I promised last time that I would address the fifth “quadrant” of operant conditioning, extinction, in a future blog. So here we go.

Simply put, the principle of extinction says that, if reinforcement of a behavior ceases, the behavior will eventually die out. This is important to us horse owners because it means that punishing an undesirable equine behavior is not the only way to eliminate it. Just stop rewarding the behavior and eventually it will go away on its own. If a behavior recurs with the same or greater intensity, we know it is being reinforced in some way.

One good strategy for dealing with unwanted equine behavior is thus to find the reward. What is the horse getting out of doing this? Get rid of the reward and, in time, you will get rid of the behavior without using punishment.

Unfortunately, finding the reward isn’t always easy. Many horse owners are blind to what really matters to their horses. Some have never thought about it. Others project their own wants and needs onto this radically different species. Others have an appreciation for the uniqueness of the horse but don’t yet have the skills to accurately assess a given situation and find the reinforcer. In fact, they sometimes reinforce the very behaviors they would like to change.

For example, think about what often happens when a novice handles a horse from the ground. The horse will push and crowd until the novice moves out of the way to avoid being stepped on. This submissive body language – the willingness to be moved by the horse – reinforces the horse’s assertive behavior and causes it to recur. A more experienced horseman handling the same horse would defend his space and not allow that reinforcement to occur. The horse’s desire to dominate in that context, with that human, would die out with time.

My challenge to you is to begin to look for the reinforcers – the rewards – in whatever your horse does repetitively, from the mundane to the marvelous. In the words of Tom Dorrance, “observe, remember, and compare.” You and your horse will be better for it.

Next time, I’ll share how we can “supercharge” the extinction principle.