Riding Extinction Bursts

Once a behavior has been learned to be a source of reinforcement and the reinforcement ends extinction will begin. So if a behavior was reinforced but now is not, the behavior will begin to fade. A behavior that is not maintained with reinforcement won’t maintain itself, it will begin to be less reliable, accurate, and consistent. The behavior won’t just fade away, it will actually burst like a bubble. Starting at the narrow point of the accurate, correct, and consistent display of the behavior. As the behavior goes un-backed up the learner will begin to vary the behavior (maybe I really need to do it a little different?) often making the behavior bigger and more dramatic to try to get the reinforcement response they were looking for (if you don’t want it like this, how about I do it twice as big?!)

We might recognize this in the form of a temper tantrum with a child. If last time you were at the store, your child asked you nicely for a candy bar at the counter and you got it for them, but this time they ask and you say “no”, the child may not understand why and become frustrated. They will try asking many more times in various different ways, getting more emotional and frantic while they try to earn this reinforcer they are getting all the more desperate for. Until eventually they are in a full blown temper tantrum screaming and shouting for that candy bar. Now if you give in and reinforce this tantrum, you’re speeding up the process in which the child goes from asking nicely to complete hysterics, because it worked. If you don’t reinforce this behavior it may happen a few more times, until eventually the child gives up trying to get the candy bar (but you’ve also lost the asking politely behavior). The child may also try various other methods that may be inappropriate – like stealing the candy, or trying to sneak it into the basket without you noticing. All the typical ways of avoiding punishment may be attempted that can become dangerous or inappropriate. Because there has been no appropriate alternative way to earn this reinforcement or understanding of why the behavior is no longer working.

If we can remember to a moment where something has worked for us in the past, but is no longer, and how upsetting and frustrating this is for us, we might recognize how easily this tantrum is to trigger. Of course, as adults our tantrums may look different, getting angry might be quieter and more subtle, than screaming and trashing around in a public setting. Remember the last time you put money in a vending machine and your snack got stuck? How mad did that make you? The last time you sought out attention from a special person in your life and it wasn’t given? How heart broken were you? What other attempts did you make? How many ways did you try to fix your behavior to try to earn that social reinforcement you were missing?

This phenomenon of behavior bursting before extinguishing happens with all species and carries with it the same feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and desperation. So when we’re training our horses and reinforce a behavior we like, then decide later we no longer want that behavior, be aware of extinction bursts. Even if you didn’t originally intend to reinforce that specific behavior. For example, often when people start hand feeding their horses the horse learns to invade the human’s space and take treats out of the human’s pockets directly (why not it’s easier than waiting?) We decide we don’t like this new “mugging” behavior, and find it rather rude, so we stop hand-feeding, but the horse gets worse and worse, eventually even biting! Now we are resorting to punishment to defend ourselves, our horse is frustrated and we think “hand feeding was such a terrible mistake!” But what really happened was a misunderstood extinction burst. The lack of clear behavioral criteria with the food in the beginning, plus the sudden removal of reinforcement for a behavior that had previously worked is the combination that lead to the inappropriate expression. Just like the child at the store counter.

Understanding this pattern can help us recognize it and avoid it. However there are some trainers who try to use this to their advantage in training, we call this “riding the extinction burst”. Where they train a behavior, reinforcing it lightly and unpredictably. This helps the horse understand what behavior is wanted, but then when it’s not reinforced they exaggerate and vary the behavior making it bigger and better. Then the behavior is reinforced again to stop it from growing beyond this exaggerated point. As the behavior settles back into it’s normal lower expression, reinforcement with be withheld again, causing it to begin bursting again. This is extremely upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and enraging for the learner. It becomes just like gambling, even addictive. It’s an inappropriate and dangerous approach to training. It can easily lead to an outburst of behavior that’s misplaced, it creates negative emotions that could easily be turned into aggressive behaviors. This is the most inappropriate use of R+ training I’ve seen out there. Extremely dangerous for human and extremely upsetting for the horse.

