Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When Classical Conditioning Accidentally Goes Operant

That's a confusing title but I wanted those terms in for search purposes.

Classical conditioning is known as learning by association. We can pair something we know the horse likes with something new, and that helps the new thing be associated with the same calm and/or happy emotions.  

Operant conditioning is learning which takes place as a result of consequences. If your horse walks up to you in the paddock and gets a carrot, that consequence will affect the likelihood of the horse walking up to you next time you enter the paddock. 

We often say that classical conditioning and operant conditioning go hand in hand. It's impossible to separate the two. If I am training with operant conditioning in mind by offering treats when my horse does things I like, the fact that I am giving treats will give an overall happy association to training with me. 

It also goes the other way. If I am trying to make a simple associations with food and something else, such as hoof trimming, and I hand treats to the horse, the horse will find any patterns in when I feed. If I happen to feed when the horse swishes her tail and then coincidentally do that two or more times, the horse may think that swishing her tail is what earns the treats. The consequence of getting a treat after she swished her tail, even though it was coincidental, will inform her decision about whether to swish her tail again. 

I experienced this challenge this morning while trying to classically condition my Kizzy pony to the sound of clippers.  In my 30 Days of Husbandry online course, Kizzy demonstrated some concern with clippers. In the last week I have been focusing on that as a training goal. She has made good progress in her comfort level and I was almost ready to try doing a little clipping, but decided on one more step first. I had been working on a lot of classical conditioning with running the clippers around her, but I know that when the clippers actually do some cutting they can change sound. I decided to let her listen to me clip another horse while she ate treats. 

Walter's "cat hairs" under his jaw
I don't clip my horses as a general rule. I like to leave them with their whiskers and other hair which serves a function. But sometimes clipping needs to be done for veterinary purposes so I like to prep my horses and ponies for those just-in-case situations  Another thing I tend to clip are the long hairs which grow along the jawline in winter. During cold and icy months, I think those hairs serve to wick water and ice away from the face. But they tend to hang on long after cold weather does so in spring I sometimes decide to clip them to neaten up the appearance. I often wait until later in the year so I hope I haven't jinxed us by using Walter as an example for Kizzy and clipping under his jaw. 

Luckily, I have been videoing my daily sessions with Kizzy and so I caught this on video.  You can watch it here

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