Working With Horses: Operant Conditioning

Over the last few days working with horses at Equi-Sense, I’ve given thought to the operant conditioning methods in use.

The first and my favorite is positive reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced with a reward. When working with dogs, this is usually done with a treat, especially when shaping behaviors. With the horses, we had no treats. What we did instead was pet the horses and speak in a soothing voice when they did as we pleased.

Less frequently, we’d use what’s called positive punishment. Positive punishment is following an unwanted behavior with an aversive stimulus. I don’t so much like this method, and neither does the owner. He instructed us to use this method only to deal with aggressive behavior, such as when the horse tries to bite. When Brandy bore her teeth at me yesterday, I was told to punch her in the mouth. On one occasion, I did lightly tap her on the muzzle with the end of the lead rope, but even doing that made me uncomfortable, so I only did it once.  I don’t like striking animals, and I understood where the horse was coming from. If some stranger started pulling me around by my face, I wouldn’t be in a great mood either.

I did, on a few occasions, use what’s called negative punishment. Negative punishment is dealing with an undesired behavior by taking away something that the subject wants. When I was leading Thunder, and then Brandy, sometimes they’d walk ahead of me or into me. When they did, I’d stop them and pull them around in a circle before moving on. The horses wanted to move forward, but I would only allow them to do so when the agreed to do it my way.

I used a similar method with Brandy later while in the small pen. As I discussed in my previous post, I was having trouble leading her back and fourth through some cones, and as a result she became upset with me enough to bare her teeth. A helper instructed me to “pop her in the mouth,” but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Instead, I instructed the horse to stop and had her hold still. This kept her from moving as she wanted to (as well as giving me a moment to figure out what I was doing.) I didn’t need to strike her, I just had to let her know that she couldn’t her her way by being aggressive. She didn’t teeth at me again after that.

The most common method used, and in contrast to the methods of positive reinforcement that are the staple in clicker dog training, was negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, an aversive stimulus is applied until the desired behavior is achieved. The owner called this  “pressure and release.” When we wanted the horse to move its head away from us, we’d wave our hand near its eye. Horses don’t like this, so they turn away from the hand. When we wanted the horse to move its hind end, we’d gently tap its hip (when I say gently, I do mean gently. We tap the horse no harder than one could tap a baby without making upset.) Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to touch a horse to apply negative reinforcement. Off lead, we’re able to control a horse in a pen simply by standing behind its haunches and waving, compelling it to move forward. Once the horse does what we wanted, we cease whatever we were doing so the horse knows it did what we wanted it to.

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Posted on 2011/05/19, in Animals, Horses, Outdoors and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I know what you mean about feeling bad hitting them, but the way I see it is that they are hierarchal animals and will be physically disciplined by higher pecking order horses, as are foals by their dams.

  1. Pingback: More Horses « The Hiking Humanist

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