So let’s make sure we work well to prevent this dangerous cycle. As we’ve seen removing the reinforcement isn’t the ideal option, avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem. So we need to use reinforcement appropriately:

  1. Rate of reinforcement – make sure your RoR is high enough to match the effort of the behavior, in early learning this will begin very rapid and can settle into a more relaxed rate as the horse becomes comfortable with which behavior earns which reinforcement.
  2. Food value – using a lower food value can help reduce the learner’s desperation for the reinforcement and reduce the amount of over the top effort they will put towards that behavior. So make sure to match the value of the food with the difficulty of the behavior (for your individual, a high spirited horse may need more satiating and low value food compared to a mild-mannered, quiet horse, who may need slightly higher value, more interesting food to be a strong motivator)
  3. Food quantity – using larger quantities of lower value food is more appropriate, like getting a bag of rice rather than a candy bar, it’s satiating and satisfying, but not exhilarating.
  4. Alternate source – making sure there are other options available to the learner, so their only source of reinforcement isn’t just through working with you. This will reduce their desperation and frustration levels. Using hay or a treat toy while you’re training can help this.
  5. Focus on calm – reinforce soft, mild expressions of behavior if the horse gets worked up while training…
  6. Dial it down – provide a moment of satiation, using an easy behavior you can reinforce heavily and frequently, then break down the criteria of the behavior you’re having trouble with, into smaller and easier reinforceable steps.
Posted by Jessica

Lions and Tigers and Spurs, Oh My!

At our farm we have a collection of tack and tools that have been donated to us and to our foundation rescue, Eye of the Storm, over the years. Many of these tools are so cruel we choose to use them for education rather than resell them like most donated items. On our educational wall (we jokingly call this our “torture chamber” and our “wall of shame”) we have tools with a wide variety of bits ranging from mild to extreme, even homemade torture devices, we have a collection of types of whips to teach the differences in styles and common uses, we have twitches, chains for noses and legs (to stop kicking, to encourage high stepping, or otherwise to inflict pain), we have a collection of strange halter devices including a weaning muzzle (which spikes the mare when the foal tries to nurse!) – but we have surprisingly few spurs. We have a few mild spurs, the plain knob-style spur, and just 1 giant, beautiful Argentinian spur, or it would be beautiful if never used on a horse. But a good friend and volunteer has cleaned out their old tack box and decided to donate their rowelled spurs.

I’m excited for this to help include in our education about these stinking little tools. So what is it about spurs that earns their place on our wall of shame? We all understand basic physics right? When pressure is distributed it causes less pain, when it’s narrowed it increases the pain. We can think of it like standing on thin ice, if the ice begins to crack while we are standing, we can distribute our weight by laying down. However if we are trying to crack the ice in a bucket, we may use a chisel or spike, to narrow the point of the pressure to break it more easily. Spurs work in the same way. When we ride a horse with traditional training we use our legs and particularly our heels to apply pressure, when the horse responds as desired, moving away from the pressure we stop squeezing/kicking. The goal of the spur is to narrow and amplify this pressure, just like using a chisel or ice pick. This not only increases how aversive the leg aids are but pin points where you can apply the pressure, further back or further forward to control different parts of the horse’s body.

With understanding of behavioral science we understand that the only purpose of this tool is to increase how aversive the experience is for the horse to work harder to avoid it. We know now that we don’t need to use aversives to train or control our animals, especially not heightened aversive tools that have no use aside from increasing the pain. With positive reinforcement as a tool on our side we never need escalated aversives to influence behaviors, especially tools like harsh bits, whips, or spurs. The need no longer exists to get the behaviors and precision we want.

Posted by Jessica

What do horses feel?

