Dec 132011
 


Despite many people using clicker training successfully on the ground with horses, people often feel confused by how how to apply it once on-board. I’ve tried a bit of ridden clicker in the past so thought I would share my thoughts and experiences. For me it is all down to two issues – exactly what I want to be rewarding and exactly why I want to be rewarding it. How to do it then rather falls into place a bit more just by using the same principles that we would use for CT on the ground.

So starting with what to reward…..

Firstly you can reward in a very general sense. You ride normally with the usual sort of mild -R that includes various cues and releases (if you’re doing it well, anyhow) and then click and treat periodically if you find the general effect pleasing. There are plenty of people who do this and claim that the clicker adds something to the training. I suspect that it does in some cases but only in the sense that the horse gets a bit of a break and a bit of nice experience and so gets a generally positive association with the session. That’s all a good thing but it doesn’t aid the learning very much because the click isn’t actually being paired with a specific behaviour. The potential pit-fall is that some horses will get very worried about trying to work out what behaviour they are being rewarded for and will lose that sense of positive association. Obviously if the pressure used is perceived by the horse to be quite aversive then that too will undermine the limited positive benefits of the rewards. For me, this approach isn’t actually clicker training because there are crucial elements missing – learning, choice, a genuine tapping of the brain circuits that govern learning via positive reinforcement and release dopamine….. So it’s not something I ever do and can’t see that changing…… (But never say never and all that!)

So alternatively we can reward something more specifically, still within a “normal” -R-based riding session. You still have the “generally positive” associations for the horse but with the added benefit that the click is being paired with a particular behaviour that you have chosen to work on. You use shaping in the normal way and the horse has the opportunity to learn the new behaviour, or refinement of an existing behaviour. You still don’t get the element of choice in your training and I would say it’s debatable how much the horse really feels positively reinforced when it is part of a schooling session in which the horse has not necessarily chosen to participate. But it’s a good way of marking exactly what you want so you give the horse a good opportunity to get the right answer quickly, rather than having to work out by more aversive-based techniques. Of course, you can still have a horse who is worried about getting the right answer because of the way you are combining +R and -R – how is the horse supposed to know when he is expected to offer behaviours and when he is supposed to follow cues? But if the pressure is minor (and always was minor, I don’t mean starting big and then scaled down so that the high-pressure stuff is always lurking there as a threat…..) then most horses should be able to cope. I’ve used this sort of approach a couple of times with my horse. Once I was trying to get him to speed up a bit instead of our slow dawdly sort of plod which can sometimes take forever to get anywhere. I confused the hell out of him and ended up with tiny steps instead. I was interfering with his natural rhythm and (in hindsight) actually what he needed was regular osteopathy and the freedom to just get on with it instead of being micro-managed. The other times I tried it was out hacking when he would dive for he hedgerow so much we took forever to get anywhere (can you see a pattern emerging…….??! It’s always down to the impatient human, isn’t it?!). I would click after a random number of steps, aiming to get him to eat after a click rather than when it suited him. We’d had a really successful time of doing this in-hand, going across a dairy pasture so I figured I could do it on-board. The main difficulty I had was that hedgerows are not all the same the way a dairy field is. I would click at the wrong moments because he wouldn’t want to eat whatever plant was there and he would continue to dive for the plants he wanted, click or no click. Again, I found we were more successful when I just gave up the micro-management and accepted that if I’m going to ride in a bitless bridle (and with half-rubbered reins with the rubber all wearing off so I have NO grip!) then I should take what I get. I probably just need some different reins…..

Finally there is the approach where you do the CT properly. You start from scratch and free-shape everything. This might involve following another horse so you can elicit the movement easily or you might use targets or you might genuinely free-shape it and wait for the movement to shape. Then you could incorporate something like David Dodwell’s Horse Morse Code where you have a clearly-defined set of cues to pair with the behaviours you have shaped. The more complicated the cues/behaviours the more you might be tempted to revert back to including a bit of -R to help clarify what you want, so if you want to stick to free-shaping you would need lots of imagination and lateral thinking to make it work. I took this approach with Jak for a while. We’d done loads of conventional dressage in the name of trying to keep him supple and hold off his arthritis. It made him miserable which was why I started looking at +R in the first place. So I started thinking how I wanted to start again and free-shape things. I didn’t really have anyone to do this with so didn’t have the option of following another horse (probably how I would want to do this with a new youngster or abused horses etc) so the way I tried was to elicit forwards motion on the ground by using a series of targets (upturned flower-pots) and then planned to extend this to on-board. It worked at walk but when trying it at trot I only ever seemed to succeed in annoying him. So I tried just sitting on him and aiming to capture forwards motion. There was a hilarious workshop when it tipped it down with rain and I spent 15 minutes or so sitting on Jak, everyone soaked and Jak immobile. There was absolutely nothing we couldshape into ridden CT work.

So this all really got me back to why I wanted to do it. By this point, when I took Jak out for a hack he would be enthusiastic, supple, fun and clearly not phased by my occasional use of pressure. I wanted to retrain dressage for his benefit but we’d kind of moved beyond that point. The hacking we do had him moving much more freely than the dressage ever did because he was much more enthusiastic and self-motivated. Treats weren’t going to change that. I could eventually see that the free-shaping dressage was a great clicker challenge for me and I wanted to do it for me. One day with another horse I may still do it but just getting on with it and having fun is right for Jak now.

CT for me is no longer about feeling I have to train everything with CT to make everything positive. It is more about doing enough CT and free-shaping that he can retain his sense of choice and autonomy that it is no big deal when I haul his head out of the hedgerow, or any of the other occasions when I resort to pressure. Most of our rides are just point-and-go, rather than planned training sessions. I prefer to retain CT for free-shaping stuff that doesn’t matter to me so he can have absolute choice in whether to participate. Anything else I feel dilutes the power of CT. But these thoughts are purely where I am with Jak today. Another day, another horse I may think differently and I think this flexible thinking is really crucial to these sort of discussions so people don’t feel there is a set way of doing things. A clicker is only a communication tool, you could use it to mean a smack is coming (please don’t!). Its use with horses is still relatively recent and we are all still exploring.

Oct 262010
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Oct 142010
 

Positive reinforcement (+R), particularly when used in conjunction with clicker training, is commonly combined with the use of negative reinforcement (-R) and/or punishment. Typically the aversive stimuli (i.e. the pressure applied) in these cases will be mild and the combined approach is used to clarify and/or hasten the training. Is there anything wrong with this? Are those of us who would say “yes” just being dogmatic and purist in our approach to positive reinforcement? Or do we all need to take a step back and think more carefully about just how positive our positive training actually is?

