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What is Behavioral Modification?

Behavior modification techniques are employed to correct problem behaviors and encourage desired behavior in your horse. Behaviors can be modified in your horse with techniques such as habituation, extinction, desensitization, conditioning, counter conditioning, and shaping. Most of these techniques are positive reinforcement based techniques that are generally used as an alternative to punishment. Punishment is less effective in horses due to differences in your horse's reasoning and thinking patterns and is often used incorrectly, producing a negative effect. Your veterinarian is trained and experienced in the use of behavior modification techniques and is a good resource for recommending appropriate techniques to treat your horse's behavior. In addition, consultation with a veterinarian will rule out any medical conditions that may be contributing to the behavior issue. Your veterinarian can advise you on appropriate behavior modification techniques, however, successful application of these techniques requires an investment of time, effort and patience on the part of the horse owner for success, as timing and consistency is critical.

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Behavioral Modification Procedure in Horses

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your horse and order any tests appropriate to rule out medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to behavior problems. Once any medical conditions have been ruled out or addressed your veterinarian can provide you with direction on appropriate behavior modification techniques and recommend local professionals to assist if required. Behavior modifications recommended may include one or more of the following techniques.

Habituation

Continued exposure to a stimulus which is evoking an unwanted response, usually fear or avoidance, eventually results in the horse learning not to react negatively when they learn that the stimulus will not harm them. The horse is allowed to avoid the stimuli but when they become used to the stimulus and the lack of negative consequences the horse eventually learns not to respond. 

Flooding

Flooding is rarely used, as it can be traumatic and associated with poor results. Flooding occurs when the horse is secured so they can not escape and then directly exposed to the feared stimulus until reaction stops. This can result in your horse becoming overwhelmed and freezing with fear, which is not a productive response. It should only be conducted as a last resort by a trained professional under controlled circumstances.

Desensitization

When a stimulus results in a negative reaction, exposing your horse to small doses or incremental exposure to the situation or stimulus will reduce the adverse reaction gradually.

Conditioning

When associations between a stimulus and a consequence occur your horse will learn to associate that stimulus with the consequence and adapt their behavior accordingly. 

Reinforcement

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves giving a positive result such as a reward for a desired behavior, negative reinforcement involves providing a negative consequence for an unwanted behavior. Negative reinforcement is is not the same as punishment, it is an unpleasant consequence that ceases the moment the unwanted behavior stops or a positive behavior occurs.

Extinction

Extinction involves removing the positive reinforcement for a behavior. Your horse may get a beneficial result from an unwanted behavior. Ensuring that the beneficial result does not occur when the behavior occurs will eventually lead to the horse no longer associating the behavior with the reward and ceasing the behavior. If association is strong this may require a long time period and consistency as the occurrence of the “reward” will reinforce the association and increase the length of time required to reform the behavior.

Overlearning

Repeated performance of a learned behavior decreases the chances of your horse forgetting the behavior, makes it an automatic reaction, and makes the behavior resistant to extinction.

Shaping

By rewarding gradual approximations of the desired behavior, a trainer can eventually achieve the desired behavior. This is effective when the horse does not understand the end behavior requirement.

Aversive Conditioning/Punishment

Providing an unpleasant event in response to an unwanted behavior to lower the chance of the behavior being repeated. This must occur immediately after the unwanted behavior and every time the behavior occurs. Punishment does not have to be physical. If not used correctly, this method has poor results and may result in other unwanted behavior. 

Avoidance

Avoidance occurs by ensuring that the horse is not exposed to the stimuli that causes the unwanted behavior. 

By removing the stimuli, the association between that stimuli and the unwanted behavior may decrease. This may be required in situations where dangerous behavior is occurring.

Counterconditioning

Replacing an unwanted behavior with another behavior by associating the more positive behavior with a more positive outcome. 

Efficacy of Behavioral Modification in Horses

Behavior modification techniques will be most effective if medical conditions that may be factors in behavior are ruled out or treated prior to using techniques. In order to be effective, timing and consistency is critical for behavioral techniques. Spontaneous recovery of a previous negative behavior can occur after it has been corrected, and behavior modification techniques may need to be reapplied to address this if it occurs. Techniques such as punishment and flooding are generally not as effective as other techniques described. Behavior modification techniques such as conditioning, habituation, desensitization, shaping and reinforcement are very effective at producing desired changes in behavior.

Behavioral Modification Recovery in Horses

It is important that behavior modification techniques be used consistently and may need to be reapplied if spontaneous recovery of an unwanted behavior occurs.

Cost of Behavioral Modification in Horses

Consultation with your veterinarian on appropriate behavior modification techniques along with a demonstration of these techniques will usually cost the same as for your veterinarian's usual examination and treatment fees. Depending on the cost of living in your area and the need for travel this can range from $100 to $500. Your veterinarian may also recommend additional local professional help applying these techniques, and these costs will be in addition to your veterinarian’s fees.

Horse Behavioral Modification Considerations

Not all techniques are appropriate to all behaviors, and if not applied correctly and consistently they may not be effective or may worsen behavior.

Due to their size, working with a horse displaying an unwanted or dangerous behavior presents hazards to the trainer. If necessary, seek professional assistance to ensure your and your horse’s safety.

Avoid anthropomorphizing your horse, that is assuming they will react and feel as you do. Horses have unique thought patterns and reactions, and to be effective you must understand their reactions and adjust techniques accordingly.

Behavioral Modification Prevention in Horses

Addressing unwanted behaviors at an early stage will result in the need for less intensive intervention and more positive results. Ensuring your horse has a safe environment and does not experience trauma reduces the likelihood of embedded behaviors developing. Regular medical care to address conditions that may affect behavior and result in negative behaviors becoming established due to pain, stress, or illness will reduce the need for corrective intervention at a later date.