Sep 062012
 

I was recently asked to do a question and answer session for the Facebook group Equitation Science (http://www.facebook.com/groups/equitationscience/). The questions asked were very interesting so I thought I would do an article including some of the Q and A session. I would like to note that there were many fantastic comments made by the other members of the group leading to some great discussion. These comments haven’t been included here for reasons of anonymity and credit, should you wish to read these discussions simply request membership to the group.

QUESTION 1 – Negative reinforcement and avoidance learning.

In horse training, negative reinforcement involves moving away from pressure or in essence avoidance learning. When a horse has a strong disposition towards a flight response or is inclined to quickly move away from threatening stimuli, what training methods are most effective and what research is there to support their efficacy?

Answer – Firstly in this situation I would ask – why is the horse exhibit such a large stress response to the presence of such stimuli? Is the disposition really a personality trait innate to the horse or is the sensitised stress response indicative of the horse manifesting a higher base level of stress or is the response learnt? If the stress level of the horse is higher than ideal even at rest (this could be tested by heart rate or salivary cortisol) the the horses environment needs to be adapted to lower the horse’s base stress level. If the horse’s stress level is higher than it should be this will likely present itself in greater stress reactions to stimuli; this is because the threshold for such a reaction is closer to baseline level of stress in the horse. Isolation of the environmental stress will require some work but, again, analysing whether the horse has access to forage, friends and freedom is a good place to start.

Secondly, if the response is learnt training the horse using positive reinforcement methods will help reduce the stress response. Targeting could be used to train the desired behaviour and put it on a cue, subsequently a secondary cue of a very gentle pressure cue, such the horse would not try to escape it, could then be added if required. Such a training strategy would eliminate the need for stressful aversive stimuli through the use negative reinforcement training but would allow a gentle pressure cue if needed. If the horse has become more generally fearful of an environment/object/situation, rather than just the stimuli used to implement negative reinforcement, counter conditioning stimuli associated with fear will be helpful. Desensitisation could also be used to reduce the stress experienced by the horse through not over facing the horse with them the stimuli they are fearful of.

Evidence for positive reinforcement methods:

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw/2007/00000016/00000004/art00007

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159107002869

http://www.springerlink.com/content/4122111x7620v040/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347209006034

One for targeting: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1284337/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2746/042516406778400574/abstract

Additional comment – In this case we were examining a horse with a large stress response to negative reinforcement stimuli and thus would require training to eliminate this response to pressure (or the stimuli used for negative reinforcement). Although I believe we can use very gentle negative reinforcement without too much stress to the horse, you raise an interesting point because unfortunately positive punishment (the addition of an unpleasant stimulus to lower the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring) has to of occurred in order that the stimulus can be removed for negative reinforcement. If the stimulus did not start it could not be removed. The two concepts, although distinct, are not mutually exclusive, they work in tandem (see http://www.theequineindependent.com/home/?p=103).

QUESTION 2 – Equine Learned Helplessness

The American psychologist Martin Seligman published most of the early work on learned helplessness. This is the technical term used to describe a condition in which a human/animal has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even when there is an opportunity for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or gain a positive reward. In people, learned helplessness is associated with depression and other mental health problems. I am just wondering what the possible epidemiology of equine learned helplessness might be, the “symptomatology” and possible health ramifications.

Answer – Learned Helplessness is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when an animal, be it horse or human, no longer tries to escape an aversive stimulus (or in some cases multiple aversive stimuli). Such behaviour usually manifests because the horse has repeatedly been exposed to an aversive stimulus, tried to escape it, and failed. Eventually the animal stops trying to escape and thus behaves in a helpless manner. Often the horse may only exhibit this behaviour to one or two stimuli, however, sometimes you can see this helplessness response generalise in the same manner as other behaviours may generalise. Therefore, the helplessness may not be stimulus or situation specific. In the horse world sometimes such horses are considered ‘shut down’.

Specifically in horses restraint, pressure and punishments have been considered a potential source of learned helplessness if incorrectly utilised. Examples of potential sources of learned helplessness include the incorrect use of riding gadgets such as draw reins, strong bits (even kinder bits in the wrong hands), spurs, whips … I am sure we can all think of more. Some specific training techniques e.g. leg tying and dare I say Rolkur, rely on learned helplessness, however, any technique that uses aversive stimuli can be at risk of inducing such a response if wrongly applied.