Firstly I still don’t know of anyone who uses only +R all the time with all their horses and don’t believe it is possible (or useful). But I do believe it is possible, and extremely valuable in some cases, to have discrete sessions in which only +R is used – i.e. free shaping. For some horses, in some stages of their lives, I would say free shaping should make up most of the interaction they have with humans. But that depends on the horse and the stage it is at. More generally, outside those specific free-shaping sessions, the vast majority of emotionally well-placed horses will suffer no ill consequence for the occasional mild aversive stimulus. A gentle pull on the reins to stop or to raise the horse’s head from the grass will not cause psychological trauma to the well-adjusted individual.

But if you are going to use – within the same session and/or to achieve the same behaviour – a combination of +R and -R then various things can happen. This isn’t only because of bad training but also because of what is going on in the horse’s brain at the time.

The first reason is practical – if the horse is experiencing two different reinforcers pretty much simultaneously then the horse is going to be reinforced more by one of them than the other. This is known as “saliency” and is effectively the relative value of the reinforcers from the perspective of the horse. Does he find more value in the release of pressure or the reward? They are unlikely to be identical in value. The presence of the click and treat may well help the horse’s understanding along and confirm to him that he is performing the correct behaviour, but that is not the same thing as true positive reinforcement. The horse may well still be changing his behaviour because he is searching for the release of pressure, not because he is actively trying to earn a reward. The presence of rewards does not make your training positive; it is all down to the horse’s perception of the training and the reasons why he chooses to change his behaviour.

Another objection I have to the combination of positive and negative reinforcement is the issue of what Karen Pryor termed “The Poisoned Cue” . Due to classical (i.e. Pavlovian) conditioning, if you are using pressure then the level of pressure the horse feels in its training will become associated with you and your training equipment/environment . It’s a bit like receiving a phone call from someone you don’t want to speak to, you start dreading the phone ringing. So if you combine the pressure with some form of positive reinforcement, the positive reinforcement will be diminished in value (like getting a pay cheque, knowing that it’s all going to go straight out again on bills), possibly to the point of being irrelevant. While you could argue that some +R is better than nothing (in fact I *did* used to argue that) I have also seen a demonstration by someone combining CT with a well-known pressure-based training method and it was really really awful. More on that in a moment….

If an animal is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then it is believed from neuroscience studies that a particular region of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This is the opioid which makes us feel good when something good happens. Over time, this dopamine release can take place even in the absence of an actual reward. So if we do lots of reward-based training and trigger dopamine, then even just our arrival at the field can do the same, whether or not we have treats. It’s not just about the horse wanting us for our treats. We make the horse feel good. This is the neurological basis for the Pavlov’s dogs result. We feel genuinely pleased when our payslip arrives, because of what it represents, even though it’s only actually a worthless piece of paper.

If we do pressure-based training or even just “neutral” training then there is no dopamine released, even when you release the pressure. A different brain circuit is stimulated and, depending on how much pressure you use, there may be an adrenalin release, i.e. a stress response.

If we mix the two whilst training the same behaviour then the dopamine response is likely to be over-ridden by the adrenalin. Even if you normally do -R (depending on the degree of pressure – either physical or emotional) and decide to have an occasional pure +R session, you may still not be getting the dopamine release because of what you normally represent to your horse. So the best-case scenario may well be that you are not positively reinforcing your horse at all. You might be giving it treats but that is not the same thing as the horse FEELING positively reinforced. That’s not to say this is necessarily bad, and it may help your training along a bit if your timing is good, but it makes sense to be doing what you think you are doing and not complicating the session with red herrings.

The use of +R can encourage a horse to offer behaviours in the attempt to earn a reward and this puts the horse in a very emotionally vulnerable position (which is why a proper +R free-shaping session will reassure the horse that it is ok and that there is no negative consequence for a wrong answer). If pressure is likely to be used as well when the horse gets the wrong behaviour then it can create a major conflict in the horse’s mind, increasing the stress yet further. If a lot of pressure is being used then the best thing for the horse to do is just do as he’s told so as to avoid the pressure. If he is being encouraged to offer behaviours spontaneously as well then it puts the horse is a very difficult position. It’s like when you’re at school and you have to summon up the courage to speak in front of the class and then the teacher tells you you’re stupid. This isn’t just “bad training”, it can also be technically good training in a very unempathic way and it is something I have seen from various trainers who (perhaps inadvertently) prioritise the achievement of certain behaviours above the feelings of the horse. The horse I watched who stands out in particular was being trained with a combination of a Natural Horsemanship method and CT. The pressure was all at a relatively low sort of level but that didn’t stop the horse being very stressed about what it was being expected to do. He clearly knew the cost of getting a wrong answer but was unable to just switch off and respond to cues because the CT element demanded that he offer behaviours. The difference in attitude of a horse under this sort of conflict and a horse having a true free-shaping session are just such worlds apart that it’s very hard to do justice to it on a keyboard….

There is nothing wrong with doing low-pressure or neutral work, no-one is living in a state of constant dopamine fix! But if you never receive it you are unlikely to be in very emotionally developed place. In humans we call it “depression”. The horse is not likely to be making psychologically healthy choices and enjoying his work, merely responding to cues and trying to keep out of trouble. The ideal is that the horse is engaging his brain and thinking “howabout if I try a step backwards”, rather than “I need to move away from pressure” – free-shaping is often very much about “brain exercises” rather than physical training. There are, of course, caveats to these generalisations that can be made in individual cases. When I clicker trained my horse to walk backwards, I did start the training by “cheating” and using a light hand pressure on his chest and so negative reinforcement was involved to help him understand the behaviour I wanted. But once he understood the right behaviour, he started to offer it spontaneously and any residual association with the pressure was clearly counter-conditioned by the on-going purely positive free-shaping. It is better if you can avoid this sort of short-cut by correct shaping but if the alternative is a horse who is likely to become frustrated by not understanding the right behaviour then it may be appropriate – feel and judgement are always crucial.

My personal preference for a horse in an emotionally “good” place is to have some pure +R free-shaping sessions interspersed with just “normal” -R. For dealing with specific problems I would take a step back and devise a shaping plan with tiny steps so that each step gives the opportunity for reward and positive associations with the task. For horses in an emotionally difficult place then I would say many more free-shaping sessions are necessary before the horse is ready for -R and these sessions may need to be spread out over a long period of time. It is time well-spent and will create the foundations for a much more successful horse-human relationship.

By Catherine Bell

(If you want to know more this is a brilliant video compliments the article – http://barnmice.ning.com/group/bodylanguage/forum/topics/rewards-and-dopamine-what.)

