The Power of Conditioned Aversives

Posted in: Clicker Training, Equine Training, Positive Reinforcement Training, The Academy of Positive Horsemanship


Conditioned Aversives

Let’s begin with a very normal and real scenario – you turn your body towards your horse and look at his hindquarters, you begin to extend your hand out towards his hip whilst looking at them and he yields them away from you, even before your hand has reached him.

Behaviour & Emotions

That operant response from your horse moving (yielding) his hips away from you is something he has learnt to do via operant conditioning through either negative reinforcement (aversive stimulation and the removal of the aversive stimulus as a consequence of moving away) or positive reinforcement (the addition of an appetitive stimulus as the consequence of moving away).

Operant behaviour responses also have conditioned emotional responses (CER) attached to them as well. Moreover, anything that reliably occurs before that operant response happens will also produce that exact same conditioned emotional response too.

In the case of the example above of the horse yielding his hindquarters – if he learnt to move his hips away from you by experiencing the onset of an aversive stimulus to his hip, emotionally he would have felt relief when he moved away – the operant response of yielding his hip will have been negatively reinforced and the emotional response attached to that operant behaviour response will be one of relief that he was able to escape the aversive.

Avoidance and Predictor Signals

So in this context the horse experienced the onset of an unpleasant aversive stimulus, which motivated him to escape it. That escape behaviour was strongly negatively reinforced through the removal of the aversive at that moment.

With practice and repetition, the horse will start to offer that escape response through avoiding the onset of the actual aversive itself. All negative reinforcement based training done correctly works this way – it’s why there are 4 phases taught within natural horsemanship – with time and repetition the horse will learn to respond to phase 1 and therefore avoid the onset and therefore direct experience of the real aversive itself.
The horses readily learn to read the environment for signals that reliably happen just BEFORE they experience the aversive stimulus.

But remember those environmental predictor signals also produce the very same conditioned emotional response (CER) as the operant behaviour response does.

If we think about exactly the sort of things which reliably occur before we place our hand on our horse’s hindquarters and increase the pressure to push them over…elements such as turning our body to orient ourselves at their hind, looking towards their hip with our focus on it and even beginning to extend out hand out towards their hinds are all things which are very reliably present just prior to us actually touching them and increasing that pressure to motivate them to escape from it.

These kinds of environmental clues ALL take on and therefore produce EXACTLY the same emotional response as the operant behavioural response of moving the hind away does – escape and relief…

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