Symptomology:

*The most obvious symptom is a lack of escape behaviour in response to an unpleasant stimulus. The stimulus may be pressure, fear or pain based.
Other symptoms that have not been examined closely in horses but are documented in humans include:
*Sensitised and adapted stress response. If a prolonged period of exposure to an inescapable unpleasant stimulus it experienced, the results can present in the form of both the psychological and physiological symptoms of stress. These may continue if the horse if exposed to stimuli associated with the inescapable stressor, even if the stressor itself is no longer present.

*Psychologically the horse may experience anhedonia, lack of motivation, disrupted emotional processing, unusual stress responses (fight and flight) and inhibited learning/cognitive ability.

*Physiologically the horse may experience increase stress, a reduced immune response and an increased risk of the disorders associated with a high stress environment and life experience (e.g. stomach ulcers). It is possible that these symptoms could all occur in the horse although I stress little specific research has been done in this area, and given that most learned helplessness studies on animals were not entirely ethical this may not be a terrible thing.

There are theories of depression which concentrate on the role of learned helplessness, however these are widely debated, certainly there is a cross over in both symptomology and neurological activation if you are interested in reading about any of the above a quick google search will find you a lot of information.

Specifically with regards to horses I can recommend the paper – “Is There Evidence of Learned Helplessness in Horses?” Hall et al, 2008.

Neurology :

I don’t have time to write out all the neurological information so you will have to forgive me quoting.

“Evidence suggests an important role for 5-HT neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) in mediating learned helplessness (see Maier and Watkins 2005, for reviews). The DRN is a midline brainstem structure that contains a high concentration of 5-HT neurons that provide 5-HT to higher brain centers via multiple fiber tracts. …5-HT neurons in the DRN have long been associated with depression … anxiety …and behavioral responses to stress… The DRN projects to structures involved in fear, anxiety, and depression, such as the cortex, amygdala, periaqueductal grey (PAG), and locus coeruleus (LC)” Greenwood and Fleshner (2008). You can see that stress can affect the functioning of these pathway.

Rehabilitating the learned helplessness horse:

Here are a few idea for undoing the learned response, remember the brain is plastic even when the horse is old and thus often the horse can relearn/unlearn their response to stimuli.

*It’s cliché but time is a great healer, especially time in a stress free environment where they no longer experience the stressor which induces the learned helplessness response. Ideally the horse will be out as much as possible, be eating for 16hrs-ish a day and have a stable peer group to socialise with. The old adage of forage, friends and freedom can go a long way towards the rehab of any horse. The brains stress response will often (but not always) ‘reset’, if you like, in such an environment making further training much easier. Removing the stressor(s) is the first step!

*If the stressor is something which the horse has to come into contact with in their environment, a training strategy including counter conditioning and desensitisation combined will help the horse to relearn to be relaxed and even enjoy the presence of the previously stressful object/environment. Obviously you would only do this for objects and situations associated with the aversive events/helplessness and not the events themselves! For example, if the horse had become helpless when ridden you could work on encouraging the horse to enjoy being ridden by training without the use of large aversive stimuli but instead with positive reinforcement. I have found that reward inhibits stress in the horse. Indeed research shows that activation of the reward pathways of the brain actively dampens stress responses and therefore will help the horse to be without a heightened stress response and the psychological and physiological manifestations of increased stress.

Additional comment – Grass is included in the forage part of the phrase. The phrase is applicable to the horse as a management system as it describes the most prominent innate needs of the horse in order that they can be without stress. Therefore, as you say, it is necessary at all stages of the horse’s life. I was describing it as part of the rehabilitation for learned helplessness because I suspect that none here would drive a horse into learned helplessness but they may acquire such a horse or be called out to one. A slightly more complex version of the same paradigm might be an adapted version of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. Regarding the relationship between submission and learned helplessness it would certainly be valid to suggest a behavioural parallel between the two psychological states (unfortunately, I don’t own the Equid Ethogram). Possibly it would be accurate to say that all learned helplessness could be described as submission but not all submission is learned helplessness, of course this depends on your definition of submission. The relationship between these two psychological concepts seems to be complex and their isn’t a huge amount of research available, however, this paper is worth a read (again I don’t agree with the methods used) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17708544. Hope this answers your question.

