What’s reinforcing THAT?

Recently I wrote about horses who drag owners to eat grass. In response, Nell made a deceptively simple comment, “So what if your horse has a fit? – does this work both ways?” I’d replied, “Sure, if her ‘fits’ get your attention!”

That exchange got me to thinking about reinforcement in general and how important it is to understand how behaviors get stronger or weaker. This relates to riding as much as with any other horse related activities.

The first principle always to keep in mind is that behavior that is reinforced/rewarded will become stronger–more likely to occur in the future. So, make it a rule to reward behavior you want! And only behavior you want.

Sometimes we are dealing with behaviors that we don’t want and our attempts to change the behavior have failed. 🙁 In other words, for some reason behaviors we don’t want continue. The sometimes annoying and frustrating fact is, those behaviors continue because the horse is reinforced in some manner for the behavior.

But, you might say, I’m not rewarding that behavior! No, you may not be purposely be rewarding it. In the sense of actively rewarding with food or praise. But it would not be continuing if something wasn’t reinforcing it. The question is, then, what is causing the behavior to continue? Figuring this out is what takes the honest clear thinking about the actual facts of the situation. We need to step back and look at the whole picture, including our own role, from the horse’s point of view.

Horses are constantly watching us in an effort to find the meaning in our actions. They will attempt to mirror what we present. If we lack clarity, balance, suppleness and forward movement the horse will also. When it comes to riding horses one of the most effective methods for rewarding behavior is to go with it. In other words, by going with it, we follow it, if we follow it we are saying yes, more of that please. If you follow the movement of the horse, movement that you like you are rewarding it and will get more of it. If you get in the way of movement you decrease it. So what we need to do is follow what we like and interrupt/get in the way of behavior you don’t like by sitting how we want them to go. This is where the supple, independent, adhesive seat comes in.

There is another interesting phenomenon to consider called ‘Extinction’. If behaviors that are rewarded increase in frequency, then behaviors that are not rewarded will fade away due to lack of attention. Sometimes we’ll say we’re ‘ignoring’ a behavior in order to extinguish it. But ‘ignoring’ is a bit of a misnomer. Because ignoring doesn’t mean do nothing at all. It means prevent the horse from being reinforced for a given behavior. That may require some effort on your part especially if the horse has a big commitment to the behavior, say, blowing through your aids to stop or turn. Your commitment to redirecting the horse’s idea needs to be bigger than his commitment to the idea if you want to get a change in the horse’s thinking. This may not be easy if the horse who weighs 1000+ pounds is pretty committed to his idea.

The trick is to not wait till it takes all your might to make a change! This is why it is so crucial to ensure that we reward only the behavior we want early and often! Ideally we catch and redirect ‘undesirable’ stuff before it turns into something big, while it is still easy to extinguish.

Depending on how strong the behavior was previously you may experience an “Extinction Burst”. This is the situation where a horse will actually offer the behavior more enthusiastically in an effort to get the reward. If the horse has developed a ‘bad’ habit, such as cutting a corner, and the rider allows this to occur time and again the cutting in will continue. Now, if the rider decides to push the horse into the corner the horse may work even harder to cut the corner. If you attempt to force the horse into the corner but never achieve the result the behavior escalates then you just set the behavioral bar even higher. Next time the horse will work yet even harder to dive through the corner! And, this is how things have a way of ‘devolving’ over time with the rider using more force and get less out of the horse. Not where we want to be!

These are all just principles that under pin the skills that we use to train horses. As always what seems simple isn’t at all that easy! If you are stuck, unable to get a positive change in the horse, you might need eyes on the ground to help you identify where your own behavior needs changing before a change will come in the horse.


  1. Well – next time you come over here this is just going to work on – Sonho’s bucking and fit throwing on the longe.

  2. Can you see signs that it is about to happen? Could you insert something new as a means to redirect before it happens?

  3. Yes. It usually happens when she gets frustrated with something I am asking her to do. She keeps telling me “I can’t” when I know that she can. Example, she was convinced she couldn’t canter with the longeing cavesson on (no line even) so I kept pushing, she kept saying “I can’t” and shaking her head violently, and I kept pushing. She blew up and had a bucking fit, and I kept pushing and then, she cantered…………and we quit. And I said, “See there – I told you you could do it.”

  4. Well there you have a nice example of an extinction burst. She was sure, for some reason, you’d quit asking. Maybe you have in the past? So the hissy fit got bigger and bigger. But, this time you didn’t reinforce the behavior. You waited out the hissy fit and rewarded the behavior you wanted. Good for you! 🙂