Did you know that modern neuroscience has learned an awful lot about how animals feel emotions? We now have knowledge of which emotions animals feel, to what degree, and how these influence their behavior. There is so much more to learn and understand, but I thought it might help to give a brief overview. One particular neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has done research on the core emotional systems. These systems are expressed in different ways and triggered by different things among varying species and individuals, but they feel the same within the body. With combining this information with behavioral science, ethology, biology, genealogy, and so on, we are learning much more about these emotions, how they are expressed specifically in horses, and how this information affects our training.

A basic overview is here:

More details in our book Equine Empowerment: A Guide to Positive Reinforcement Training


Posted by Jessica

No Longer Your Beast of Burden

Horses are no longer a Beast of Burden. Modern countries no longer rely on horses for labor or transportation. Horses are now purely a leisure and entertainment animal. While our sports mimic old jobs and times of war where horses had previously given their lives, this is no longer necessary. No job done “just for fun” or entertainment should cost the life or wellbeing of an animal. I would say the same for humans, except humans are capable of understanding the risks and potential consequences of participating in extreme sports and dangerous activities – animals can’t understand these concepts in order to consent to the risk. Horses were used as tools of work, sport, and warfare since we domesticated them thousands of years ago, transitioning the harsh tools we used on them to manipulate them in a variety of clever new ways. Turning livestock nose rings into bits, adding spurs to sharpen our boot heels, using wide variety of whips, chains and pressure-point knots used to inflict pain and control these animals. Being manipulated, controlled, and used their whole life, then used for breeding and eventually destroyed when they are no longer useful. Our excuse was “it’s necessary” for food, labor, and warfare. So we accepted these necessary evils.
Before pictures:

This is no longer necessary.

It’s time we, as a modern society, decide to stop this cycle of abuse and disposal of animals. For the sole purpose of entertainment and sport.

The number of horses cycling into slaughter houses because they are old, lame, sick, or unable to be ridden, or because they no longer compete up to the standard the owner had aspired to. These horses are used up and thrown out. Often these horses were believed to have been given to “safe” retirement homes, “Free to Good Home” is a death sentence for animals. So we as a culture need to stand against this. Make this socially unacceptable. Whenever you work with a horse, whenever you pay to interact with a horse, whenever your child goes to riding lessons or summer camps, when you buy a horse, when you lease a horse, anything, make sure this horse is SAFE for life. So many stables for competition, lessons, trails, pony rides, camps, and so on use their horses as long as they can and immediately dispose of them when they’re no longer able to do the job. This happens all the time, in all parts of country. Even if the owners tell you “Oh no, we send them to a good retirement farm”, we all know that’s as true as when our parents told us our puppy went to live in a “farm up north”. We need to hold our society accountable for this. Even if it means that owners must make the decision to humanely euthanize these horses. Even though this is not kind, death is not a welfare issue, death is not suffering. When they leave a home they are not just at risk of getting a bad home – but much more likely for those who are un-useable, is that they will end up bouncing auction to auction until they end up on the slaughter pipeline where they are shipped repeatedly until they make it over the border to Mexico where they are slaughtered. If they survive the trip, they do suffer the whole way. So while I believe anyone who uses a horse should be responsible for them until their appropriate end of life, if that must be cut short it should be done in the least awful way, the least suffering, humane euthanasia in the arms of loved ones.

Our community has got to make it unacceptable to dispose of old, broken, sick, or used up animals. This needs to be no longer ok. This means everyone must do their part to make sure the horses they use are safe.

After pictures to return some comfort to your heart:


Posted by Jessica

What is Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility? Is it necessary?

Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility are a big topic on the internet right now. Seems education is spreading around, I’m so glad for this. For the well-being of horses everywhere, understanding these commonly used and exploited coping mechanisms are not only dangerous, but also cruel. If you’ve studied psychology or seen videos of animals “hypnotized” or doing “yoga” or maybe the awful shark flipping techniques, you may have heard of these topics, it’s been shown to be something present in all species of animals. To start, there is a lot of misconception about what these terms really mean, so let’s clear that up. We’ll let science define the terms to keep us all on the same page. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Force-free, Fear-free, LIMA, Emergencies


As R+ trainers we often get asked “but what will you do in an emergency?” Just because we try to avoid the use of aversives in our training doesn’t mean we won’t do what’s necessary in a real emergency. However, there are some options we can look at first. This is a summed up, easy list of options shortened from our larger post on dealing with emergencies (here). It’s important to remember these are techniques we can use when presented with an urgent health or safety situation we were not prepared for. This is not to make up for proper training and taking the time to prepare our horses for what they may experience in life. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Learned Helplessness

There is a “funny” image of a horse who fell down and got her foot stuck on an electric fence, the horse goes dull and unresponsive. Everyone thinks this is a big act of drama by the horse, “haha what a silly horse, she’s only caught a little, doesn’t she know she’s fine?”

Obviously not…

Have you never been so scared in your life that you are frozen with terror? That you disconnect with reality? You imagine its happening to someone else, not you? You just go limp and pray for it to be over quickly? This is tonic immobility, this is such extreme fear the horse feels they have already lost, the monsters are there to eat them, they disconnect with reality. Nothing, nothing, nothing about this emotion is funny.


Often animals who experience this a few times in their life fall into this state more and more quickly. So while running (possibly in fear not play) then falling, a serious sliding fall, and then feeling trapped by the leg is actually a horrifying experience for anyone, it may not have been the horse’s first time feeling this way and fell into this state of shock quickly. Perhaps they were “laid down” by humans, or sacked out, or twitched regularly… who knows. But still. Not. Funny.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Alternative Equine Lifestyles

It takes a special type of person to turn away from society’s norms and work to change the world for the better. It’s very easy and comfortable to live a life within traditional expectations, gender roles, following the rules, and keep your questioning to yourself. It can be difficult, painful, and rather isolating to step outside that box, even if it’s for the better. I believe this barn became the ethical, forward-thinking, animal care facility it is because it’s run by those people who have walked outside normality. I am proud to be a part of such a beautiful group of humans and animals.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way” – Martin Luther King Jr. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Desensitizing Whips?

To Desensitize: to render insensitive; to make indifferent, unaware; diminishes emotional responsiveness to an aversive or appetitive stimulus

Negative Reinforcement (R-) is the removal of a stimulus that increases the frequency of a behavior. The learner would have to find the stimulus that was removed aversive for it’s removal to be reinforcing. If the stimulus were neutral, it’s removal would be indifferent to the learner. If the stimulus were appetitive, it’s removal could even be punishing to the learner (P-).

More of this here: https://empoweredequines.com/clicker-training/training-articles/conditioning/

I watched a professional trainer (I won’t use their name to be nice) at a local expo thoroughly confuse a horse with a swinging whip. Spend the first few minutes rubbing the horse down with the whip, each time the horse became uncomfortable and tried to scoot away he “corrected” the horse with a few tugs on the rope halter, stopping any movement. When the horse relaxed he continued to rub the whip on them. Then he held the whip and spun the short string in a circle towards the horse’s hip. The horse stood calmly, as he had been taught, but didn’t realize that the trainer now wanted a behavior, hip away. As the horse didn’t respond correctly, the handler increased the spinning until the tip of the string began flicking the horse’s hip. At this point the horse reacted and scooted his hip away from the sensation. Clearly this sensation was aversive to the horse as it’s removal increased the frequency of behavior as they repeated this. They practiced on both sides. The horse became fluent in moving his hips away. They returned to rubbing the whip on the horse’s body, the horse smartly moved his hips away as the whip approached his hip. He was punished with a few snaps on the lead. Now the trainer wants stillness. They repeat this until the horse allows the whip to be rubbed all over him while staying still. They continued to proof their cue just as we do with R+, by alternating between moving hips away and staying still until the horse understood the whip’s contingency. The trick here is that the whip was not desensitized, rather contingencies have been placed on the whip. It’s aversiveness hasn’t changed, but the way to find relief/avoidance has changed based on the tool’s position.

