If you haven’t read last week’s blog, Removing the “Negativity” Towards Negative Reinforcement, please follow this link to read that one first!
Last week, we talked about negative reinforcement, and the common misconception that it’s a harmful training method. We also touched briefly on the behavioral theory known as operant conditioning. This week, we’re going to talk more about operant conditioning; namely, how it might be working against you.
Let’s start with positive reinforcement. Remember that the “reinforcement” parts of operant conditioning aim to encourage a behavior. Ideally, you are encouraging a good behavior: for example, positive reinforcement is frequently used for trailer loading. However, the rules of positive reinforcement don’t change when it comes to a bad behavior. If a horse does something undesirable, and you inadvertently reward them with something pleasant, you are teaching them to do that bad behavior again! A great example of this can be found when dealing with a treat-hungry horse. Imagine that a horse is nudging you because he wants the treat that he always gets after a ride. Because you want him to stop nudging you, you hand over the treat. Because a reward followed the nudging, that horse will be more likely to nudge you again in the future… and now you have a pushy horse!
As discussed last week, negative reinforcement is the most common method used to train horses. It’s common for a good reason: it’s very effective… when used properly. When used improperly, a horse can develop something called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness occurs when there is no release of pressure. Basically, the horse performs a desired behavior as the result of an aversive stimulus, but the aversive stimulus does not go away. Eventually, the horse will just stop trying to do what you’re asking. This can be observed in a horse that is dull to leg pressure. At some point in their lives, they may have had an experience when leg pressure was not removed even though they were trying to do what was asked of them. This essentially taught them to believe that there is no way to get rid of the leg pressure, so they see no reason to try. Once again, this is why releasing pressure is so important! Reward the try, so they’re more likely to try again.