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Operant Conditioning: Kyalami Yard News

HERE’s a recent press article by Malan du Toit, published in Kyalami Yard News.

A few weeks ago I received a call from Amore Bekker. She is a very well-known presenter on RSG, the Afrikaans radio station on FM (100-104). Her programme, between 8.30 and 12 on week day mornings, is called Alhoebekker. It’s an actuality show featuring topics affecting everybody in their daily lives.

Amore was very definite in her request. This was not going to be an educational programme on how to train horses. She made it very with clear that her business is in edu-tainment. She wanted me to do a call-in interview once a week about horses and what we can learn from our interactions with these lovely animals.

Everyone involved with horses will agree with me that there are numerous life lessons to be learned from just being around them. I can clearly remember how my wife, many years ago and before my active involvement with horses, always invited me to accompany her when she was visiting her horse. She said I would experience a vibe, a calmness that only horses can bring. This is so true! Years later I often still go to our stables during supper time to listen to their monotonous munching of roughage. It brings an almost unreal calmness over me.

It has also been clinically documented that just being with horses can alter a human’s brain waves. It was Winston Churchill that said:” There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”.

I wanted to talk about something more realistic, something that can have an effect on every listener every time they hear me speak. I could think of nothing else more important than operant conditioning. Why operant conditioning you may ask? Because this constitutes, in my opinion, the essence of behaviour in all living animals and this includes we as humans.

During the training process, using the principle of operant conditioning, we connect behaviour to consequences. Through operant conditioning an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. It is a method of learning that takes place through rewarding a certain behaviour or withholding a reward for undesirable behaviour. This type of training is what I call outcome based. The result of behaviour will either have a positive or a negative outcome (withholding reward).

It has been scientifically proven that animals will be more likely to repeat behaviour with a positive outcome than a negative. Operant conditioning is also called learning through trial and error or pressure and release. You apply some sort of pressure, wait for the correct response after which you immediately release the pressure. I always tell my clients that this is the light bulb moment for the horse. As if they are saying: ‘Oh yes! That is what I am suppose to do!’

There is, however, one important lesson to be learned here. By using the principle of operant conditioning, we are gradually and steadily shaping behaviour in a certain direction.  A grade 1 pupil does not turn into a grade 12 pupil overnight. It can take many years for a sculptor to finally complete his project. So it is, too, with training your horse.

Why is operant conditioning so important to me? Connecting behaviour to consequences teaches accountability. Life is really about making the correct choices. When we have made the wrong choices in life (and in many cases with dire consequences) we usually play the blaming game. Is that correct? No, and no again. We made the wrong decisions and we have to hold ourselves accountable for them. Once the importance of accountability is learned, one thinks twice before doing something. This is undoubtedly one of the keys to raising well-balanced children – educating them to think of the consequences before making any decisions.

We use the principle of accountability when training horses. This is really how they learn to give us our desired behaviour. We activate the thinking part of a horse’s mainly instinctive brain to look for doing the right thing because it leads to a positive consequence. This may take a lot of time but it’s a necessary process to achieve the goals and requires patience.  Learning/training is ongoing. It never ends.

So, for the past weeks, on a Tuesday morning at 9.30, Amore Bekker and I have been talking about  horses and humans, but always coming back to the principles of operant conditioning. The name of the program is Blinkvosperd (referring to an old Afrikaans folk song with the same name). You are welcome to tune in, here!



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