So why desensitize a tool designed to be used as an aversive?
To learn about tools like these that have been conditioned to be aversive read here: https://empoweredequines.com/2019/11/13/conditioned-aversives/#more-1790
I see trainers work very hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, because they don’t want their horse to be afraid of the whip – but then they use the whip as something the horse should work to avoid. If you succeed in desensitizing the whip thoroughly, the tool will no longer motivate behavior or reinforce the behavior when the whip is removed. The same can be said for any tool we intend to use as a removal tool. We wouldn’t desensitize a horse to our leg cues, as we want them to respond to the lighter cues. We want them to respond while the cue is mild, not ignore or be dull to the leg, so we need to increase for them to perform. We could desensitize it a degree, taking the edge off the tool, so we can rest our legs on their side without a reaction, hold a whip in their area without them panicking, but we wouldn’t want to desensitize the tool completely, where the horse is not responsive/reactive to it. You want the horse to be sensitive to the tools you’re using – not desensitive!

Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

We can do this too with our R+ tools, bring down the value without completely desensitizing.  I’ve found a few times I like to do this, often with new horses who are over-aroused or too excited and focused on the food we’re using to train. I want my rewards to be of a high value (like we want the aversive tools to be strong so we can use them gently), but not so high the horse isn’t able to think or enjoy their time learning.  However if I have an aversive I’m looking to desensitize, I’m likely to look at a gentle, systematic approach with counter conditioning to help reduce/remove the aversive value. While with something that is appetitive, I’m more likely to desensitize it through flooding! I decrease the value by providing alot of it, the more access to the food I’m using, the less exciting it is to get it. This is why I like to use hay pellet/stretcher, I can allow the horse to have some on the side, either in a bucket or toy food dispenser, knowing they have another choice available can reduce the value of the food in my pocket. I can also satiate by feeding high quantity handfuls in the beginning of the training, and decrease as the horse feels satiated. However my sheep will remind me not to oversatiate or desensitize a certain food or they’ll get sick of it, it will lose it’s appetitive value, and (like the whip in my example) it will lose it’s effectiveness as a reinforcer.


People often try hard to desensitize tools like whips so as to feel better about using them, so they don’t feel as though their horse is scared of the tool. But if they don’t find the tool something worth avoiding, it won’t work to motivate behavior, it’s removal wouldn’t be reinforcing if they didn’t dislike the tool to some degree. Often people who spend this time desensitizing tools like whips end up having to buy flags or some other tool to get the same reaction as a whip used to! Which is rather counter-intuitive.


Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

But if a horse allows you to rub an object/whip/flag, all over them, but still moves away from the whip when cued, isn’t that desensitizing? Not quite. See, they would have successfully put strong contingencies on the whip. Meaning to avoid conflict, remain still and calm, the tool is desensitized to a near neutral level of sensitivity when it’s held out and rubbed all over their body. But the tool does hold an aversive meaning when swung behind them, held up beside them, or otherwise used to cue behavior. We know it has an aversive value because the horse is willing to work to avoid it. If they didn’t work to avoid it, it wouldn’t be aversive, but we also wouldn’t get the behavior we were asking for with R-. At this point we either need to resensitize the tool, teaching them that when held in this position it will escalate until the correct behavior is elicited (moving away).

Posted by Jessica

Why Would a Horse Prefer an Aversive?

Some people tell me, “I tried bitless, but my horse prefers using a bit” or “my horse prefers R-, I tried R+ but traditional training just works better for him”. This seems counter-intuitive to us who understand that these situations are actually aversive to the learner. Our horses are not masochists, so why would they choose the more aversive of two options? Why would a horse prefer force over treats? Why would a horse prefer an invasive tool over a softer external tool?

