JOY FULL HORSES: Understanding Extinction – Part 5

Using “Hot” Behaviors

The Measure of Success
When horses are engaged in a successful shaping session, it can seem as though they never stop eating.  If you aren’t familiar with clicker training it can look as though the handler is constantly clicking and treating.  Don’t they ever stop feeding?  How is this going to work?  How do you raise criteria if you’re always feeding?

In a good shaping session the next criterion you’re going to shift to is already occurring a high percentage of the time BEFORE you make it the new standard.  Suppose I’m working on grown-ups, and I’ve decided that I want my horse to have his ears forward.  That’s a great goal, but if I abruptly stop clicking for good head position because the ears are back, guess what I’ll get – more pinned ears.  Why? Because I’m frustrating my horse and that emotion is expressed through pinned ears.

I’ll also get him swinging his head, nudging my arm, pawing etc., all the behaviors that I thought I had extinguished as I was building my grown-ups.

Using “Hot” Behaviors
What is the solution?  I could begin by separating out ears from other criterion. During casual exchanges when we aren’t in a formal training session, every time I see my horse with his ears forward, click, I’ll reinforce him.  If I’m walking past his stall and he puts his ears forward, click, he’ll get a treat. Pretty soon I’ll see that my presence is triggering ears forward.  I’ve made it a “hot” behavior.

So, now if I withhold the click in grown-ups, I’m likely to get a resurgence of “hot” behaviors.  I’m still using extinction, but I’ve set my horse up for success. The behavior that is going to pop out is the one I’ve recently made “hot” – in this case ears forward.

Click For What You Already Have
I won’t even shift my focus to ears forward until they are already occurring at a high frequency.  My goal is to have him standing beside me with his ears forward, but initially I’m happy if he simply takes his nose away from my arm.

As I click him for keeping his head directly between his shoulders, some variability is going to come into the overall behavior.  Sometimes he’ll have his head slightly higher, or lower, his ears forward or back.  I may be so busy monitoring the orientation of his head, I won’t even notice what he is doing with his ears.

As his head stabilizes and his overall orientation becomes more consistent, I’ll be able to take in more of these subtle variations. The movement of his ears pricking forward will catch my attention.  I’ll become increasingly aware of what he is doing with his ears.  If they are almost always pinned, there’s no point in making ears forward the next criterion.  I’ll be surfing a long extinction wave before ears forward pops out. In fact for something like ears, the more frustrated he becomes, the less likely they are to go forward.

So I’ll “prime the pump” instead.  I’ll make ears forward a hot behavior.  Now when he’s in grown-ups, if I make ears forward the next criterion, I’ll be withholding my click for only a second or two.  My horse won’t be perceiving the event as unpleasant or frustrating. The click will shift seamlessly to the new criterion.  That slight moment of extinction causes my horse to surf through current “hot” behaviors. I’m using resurgence, but in a way that sets the horse up to have success build on success.

Coming Next: Cues and Extinction

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: