JOY Full Horses: Understanding Extinction- Part 3

Extinction Reveals the Past
Reinforcement builds your future. Regression and resurgence reveal the past.  And it’s extinction that produces resurgence and regression.

To understand this we must first define extinction.  Jesús gave us this definition in his Five Go To Sea conference presentation:

“When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, when a response becomes less and less frequent, you get operant extinction.”

How does this play out?  What do you see in your animals?

In the classic rat study the rat is reinforced consistently for pressing a lever. When lever pressing fails to pay off, the rat shows a sudden flurry of lever pressing behavior.  When this fails, the rat becomes aggressive.  This is the rat version of the classic kicking the vending machine when the coke can doesn’t drop out.

This is followed by a period of the rat giving up.  Then the rat tries again with a flurry of activity, trying to see if the original behavior will work again. The cycle repeats, but the bursts get smaller and smaller and the pauses in between longer.

The Equine Version
Throughout all of this process the rat is clearly experiencing emotions we would not want to see in our horses.  For example, this is where you see displacement aggression.  The horse is frustrated.  If other horses are nearby, you may see the horse pin his ears and snake his neck out to warn the others away.  Or he may grab at his lead rope or the handler’s sleeve.

You are seeing behavior that has been modeled for this horse. You are seeing his training history.  And perhaps you are also seeing his herd background.  If he’s lived in crowded/confined conditions that promote more horse to horse aggression, it’s possible that’s what you’ll see acted out.

It would be interesting to look at two groups of horses – one containing horses that grew up in stable herds living in large open spaces.  The other would have horses that were raised in much more confined spaces where competition for resources created more horse to horse aggressive interactions.  What difference, if any, would you see when these horses are exposed to a mild extinction process?  What behaviors would regression reveal?  What does your knowledge of your own horse’s background predict?

That seems like a good place to pause for today.

Coming Next: Extinction: Big, Small and Accidental

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