Thursday, February 14, 2013

Operant Conditioning: Applying it to horses

Ok, so in my last post, I explained the different aspects of operant conditioning. (Operant conditioning is simply a fancy psychology term for saying we can train behavior through motivation and is applicable to pretty much every voluntary behavior known to living organisms).

Now, let's apply it to horses:

Positive reinforcement: This is where clicker training finds a home. With clicker training, a reinforcer (usually a treat) is introduced when the desired behavior is performed. Technically, treat training is also positive reinforcement as far as it is able to reinforce the behavior you're wanting. The addition of a clicker as a "bridge" between the the behavior and actually receiving a treat simply allows us to be more intentional, accurate, and flexible with the behaviors we are trying to reinforce, which I already discussed in a previous post.

Negative reinforcement: This is where training off of pressure comes into play. In "traditional" training, pressure is applied to guide/ask the horse to do something, and then the pressure is released when the horse responds correctly. The horse learns to work for the release of pressure.

Positive punishment: This is used each time you smack your horse for getting in your space. For instance, if he is mugging you for treats and you give him a firm thwack on the nose, he learns not to mug you for treats or else!

Negative punishment: I had a hard time coming up with one for this, but it just dawned on me yesterday - this is often used in *proper* clicker training if you are going to give the horse a treat and the horse reaches out for it a little too eagerly. The correct thing to do in this situation would be to wrap your fingers around the treat and take it back. Withholding the treat discourages the horse from reaching for it, and since you are eliminating that behavior by taking something away that he would have gotten otherwise, it is negative punishment.

Oftentimes, these are simultaneously used to govern behavior. I already gave an example above about how each of these applied to why I graded those papers, but now here's an example of combining these within a training session: If I wanted to teach my horse to back up (as I did yesterday), I first gave the cue that I want him to learn ("back up"). However, since that didn't mean anything to him yet, I stepped forward and put pressure on his front shoulder. He took a step back, and I released the pressure (negative reinforcement), clicked, and treated (positive reinforcement). However, if he ever reached for a treat, I would have bopped him on the nose (positive punishment) and withheld the treat (negative punishment). During any given training session, you'll usually find me using a combination of positive and negative reinforcement (clicking and treating as well as using pressure). I don't use punishment unless he does something I don't want, obviously. Usually, that doesn't happen, though, since he's so keen on trying to figure out what I want :)

There are many other examples of how these are used with horses and in our everyday lives. Hopefully, you're beginning to get an idea of how important these principles are and how they apply to just about everything you do. For example, I am currently writing this because I want the positive reinforcement of hearing other people's comments and knowing I helped them learn something as well as the hoped-for negative reinforcement of fewer people writing off clicker training simply because they don't understand it.

Which, by the way, brings us to reinforcement schedules and how some schedules are more powerful than others in sustaining behavior - but that's for another post ;)

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