Wednesday, October 20, 2010

17. Why Might a Horse Not do a Behavior?

What are the reasons for a horse not doing a behavior? There are many reasons. Here are a few.

What others can you come up with? (Think of specific situations with your own horse where you had challenges)

-doesn’t really understand the behavior
-doesn’t know the cue(s)
-poisoned cue
-your rate of reinforcement too low
-your timing is off
-the criteria you are asking is too much (you are lumping)
-the reward isn’t good enough for the level of difficulty of the behavior you are asking or the environment you are training in
-the value of reward is too high and he can’t focus
-is in a new environment and you have not gone back to the beginning of training the behavior (Horses do not generalize well. That is, they do not transfer learning from one location to another easily.)
-has not been proofed in many different situations
-has done too many repetitions of the behavior
-has been inadvertently been reinforced for doing a slightly different behavior
-tired (from exercise before training)
-recently ate (full) and not food motivated
-underlying health issues
-adrenaline still high from after a long ride
-a plastic bag is flapping in the distance
-too many of his buddies around (and they are doing something more rewarding)
-he is alone
-there’s a herd of cows nearby and he is not comfortable with cows
-he is over threshold (and as a result not able to think)
-his level of self-control isn’t able to handle what you are asking of him
-he doesn’t trust you in this situation
-fearful of the environment (as evidence by fearful body language)
-picking up your stress (perhaps by tension in you body/handling/voice etc)
-hormonally-aroused by a female in estrus
-being intimidated by another horse that is nearby
-the saddle isn’t fitted properly
-rider is sitting off balance

Quick Summary:
Horse Health
Training process
Physical environment
Social environment

As the horse’s teacher, it is up to you to remove, mitigate or change all these things (by controlling the factors in the horse’s environment so that he can perform the behaviors, building the behavior is small enough increments (called splitting criteria) so he can succeed, building up distractions slowly etc) or to retrain him from the beginning of a behavior in a new environment so that he can be successful.

You’ll note none of these reasons for not performing is trying to increase his rank, defiance or blowing you off. It’s always best to look at concrete external reasons when possible than to assume what is going on internally for the horse. Given that we are not a horse, our knowledge of social motivators is at best, a guess.

Here is a video showing an example with a dog. The principle applies across all animal species.
Which of these reasons are likely why neither dog can do the cued behavior?

Video from eileenanddogs's channel on


  1. A clarification about terminology. If a horse chooses not to engage in a training session, he's doing some other kind of behavior instead that is being reinforced (or has been reinforced) by another aspect of the environment. He is still engaging in operant behavior.


  2. You are correct! I will clarify. I was referring to the horse 'being operant to the trainer for training purposes'.
    Thanks for getting me to think about this a little more!