Friday, April 29, 2011

Behavior Replacement

Extinction of behavior takes time to work. Today I’ll share some thoughts on speeding up the process through behavior replacement.

First, a quick review: With operant conditioning, “bad” behavior can be modified through punishment (creating an unpleasant consequence) or extinction (eliminating the reinforcement). Punishment is a perfectly good tool in the hands of a confident and experienced trainer, but many horse owners make matters worse through half-hearted or poorly timed responses to their horse’s naughtiness. Extinction may work better for them if they can figure out how the horse is getting rewarded and eliminate that.

Still, it takes a while for unrewarded behavior to die out completely. To speed the process up, get your horse working on something good, or as John Lyons might say, replace the bad behavior with good behavior.

For example, suppose your horse fidgets and paws the ground when he’s tied. Here are some possible responses from you:

1. Give him food to distract him. Result: behavior is reinforced and continues.
2. Scold him or spank him. Punishment requires perfect timing, consistency, and intensity in order to work. Not possible here. Result: the extra attention works as a reinforcer. If you frighten the horse in the process, you’ve created a new problem.
3. Ignore him completely. This is how to use extinction. When there is no reward of any kind, he will eventually stop the behavior.
4. Ignore the behavior, but immediately put the horse to work doing something else, something useful such as backing or sidepassing or sending. Maybe you just focus on getting the horse to move one body part at a time. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it is positive and you take every opportunity to praise the horse for doing it.

This last option is a way of supercharging the extinction principle by replacing bad behavior with good. Thanks to John Lyons for teaching me this, and for teaching me to always have a positive job ready for my horse to do, just in case I need it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Extinction of Behavior - Finding the Reward

I promised last time that I would address the fifth “quadrant” of operant conditioning, extinction, in a future blog. So here we go.

Simply put, the principle of extinction says that, if reinforcement of a behavior ceases, the behavior will eventually die out. This is important to us horse owners because it means that punishing an undesirable equine behavior is not the only way to eliminate it. Just stop rewarding the behavior and eventually it will go away on its own. If a behavior recurs with the same or greater intensity, we know it is being reinforced in some way.

One good strategy for dealing with unwanted equine behavior is thus to find the reward. What is the horse getting out of doing this? Get rid of the reward and, in time, you will get rid of the behavior without using punishment.

Unfortunately, finding the reward isn’t always easy. Many horse owners are blind to what really matters to their horses. Some have never thought about it. Others project their own wants and needs onto this radically different species. Others have an appreciation for the uniqueness of the horse but don’t yet have the skills to accurately assess a given situation and find the reinforcer. In fact, they sometimes reinforce the very behaviors they would like to change.

For example, think about what often happens when a novice handles a horse from the ground. The horse will push and crowd until the novice moves out of the way to avoid being stepped on. This submissive body language – the willingness to be moved by the horse – reinforces the horse’s assertive behavior and causes it to recur. A more experienced horseman handling the same horse would defend his space and not allow that reinforcement to occur. The horse’s desire to dominate in that context, with that human, would die out with time.

My challenge to you is to begin to look for the reinforcers – the rewards – in whatever your horse does repetitively, from the mundane to the marvelous. In the words of Tom Dorrance, “observe, remember, and compare.” You and your horse will be better for it.

Next time, I’ll share how we can “supercharge” the extinction principle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, formulated by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, is one of those subjects fraught with misunderstanding, and even those of us who understand it sometimes misspeak, due largely to the uncommon use of common words.

The primary principle of operant conditioning is that when behavior is reinforced, it is more likely to be repeated and when behavior is punished, it is less likely to be repeated. The way we reinforce or punish is by adding or taking away stimuli.

1. Positive Reinforcement means that something pleasant is added to encourage the desired behavior. Example: The horse is given a food treat when he responds correctly.

2. Negative Reinforcement means that something unpleasant is subtracted to encourage the desired behavior. Example: Pressure is released when the horse complies with a request.

3. Positive Punishment means that something unpleasant is added to discourage the undesired behavior. Example: A horse is spanked instantly when he kicks out under saddle.

4. Negative Punishment means that something pleasant is subtracted to discourage unwanted behavior. Example: The trainer withholds a food treat that a horse wants.

These are called the four quadrants of operant conditioning. (Extinction is sometimes called the fifth “quadrant.” I’ll address that another time.)

Unfortunately, keeping all of this straight is next to impossible for most people, including me. The reason is simple. All four of the key words have narrower meanings than we usually give them. Positive means added (rather than good). Negative means subtracted (rather than bad). Reinforcing means rewarding (rather than strengthening) and punishing means deterring (rather than paying back).

These may seem like small distinctions but they can result in big misunderstandings. For example, I often hear trainers use the term "negative reinforcement" to mean creating an unpleasant consequence to a behavior. This, of course, is not what it means in the world of operant conditioning.

My advice is pretty straightforward. Use the principles of operant conditioning but be careful of the terms. They confuse more than they clarify. And when you hear someone else using them, remember, chances are very good that they are using them incorrectly. Better to clamp your hands over your ears and hum the theme to "Gilligan's Island," or at least think about something else until the moment passes. Like maybe lunch. More next time.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Being an ambassador

Thanks again to all who joined me for my first ever Facebook Q & A session Wednesday. Great turnout. Great questions. Please vote in our FB poll regarding the format of the next one. Personally, I’m voting for video. (You can answer the poll here.)

I’d like to elaborate on the question of how we should go about converting more people to natural horsemanship. My short answer in the Q & A was to be a good example. I’ve been exposed to evangelists of all stripes and my reaction is always the same: I bristle at someone telling me how I should think or behave. I get a mental brace against the very thing an evangelist is pushing on me. On the other hand, if words or actions pique my curiosity, I open right up to the possibilities. Good ambassadors for natural horsemanship set such good examples with their behavior and the behavior of their horses that people want to know more. They open right up to the possibilities.

In NH, we talk about letting your idea become the horse’s idea. We talk about making the right thing easy for the horse to do. We also talk about giving the horse time to process what you have presented to him and finding a good place to end before he sours on the lesson. I think it’s pretty easy to correlate those ideas to our relationships with people.

A Buddhist proverb tells us, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teacher must also be ready, so as you go about your business of being a good ambassador, think about how you can explain and demonstrate what natural horsemanship means to you. You never know when a student will be ready.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Live Facebook Q & A Wednesday 8:30 pm ET/5:30 pm PT

This is me, poised and ready to answer your questions Wednesday. Okay, you’re right. It’s not me. But I am poised and ready for my first live Facebook Q & A session. I’ll answer as many questions as I can in the hour we have. Keep your questions short and as general as possible so I can come off as smart as possible. If you want to send me questions in advance, email me at If this goes well, we’ll do more. Maybe even video. Ooooh! Talk to you Wednesday.