Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

Horse training has long been an insular world. Things are done in a certain way, not necessarily because it is the best way, but because it’s the way it’s always been done, or possibly, because someone had success doing it that way, so everyone follows suit.

The scientific principles that govern the way that all beings learn are not often understood or discussed with regards to horse training, though there is much more interest and openness to these concepts now than ever before.

One of the valuable tools that is too often dismissed out of hand by those who work with horses is the use of treats as a food reward. I know this, as there was a time when I, too, would have said, “Oh no, I never use treats in training.” Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since then!

Those openminded horse people who are embracing the very effective addition of food rewards to their training programs tend to use them only in Operant Conditioning.

Operant Conditioning means that the horse is learning to “operate” their environment, learning that certain responses will result in a food reward, making them eager to repeat that behaviour and keen to learn new, equally rewarding behaviours.

It’s a fabulous tool, no doubt about it, helping your horse to both learn, and be an active and willing participant in what they are learning. Fun for horses and humans alike.

However, horse people tend to dismiss Classical Conditioning as a training tool.

Classical Conditioning is simply the association of a reward with a situation or stimulus. Think Pavlov’s Dog – every time the bell rang, they fed the dog, so that eventually the idea of food was so strongly associated with the bell that the dog would start to salivate simply at the sound of the bell.

Classical Conditioning can be used any time you’d like to associate something with a positive reward. The horse doesn’t have to “do” anything to earn a treat, they just get one to let them know it was a good thing, not a scary or unpleasant thing. And then, like with all training using food rewards, eventually the good feelings associated with the treat will be transferred to the situation, and treats won’t always be necessary.

Most recently, I used Classical Conditioning to get my yearlings used to being clipped. Clippers are loud and they feel weird, and most horses are a little uncertain of them initially. In order to give them a good impression of the clippers, I turned them on, turned them off, and then gave them a treat. I progressed to turning on the clippers, and touching them to the horse, then giving them a treat.

Using this method, I was even able to give a treat when they stood still, and reward compliance, allowing me to get legs clipped on skittish yearlings with no drama, no twitches, no drugs and no bad experiences for either of us.

There are those who will read this and say “oh sure you distracted them with treats” or “bribery isn’t training” but that isn’t what happened. What happened was that I associated the potentially fearful stimulus of the clippers with the positive stimulus of the treat, so that they knew that clippers = treat. And before long, I could clip for as long as I wanted without having to stop for a treat, because clippers = treat quickly became clippers = good feelings and not scary at all.

Horse people are fearful of “free” treats, that is, treats that aren’t earned through behaviour, as they feel it will result in biting or rude horses. The only way this is true is if horses are rewarded for being rude and biting with a treat. Good treat manners are taught like anything else, and in my experience, using more treats in my training with my youngsters has resulted in less mouthiness, not more, as they now have a clear understanding of how and when they will get a treat, instead of mindlessly begging for one.

I used this same technique to make their first bath a positive experience, and have used it with other scary things as well, such as walking over a tarp or introducing a cart.

Both Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning are valuable tools we can use to make our horses more comfortable and willing partners. How could you incorporate them in your training?


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