(Thank you to Catherine for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Sep 232010
 

Am I the only person to be concerned about the increasing trend to control and overcome natural equine behaviour? Now before all the training people leap on me, yes, I do know that all our interactions with horses have an effect on their behaviour, and that all training is designed to do just that. I’m not talking about that, though. What concerns me is the idea that normal horse behaviours are problems, for which you need a solution that – very handily – someone can sell you. I’m not sure whether the demand has come from horse owners and riders, from manufacturers trying to sell products, or simply from the modern desire for a quick and easy fix (such as using herbicides instead of weeding the garden).

In the 6000 years since horses became domesticated animals we have done much to bend their wild natures to our own ends. But it seems that it’s only in the last few years in the developed countries of the world, as the idea of the horse as working partner has faded from living memory, that we have been trying to suppress their natures altogether. Rather than accepting that horses are nervous, flighty and sometimes argumentative creatures with strong social and sexual drives, we have decided that it’s acceptable, even necessary, to treat those natural instincts as problems or conditions that need to be cured or controlled. Hence the whips, spurs, tight nosebands, severe bits, training aids and food supplements.

A recent study by Hockenhull and Creighton (2010) found that in a survey of over 1000 non-professional horse owners in the UK, 79% used one or more artificial aid such as a martingale, or noseband other than a simple cavesson, and 85% routinely fed dietary supplements. Astonishingly, almost one in three owners – 27% – gave their horses four or more dietary supplements along with their feed.

There seems to be a widespread perception (Hockenhull & Creighton 2010; McBane 2010) that the apparent increase in horses behaving inappropriately, and the proliferation of ways to modify their behaviour that do not rely on the skills of the rider, is because many more horses these days are owned by novices who use artificial aids and dietary supplements to help with problems that they lack the skills or knowledge to solve. However, this survey showed quite clearly that the riders using the largest number of artificial aids, and giving the most dietary supplements, were those who described themselves as committed amateurs, rather than leisure riders, and who rated their level of skill as ‘high’. These products, it seems, are used most by the very riders who ought to have the skills and knowledge not to need them.

Many years ago, the sports writer Simon Barnes wrote a monthly column for the UK magazine Horse & Rider. One sentence that he wrote has stayed in my mind ever since: “The whip is an admission of failure.” He meant that by carrying a whip, he was, in effect, saying “my own body and legs and hands and personality are not

good enough to motivate this horse to go forward willingly.” The trouble is that we have an equestrian culture – and this recent study confirms it – in which fierce bits, and crank nosebands, and training gadgets that resemble bondage outfits, and whips, and, more than anything else, spurs, are seen as the badges of honour of the skilled riders, the serious, proper riders, as opposed to the ‘happy hackers’. How would it be if everything changed, so that using an artificial aid proclaimed to the world, “I’m not a good enough rider to fix this problem without this gadget.”? What would it take to make that happen?

This isn’t a perfect world; all horse-rider relationships are works in progress; and none of us are quite as good as we’d like to be, but I do think horses in general would have a better time if we could change our culture to one of using as little equipment as necessary, rather than as much as possible, and if more people were in the habit of questioning what they do and the kit they use. For example: Does my horse really need this? Would something else, like some extra riding lessons, or less hard feed for the horse, be another way to solve the problem? Am I just using this equipment because I’ve always used it, or everyone else uses it, or the professional riders I admire use it?

I always feel sceptical about the merits of the various feed supplements designed to modify horse behaviour and suspect that they work largely by convincing the rider that the horse will be calmer, or less bolshy, or whatever, while taking the supplement, and so she rides with more confidence or tact, and so the horse behaves better. The causes of inappropriate behaviour are likely to lie in the realm of inappropriate feeding, housing, exercising, training or care, and it seems improbable that small scoops of this or that herb, or vitamin mix, or other magic powder can have much effect if some major aspect of the horse’s life is wrong. Indeed, the labelling on the packaging of many supplements gives the impression that nothing is guaranteed: phrases such as ‘believed to be beneficial for X’, or ‘may help horses suffering from X’, or ‘traditionally used for treating X’, or ‘to support the function of X’ enable the manufacturer to suggest that their product will help with something while not making any direct claims that would get them into trouble with Trading Standards.

When you use herbs, what you are giving your horse is an unknown dose of an unknown number of active ingredients, of unknown strength and in many cases unknown effect, with unknown side-effects and interactions with other supplements and prescribed medicines and, in products from less-reputable companies, unknown contaminants including heavy metals and prescription drugs. Skeptvet (2010) gives a comprehensive and alarming list of publications on the subject. However, whether riders are inadvertently poisoning their horses with these products or not, the fact remains that the majority of riders seem to think it’s OK to use drugs to modify their horse’s behaviour – because that’s what these products essentially are. Is that really an acceptable way to treat these animals that we say we love?

I do suspect that a lot of behavioural or temperament problems in horses could be solved not by adding substances to their concentrate feed but by giving them less of it, and by giving them more exercise and a more varied and exciting life.

The underlying problem seems to be that many people find the natural behaviour of horses difficult to deal with, or frightening, or in some way undesirable, and this is possibly because it’s so different from our own behaviour. About ten years ago, Equine Behaviour Forum member Emma Creighton conducted a scientific study into the aspects of horse and pony temperament that are important to riders and handlers. Her findings were that most of the respondents preferred horses who were in the mid-range of emotional reactivity, were highly sociable and responsive to humans, and were extrovert and open to new experiences. These preferences were independent of rider age, years of experience or level of skill. What came as a surprise was that the horse temperament described as ideal by most people was more a description of the average dog than the average horse. Emma suggested that since we have shared more years of our history with dogs than with horses, we perhaps relate better towards, and have an inbuilt predisposition towards, animals that behave like dogs. Is this why we try so hard to stop horses behaving like horses?

By Alison Averis

Alison Averis is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. 

If you find these questions interesting, you would probably enjoy being a member of the Equine Behaviour Forum and joining in the correspondence in our quarterly magazine. See www.gla.ac.uk/external/ebf/ for more information.

References

Creighton, E (2003). Equine temperament and welfare. Equine Behaviour 59, 13-16.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2010). Can we blame the widespread use of artificial training aids and dietary supplements in the UK leisure horse population on novice owners? In Proceedings of the 6th International Equitation Science Conference, p40. www.equitationscience.com

McBane, S (2010). Conflict behaviours – causes, effects and remedies. Equi-Ads, September 2010, p40. www.equiads.net

Skeptvet (2010). Risks of herbs and supplements finally getting some attention.  www.skeptvet.com/blog/2010/02/344/

Jun 142010
 

Here are a collection of abstracts from the lastest scientific papers, published in the first half of this year. Whether you are a casual rider or a professional horse person this is information that you need to know. I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the below abstracts, or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment and I will happily answer your questions.