QUESTION 3 – There seems to be a lot of confusion out there with regards to definitions of negative punishment (response cost, time out). Do you think horses actually understand negative punishment ? What research has been done in this area?

Answer – Negative punishment is possibly the trickiest of the four primary learning theory concepts to apply well to horse training. The removal of a desirable stimulus in consequence to an unwanted behaviour in order to punish said behaviour requires both timing and an understanding of frustration/defensive behaviours. Obviously, removing a highly desirable stimuli from the horse could trigger unwanted behaviours over and above the original unwanted behaviour, so care is needed. For example, removing food from a horse with food related issues may trigger defensive aggression, but this technique may not unduly stress another horse, therefore each horse and behaviour needs to be considered with regards to their individual personality. So yes horses can be trained with negative punishment, it’s the human understanding of punishment and the side effects which can occur when such methods are used which is key. Rewarding a incompatible behaviour in place of the unwanted behaviour may be an effective alternative technique, circumventing the need for punishment.

Research in this area is thin on the ground, probably because the ethics of such research would be hard to navigate, similarly to work on positive punishment.

Additional related question – So when I am clicker training my horse and withhold food whilst I am waiting for the correct response, is this negative punishment? As I have not actually taken anything away, rather I am withholding a positive reinforcer?

Answer – This is a tricky question, if positive reinforcement is being used the reward should never be given to the horse and then removed creating negative punishment. However, sometimes this is case when the trainer is not sure whether to reward or not, so the trainer needs to be definite with the timing. The trainer also needs to be aware that if the horse is too hungry or gets anxious regarding food negative reinforcement could also come into play as the food removes briefly the aversive stimuli of hunger(interestingly there are theories of drug addiction which focus on the role of negative reinforcement). These effects can be reasonably simply averted by observing the horse for signs of stress or learning disruption which might suggest their role and changing strategy to ensure the positive reinforcement acts exclusively.

Additional comments –

The training strategy should be defined before it occurs however, within the training observation and evaluation should be regularly considered to ensure that the trainer is training in the manner they intend and that the horse is happy and progressing in said training.

To clarify the negative punishment with food stimuli does not occur simply by the presence of food because you have not removed anything from the horse, the horse never had the food. It would only occur, as I said before, if the trainer was ambiguous in timing and gave the horse the food and then removed it due to a change of mind.

If you have a question about any of the answers or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment or email me and I will happily answer your questions.

Emma Lethbridge

(Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk)

Aug 132012
 

If there was one thing I could do to improve the welfare of domesticated horses, it would be to get rid of the notion that inappropriate equine behaviour is naughtiness.

The word ‘naughtiness’ implies deliberate misbehaviour, and it’s all too common for owners and riders to assume that this is what is going on when a horse does something they’d prefer him not to do. Whether it’s refusing jumps, declining to enter a trailer, not standing still for mounting, kicking the stable door, removing his rugs or jumping out of the field, our automatic line of reasoning tends to be this: He knows what he is supposed to do. He is being deliberately defiant or disobedient. He needs a …. (insert punishment of choice). How often do you see this happening? How often do you see anyone questioning it?

But how many of these are reasonable assumptions?

If you think that a horse can be deliberately disobedient, you are making a lot of assumptions about his mental processes. First, that he understands the moral concepts of right and wrong, and second, that he knows that domestic animals are supposed to obey their human handlers and conform to a set of rules that humans have invented. How can we possibly expect a horse to know what behaviours we expect of him, or even that we expect any behaviours at all? Where would he get that knowledge? How might he know what any particular human considers good or bad? How could he even know about the existence of these concepts, let alone know when his behaviour falls into one or other category? When you think about it, these are all fairly complex abstract thoughts that we are able to have because we have a verbal language to express them to ourselves and to explain them to other people. Horses haven’t got that facility. Neither, as far as we know, are they as good as we are at rational thinking, planning ahead and reflecting on their experiences.

There have been reports in the journal Equine Behaviour (assuming that people have remembered and reported correctly) of incidents where particular individual horses do seem to show some evidence of an ability for forward planning and reasoning. I don’t think it’s possible to say categorically that horses can’t have thoughts along the lines of ‘When she comes to catch me this morning I’ll give her a surprise and run away’ or ‘I’ll swerve to the right at that next jump and she’s bound to fall off’, but it’s probably safe to say that this is not the default way of thinking for most horses most of the time. Formal experiments on random groups of horses don’t suggest that these skills are the norm. Most horses, like most animals including us, seem to base their behaviour on the principles of doing things that are rewarding and avoiding things that are not rewarding (McGreevy & McLean 2010).

Many apparently naughty behaviours are actually learned ways to avoid pain or something frightening. The horse is more likely to be acting purely in self-defence than to be going out of its way to annoy a person. How would a horse know what people find annoying, anyway?

As for punishment, all too often it is not so much an attempt to change a horse’s behaviour as to stop it. It is also a way for the rider to take out her aggression and anger, so it can easily become abusive. It’s not at all uncommon to see horses hit really hard for what would be very minor offences even in the unlikely event that the horse really was doing them to be deliberately annoying. Studies have shown that punishment can lead to horses learning to fear their handlers and to stop them trying out new behaviours, which is not what anybody wants to happen (McGreevy & McLean 2010). It can also have the opposite effect to the intended one. I’ve seen this happen when a horse was routinely hit for spooking at traffic, so that he learned to associate the approach of vehicles with pain as well as with alarming sights, sounds and smells, and would spook increasingly violently at the approach of a vehicle. If you wanted to teach your horse to be afraid of traffic it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of doing it, yet the owner acted thus in the belief that the horse was being naughty and had to be corrected.

Whatever the truth of the horse’s thoughts and motives, it’s best to treat them as if they are not malevolent, and that if they don’t want to do something, even if they have done it a hundred times before, not to assume it’s for badness but for a real reason important to them if not to us. And if they want to do something we would rather they didn’t do, again it is best not to assume that they are trying to get the better of us, or make us look stupid, or to show that they don’t respect us, but to assume that they have learned that behaviour either because it’s rewarded or because it gets them away from something they don’t like. It’s also more than likely that we ourselves have inadvertently trained them to do it.

If you think, how is my horse being rewarded for doing this? you are far more likely to come up with an effective, ethical way to teach him to do something different than if you just assume he is being naughty.

Reference

McGreevy, PD & McLean, AN (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Alison Averis is a rider and horse owner and is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the quarterly journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. For more information on this international membership organisation, which is open to anyone interested in the way equines behave, please go to www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk.

Jun 252012
 

As an equine behaviourist one of the common reasons people contact me for help is separation anxiety – their horse isn’t coping when taken away from other horses or when left alone. Sometimes horses form such a strong bond or attachment to a particular equine friend that even if other horses are present they can’t cope with being apart. When owners want to ride or bring their horse in from the field at different times it can be very stressful for both horse and owner – some of my clients have had to arrange elaborate yard rules for turning in and out to avoid horses jumping fences, vocalising, or cantering up and down the fence-line. I have even had cases when horses have developed the dangerous habit of jumping out of their stables to avoid being left alone when the other horses in their yard are turned out before them. Some people are turning towards individual turnout systems to prevent separation anxiety from developing but I argue that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water…. there is no need to deny horses a social life – they can learn to be alone at times.

Why do horses not like to be alone?

Horses are social herd animals. Naturally, during the first four weeks of a horse’s life, foals associate mainly with their mothers but after their first month they spend more time with other foals of a similar age. Foals play and mutually groom together and partly because these two activities work best in pairs, they tend to pair up and form close friendships.

Horses living in stable herds usually choose a partner that is the same age, sex and size as themselves but if this is not possible they will form a relationship with any horse available – and if no horses are available they sometimes become attached to other animals – such as goats or donkeys. In the domestic setting it is positive when two horses form a strong bond because social interaction is important for their well-being. I would not recommend separating horses who are attached to each other in an attempt to ‘prevent’ separation anxiety, we just need to teach them to cope with being apart at times.