There are alot of answers to these (Are you using the right tools? Did you choose one that is actually gentle? Do they fit right? etc…) but the simplest one underneath it all is “the devil you know”. The devil we know is always better than the devil we don’t, because we understand how it works, we understand how to avoid the bad and reach the good. A horse who “prefers” the bit isn’t truly saying they like having an invasive and uncomfortable bar placed inside their mouth and used to manipulate their head and neck. They are saying they understand this, they know how to respond to these aids and avoid extreme pain or discomfort, reaching relief more quickly. Quite simply this is uncomfortable but safe. While they may actually prefer a gentle bitless side pull (ya, we know not all bitless options are kind! So don’t swap one aversive for another) they may not actually understand these new sidepull cues as clearly as the bit they knew well. They may not recognize the warnings before the aversiveness of the tool needs to escalate. These are new and different aversive sensations they don’t yet understand how to avoid and can be much more concerning than a stronger aversive they do know how to avoid. They may need to go through the learning process again, either through R- or R+ to learn how to respond appropriately to the tool and avoid the aversive created by the tool. Even gentle sidepulls are still something wrapped around their head and manipulating their movement. This devil they don’t know may ultimately be much kinder, but because they don’t understand it yet it can be or seem much worse. The fear of the unknown outweighs the known bad they have learned to control.

This same principle applies when people say their horse prefers to use negative reinforcement. What humans mean by this is that the horse finds the right answer more quickly (faster results) and with less negative emotional expressions. Why does this happen? Negative Reinforcement works by applying an aversive which maintains or increases until the horse performs the correct behavior, at which point the aversive is relieved. This learning method requires an aversive to work, if they don’t want to avoid it they won’t work for relief. So, why would any being choose this over working for a reward? Why would anyone prefer avoidance over seeking? Quite simply because they understand it better. Not because R- training is better or more clear, but rather because that one human (their trainer) is more fluent in and better at using R-. The human may be more clear, more consistent in their timing, clearer criteria, and better rate of negative reinforcement, making it easier for the horse to succeed. While the human (who is often very new to understanding R+ and behavioral science) may be clumsy, have poor timing, poor antecedent arrangement, too low a rate of reinforcement, unclear criteria, and so on, making earning reinforcement difficult and frustrating for the horse. So the horse is not preferring the aversive R- over the appetitive R+, but they are preferring the clarity and understanding, the safety in knowing how to respond appropriately and the consequences of their behavior. There is comfort in clarity and consistency, even if its consistently unpleasant. As opposed to unclear, confusing, sometimes good, sometimes terribly frustrating.

So what do we do about this? We need to recognize first that these are not the horses’ problem, this is something caused by the person. The person handling the horse may be better at using R- or not willing to take the time to retrain known R- behaviors or to retrain new, gentler tools so then the horse doesn’t understand these new tools or forms of communication. So the horse seems to prefer the “devil they know”, but in truth they just don’t know what gentler tools mean or how R+ could be wonderful if done right. So no, your horse does not prefer the more aversive tools or techniques, they prefer the clarity and safety in understanding how to avoid them. So we need to educate owners on how to use R+ properly, how to adapt it to different horse personalities and different human goals. We need to help people understand how to get what they want with consistent timing, clear criteria, and appropriate rate of reinforcement.

We often get horses at our rescue who are retired work horses, they understand a life of R-, we often use these cues and their previous learning, because this is a language they know and taking it away from them can be confusing, scary and overwhelming if done all at once. We need to retrain their language a piece at a time and not turn their world on their head, especially if we are working with them in anyway (like the vet or farrier). So we use what they knew until we can replace it with a kinder language. But there are some things we will throw out immediately, the things just for us, for our benefit, i throw those out because i won’t subject a horse to aversives for my own pleasure (this is my ethical line). So things like riding will wait until i retrain it with R+. I will also choose the kindest tools i feel safe with to train with R+. Because any behavior can be put on any cue with R+, we can use any tool (or no tool) to work with our horses. More on this here…

Posted by Jessica