Behaviour

Discrimination between conspecific odour samples in the horse (Equus caballus)

Becky Hothersall, Patricia Harris, Lotta Sörtoft and Christine J. Nicol

Abstract- Behavioural observations suggest that smell is important in social discriminations between horses but balanced studies of this capacity are lacking. We used a habituation–discrimination procedure to investigate the ability of horses to distinguish between pairs of odour samples from different individuals. In Study 1, separate tests were conducted for urine, faeces or fleece fabric previously rubbed on the coat (to pick up body odour samples (BOS)) and donor pairs differed in sex, and age. 10 pregnant mares each underwent three tests, one per sample type. A test consisted of three successive 2-min presentations of a sample from Individual A with a simultaneous presentation of a sample from Individual B during the final presentation. Doubly repeated measures ANOVA indicated a main effect of sample type on investigative response (df = 2, f = 7.98, P = 0.004): durations were longer for BOS than for urine or faeces but habituation across trials was most consistent for urine. In the final presentation, mares demonstrated discrimination by investigating the novel urine sample (B) more than the repeated sample (novel: median 8.0s, IQR = 10; repeated: median 2.5s, IQR = 6; z = −2.558, P = 0.008). In Study 2, urine samples from castrated male donors were used and neither mares nor their 4-month-old foals discriminated between samples from different individuals in the final presentation. The findings suggest that urine odour may contain some information that horses can use to discriminate between conspecifics. This may be limited to the level of broad categories such as sex or reproductive status; further investigation is needed to reveal what functional information can be transmitted and what compounds are involved.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science

Fear reactions in trained and untrained horses from dressage and show-jumping breeding lines

U. Von Borstel, I.J.H. Duncan, M.C. Lundin and L.J. Keeling.

Abstract- Horses’ fear reactions are hazardous to both horses and human beings, but it is not clear whether fear is influenced more by training or by other factors such as genetics. The following study was designed to detect differences between young, untrained (U) and older, well-trained (T) horses of dressage (D), show-jumping (J), and mixed (M) genetic lines with regard to intensity of reaction and ease of habituation to a frightening stimulus. In five consecutive trials, 90 horses were exposed to a standardized fear-eliciting stimulus where intensity and duration of the reactions were recorded. Repeated measures analysis showed that flight reactions by J were less intense (p >0.05) than those by D or M regardless of training status or age. Habituation to the stimulus over time was not significantly (p >0.1) different between the disciplines, as indicated by similar slopes for all measurements, but reaction vigour declined faster for T than for U. These findings indicate that there may be a genetic basis for less strong, though not shorter-lasting, fear reactions in J compared to D or M lines of horses. Research including the estimation of genetic correlations between traits related to fearfulness and to performance would be required to verify this assumption.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00136-X/abstract

Monitoring distances travelled by horses using GPS tracking collars

BA Hampson, JM Morton, PC Mills, MG Trotter, DW Lamb and CC Pollitt

Abstract – Objective The aims of this work were to (1) develop a low-cost equine movement tracking collar based on readily available components, (2) conduct preliminary studies assessing the effects of both paddock size and internal fence design on the movements of domestic horses, with and without foals at foot, and (3) describe distances moved by mares and their foals. Additional monitoring of free-ranging feral horses was conducted to allow preliminary comparisons with the movement of confined domestic horses. Procedures A lightweight global positioning system (GPS) data logger modified from a personal/vehicle tracker and mounted on a collar was used to monitor the movement of domestic horses in a range of paddock sizes and internal fence designs for 6.5-day periods. Results In the paddocks used (0.8–16 ha), groups of domestic horses exhibited a logarithmic response in mean daily distance travelled as a function of increasing paddock size, tending asymptotically towards approximately 7.5 km/day. The distance moved by newborn foals was similar to their dams, with total distance travelled also dependent on paddock size. Without altering available paddock area, paddock design, with the exception of a spiral design, did not significantly affect mean daily distance travelled. Feral horses (17.9 km/day) travelled substantially greater mean daily distances than domestic horses (7.2 km/day in 16-ha paddock), even when allowing for larger paddock size. Conclusions. Horses kept in stables or small yards and paddocks are quite sedentary in comparison with their feral relatives. For a given paddock area, most designs did not significantly affect mean daily distance travelled.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123356045/abstract

Equine Development

The effect of early handling of foals on their reaction to handling, humans and novelty, and the foal–mare relationship

E. Sondergaard and J. Jago

Abstract – The natural behaviour of horses in response to danger is to take flight, and consequently human handlers can be injured. Reducing the flight response and general reactivity of horses is therefore likely to reduce the incidence of injuries to handlers. In this experiment we investigated the effect of handling foals in the first 2 days after birth on their subsequent response to handling, humans and novelty, and the foal–mare relationship. Standardbred foals were assigned to one of two groups, handled (H) (N = 22, 12 colts, 10 fillies) and control (C) (N = 22, 11 colts, 11 fillies). Handling took place 3 times/day on days 1 and 2 after birth for 10 >min/session. Individual foals were gently restrained and stroked all over their body using bare hands and then a plastic bag and each leg was lifted once. C foals received no handling. C and H foals did not differ in their reaction to freeze branding at a mean age of 14 days. The approach and leave behaviour of mare–foal pairs were observed at pasture during week 5 to evaluate their relationship. Mares of H foals were less active in keeping the pair together than mares of C foals (GLM: 6.81; P < 0.05). At 6 weeks of age all colts were introduced to an arena, together with their mare, and their reaction to a novel object and an unknown human were tested. Treatment did not affect heart rate of foals or in mares. C foals initiated more suckling bouts than H when no human was present (Wilcoxon: Z = 2.44, N = 22, P < 0.05) indicating that they responded differently to the novel arena than H foals. However, there was no difference between H and C foals in their exploratory behaviour in the arena. When a human was present in the arena, H foals had a shorter flight distance than C foals (Z= −1.98, N= 22, P < 0.05) and tended to move further away from the mare (Z= −1.80, N= 22, P< 0.07). Handling of foals in the first 2 days after birth appeared to affect the foal–mare relationship and alter their perception of humans at a later age but did not alter their response to novelty or to handling. The effects of early handling of foals on the foal–mare relationship require further investigation.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00029-8/abstract

Effects of imprint training procedure at birth on the reactions of foals at age six months

J. L. WILLIAMS, T. H. FRIEND, M. N. COLLINS, M. J. TOSCANO, A. SISTO-BURT and C.H. NEVILL

Abstract – Reasons for performing study: While imprint training procedures have been promoted in popular magazines, they have received limited scientific investigation. Objectives: To determine the effects of a neonatal imprint training procedure on 6-month-old foals and to determine if any one session had a greater effect than others. Methods: Foals (n = 131) were divided into the following treatments: no imprint training, imprint training at birth, 12, 24 and 48 h after birth or imprint training only at birth, 12, 24, 48, or 72 h after birth. Foals then received minimal human handling until they were tested at 6 months. Results: During training, time to complete exposure to the stimulus was significant for only 2 of 6 stimuli. Percentage change in baseline heart rate was significant for only 2 of 10 stimuli. These 4 effects were randomly spread across treatments. Conclusions: Neither the number of imprint training sessions (0, 1, or 4) nor the timing of imprint training sessions (none, birth, 12, 24, 48, or 72 h after birth) influenced the foal’s behaviour at 6 months of age. Potential clinical relevance: In this study, imprint training did not result in better behaved, less reactive foals.

Link -http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123228952/abstract

Horse Training

Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus.

Carol Sankey, Marie-Annick Richard-Yris, Helene Leroy, Severine Henry, and Martine Hausberger.

Abstract- Social relationships are important in social species. These relationships, based on repeated interactions, define each partner’s expectations during the following encounters. The creation of a relationship implies high social cognitive abilities which require that each partner is able to associate the positive or negative content of an interaction with a specific partner and to recall this association. In this study, we tested the effects of repeated interactions on the memory kept by 23 young horses about humans, after 6 and 8 months of separation. The association of a reward with a learning task in an interactional context induced positive reactions towards humans during training. It also increased contact and interest, not only just after training, but also several months later, despite no further interaction with humans. In addition, this ‘positive memory’ of humans extended to novel persons. Overall, positive reinforcement enhanced learning and memorization of the task itself. These findings suggest remarkable social cognitive abilities that can be transposed from intraspecific to interspecific social contexts.

Link- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W9W-4YBX1RW-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369489598&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=47c2752e3aabb8c1c1304cbfddc73aef

The use of human-given cues by domestic horses, Equus caballus, during an object choice task

Meggen Walton and Karen McComb

Abstract – Selection pressures during domestication are thought to lead to an enhanced ability to use human-given cues. Horses fulfil a wide variety of roles for humans and have been domesticated for at least 5000 years but their ability to read human cues has not been widely studied. We tested the ability of 28 horses to attend to human-given cues in an object choice task. We included five different cues: distal sustained pointing, momentary tapping, marker placement, body orientation and gaze (head) alternation. Horses were able to use the pointing and marker placement cues spontaneously but not the tapping, body orientation and gaze alternation cues. The overall pattern of responding suggests that horses may use cues that provide stimulus enhancement at the time of choice and do not have an understanding of the communicative nature of the cues given. As such, their proficiency at this task appears to be inferior to that of domestic dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, but similar to that of domestic goats, Caprus hircus.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W9W-4YT09DP-1&_user=10&_coverDate=06%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369491728&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=eb6e37f1c4cbefc1c23d49f601b6d234

Human facial discrimination in horses: can they tell us apart?

Sherril M. Stone

Abstract – The human–horse relationship has a long evolutionary history. Horses continue to play a pivotal role in the lives of humans and it is common for humans to think their horses recognize them by face. If a horse can distinguish his/her human companion from other humans, then evolution has supplied the horse with a very adaptive cognitive ability. The current study used operant conditioning trials to examine whether horses could discriminate photographed human faces and transfer this facial recognition ability a novel setting. The results indicated the horses (a) learned to discriminate photographs of the unrelated individuals, fraternal twins, and identical twins and (b) demonstrated transfer of facial recognition by spending more time with their S+ woman in the field test.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/jg20884g612471h4/

Horses’ learning performances are under the influence of several temperamental dimensions

L. Lansade and F. Simon

Abstract – Learning performances are influenced by many factors, not only breed, age and sex, but also temperament. The purpose of this study was to understand how different temperamental dimensions affect the learning performance of horses, Equus caballus. First, we carried out a series of behavioural tests on 36 Welsh ponies aged 5–7 years to measure five temperamental dimensions: fearfulness (novel area test and surprise test), gregariousness (social isolation test), reactivity to humans (passive human test), tactile sensitivity (von Frey filament test) and activity level (evaluation of locomotor activity during all the tests). We then presented them with two learning tasks (avoidance and backwards–forwards tasks). In the avoidance task they had to learn to jump over a fence when they heard a sound associated with an aversive stimulus (puff of air). In the backwards–forwards task they had to walk forwards or move backwards in response to a tactile or vocal command to obtain a food reward. There was no correlation between performances on the two learning tasks, indicating that learning ability is task-dependent. However, correlations were found between temperamental data and learning performance (Spearman correlations). The ponies that performed the avoidance task best were the most fearful and the most active ones. For instance, the number of trials required to perform 5 consecutive correct responses (learning criterion) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (way of crossing a novel area: rs= −0.41, P = 0.01 and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs = −0.33, P= 0.05) and activity level (frequency of trotting during all the tests: rs= −0.40, P= 0.02). The animals that performed the backwards–forwards task best were the ones that were the least fearful and the most sensitive. For instance, the learning criterion (corresponding to the number of trials taken to achieve five consecutive correct responses) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (latency to put one foot on the area: rs= 0.43, P= 0.01; way of crossing a novel area: rs=0.31, P= 0.06; and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs= 0.43, P= 0.009) and tactile sensitivity (response to von Frey filaments: rs= −0.44, P = 0.008). This study revealed significant links between temperament and learning abilities that are highly task-dependent.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00074-2/abstract

Management

Effect of housing conditions on activity and lying behaviour of horses

S.J Chaplin and L. Gretgrix

Abstract – Housing conditions for horses impose various levels of confinement, which may compromise welfare. Lying behaviour and activity can be used as welfare indicators for domestic animals and rebound behaviour suggests a build-up of motivation resulting from deprivation. The objective of this study was to determine if activity and lying behaviour of horses are affected by housing conditions and to investigate the occurrence of rebound behaviour after release from confinement. Eight horses were subjected, in pairs, to each of four experimental treatments; paddock (P), fully stabled (FS), partly stabled (PS) and yard (Y). Each horse received 6 days acclimatisation prior to the 24 h recording period. Time spent in lying and activity were electronically recorded using a tilt switch and motion sensor connected to a data logger worn on the horse’s left foreleg. Time spent active during the first 5 min of release from stable to paddock in the PS treatment (days 1 and 5) and at the same time of day in the P treatment was used as a measure of rebound behaviour. Effect of housing conditions on total time spent active was highly significant (FS = 123 s, PS = 158 s, Y = 377 s, P = 779 s, P < 0.001). Housing conditions did not significantly affect total time spent lying (P = 0.646). Horses were significantly more active, compared with baseline paddock behaviour, on release from stabling on both days 1 (P = 0.006) and 5 (P = 0.025) of PS treatment. These results suggest that activity patterns of horses, but not lying behaviour, are affected by the housing conditions tested and that rebound activity occurs in horses after a period of confinement.