Horses have a priority of needs and if they do not feel safe they are unable to perform other aspects of their ethogram (repertoire of natural behaviours such as eating, drinking, exploring etc) and are unable to respond to training. This means that if a horse doesn’t feel safe without other horses present he will be unable to perform other behaviours, such as grazing (in the same way that we might find it difficult to eat when we are worried about something, or find it difficult to sleep after watching a scary movie). This is why having access to hay in the stable, or grass in a field, is not enough to distract a horse that has ‘separation anxiety’.

The solution…

Sadly some of the ways that people try to address separation anxiety instead make it worse. There is a growing tendency for yards to offer ‘individual turnout’ as a selling point. The main rationalisation is that this will cause fewer injuries from horses kicking and biting each other (avoidable if horses are introduced to each other appropriately and if there are enough resources so that the horses do not need to compete for them), but often individual turnout is also said to avoid problems with horses forming strong bonds and thus avoiding separation anxiety. How sad – not being allowed to make friends and do all the things that horses should do when hanging out together to avoid the possibility that the friendship will be so important to them that they will fret when they are separated! There is a better way – we can help the horse to have the confidence to be relaxed in the field, stable or yard when alone or away from other horses or their close friends.

This is a gradual process consisting of five main aspects:

* Removing the predictors of anxiety by changing the pattern of events leading to separation from the other horses. For example, it is important to identify the point at which the horse becomes anxious. If it is when a head collar is brought into the field to catch the horse’s friend we need to break the association of the head collar being a predictor of being separated by repeatedly putting the head collar on and taking it off but not resulting in separation.

* Very gradually building-up of time away from the other horses; starting from just a few metres away from the other horses for just a few minutes and building up the time and distance gradually (the time-frame will depend on the individual horse).

* Making the time alone pleasurable so that the horse learns to associate being away from other horses with positive experiences. This might include being fed, or groomed, or trained using reward-based training methods.

* Ensuring that the horse doesn’t have any bad experiences when away from other horses as this could reinforce the fear and anxiety of being alone.

* Building up the horse’s confidence in people so that he can draw some reassurance from people and not just other horses.

It is important to be able to read your horse’s body language to be aware of the point at which he is first becoming anxious so that you don’t expect too much too soon. Early signs of anxiety in horses are triangulation of the eye, muscle tension, tail swishing and displacement behaviours such as pawing the ground.

The process of teaching a behaviour gradually is called ‘shaping’ – we think about all the small stages, or steps of a ladder, that must be done on the way to the desired behaviour (being alone without being anxious). Thus, if a horse becomes anxious when he is removed from a field on his own, steps might include being caught and groomed in the field before being released again, then being caught and taking some steps to the gate before being released again, then being caught and going through the gate before turning around and being turned out etc. building up gradually to being taken further away from the herd for longer. Note that a step from being led away from the herd but in sight of the herd to turning a corner so that he can’t see other horses is a significant step. Each step should not be repeated in sequence, rather, when the horse has completed a few ‘steps’ they should be mixed up so that sometimes less is asked, sometimes more. If you need to help your horse to be able to cope with being alone a qualified behaviourist will be able to help you design appropriate steps in the process for your horse taking into consideration the set-up of your yard and other practicalities.

It might sound like a drawn out process but if done properly horses can learn very quickly that being alone at times is a positive experience – and surely better than resorting to individual turnout.

These videos from YouTube show the classic signs of a stressed horse due to their companion being out on a ride while they are left in the field alone.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXrHtIAp154
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1on309QhJk

(www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)

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.)

Oct 042010
 

How similar is equine thinking compared to ours, is a common thread running through many articles on animal behaviour and animal-human relationships. Most owners feel a greater contact with their animals because they give their pets at least some human thinking abilities and our close proximity to our pets actively encourages it. So, there is deep interest and investment in demonstrating how similar animal thinking is to our human capabilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it is important to understand the ways animals think. However, I do believe we come at the whole question of how animals think from the wrong end. Instead of can animals think like us it would be better to ask how can we think like our animals?

