As I learned about Clicker Training, I discovered something known as the “extinction response”. It’s a term used in “operant conditioning”, which is the behavioral method on which all this clicking and treating is based. Once a horse has learned to respond to a behavior in the desired manner, receiving a treat, the positive reinforcement is delayed or removed. The question then becomes whether the horse will try again, in hopes of getting the treat. Ideally, they will increase the desired behavior with what is known as an “extinction burst”, and their extra effort will bring about even more of the desired response. If they are rewarded at that point, it will teach them that there is an advantage to not giving up too easily.
For example, if a person is trapped in a room and can't open the door, one last push of effort might be enough to unstick the door. If a horse is cantering half-heartedly, waiting for the click and not getting it, the horse might speed up with extra energy to try to get rewarded with the treat.
So, today has just been one of those really grindingly difficult days. I was frustrated and rejected and didn’t get the golden ring on the merry-go-round. I am faced with a choice. I could give up and move on, or I could dig in my heels and push harder. It would be my version of the “extinction burst”.
The only way I could make this kind of decision was to go to the barn. I discussed it with Silk and Siete, as the rain poured down on the snow, and we all hoped it wouldn’t flood the stalls. I remembered my motto, “Persistence always pays off.” I went back in the house to lick my wounds and gather my “windhorse energy”. Tomorrow, I’ll muster up my “extinction burst”. It is February, after all, and this is the coldest and darkest before we can begin to grow again.