Link – http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7466644

Riding

Preliminary study of jointed snaffle vs. crossunder bitless bridles: Quantified comparison of behaviour in four horses

W. R. Cook and D. S. Mills,

Abstract – The study tested the null hypothesis that if a horse is ridden in a snaffle bridle and then a crossunder bitless bridle, there will be no change in its behaviour. It was predicted that there would be change and that behaviour would improve when bitless. Four horses, none of which had ever been ridden in a crossunder bitless bridle, were ridden through two 4 min, exercise tests, first bitted then bitless. An independent judge marked the 27 phases of each test on a 10 point scale and comments and scores were recorded on a video soundtrack. The results refuted the null hypothesis and upheld the predictions. Mean score, when bitted, was 37%; and through the first 4 min of being bitless, 64%. A binomial probability distribution suggested that the results were significantly different from random effects. All 4 horses accepted the crossunder bitless bridle without hesitation. Further studies are warranted and it is hoped that others will build on this new field of investigation. The authors are of the opinion that the bit can be a welfare and safety problem for both horse and horseman. Equestrian organisations that currently mandate use of the bit for competitions are urged to review their rules.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123230824/abstract

A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot

A.B. Kotschwar, B. Borkenhagen, S. Kuhnke, J. Molsner and A. Baltacis

Abstract -The aim of the study was to compare the stability of the rider as well as the forces acting on a horse’s back with different seating positions at the trot (sitting trot, rising trot and two-point seat). The same experienced rider was mounted on 10 sound horses trotting on a treadmill. The kinetic data were recorded with an electronic pressure mat, placed under a well-fitting dressage saddle with no saddle pad. The rider used three different seating positions, each for 20s. Right forelimb motion was used to synchronise the pressure data with the stride cycles. To determine the rider’s stability, the movement of the centre of pressure (COP) along the transverse (X) and longitudinal (Y) axes was calculated. The force was taken as the sum of all segments of the pressure pad multiplied by the area of the pressure pad. The maximum force and the X- and Y-deviations were evaluated using ANOVA for repeated measures with a Bonferroni Post hoc test. The stability of the rider in the Y-direction was significantly highest in the two-point seat, followed by the rising trot and the sitting trot, respectively. In the X-direction, there was no significant difference between the three positions. The significantly highest load on the horse’s back was at the sitting trot (2112N), followed by the rising trot (2056N) and the two-point seat (1688N). The rider was most stable in the two-point seat while transferring the lowest load on the horse’s back. The rising trot was found to be more stable and less stressful for the horse’s back compared to the sitting trot.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WXN-4W80GHX-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369499043&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=f7f5c89c58d102c20197b1e6134e0579

Stereotypic Behaviours (Stable Vices)

Crib-biting in US horses: Breed predispositions and owner perceptions of aetiology

J. D. ALBRIGHT H. O. MOHAMMED, C. R. HELESKI, C. L. WICKENS and K. A.HOUPT

Abstract – Reasons for performing study: Crib-biting is an equine stereotypy that may result in diseases such as colic. Certain breeds and management factors have been associated. Objectives: To determine: breed prevalence of crib-biting in US horses; the likelihood that one horse learns to crib-bite from another; and owner perceptions of causal factors. Methods: An initial postal survey queried the number and breed of crib-biting horses and if a horse began after being exposed to a horse with this habit. In a follow-up survey, a volunteer subset of owners was asked the number of affected and nonaffected horses of each breed and the extent of conspecific contact. The likelihood of crib-biting given breed and extent of contact was quantified using odds ratio (OR) and significance of the association was assessed using the Chi-squared test. Results: Overall prevalence was 4.4%. Thoroughbreds were the breed most affected (13.3%). Approximately half of owners believed environmental factors predominantly cause the condition (54.4%) and crib-biting is learned by observation (48.8%). However, only 1.0% of horses became affected after being exposed to a crib-biter. The majority (86%) of horses was turned out in the same pasture with other horses and extent of contact with conspecifics was not statistically related to risk. Conclusion: This is the first study to report breed prevalence for crib-biting in US horses. Thoroughbreds were the breed more likely to be affected. More owners believed either environmental conditions were a predominant cause or a combination of genetic and environmental factors contributes to the behaviour. Only a small number of horses reportedly began to crib-bite after being exposed to an affected individual, but approximately half of owners considered it to be a learned behaviour; most owners did not isolate affected horses. Potential relevance: Genetic predisposition, not just intensive management conditions and surroundings, may be a factor in the high crib-biting prevalence in some breeds, and warrants further investigation. Little evidence exists to suggest horses learn the behaviour from other horses, and isolation may cause unnecessary stress.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123230083/abstract

Exploring lay perceptions of the causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour in horses.

A. LITVA, C. S. ROBINSON and D. C. ARCHER

Abstract- Reasons for performing study: Crib-biting/windsucking behaviour has important consequences for equine health and welfare. Lay perceptions of health and illness are of interest to medical sociologists, providing important information to medical practitioners, but have infrequently been applied in veterinary research. Objectives: To demonstrate how lay epidemiology can be applied within veterinary research by exploring the lay perceptions regarding the causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour in horses. Methods: Informants were recruited from professional and amateur horse owners who had or had not owned/cared for a horse that exhibited crib-biting/windsucking behaviour. In-depth interviews were used to examine perceptions about the development of this behaviour within each group until a ‘saturation’ of themes emerged. Results: The main themes that emerged as causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour were ‘boredom’, ‘stress’ and ‘habit/addiction’. In the group of owners/carers who did not have direct experience of this type of behaviour, ‘copying’ from other horses emerged as a strong theme and they stated that they would not wish to own a crib-biting/windsucking horse. In contrast, those who had direct experience of horses demonstrating this behaviour did not believe copying was a cause based on their own observations and would not be put off purchasing or caring for another horse displaying this behaviour. Conclusions: Perceptions about what causes crib-biting/windsucking was influenced by whether or not informants had personal experience of horses demonstrating this behaviour. The three main themes that emerged have some justification based on current research and highlight the need for further investigation into the underlying pathophysiology of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour. Potential relevance: Qualitative approaches to health, disease and behaviour have an important role in the medical field and are applicable to veterinary research.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123353793/abstract

Lateralised motor behaviour leads to increased unevenness in front feet and asymmetry in athletic performance in young mature Warmblood horses