Anthropomorphism is the process of giving non human objects human emotions. We pat the car we have given a name as it starts on a cold morning or we blame the washing machine for breaking down just when we needed it most, as if in some way it had chosen to let us down deliberately. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise with animals, after all most of us spend our early years watching mice that fall in love, cats that hold vendettas against mice, rabbits that problem solve, dogs that can talk and birds that are jealous and vain. Yes, Mr Disney surely knew what he was doing when he created the cartoon animals that were almost human. Perhaps he knew how much we would connect with those crazy critters if he made them just human enough that we could identify in them all our own emotions, but we could laugh at them because they were animals.

If we give our pets human emotions through the process of anthropomorphism, then we run the real risk of attributing our flawed thinking to our pets and, in my experience human thinking is often flawed. We struggle with complex emotions such as jealousy because we gain pleasure or even happiness from possession of inanimate objects. Sometimes we mistakenly believe those possessions are other people and act with anger if other people take an interest in our supposed possessions. We want what other people have, even when we already have all we need and so greed is born. We are vain, our appearance can determine our happiness, with humans having the ability through self loathing to starve or eat themselves to death because our image of ourselves in not real.

Hundreds of thousands of books, workshops and training sessions are delivered world wide every year on self help. All with the aim of improving our self esteem, creating happiness, reducing stress and managing anger not to mention the massive market for relationship counselling and advice. Through spiritual leaders we have seen that spiritual practises such as Buddhism require a life time of work to control our thoughts. If our human thinking was the shining beacon that we believe it is, these books, lessons and coaches wouldn’t be needed or at least in less volume.

We lie to ourselves that we are the top of the IQ tree. Well we set the tests, so I guess we would do pretty well wouldn’t we? Yet our brains in terms of evolution have been developing for a relatively short time and the brain of the modern man from hunter gatherer to I T business whiz kid has only had about 100,000 years to evolve, no wonder we struggle to use this supper powerful personal computer.

Without practise and considerable effort our ability to understand our own thinking is limited, yet we do have the ability to understand that other humans are and do experience similar emotions to us. We have what is known as an understanding of self. Certain functions we take for granted as adults have not always been with us as children. We develop conscious memory from the age of about three when the hippocampus, part of the brain that lays down long term conscious memory matures. As the brain begins to develop new parts of the brain come online, which is why peek-a-boo is such an entertaining game for babies. As the parietal cortex starts to work we become aware of fundamental spatial qualities of the world and we know faces can not just disappear but the modules of the brain that tell us where the face goes have not yet matured. Then between the ages of eighteen months to two years we develop self-consciousness we no longer point at our reflection in the mirror as if it were another child we instead begin to recognise what we see as us, we develop the sense of I that most people feel in their heads.

Do animals develop this sense of I? Well there is some evidence to suggest that some may do, the great apes, an occasional elephant and a crow perhaps, but I am not sure we really know. Some researchers say animals do not have this sense others say that they do and some say the tests that are used are not a understanding of self just the ability to understand the concept of mirrors. Yet we pet owners commonly believe that our pets can understand our complex emotions. A common statement I hear is from the dog owner, who on returning home to finds their dog has disgraced themselves in some way and claims the dog knows they have done wrong, they can see by their dogs behaviour that they are feeling guilty for letting the owner down. The dog shows signs of submission or hides away and this is seen by the owner as an acceptance of guilt. Well may be or may be not, perhaps the dog is simply offering what they see as the appropriate behaviour for the situation. The dog’s behaviour is not related to what they may have done sometime before but rather the body language and vocal tones of their human companion at that moment. Having learnt the human signs of anger and discovered that appeasement or avoidance are the best method to avoid trouble the dog may simply be offering what it considers appropriate behaviour for the human behaviour they see. They do not have to be able to understand the owner is angry or upset they may simply read the body language and be conditioned to avoid conflict that they know follows this body language. May be they always adopt submissive behaviour on the owners return and sometimes the owner can attribute this to a misdemeanour? This behaviour in the dog is not any less incredible for not being attributed with thinking like a human, to my mind it is a testament to their learning ability and perceptual skills that allows them to read us humans and act accordingly.

I am often asked how intelligent is a horse or a donkey and is it true that a mule is more intelligent than both. To be honest, I don’t believe it is important to measure or compare animal IQ. A horse is good at being a horse and while it might not do well on a human IQ test, if we dump a horse and a human in 100,000 acres of wildness and leave them for a couple of months the horse will have far better chance of survival than the human, so who is the smartest in that situation?

All have animals have mental abilities that we can measure such as memory, reasoning, problem solving etc. Providing the tests are related to the animal’s innate abilities then we will have a pretty good idea of what they are capable. Dogs may innately be better at problem solving due to the evolutionary ancestors pack hunting skills and association with man but are they anywhere near the capabilities of the human brain, unlikely. This doesn’t mean they are not smart, just that they are not human.

Imagine two Zebras, George and Graham we will call them just to anthropomorphise a little, grazing along side each other on the plains of Africa as the sun comes up. A sudden ambush by a pride of lions, a moment of panic and a short chase sees Graham becoming lion breakfast. How does George respond? Well if he was human he would spend most of the rest of the day telling all the other Zebras what had happened and how it could have been him and thinking to himself what if I had been closer it would have been me or perhaps suffering the guilt of having survived when his friend did not, pretty soon he would have an ulcer from all the worry and “what ifs”. Fortunately, George is a Zebra and while being physiologically stressed by the attack and perhaps even feeling some sense of absence or loss he is soon back in the moment concentrating on eating and surviving and avoiding lions just as he was before the attack, and that’s why Zebra’s who lead such stressful lives don’t get ulcers. Yes of course, change their environment to a zoo and confine them and the environmental stress might give then ulcers but not in the wild.

Animals have a simplistic uncluttered thinking that is not judgemental, doesn’t blame everyone else for their problems and they are capable of learning. However, even our closest relative the chimpanzee can take up to seven years to fully learn the art of cracking a nut with a stone tool.  I am not saying animals are not sentient beings or capable of emotions far from it, but rather that humans are overly complicated creatures that are not yet well adapted to their environment and far from in control of their massive brains.

Trying to label how an animal thinks is like trying to describe the sensation of meditation if you have never meditated. We may have a knowledge of what meditation may be, we can use words like peaceful, calm, relaxed and focus yet these words describe only states of mind, they don’t add up to the experience of meditation. The only way to know what meditation is like is to practise meditation. The only way to know what it is like to be an animal is to be an animal. As that is unlikely to happen, no matter how hard we try, we can only experience their world through our senses and label what we believe they feel like.

The problem with giving human emotions to animals is not that may or may not experience human emotions as scientists continue to debate, but that the general human way of thinking is flawed. Our thinking is sometimes controlled by ego, the conditioning of our parents during childhoods and our evolution. So to label an animal as jealous, naughty or deceitful are faults of the human mind not of the animal mind. We can spend a life time thinking back to past injustices or panicking about our future. Do animals think “if only my mum had loved me more when I was a puppy!” probably not. Their behaviour may be effected if they were weaned to young or not socialised but that is their behaviour.

By way of example about the difference between dog and human thinking. Say we have a rescue Labrador who has previously been starved. Humans may imagine how they would react and behave had they been treated in a similar way and think how terrible that is and accept him always scavenging for food. Others will say dogs live in the moment and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past so don’t allow him to get away with that behaviour. The truth is perhaps some where between the two. The dog that has had bad experience will have had the connections in the brain changed as a result of that experience and those changes influence future behaviour, but the dog is not constantly thinking back to being starved and worrying that might happen again, as a human might do. They may have a higher motivation for food but their behaviour is not driven by fear of not being fed again it is influenced by the neural connections made earlier in their life. If this wasn’t the case the dog would have a very sort memory and forget everything they learned just moments before, this is not the case, nor is it the case that they are thinking back to when they were starving because as soon as they realised that food was regular and readily available they would reason that they no longer had to rush their food and scavenge.

A horse is not intrinsically good or bad it is just a horse. To one person a horse that kicks is disrespectful and naughty to another they are just communicating their fear and to the horse, well they are just being a horse. It is our perception and labelling that determines if a behaviour is good or bad without humans to judge there is no good or bad, just behaviour. Our own beliefs colour our perceptions and judgements which go on to influence our actions. We see our pets not as they are but as we are, until we understand the true nature of animals and the true nature of ourselves we cannot hope to improve our training and handling or our pets. When we label our animal with a negative human emotion we and other humans then treat the animal according to the label we have given it, and this then negatively influences the behaviour of the animal.

