN. NO GETTING TIRED. NO ACCIDENTALLY REWARDING. NO BAD TIMING.

EXTINGUISHING AND ADDICTING ARE TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN. Bad timing or “giving in” can addict your horse to performing the very maneuver you want to extinguish.

PAIN: Pain is a huge motivator, but certainly not a good training tool. Pain and fear of pain taps into instinctive behavior at a deeper level. It takes away conscious control. It substitutes adrenalin for sense. It sends a horse in to a “fight” or “flight” reaction that is difficult to overcome.

A horse in pain becomes an uncontrollable horse. A horse controlled by fear becomes an uncontrollable horse. A horse in pain is just reacting. His thinking apparatus is totally disengaged.

Good, solid training can calm a timid and fearful horse, overriding his “flight” or “fight” instincts and replacing them with trust and good response habits. A horse who has good, HABITUAL “yielding” skills can be much more easily controlled under duress or in panic situations. (see Yield)

ONCE again, PAIN is NEVER a good training tool.

Horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.

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