Tips to re-train undesired behaviour in horses

In another post I explained the power of a variable reward schedule and how to use it into your advantage. A variable ratio schedule is the most powerful reward schedule because it takes the longest for a behaviour to become extinct. How can you use this information in re-training undesired behaviour?

‘Extinction’ of behaviour

Extinction means that the behaviour will never be displayed in a certain situation. There is 0% chance of a reward, so therefor the behaviour has become ‘useless’ in that situation.

This is what we want to accomplish when a horse displays undesired behaviour, like kicking the stall door. We want to ignore the behaviour in order to make clear that this will not get him anywhere.

Why does it often seem not to work at all (ignoring undesired behaviour)?. It is because of a natural occurrence in learning that is called ‘extinction burst’.

Extinction burst

Once the owner decides to ignore this undesired behaviour in order to let it become extinct (0% chance of a reward so therefor displaying the behaviour has no value for the horse anymore) the behaviour will first show an ‘extinction burst’.


Extinction, extinction burst and spontaneous recovery graph from

During the extinction burst the horse will show an increased amount effort in the hope for a reward. If one decides to ‘reward’ (read: react) to this undesired behaviour in any way, even if it is with shouting at the horse in an attempt to punish this undesired behaviour, chances are that the horse regards this as his reward. After all, it is the receiver (horse) who determines if something is a reward.

How to handle it

If the horse kicks a door in order to get your attention and he gets what he wants, it is a reward. Every time an extinction burst is rewarded it takes longer for the behaviour to become extinct.

So if you expect the horse wants your attention, make sure he doesn’t get it. Every time he kicks his stall door walk out of sight or turn your back. In this way you make sure you don’t give him attention for kicking the door.

Extinct behaviour

If you want to let a behaviour go extinct the extinction burst is the most important moment not to reinforce.

This is also the  moment most people are tempted to react. The person interprets the increased undesired behaviour as ‘the horse hasn’t learnt anything’ and because the bad behaviour increased (instead of decreased) they feel the need to interfere in the hope punishment will solve this.

Spontaneous recovery

A second, smaller extinction bursts can occur over time, which are called spontaneous recovery of behaviour. In the case of our horse kicking the barn door, he might show the behaviour  again but less extreme. When the extinction burst(s) don’t get reinforced the behaviour will go extinct.

Undesired behaviour

In dealing with undesired behaviour we always want to know what caused the behaviour, so we can work on that too.

Sometimes it is really hard to determine what reinforces a certain undesired behaviour. If the behaviour is ‘self rewarding’ just ignoring the behaviour won’t work. The horse will get his reward regardless what you are doing. Then you have to figure out how you can reinforce the opposite behaviour more than the undesired behaviour or find a way to prevent it.


This kind of self rewarding behaviour is hard to re-train

Rewarding the opposite behaviour

In the case of door kicking you can ignore the noise and start rewarding the horse for ‘four hooves on the ground’. In this way you communicate what it is you do want from the horse: standing still. Use the reward he wants for the undesired behaviour: your attention or during feeding time the food.

This approach works really well, but it takes a lot of effort from the trainer. You must be paying attention when the horse is standing still and is quiet. That can be a bigger challenge than just ignoring the door kicking.

Make sure everybody is on the same page if you want to re-train behaviour like door kicking. Ask everyone to follow the simple rules: go to horses that stand still and look for attention, ignore the door kickers.

Remember this

Every time an extinction burst is rewarded, the behaviour becomes stronger. Something you want in training desired behaviours, not in re-training undesired behaviours.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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7 thoughts on “Tips to re-train undesired behaviour in horses

  1. Hi! This is a fantastic article! I too am a trainer, and I specialise in problem horses. One of my favourite phrases, is “its always darkest before the dawn”. This is exactly what I am talking about! They always get dramaticly worse, just before they get better. And it is soo true, thats just when most people give up. Really nice to see it explained in more scientific terms. Thank you, I will be sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Johanna, thank you. I am going to use use your phrase “its always darkest before the dawn” more often (English is not my mother tongue) because that is exactly how it feels like. I teach all my clients the scientific explanations and jargon due to a lack of English expressions. Now I can serve them even better. Thank you.


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  3. I made a reply, seems it did not post! I wondered if you would mind if I re-posted this on my own blog? (With full credit to your s site of course!) you have such a lovely way of describing such an important part of the re-training process (particularly for “problem” horses. Also, I have say I love your site and your way of working and writing. Although clicker training is not a road I have ventured down, I am finding a lot of similarities to how we both approach, and work on changing unwanted behaviour, and encouraging new behaviour.

    I have shared your site on my facebook page, and let me know if I can re-print your article. Thanks again and perhaps, if you are in Ireland and I am in Canada? Or Cali? (I’m Cali born and breed!) we can meet up and share ideas. Keep up the good work 😊


    • Hi Johanna, of course you can re-blog this. I contacted you through your own website about it. I really appreciate you asking. Have a nice day! Sandra


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