What are Habituation and Sensitisation ?

What are Habituation

and Sensitisation ?

Habituation is the gradual reduction or waning of a response to a non-harmful stimulus in the environment (e.g. plastic bags) with frequent presentation of the stimulus.  Successful habituation is dependent on the following;

  • the response must not be rewarded or punished (no reinforcement must be received)
  • it is context specific, i.e. the horse has to re-learn that the object is not harmful in new environments
  • presentation of the object must be frequent

An additional characteristic of habituation to an object is ‘spontaneous recovery’.  Spontaneous recovery is where the original startle response to the stimulus comes back.  It is not usually as intense as the original response and habituation can still be used to reduce the response.  This can occur during habituation if the presentation of the stimulus is not frequent enough, or if the horses has been habituated but then does not see the stimulus for some time.


  • reinforcement of the reaction or something bad happens at the time a non-harmful object is presented
  • it is not context-specific
  • if the animal is extremely fearful, the reaction will occur every time the object is presented after just one presentation
  • an increasing fear-response can be learned over time with repeated exposure to the stimulus.

If the initial reinforcement of the reaction was salient (important) enough the horse can learn to be fearful with one presentation of the object.  The fear can also be learned over time and is characteristic of the increasing response to the stimulus.  One of the characteristics of a horse becoming sensitised to an object is that each time it is presented, the startle or fear reaction increases in intensity.  During the time of sensitisation, measures can be taken to prevent the reaction becoming a conditioned response (i.e. it always happens).  Once the reaction is conditioned, a different approach to changing or amending this learned response is required.


  Habituation Sensitisation
1 Reaction is not rewarded or punished(neutral feedback) Reaction is reinforced(either by managing to escape or by feeling fearful)
2 Context-specific(needs to be learned about in each environment) Not context-specific(once learned that something is frightening, it is frightening in all environments)
3 Frequent presentation reduces reaction Frequent presentation increases the reaction.If initial presentation induces fearful enough response, the reaction will always occur at the same intensity
4 Spontaneous recovery may occur The reaction eventually always happens(becomes classically conditioned)

Download a pdf Version of The Article

The S.M.A.A.R.T. Horse Company Ltd
www. smaarthorses co.uk

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