Jun 192013

I have a rocksteady faith in building a relationship through lots of positive reinforcement, before you’re even allowed to actually work with pressure. And that’s not just because then you can’t do what you’ve always done quite instinctively (push just a little bit, pull just a little bit, tap just a little bit, hit just a little bit); instead you now have to start thinking about how learning actually works. Learning to work with positive reinforcement teaches you what it really means to “get what you reward”. Only after understanding more of that, you can start working with pressure in a more ethical and yes, more efficient way.

“It is highly likely that there are emotional components to operant conditioning, and that affective states themselves can act as reinforcers or punishers.” is a sentence coming from the research paper ‘Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning‘. I’m always intrigued by how carefully these things are being worded – “it is highly likely” that horses experience emotions during training, and that influences the training outcome? Duh!

Anyway, in this paper horses are being tested on two tasks: going to a target at a distance, and moving forward under saddle. Targeting works best with positive reinforcement. Moving forward works best with negative reinforcement (leg aids).
Ofcourse, my immediate reaction as a clickertrainer is that this perfectly shows how inefficient food rewards in the saddle are when you don’t have a bridge, and when your horse didn’t learn long ago already that it’s perfectly alright to actively experiment towards the right answer, until he hears the bridge. It’s the bridge, stupid! (*).

But that’s not what this research is about, really. The paper actually shows how the efficiency of a method (from the learning quadrant) changes with the task and the accompanying arousal. Leg aids tap into the flight reflex of a horse, so the arousal is higher and the efficiency as well. On the other hand, when a horse gets too aroused from positive reinforcement, it might hinder learning efficacy as well, depending on the task. Yes, we’ve all seen that, especially  when we start a horse with clickertraining.

But, the researcher adds: “there are good reasons to preferentially use positive reinforcement”, because “all operant training approaches will be negatively affected by a negative affective state.” With that she means that horses become optimists or pessimists, with all accompanying long-term hormones and plenty of room for poisoned cues (the lay word for approach-avoidance conflict).

“Arguments that certain operant conditioning approaches are more effective than others may be true in some circumstances yet may fail to take into account the merits of first manipulating arousal levels and affective state to create conditions in an animal that best complement training methods associated with ease of application and promotion of positive affective state and appropriate levels of arousal.”
Or, to use more common words: the most important is that your horse gets to know you as a nice person, before you start taking dance lessons (tango or rock&roll or walzing) when both of you start frowning about who puts which foot where, and if you go there, then where do I go. Because it’s the relationship that makes all the inevitable muddling and jumbling and pulling and pushing and staying behind the movement alright. It’s the relationship that gives plenty of room for making errors with a smile.

Jun 172013
foundered hooves

Foundered hooves: neglect?

A recent film published on the Internet by an equine welfare organization managed to stir up a little dust during the past week. Obviously I won’t mention the organization since in general they do sterling work but I think the film and associated comments worthy of attention.

Basically it was a short piece of film about some equids that had – principally – grotty feet. The immediate reaction from the person filming was that it was a sad case of really serious neglect; a typical and understandable reaction. Unfortunately, the film was too short to be able to make a good evaluation but the attention went almost exclusively to the feet.

So, why mention it here on this particular equine welfare site? Because I feel that all too often we evaluate from a human perspective rather than an equine one. Even large (inter)nationally renowned welfare organizations such as the RSPCA and WSPA are prone to anthropomorphism, or at least projection, when evaluating (some) situations.

There are times when we want it too good for our animals. Clean drinking water at no less than 18°C, top quality almost laboratory standard food, regularly washed and scrubbed to insure clean and pristine fur/hair… And what do our animals do? Horses roll in mud, dogs roll in horse muck… Both often prefer to drink from a pool rather than clean tap water – dogs regularly going for the most stagnant there is! Surely this should tell us something.

unattended hooves

Unattended hooves: neglect?

Coming back to the film – what worried me most was that the “reporter” had drawn personal conclusions about the situation apparently based upon one thing, the hooves. Although little attention was paid to it, there was some footage which seemed to show an appreciable expanse of ground, part paddock and part grass, with plenty of shade. No water troughs were to be seen but that is not evidence that there weren’t any.

So there was shade; possibly water; vegetation providing some, if not all, nourishment. The “only” apparent problem was the grotty feet and possibly a rather slow change of coat. Now I am the first one to admit that the hooves did not look good – they were overgrown and misformed. Having said that, I have seen enough ponies which have apparently been well looked after but have succumbed to misformed feet often through too much care than not enough. It is therefore very dangerous to stamp a situation with the word neglect simply on the basis of “having a look around.” On the other hand, at the first signs of possible neglect, then it is also wise to keep an eye on the situation and take action once things really begin to become clear.

I would like to make it very clear, I feel very strongly that animals should be kept in the best possible conditions but that they also should be appropriate to that animal. I would also rather someone reported a possible case of neglect than ignored an obvious case.

horse in water

Field under water: neglect?

Finally, a lot was played on the state of the hooves talking of the animals being in great pain, of the old adage “no hoof, no horse” and so forth. To put it into perspective, both the animals were moving around in such a way that pain probably would not be a major factor, if any at all; they were on softer ground which does not give adequate abrasion to naturally form the hooves; and “no hoof, no horse” is also a rather dated idea coming from the farriers who need hoof to be able to shoe a horse. In reality, the hoof is nothing more than a fingernail or toenail and as with humans, the nail will grow back; a more appropriate adage would probably be “no sole, no horse”.

Your thoughts and ideas on and provoked by this article are very welcome.