Conditioned Responses

So you have a nice gentle horse who doesn’t respond to your requests.  What do you do?  According to one trainer chase it round with a bag on a stick and then when the horse tries to escape smack him with the whip.
Someone I know has also heard a trainer say “smack him hard and then give his face a rub to tell him you still love him”. Oh and I was once told to “smile” whilst whacking the horse on the chin with the lead rope clip.

Yes we need to smile more whilst with our horses – it helps us relax but it does not make horse feel any better if what we do frightens them.
All those times you smack, tap or kick a horse to go forward you are initiating a startle response – even if you never hit your horse it has the same affect. Is hitting your boot or the sandschool floor or wall to startle the horse forwards any better for the horse?
Eventually you only have to pick up a whip or stick and the horse obeys – it looks like magic but it is a conditioned response.

In classical conditioning the first time the horse sees a whip or carrot stick it is a neutral unconditioned stimulus – it elicits no response. Once the whip or stick has been used as an aversive stimulus to provoke a response it becomes a predictor of the aversive so has been classically conditioned.

So the unconditioned stimulus is the whip when first seen, it is then paired with an aversive action and becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response.

So the conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to create a new conditioned response (CR).

There are better ways to train horses, do we want our horses to be afraid to ask questions? Afraid to say no I can’t do that? Or do we want to have a horse who is not afraid to express an opinion – OK there will be some times when that opinion is unsafe but we can redirect their behaviour or teach an incompatible one. Positive reinforcement engages the horses SEEKING system and increases motivation. Counter conditioning can change their perception of scary objects or people as we pair them with an appetitive stimulus.

These articles are worth a read – especially the last part of the first article where it gives this example

“Example:  A horse misbehaves with a farrier, and the farrier hits the horse several times with his rasp.  Because this horse is very sensitive, being hit causes him a lot of pain.  In this case, being hit is an unconditioned stimulus and fear is an unconditioned response.  In the future, whenever the farrier arrives the horse feels fearful and trembles.  The farrier is now the conditioned stimulus and the horse trembling is the conditioned response.  The initial event was so traumatic for the horse that it took just one pairing of farrier and pain to create the conditioned response.”

Insert any other person in the place of farrier and you can see how easy it is to create a conditioned fear response. It takes a long time to undo a fear response like this. So it may not be your farrier who caused the problem but the horse will associate any person who looks or smells like a farrier with fear.

This is why I am spending so long counter-conditioning Mojo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *