Learned Behaviour

Example of How Unwanted Behaviours Might be Learned

Most of us at some stage have come across problem horses. Perhaps a horse that lunges at people to bite them.  But have we considered that its not really the horse that is the problem, it is the unwanted behavour that is the problem.

What we also need to consider is why the horse is performing that behaviour so that we can find the solution.  If we only ever look at the behaviour and don´t consider the reason for the behaviour then we are unlikely to successfully change the behaviour.

Here is one way that the horse may have learned that unwanted behaviour.

The horse may not have like people being near them in the stable (the possible reasons for that is another topic).  By making a nasty face at the person they may have made the person move out of their space.  By the person moving away, they just taught the horse that making nasty faces gets them what they want; which is the person to leave (the person leaving equals positive reinforcement; which means the horses behaviour is more likely to happen again).

As a result, the next time an uninvited person walks in to the horses space, the horse will respond by making a nasty face.  As it worked so well the last time they may even give it more gusto this time (this is the effect of positive reinforcement; you get more and bigger of the behaviour that worked the previous time).

This behaviour from the horse may escalate, due to it being so effective, until it is so bad the horse may be biting.

Now you have a horse that bites.

Most people try to treat a biter by punishing the unwanted behaviour (hitting or something else as unpleasant or painful).  Now the horse learns that after they bite, they need to get their head out of the way as quickly as possible. So they lunge, bite and back off quickly.  Which leads to a nasty bite….and the person probably leaves !

If the person chooses not to leave and to punish the horse, then the timing of the punishment has to be considered carefully. Before I talk about punishment, I want to be clear that S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses do not advocate the use of punishment to solve a problem.

Horses need careful handling. Punishment works to stop a behaviour, however, there are a number of considerations to be taken in to account if you are to use punishment;  timing, severity, duration of the punisher all need to carefully worked out.

Do we have time to think about these factors in the spur of the moment when we have just been bitten ? The answer is most likely no, and therefore the use of punishment will backfire and behaviour gets worse. Or, the horse fails to understand what is being punished and so they begin to shut down (stop trying, don’t do anything unless told to).  In learning theory terms this is called conditioned suppression.

Clicker training is an effective and kind way to deal with problem horses and the unwanted behaviours which they have learned. Visit Horse Clicker Training to find out more.

For updates and articles about horse clicker training, visit our blog – S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses Blog.

Do you have a horse with a problem behaviour ?

Contact SMAART Horses for assitance with an effective, ethical and long lasting solution.