In early learning most learning is habituation. Habituation is an example of non-associative learning in which there is a progressive reduction of response with repetition. A horse first responds to a stimulus, but if it is neither rewarding nor harmful the animal reduces subsequent responses.
The effect is temporary but the effect grows more permanent after several sessions.
1.Timing is all important.
2.Habituation is most effective if the response (usually fear) is thoroughly removed each session.
3.Horses habituate most rapidly to a new stimulus when they first rehabituate to a familiar one. A successful session will run through several known stages before introducing a new one
4.Habituation is the means by which horses learn to be touched/brushed, washed, saddled and ignore potentially scary stimuli –traffic, plastic bags etc.
Systematic desensitisation as opposed to flooding
can be described as a gradual approach to habituation with the initial stimuli being at a level well below that which would stimulate a negative response. This is gradually raised to a level justbelow the negative response threshold when it is withdrawn before being gradually reapplied at a slightly higher level – the “approach and retreat “method. The required level of desensitisation/habituation is gradually arrived at.
involves applying or approaching with the stimulus and maintaining it at a level that causes a small flight response, until the horse stops reacting to it.
The horse is often desensitized to the saddle by flooding, because once the saddle is on, no amount of bucking or running will remove it, so the horse gives up and no longer reacts to it although some fear may always remain.
The former method is safer more humane and in the long run more reliable as a learning strategy.
Counter conditioning means to re-teach the horse to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. This is done by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. Over many repetitions, the horse learns that whenever that thing appears positive things happen. Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked sound, event, place or object. One approach to introducing a frightening stimulus is as follows;