JOY FULL Horses: Resurgence and Regression

Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean.  You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.

Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico.  She got trapped in an elevator.  At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do.  Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.

What does this story tell us?  We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.

When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood.  If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress.  If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”

So extinction can reveal history.  That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.

Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies.  You’re holding a target up for him to touch.  A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused.  Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue.  He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in.  You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that.  Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working.   He is plunging head long into an extinction process.

The extinction process can reveal a horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy.  Unless he’s one of those horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do.

This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well mannered in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want.  The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse finds himself in a difficult position.  He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.  He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.

Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation.  When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at you with teeth bared.

It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this.  It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment.  Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment.  This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training.  The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.

Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, and expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like such perfect horses.  Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see things unravel.  As the extinction process unfolds, they will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

Clicker training did not cause these outbursts.  When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.

When you are brand new to clicker training, and, especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try.  But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.

You’ve been promised a dream horse and all you have is a nightmare. How could you not blame clicker training?  But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?

You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process.  That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there?  You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.

Coming Next: Leaving History Behind

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.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

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:          

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

Learned Helplessness
At their best Horse Expos should be events that expand in positive ways our understanding of horse training.  Sadly that isn’t always what is presented.  At one Expo I found myself standing outside a demo ring where a trainer was cracking a bull whip over a horse’s head.  She first warned the audience to cover their ears because the crack was going to be loud.

The horse couldn’t cover his ears, and he couldn’t get away.  Over and over again she cracked the whip around his body.  Each time you could see his belly tighten.  You know the expression “tied up in knots”.  That’s how this horse was clearly feeling. No matter what he did he couldn’t get away from that fearful crack.

This isn’t training.  This is learned helplessness.

We know about learned helplessness from some terrible laboratory experiments that were done with dogs in the 1960s.  The dogs were restrained in harnesses and given electric shocks through electrodes attached to their foot pads.

For the experiment two dogs were yoked together.  The first dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever which also stopped the shocks the second dog was receiving.  The second dog could not stop the shocks through it’s own actions.

In the second half of the experiment the dogs were placed in a room with a barrier down the center.  The floor they were on had electric wires running through it. Again the dogs were shocked. The dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks jumped over the divider and escaped.  The dogs that had not been able to control the shocks made no attempt to jump out.   Nothing was restraining them.  They could have jumped across the partition to the safety of the other side, but instead they just curled up in a ball and took the shocks.  Learned helplessness.  They didn’t believe any more that they could escape from the pain.*

Is this what we want for our horses? Do we want them to give up and simply endure whatever we do to them in the name of training?  It’s important to remember that this trainer with the bull whip had a benign intent.  This horse was pushy and tended to spook.  The trainer wanted to be sure the horse was safe for the owner to be around.

Safety does always come first – but that has to mean for BOTH the horse and the handler.  The trainer continued to crack the bull whip around this horse.  I don’t know how long it continued.  I left to find the show management to lodge a complaint.

* Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock, Martin Seligman, Steven Maier  Journal of Experimental Psychology Vol. 74, No. 1  May 1967

Standing Up For Our Horses
I know if I push against you, you will push back against me.  And I know that we will not all make the same training choices.  There are many in the clicker training community who want to avoid all use of pressure, including any use of leads.  But pressure and release of pressure is our riding language, so I’ve made it part of clicker training.  I want the horses to learn in a positive, constructive way how to use the information that pressure provides.  I want it to mean not “do it or else”, but “follow the hints the pressure is offering, and you’ll get to your reinforcer faster.”  How we teach these lessons changes how pressure is perceived.

We all make different choices.  We all draw our lines at different points.  People who are exploring force-based training methods want good things for their horses.  They see that the end results can look very light.  They see that horses can be responsive.  They are afraid of the dangerous behaviors they are dealing with, and they are looking for solutions that work.

I don’t want to push against these good intentions, or the exploration that each of us goes through as we sort out how we want to train.  But at some point we all need to remember that it is more than okay, it is our responsibility to stand up for our horses.  We are their voice.  When we see methods that cross the lines of safe training, we need to be able to move past the words the trainers are using and see what is really going on.

Force-Based Training
I have watched and learned good things from force-based trainers. How am I defining force-based training?  This is training that is backed up with a do-it-or-else threat of escalating pressure.  The trainer applies light pressure.  If the horse complies, the pressure is released, and all is well.  If the horse fails to respond, the pressure increases until the horse gives a correct response.  The more the horse resists, the greater the pressure becomes.

A skilled trainer using these methods can look unbelievably light. Raise an eyebrow and the horse backs up twenty feet.  The final result is very impressive and compelling.  How magical.  Of course we want that.  But it is like a magician’s illusion, all built out of slight of hand. We need to remember that the reason the horse backs up for that raised eyebrow is because he knows that if he doesn’t, the subtle directive will turn into the sharp crack of a whip.  The threat is always there even if the audience fails to see it.

What Good Trainers Have In Common
I make this sound unbelievably harsh, but good force-based trainers can create good results and end up with eager, happy horses.  Good trainers no matter what methods they use share many of the same characteristics.

Good trainers are splitters.  They break their lessons down into many small steps.  If you are a force-based trainer and you are heading straight for the towering brick wall, you will end up in a fight.  But if you tear that wall down and build it up brick by brick, layer by layer – in other words if you are a good teacher – then the amount of do-it-or-else pressure you will be adding at any one step will be small.  You will be building confidence in your learner that he can succeed.  You’ll create a learning environment in which he knows he’ll be able to figure out the answer.  And just as important, he’ll be confident in his physical ability to perform.

If your small steps are accompanied by good timing, your requests will be clear and fair.  You will truly be working for the good of the horse.  Safety will be built into your training, and you will be a trainer I can watch and learn from.

It is important to make these distinctions and not put all the eggs into the same basket.  It’s only the rotten eggs that need to be left out.

Speaking Out For Our Horses
When we see training that violates safety, we need to speak out.  It can be hard.  Punishers are good at punishing. And they will all tell you it is for the good of the horse.

But good trainers know there is always another way to train everything.  If I am working with someone who isn’t comfortable with one of the choices I’m making for their horse, I’ll change the lesson plan.  There is ALWAYS another way to teach what we are after.

If you are working with a trainer who tells you that lassoing the horse’s hind leg to get him over his fear of shots is the way to go, it’s okay for you to say you aren’t comfortable with that method.  It isn’t safe for your horse and to please find a different way.  A good trainer won’t belittle you or make you feel bad.  A good trainer will listen to your concerns for your horse’s welfare.  A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse.  And a good trainer will find another way.  There is ALWAYS another way.

That wasn’t what I expected to write when I began the section on small wins.  Let me bring it back around to a wonderfully positive note and that’s to the brilliant use of keystone behaviors and small wins that you see in tagteaching.  That’s the subject of the next chapter.

Coming Next: We’re still in the section on Non-verbal Cues. Up next is: TagTeaching – You Can’t Train My Child Like a Dog!

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.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

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: