Classical conditioning refers to how a horse would make an association with a particular stimulus to a behavior and then the presence of that stimulus would cause the behavior to be repeated.
Often we do not realize how much classical conditioning we are implementing in our daily activities with our horses.
Here is an example at our barn. The behavior the horses offer (and I want) is for them to come into the paddock closest to the barn in the morning. How this was accomplished through association was from this chain of events.
The door to the feed room has a distinctive squeaky noise when opened. Every day I do the same sequence of events. I open the door to the feed room mix up their supplements and distribute them amongst the horses. As a result, the horses are already waiting for me! Why? Because they have associated the squeaky door noise with something good and they have also associated the squeaky door with coming to the gate. In other words they have made the correlation that the squeaky door precedes the grain coming.
When teaching a horse using classical conditioning we are helping the horse to make associations with repeated words or actions. This can be accomplished with positive reinforcement (something good is coming for the horse like a treat) or negative reinforcement (something is going to stop for the horse like tapping on his shoulder to make him move over).
Here is an example of how I use classical conditioning to get nine horses to come in off of the pasture.
Closest to my barn is a paddock with 10 buckets attached to the fence all 20 feet apart. The horses are familiar with these buckets because of the morning feed I mentioned earlier. Rather than walking for 2 acres to retrieved 9 horses I wanted to have them want to come in when called. So I whistle once and walk around the buckets making the grain noisy as I place it in the buckets (I use very little). Through repetition and time the horses learn to associate the whistle with something good in those buckets and they run off the grassy field and come into the paddock. I can then close the gate to the field.
Now that’s the end result but not where I began. I would begin this process when they are closer and whistle each time I would place something in those buckets where they could see me doing this and they could come to get the goodies for themselves.
What’s the difference between Classical Conditioning & Operant Conditioning?
In operant conditioning the horse uses his actions to manipulate his environment. The behavior that will be repeated most often would be determined by the consequences of this action.
An example purely from the (experimental) behavior of a horse would be if they played with a gate latch, managed to get it opened and it lead them to a greener pasture. You could be sure that they would try this behavior again because they received something they wanted.
Take home message. Become very aware of all the little things you do around horses. Your words and body language speak volumes to horses and they are constantly learning from you.