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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

Oops!...I Did It Again - Your role in the creation of unwanted behaviors

When it comes to creating horse behavior problems, horse owners and trainers are often not that innocent. Some horse behavior and training problems are created - and maintained - when people are unaware of the role they play in the creation of these behaviors. Allow me to explain.

How Horses Learn

All animals learn from the consequences that follow performing a behavior. If the consequences are desirable, the behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. If the consequences are undesirable, the behavior is less likely to occur again in the future. Horses learn this way, as do we humans.

That's all pretty easy to understand, isn't it? This next part is where things can get a little trickier, but if you want to be a better horse trainer (or even understand your own behavior) I encourage you to stick with me. Once a behavior is learned in this way, the consequences that follow the behavior don't ALWAYS need to be desirable. They only need to be occasionally desirable, in order for the behavior to remain strong.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

A person enters a multi-story office building, and walks up to the elevator. They push the button to call the elevator. Nothing happens. They push the button again, nothing happens. Push again, nothing. Again, they push the button, but this time the elevator doors open, and they enter.

A horse is being ridden in an arena by a novice rider, and the rider has a strong contact on the reins. The horse attempts to lengthen its neck, pushing down on the bit. Nothing happens. The horse tries again, nothing happens. Push again, nothing. Again, the horse tries, but this time the rider is pitched forward, allowing the horse to lengthen its neck.

In both instances, human and horse have previously learned that performing a behavior results in desirable consequences. For the human, the consequence for pushing the button was the arrival of the elevator. For the horse, the consequence for pushing down on the bit was the ability to lengthen their neck. Once learned, both behaviors will remain strong - even if the desirable consequences don't always follow.

Resolving Problems

Understanding how behaviors can be maintained in this way is critical if you want to be a better trainer. Behaviors that humans don't want horses to perform are frequently created and maintained by this process - so frequently, that resolving them represents a significant portion of my paycheque.

Awareness of one's own actions is the first step to resolving unwanted behaviors that have been accidentally created and maintained in this way. If you notice that you've done this, I recommend humming 'Oops!...I did it again' under your breath, and then taking the following steps:

  • address any reasons your horse may have for performing the behavior. All behavior serves a purpose to the animal performing it. The human pushes the button to call the elevator so that they don't need to take the stairs. The horse roots the reins out of the riders hand to stop pain.

  • figuring out how to set up training so that the horse doesn't have the opportunity to even perform the unwanted behavior in the first place

  • devising a training plan that includes presenting the horse with new, desirable consequences for performing a wanted behavior instead

I don't generally advise clients use undesirable consequences to stop these learned behaviors from occurring. In horse training, this approach involves causing the horse to feel pain or fear the moment it performs an unwanted behavior. This is not recommended, for a number of reasons, such as:

  • doing so can't address why the horse is performing the behavior in the first place. Some behaviors occur because they decrease an animal's pain or fear. In our above example, the horse may be performing the behavior to remove pain from the novice rider's hold on the reins, or the position their head and neck have been forced into.

  • undesirable consequences would need to occur after every single instance that the behavior occurs, and the majority of people cannot successfully do this

  • such a consequence would have to be of an intensity that it renders the horse's desire to perform the behavior obsolete. This usually means causing the horse considerable pain, or fear - both of which should be avoided in daily training.

  • this approach cannot tell the horse what it should do instead. Good training focuses on teaching the horse what they should do, not what they shouldn't do.


In summary, accidental reinforcement is a common cause of unwanted behaviors being created and maintained. This can occur when people are unaware of the role they play in both creating the learning situation, and maintaining the behavior once it is learned. Resolving unwanted behaviors that have been created in this way is best done by a three pronged approach

  1. determining what may be desirable about the consequences of performing the behavior (e.g. removal of pain; increased distance from something that causes fear) and address issues as needed

  2. setting up training sessions so that the horse has no opportunity to receive desirable consequences for the unwanted behavior

  3. devising a training plan that includes presenting the horse with new, desirable consequences for performing a wanted behavior instead

Happy horse training! Image courtesy of Kira Hoffman

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