Friday, February 10, 2017

Operant Conditioning

I go through cycles in my teaching where I give lectures to all my students on similar riffs on a theme, and this week has been about operant conditioning.

Sometimes when I'm explaining these concepts to a nine-year-old, I wonder if it really as important as I think it is, for these kids to understand. My goal is to produce a thinking rider capable of assessing not only what they learn from me, but also from other trainers in the future. Foundationally, our effect on the horse underneath us is important.

I want to be cognizant of how I'm training the horse. We can get so lost in this miasma of 'legs here' and 'chin up' (which are of great and tremendous and vast importance) that we forget about the specifics of training the horse we're riding. And whether we're riding a schoolmaster or a green bean, we're training them. George Morriss has most recently made that a very popular truism.

Keep in mind that what I'm going to write is pretty simple. It does not encompass all the important pieces of operant conditioning (and I know some of you will cringe to realize I do not teach the difference between positive and negative punishment, merely deeming it 'punishment') but keep in mind my target audience is something like an eight-year-old who is struggling to keep a pony trotting.

1) Negative reinforcement... or: the horse learns when you release pressure

Horses don't speak English. What they experience most is the pressure we put on them. And there are a lot of pressure we want them to habituate to, or pretty much ignore. My dog running around the outside of the arena. The pressure of the saddle on them. The bit in their mouth. Your weight as a rider. The way the gait sounds as it opens and closes. Your weird trainer running around in the middle of the arena trying to demonstrate a leg yield with two legs.

All they know is that they don't like it when you pull on their face, or flap at them with your legs. What this means is that we can ask them nicely, then step the pressure up, and then release the pressure when they do what you want.

If the horse isn't turning, we will ask with the reins, and we keep the pressure on or increased until the horse turns.

If the horse isn't stopping nicely out of the trot, we will ask with the reins, and the moment the horse starts to walk, we soften the reins. Good timing both in the application and removal of the aids is very important, but hey, that's why we take lessons.

Ideally, the horse will soon learn that a gentle squeeze of the legs is followed by unpleasant kicking unless the horse chooses to trot. The biggest failure I see is when my kids get a little tired of bumping or clucking and sort of peter out. The horse sees this as a big win! And will subsequently habituate both to the rider's weight but also to their legs, voice, etc. Bad news for everyone.

That All-Ears app makes for some hilarious photos
2) Positive reinforcement.... or: ponies love cookies

I have taught my students quite a bit about clicker training over the years, and I'm excited to be bringing an expert in for a clinic later this year to teach the kids and myself even more about it!

I use the clicker as a bridge between the moment the horse does what I want, and the moment I can give them a snack.

This way, the horse's "YES" moment comes from the click, rather than me taking my legs away.

It gets a bit muddled under saddle, as I feel we're often combining negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement to create the yes, but the horses like it and learn well.

I'm saving the best for last I hope you're excited
3) Punishment

Punishment is an negative thing that we add to the horse after they've done something we don't like. Examples include if they bite us, we smack them. If they buck, they get an unpleasant one-rein stop. If they break from the canter to the trot without the aid, we might use the crop to get them back to the canter. We want to be sparing with punishment, as one of the tenets of negative reinforcement is that we teach the horse that they can escape pain and discomfort. This allows them to seek release and become more willing and creative in their work. Punishment tends to feel random to the horse.

I teach these three pieces of operant conditioning (with the added concept of habituation) to my students and regularly check in with them as we're working. What method of training was that? Can you think of a way to train this using a different aspect of operant conditioning?

Beyond priceless makes me laugh every bloody time


  1. I am not as good at releasing pressure in the right order but I've gotten a lot better about realizing that each movement I make is asking a question and I'm waiting for their answer as a response. The baby horse is teaching me about asking the question softly (my big guy would ignore me unless I firmly commanded)

  2. I think that it makes a lot of sense to teach them those principles. That way you are creating a rider that can think- the whole 'teach a man to fish' analogy springs to mind.

  3. Those are all excellent photos.
    It's a good thing that pony cookies aren't quite so tasty to me, because I also happen to like cookies.

    It took me about 76 hot seconds to understand how clicker training worked, but it's such a cool thing!

  4. I LOVE talking about negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement in training horses, because there is so much blurring of lines! For example, at what point does a cue cross over to being pressure and the removal of that cue being the "release" and reinforcer? What about scratches and pats as positive reinforcers -- or does that just act as another release of pressure for some horses?

    I have tried so hard to incorporate legitimate R+ clicker training into Murray's life and he just seems to WALK ALL OVER me when I do it. He's like "oh, you aren't reprimanding me for things you don't want? Clearly you want me to tap dance like a rockette while you're putting this girth on NOW GIVE ME THAT CANDY I DESERVE IT". I realise this reflects, more than anything, my failings as a trainer. But I think it also reflects Murray's need for a really strong social hierarchy and clear herd-based expectations (as herd-based as we can get, being humans) to fit into my "mould".

    We should discuss this more at length!

  5. I think that it makes a lot of sense to teach them those principles. That way you are creating a rider that can think- the whole 'teach a man to fish' analogy springs to mind.
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