Extinction of behavior takes time to work. Today I’ll share some thoughts on speeding up the process through behavior replacement.

First, a quick review: With operant conditioning, “bad” behavior can be modified through punishment (creating an unpleasant consequence) or extinction (eliminating the reinforcement). Punishment is a perfectly good tool in the hands of a confident and experienced trainer, but many horse owners make matters worse through half-hearted or poorly timed responses to their horse’s naughtiness. Extinction may work better for them if they can figure out how the horse is getting rewarded and eliminate that.

Still, it takes a while for unrewarded behavior to die out completely. To speed the process up, get your horse working on something good, or as John Lyons might say, replace the bad behavior with good behavior.

For example, suppose your horse fidgets and paws the ground when he’s tied. Here are some possible responses from you:

  1. Give him food to distract him. Result: behavior is reinforced and continues.
  2. Scold him or spank him. Punishment requires perfect timing, consistency, and intensity in order to work. Not possible here. Result: the extra attention works as a reinforcer. If you frighten the horse in the process, you’ve created a new problem.
  3. Ignore him completely. This is how to use extinction. When there is no reward of any kind, he will eventually stop the behavior.
  4. Ignore the behavior, but immediately put the horse to work doing something else, something useful such as backing or sidepassing or sending. Maybe you just focus on getting the horse to move one body part at a time. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it is positive and you take every opportunity to praise the horse for doing it.

This last option is a way of supercharging the extinction principle by replacing bad behavior with good. Thanks to John Lyons for teaching me this, and for teaching me to always have a positive job ready for my horse to do, just in case I need it.