Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Contemplating Extinction

No not that extinction!
I am not really interested in the debate over what killed off the dinosaurs. (Last I heard we are back to asteroid bur my personal theory is Zombie virus.)

I am thinking about the term extinction when used in the context of learning theory and behavior. Extinction refers to the withholding of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior in order to eliminate that behavior*.

We have all heard the advise ignore it and it will go away. Sometimes we encourage behaviors we don't want in our horses accidentally. When we realize it we put the behavior "on extinction" or we consciously withhold our reinforcement. The reinforcer is usually our reaction to the behavior. This is a common treatment for attention seeking behaviors like vocalizations, pawing, nosing etc. I have also heard trainers recommend ignoring horses that spook or shy. Heather Blitz described a spook as a ripple in a pond of your schooling session or test. By reacting in anyway you are making a bigger disturbance in that water. Your objective as a rider and trainer is to keep the water flowing and still in your ride(I am paraphrasing).

If the behavior is not immediately endangering you or the horse I believe that putting the behavior on extinction by ignoring it or by replacing the behavior with a more desirable and incompatible behavior with the undesired one, are all you need in your tool box to reduce unwanted behaviors.

What about the other side of the coin though? How often do horses quit performing behaviors that we want because we have accidentally put them on extinction? Horses trained with negative reinforcement (which is to say almost all of them) usually become dull to aids or cues because of poor execution of negative reinforcement causing habituation. Negative reinforcement is an exact science and to err is human so all of our horses probably suffer at some level with habituation to our aids ( I know mine does). I wonder though if extinction has a role to play as well in the dull horse?

In the beginning of acquiring a new skill the rewards are big (or at least they should be). Think about how you approach teaching your horse something new. How do you show him he is doing well? A big release of the inside rein? A nice rub on the crest or whithers? A rest? A treat? Whichever form you decide to deliver your reinforcement you are providing feedback on what behaviors you want while simultaneous providing incentive to repeat the new behavior in the future.

So what about those tried and true behaviors or those "push-button" horses? What do we expect our horses to do automatically? Sometimes extremely well trained horses "forget" well formed behavior or offer a lack luster performance. In some instances I think this happens because we have stopped giving feedback. Just like people, horses require feedback even on tasks they perform with confidence in order to know the behavior is still what you want.
Additionally who would want to continue to preform a task with no reward or recognition?

I guess the take home message is this. If you are having issues with a horse not performing a well rehearsed behavior or motivation in your equine in general make sure you are providing consistent feedback so your horse knows when he is getting it right!

Enough contemplation back to what really matters.... Bodhi!
I got in a quick ride today right before a downpour. Bodhi.was.awesome. He was forward but listening to even the lightest aid of my seat, legs and reins. He felt amazing! It was definitely a ride to hold on to when problems will arise again. It only lasted ten minutes and during our 2nd canter the sky opened up. We made a B-line for the barn after that and waited for the rain to lighten up.
As Bodhi stood drying off by a fan I played with the barn manager's nervous Nancy TB and a boarder's TB on stall rest. They both love to play clicker games and I like to give both of those high energy high and intelligence horses something to do for a few minutes to elevate the boredom.
After the rain let up a bit Bodhi and I jogged together at liberty back to his pasture. Before I left him to graze I took the opportunity to work with him in some of the forming puddles. He was willing to walk and trot through them at liberty and finally even backed into a puddle! So proud as he is not a fan of water. What an idyllic day with my golden boy!



  1. Excellent day, and very thoughtful post - thanks!

  2. I just had to contemplate extinction yesterday. My mare seems to think that when I ask for head down I'm really asking her to look for whatever food may be lying on the ground. Now I have to make that behavior go extinct while still reinforcing head down. Complicated!

    Are you a zombiephobe too?