Don’t Blame the Reinforcer

If the horse gets grabby for food then it must be the fault of the food (form; dimensions, calorific value etc), right? So the solution is to change the food in some way (different type of food, or change what the food looks like or how it has to be handled by the horse, e.g. harder for the horse to pick up so they have to be more careful, make the horse chew more) to make it harder for the horse to show the grabby (or other unwanted behaviour) behaviour, right?

There is a huge assumption there that it is the type, or form, of food that is maintaining the unwanted behaviour. And of course changing the type/form of food might make the behaviour go away. But that does not mean it’s a property of the food itself that was maintaining the behaviour.

It could have been one or more of the other variables of the combination of operant cycles working alongside each other that was maintaining the behaviour. The horse is not behaving in isolation…the environment, including the variations of the behaviour that we have inadvertently reinforced in the past, etc, all play a part. The horse is influenced by the operant cycle we are in as a handler.


One comment

  1. I like this orientation — that there is always a larger context in which we can view the behavior. And on that note, this is one part: “The horse is influenced by the operant cycle we are in as a handler.” as is the rest of the physical and motivational “ecosystem” that brings the horse to where he is in the moment be is being “grabby.”
    I do enjoy having horses that have been doing this for a long time as it makes it a little easier to narrow down the variables. The moment I start working with one of my horses when they aren’t on pasture, for example, I can typically tell how long it’s been since their last hay meal. Or to notice other contexts in which even the *least* “grabby” horse can become a little grabby. On the other hand, your post reminds me that I’m probably putting way too much blame on everything *but* my own behavior. I usually just try to “fix” it with external things (e.g. normally non-grabby horse being grabby, give them some hay first) and then get on with my normal activities. But I haven’t spent much time really looking at whether there’s something I *could* do (or not do) in those moments.
    I *do* change the food type with different horses, but almost always because I just start with the “lowest value” they’ll work for and then keep a few high-value treats in my pockets for something particularly effortful/amazing or something I’m trying to install as a new default… We have horses here that will work for alfalfa pellets, but I have two that will “phone it in” unless you up the treat quality.
    Only remotely related but (in my opinion) a fun side-note: Tim Ferris (4-hour Body ‘lifestyle guru”) has recently begun clicker training with his first/new dog, and has a few YouTube videos out. He tells a story where his dog didn’t seem very interested in clicker training after the first couple weeks, and a pro trainer explained that using plain kibble wasn’t enough of a value. The metaphor was, “Think of it like a bar… when it’s, crowded, sometimes you gotta the bartender in $20’s”). He said he was “tipping in ones and fives” and when he went to “twenties”, it all came together. So here at the farm, we sort of rated the 10 horses based on how crowded the metaphorical bar is, and sometimes you’ll hear someone in the arena with a pocketful of grass pellets yell out, “Hey, I need some 20’s here! Can you go get the Stud Muffins??” 🙂
    Also, just really appreciating your posts.


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