C. van HEEL, M. C. van DIERENDONCK, A. M. KROEKENSTOEL and W. BACK

Abstract – Reason for performing study: Foot stance in grazing significantly influences hoof conformation and development from foal to yearling age.Objectives: To conduct a longitudinal study to establish if the relationship between motor laterality and uneven front feet persisted in 3-year-old horses at the time of studbook selection and to investigate if such laterality and unevenness might influence the horses’ ability to perform symmetrically while trotting, cantering and free jumping. Methods: Seventeen clinically sound but untrained (with only minimal experience of handling) and sound Warmblood horses that had participated in a previous study were assessed as per the protocol reported. Laterality was tested in a preference test (PT) and z-values were calculated for analysis purposes. Laterality and hoof unevenness were related to both relative limb length and relative head size, while the ability to perform symmetrically was tested in free trot-canter transitions and free jumping exercises. Differences in performance between horses with and without a limb preference in the PT and those with ‘uneven’ and ‘even’ feet were tested for differences in performance metrics using Students’ t test, while linearity was tested using a regression analysis (P<0.05). Results: Significant laterality was still present in 24% of the 3-year-old horses and the relationship between laterality and uneven feet pairs was stronger than at foal and yearling stages. Horses with significant motor laterality had almost 4 times more unevenness, a smaller head and longer limbs and the relationship between body conformation and laterality was still present. There was a strong linear relation between unevenness, laterality and a bias or side preference for trot-canter transitions. However, this relationship was not significant during the free jumping exercise. Conclusion: Motor laterality and uneven feet pairs were still present and significantly related in the 3-year-old horses and both variables were also strongly related to sidedness in trot-canter transitions. Potential relevance: Warmblood studbooks should include quantitative data on laterality at the time of studbook admission as part of the selection criteria.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123339030/abstract

The Feral Horse

Affiliative relationships among Sorraia mares: influence of age, dominance, kinship and reproductive state

Filipa Heitor and Luís Vicente

Abstract – Affiliative relationships among mares were examined in a managed group of Sorraia horses, Equus caballus, over a 3-year period. We assessed the influence of age, dominance, kinship and reproductive state on the strength of affiliative relationships and diversity of partners. The herd comprised 9–11 mares that had known each other since birth, their foals and a stallion that remained in the group exclusively during the breeding season. In contrast to a previous study, kinship did not significantly affect bonds. Mares tended to spend more time in proximity to those in the same reproductive state. Affiliative relationships among mares were relatively stable but their strength decreased after foaling, possibly as a function of foal protection and bonding between dam and foal. There was no consistent evidence that mares disengaged from affiliative relationships with increasing age. As expected, dominant mares and barren mares contributed the most to affiliative relationships. Dominance rank increased with age, but dominance relationships were stable and did not change after foaling. Overall, reproductive state was the factor that had the most consistent influence on affiliative relationships among Sorraia mares.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/n314557n16q646l4/

Dominance relationships and patterns of aggression in a bachelor group of Sorraia horses (Equus caballus)

Filipa Heitor and Luís Vicente

Abstract – The influence of individual factors on dominance rank and the relationship between rank distance and patterns of aggression predicted by models of evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS) of animal conflict were investigated in a managed bachelor group of Sorraia horses, Equus caballus. The group was composed of four to six stallions 3- to 12-years-old during the study period. The dominance hierarchy was significantly linear and rank was not related to age, weight, height or aggressiveness. Frequency and intensity of agonistic interactions were low, but higher-ranking stallions did not receive lower aggressiveness than lower-ranking stallions. There was some evidence that dominance relationships were more contested among close-ranking stallions, as predicted. Agonistic-related interactions among close-ranking stallions served similar functions to those among distant-ranking stallions, but the latter interacted more frequently than expected for access to resting sites and/or resting partners. Therefore, we found some evidence that agonistic-related interactions among distant-ranking stallions play a larger role in providing access to valuable and defendable resources than those among close-ranking stallions. Nevertheless, the fact that space to escape from aggression was limited and breeding access was independent from dominance rank may have reduced the benefits relative to costs of aggression and therefore limited the occurrence of contests over dominance and resources.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/l67722831h4q302k/

Hope you enjoyed reading,

Emma Lethbridge

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Jan 172010
 

I had a thought and as it rambled though my mind I wrote it down. Now I would like to share that thought with you.

How do I know that I am the person to work with a particular horse?

Working with equines is not about the individual trainer or owner, no matter how great their equine training skills, marketing or publicity may be. It is about the sheer brilliance and ability of the horse, donkey or mule to figure out what on earth we humans want, what they have to do to survive, to receive rewards and to avoid discomfort. An incredible amount of equine intelligence and behaviour goes into just dealing with humans.

When people are derogatory towards other trainer, horse owner or methods of training, their comments often reflect their own egos and personalities. It is so often about them, not about the horse. The only true way to find the horseman inside each of us is to let go of our egos and say “it does not matter what other people say about me, I am truly in the deepest part of my soul and conscience working for the horse. I am the lightest I can be and I have continued to improve and learn more as I expand my own comfort zones, it is not about me it is about the horse,” only then are we truly moving in the right direction. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge others until we have evolved to be the best horseman we can be.

There are many good trainers who advocate thousands of different methods. Their words are incredibly convincing and motivating to others trying to emulate the trainer’s skill with horses. However, what we should be doing is trying to emulate the greatness of horses, with their ability to learn and their ability to develop an understanding of different methods of communication and ways of thinking. They are the most amazing creatures, and if we give them a chance, they would teach us about ourselves, but we seldom give them that opportunity.

When we are insulted or verbally attacked by another person for what we are or what we do, the immediate reaction is to fight back and justify ourselves. We argue, “no you are wrong, I am right, I did it because…” but this aggressive defence does not often work as the person who has initially attacked us has two options of recourse. They can fight back and attempt to justify what they have said or what they have done because of their beliefs or situation. As people push against our beliefs, we fight back to justify our feelings and thoughts and this tends to encourage more of a fight response in our challenger and a vicious circle is created. Unfortunately, we see the same thing with horses when they do not understand something or if they behave in a way that says “I don’t like the way I’m being handled.” The tendency is to push back, by making more work for them, applying more pressure, using a harsher bit, a firmer spur or a bigger smack.

The second option available to our verbal challenger is to concede, they could say “You are absolutely correct, I was wrong, I criticized you for the wrong reasons. I attacked you because I was personally upset by you, because I was angry and felt threatened.” It is very difficult for us to admit that we are wrong or that perhaps our egos have been motivating our actions. When we work with horses we must learn to take truthful responsibility for our behaviour and then learn to think, “Ah! I can see you do not understand. I need to explain what I want a different way. I need to change the way I am communicating, I need to be patient and work with you,” then we could all become better horsemen. When we are verbally attacked we should listen to what is being said and look for the motivations behind the words, just as we should look for the motivations behind our horse’s behaviour.

