* For information about equine behavior, and how to make it work for your training program, enroll in the online course: Understanding Equine Behavior, taught by Dr. Jennifer Williams

Go to www.horsecoursesonline.com for more information. 

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Eleanor Blazer

How Horses Learn -
The Basics of Operant and Classical Conditioning
(Excerpts from the online course Understanding Equine Behavior,
written and taught by Dr. Jennifer Williams)

Eleanor Blazer
          When you understand how horses learn, you become a better trainer.  You can train more quickly and help the horses you train retain knowledge.  You will also avoid accidentally teaching horses lessons you wish they hadn't learned (such as how to pin their ears to get you leave them alone). 

          As horse professionals, the learning theory that we're most interested in is "behaviorism".  At its very basic level, J.B. Watson (the father of behaviorism) said that behaviorism was the study of stimuli and responses.  In other words, something happens (a stimulus) and the animal does something (a response).
         Example:  You crack a whip (stimulus) and the horse begins cantering (response).  You pull on a rein (stimulus), the horse turns (response).  You open the feed room door (stimulus) your horse whinnies (response).  If you think about most things that horses do, you can identify the stimulus and response.

        Psychologists have developed several behaviorism theories, but Dr. Jennifer Williams,
http://www.equinebehavior.net, finds Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning to be the most important in horse training and behavior.

Operant Conditioning is a behaviorism learning theory originally put forth by B.F. Skinner.  In Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, changes in behavior happen because of an individual's response to events that occur around him or to his environment.  He described an operant behavior to be any behavior that operates on the environment and generates consequences.

        Example:  A horse wanders around his stall and bumps against the door (operant behavior).  Someone accidentally left the door unlatched, so it swings open.  The horse walks through the open door and eats the hay sitting in the barn aisle (consequence).  In the future, he's going to bump up against that door and test it to see if he can get out again. 

Classical Conditioning focuses on involuntary responses.

        An involuntary response is one over which an animal has no control.  For instance, if you see some tasty food when you are hungry, your stomach probably rumbles.  Your stomach rumbling is an involuntary response because you cannot make your stomach rumble nor can you stop it from rumbling when you are hungry.  You have no control over it.

        Although you may not have heard the term classical conditioning before, you've probably seen it in action.  It was first identified by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s when he was conducting physiology research.  Pavlov noticed that before he presented his study dogs with food, they drooled.  He then tried ringing a bell before presenting the dogs with food.  He found that over time, his dogs started drooling as soon as they heard the bell and before they saw or smelled the food.  Thus was born the theory of classical conditioning. 

        Classical conditioning works by pairing a conditioned stimulus (in Pavlov's case, the bell) with an unconditioned stimulus (food) to elicit a response.  Classical conditioning first starts when an unconditioned stimulus causes an unconditioned response.

        The unconditioned response is an involuntary response:  one that happens without conscious thought or decision on the horse's behalf.  This can include drooling, fear, pain, pleasure, feelings of comfort or safety, etc.  In Pavlov's experiments, the unconditioned stimulus was the food and the unconditioned response was drooling. 

        To use classical conditioning, you first identify an unconditioned response that you want to influence.  You then pair a neutral stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus.  A neutral stimulus is one which doesn't initially provoke a response.  The bell in Pavlov's experiments was the neutral stimulus.  If you pair the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus several times, eventually the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus.  A conditioned stimulus is one which provokes a response, called the conditioned response.  Originally behaviorists thought that the conditioned stimulus replaced the unconditioned stimulus, but many now believe that the conditioned stimulus lets the animal predict the unconditioned stimulus.  Because of this, even after the conditioned stimulus is taught, you must occasionally pair the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus if you want the conditioned stimulus to continue evoking the conditioning response.

          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.

          Every time we come in contact with a horse, we are training him.  Learning how to take advantage of operant and classical conditioning will make the experience much smoother and productive.