If the true nature of equines was not to be amenable and compliant with a willingness to adapt to the confines of captivity we would never have domesticated horses as a species. Ability to learn is one of their greatest attributes, yet we humans have not learnt the lessons that they are teaching us. We take our own ego, aggression and discomfort and put it onto the horse and make the horse pay the price of our lack of balance, lack of control and lack of understanding and then the horse mirrors back what it is forced to work with in us. We overfeed them, under-exercise them, limit their mental stimulation and we wonder if they suffer. We too become bored, we become angry, we become overweight and we suffer. Our horses mirror the things we do to ourselves, how we humans deal with domestication determines how our horses behave.

In domestication there is no true ‘natural’ environment, trainers created the term Natural Horsemanship to make clients feel better for the restrictions domestication and training places on our equine partners and to set it apart from traditional methods. I am not knocking our attempts to be more understanding trainers and to create better environments for our horses to live in, this is essential to our horse’s physical and mental health. However, I would like to stop us hiding behind the word natural as an illusion of perfection in horsemanship. Horsemanship is in the process of evolution and Natural Horsemanship is just a step on the evolutionary path that one day will hopefully be replaced with an even better form of horsemanship, perhaps behavioural science. Nothing we do to the horse is natural compared to the life of the free roaming horses.

The horse in the feral situation has a capacity for compassion, aggression, fight, flight, softness, rest and play. All the aspects of their personality are balanced and whilst individuals may have different characteristics, they can display them all, from the stallion that will play with his foals to the mare that will discipline a youngster. We humans often advocate and lecture with the intent to promote our own greatness, our own ability and our method. However, in horsemanship it is not our way that we should seek, it is the horse’s way and we must begin to reach into the very essence and soul of the horse to understand who we are and who we need to become as human beings, to truly release our potential as horsemen, as parents, friends and partners.

People ask constantly “What do I do when?”, “What do I do if…?”; “How do I deal with this situation?”; “What does this mean?”, as if there should be a dictionary of horse terms that we can use to identify their every single motivation, action and belief. As yet we humans are incapable of indexing our own behaviour, so what chance do we have with the horse? The answer to these questions is always, “it depends.”

Hopefully we all know what it is to feel love yet everybody’s definition of love is a unique perception. True love, love for a friend, love of an object, love for gardening, all of these feelings are different. So how can a trainer say with certainty what a horse thinks or that certain behaviour should always be met with a set pattern of training? There is an uncertainty in true horsemanship, that if we let it, will create growth and strength and learning within the trainer. I believe that in every horse owners lifetime comes a horse that does not fit everything we have previously learnt. With this animal we either begin to learn and grow, we become stale and stubborn, or we sell the animal to someone else and they learn the lessons instead. This is what the horse can give us, an understanding of ourselves but we have to “leave our egos at the door” because it is not about us.

We have domesticated another species and for 6,000 years we have restricted them, we have controlled the very nature of who they are, yet we search for the beauty of who they can be when they are free from our influence. When they are doing everything we ask or when they are running across the plains of Nevada, we perceive them as a most beautiful spirited animal. When their behaviour contradicts what we want or when they question us by communicating “I can’t do that,” when they show us “I don’t know how to do what you ask,” or when they act based on fear, the unenlightened tendency is to label them as troublesome, stubborn, difficult, or deceitful.

This journey of horsemanship, is not about learning to be a horse, it is about learning to be the best human being we can be. We need to find balance, to be able to set a boundary, to be able to say no, that’s not I want you to do. It is not whether we say no, it’s how you say no that is important to the horse. Horsemanship is about being able to open yourself to the possibility of being wrong, the possibility of change, the possibility of needing to know more, it’s about being able to put your tools down and say “I understand and accept the effort involved in making the try, thank you.”

When we criticize another person for their lack of ability or belittle a trait that we find unsuitable, have we first looked at ourselves to establish if we are without that trait, that we are perfect and that we can do everything? There is strength in softness and vulnerability, in being able to decide when to pick our battles, when to open our hand and let the rein go, when to step back and accept that it is OK to make a mistake. There is strength in being able to take responsibility for ourselves and we should learn not blame ourselves for the mistakes. We take responsibility for mistakes and learn from them and move forward, and there lies the subtle difference between blame and responsibility.

Our lives are governed by who we are. There is no reason to believe that horsemanship would be any different. We can be our own greatest enemy. We cause ourselves to be shy, to lack confidence, to be afraid, to be angry and to be impatient. We allow our brains to run freefall in a series of thoughts connected to the emotions, causing us to rebuild or destruct exactly who we are time and time again. We let this happen every day of our lives, yet we seldom grasp the opportunity to truly change, and to use change as a path to becoming a better person.

The first part of change is not to try and change, it is to accept the potential and possibility of change. When we change the way we think, we can truly change who we become and how we behave. It will be uncomfortable, but we can do it and we will be better for it. We can develop more understanding of ourselves, so we do not waste our potential by settling for anything less than the best we can be. However, choosing to learn will be a difficult and often painful road to follow, so we should not start the journey lightly. We all have a destiny to be the best that we can be, whether that means we become the best road sweeper, best nurse or the best horse trainer we can be does not matter, only that we strive to improve. We cannot possibly hope to obtain perfection in every single area of everything we do, but we must continually be open to the possibility of being the best that we can be, to challenge our potential, to actually begin to develop our knowledge of who we are.

Why did I have this thought? Well, so often I hear equine professionals say “The horse was fine, the owner was the problem!” It is time we all took more responsibility for who we are as horse people and worried a little less about what our neighbour believes to be true. When I talk about horse trainers I believe anyone who interacts with a horse in anyway is teaching it something and is therefore a trainer. Universally we need to accept the horses are the smart ones, after all they have to figure out what we want. Not enough credit is given to their ability to adapt and deal with the difficulties of working with humans.

The followers of “Natural Horsemanship” advocates are about to do exactly what they claim they despise in traditional training methods, namely make an exclusive club and pass judgment on other trainers and methods and develop the ‘We’re right so you can’t be’ attitude. The antidote to this is simply more walking the talk. What individuals do when training their horses is their choice. However, the common thread of Natural Horsemanship is putting the horse first and if we all do that, then in a few years we should all end up in the same place. Behavioural science is perhaps the next step in the evolution of horsemanship because it is not subjective, but horsemanship will always remain a balance of Art and Science and to ensure we use the science correctly we must first know ourselves.

I would wish for every trainer to recognize the efforts and bravery of the horse before they extol their own virtues. After all it is the horse that is doing the learning and the horse that has to overcome their fears and phobias. Horse trainers should remain humble, as it is clearly the horse that deserves the credit first. I feel it would be best if we trained ourselves before we trained our horses.

How do I know I should be working with a horse? I open myself to the possibility that I should not be working with them and then I leave my ego at the gate so that I can hear what the horse has to say on the subject.

Like I say it is just a thought that I had, and then I wanted to share. However what you think is far more important to your horse than what I think.

By Ben Hart

www.hartshorsemanship.com

© Ben Hart April 2009