A horse is just a horse, surviving, breathing, feeding, reproducing and socializing not good or bad those are our human judgements. Once you understand this you remove incorrect thinking from ourselves and free ourselves from the turmoil of perception of bad and good, past and future and you can work in the moment. When these powerful human emotions negative or positive are removed you can see things as they truly are, you can act based on behaviour not emotional response to behaviour.

To best help our animals we don’t need to believe they think like us, we need instead to learn to think with their brains. When we do this, we truly open up the possibilities of communicating fully with our animals, without the transference of our mistaken human judgements and the burdens on the animal of our flawed emotional states and, we see them as they are not furry humans but independent individuals dissevering of our respect not our judgement.

By Ben Hart

www.hartshorsemanship.com

(Thank you to Ben 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/

Jul 142010
 

Summer is a great time for riders and horse owners alike, the long days and hopefully sunny weather bring greater opportunities for spending time with our much loved, four-legged friends. However, for some horse and pony owners summer can also be a worrying time and the start of an ongoing battle with their horse’s waistline. Despite our best intentions summer comes and our horse’s stomachs begin to expand like balloons at a birthday party. Some horses come out of winter the perfect weight but can start to inflate the minute the first spring grass appears, for others the issue of weight is a constant factor, especially for those with pony or cold blood genes in their DNA. If you own a horse who is a ‘good doer’ and he can seemingly live off air alone, it can seem like no management strategy or exercise regime will stop the spread. So what are the real risk factors of obesity and how can we prevent our horse’s becoming overweight this summer?

Obesity, in both horses and humans, is becoming an epidemic in the UK. The horse charity, World Horse Welfare, estimates that between 35 and 45 per cent of the UK’s 1.35million horses are obese[1]. There are many worrying disorders that obesity is associated with, including; Laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome and oxidative stress[2]. All of the above disorders are of grave concern to owners! Laminitis is inflammation of the digital laminae of the hoof. The digital laminae are necessary for suspension of the skeleton within the hoof and spread the concussive forces experienced by the hoof during the horse’s locomotion. Inflammation of the laminae weakens the hoof and can have devastating effects on the horse’s physiology included; sinking and rotation of the coffin bone (known as founder), separation of the hoof wall from the hoof capsule, rotation of the coffin bone and penetration of the coffin bone through the sole of the hoof[2]. These complications of Laminitis can cause permanent lameness and loss of use and can, in the worst cases, result in euthanasia.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) is characterised by obesity, insulin resistance and intermittent bouts of Laminitis[2]. Obese horses suffering with EMS become gradually more resistant to the action of insulin – insulin is a hormone which triggers cells in the liver, muscles and fat to take up glucose from the blood stream and store it as glycogen. This resistance to insulin consequently causes abnormally high levels of insulin to be secreted when the horse ingests food, especially foods high in sugars such as concentrate. In both horses and humans, insulin resistance seems to be correlated with obesity and the altered metabolism of fats[3]. However, unlike in the human species, insulin resistance in horses due to obesity is very rarely type 2 diabetes (diabetes in horses is usually only associated with Cushing’s syndrome), instead insulin resistance is postulated to be a contributing factor to Laminitis and potentially certain vascular diseases[3].

Laminitis and EMS are not the only concerns for the owners of horses who put on weight easily. Several adverse health effects can be correlated with the horses gain of fat deposits. The horse may become intolerant of exercise and his athleticism will be compromised. Just as obese humans can experience oxidative stress, fatigue and increased concussion on joints during exercise, horses can also experience these consequences of obesity. The performance of horses competing in races of duration 1 mile to 160km has been found to correlate to the horse’s body condition[4-6]. The obese horse may also experience thermoregulatory difficulty, although fat deposits will insulate a horse during the winter months, in the summer excess fat can prevent the horse from effectively dissipating heat resulting in the horse overheating[7]. Finally, abnormal reproductive performance has also been observed in obese mares [8], obesity can cause unnecessary complications in pregnancy and is therefore a welfare concern for both mare and foal. The risks of horse obesity are very worrying for horse owners so why are so many horses becoming obese in the UK?

Although ignorance on behalf of the horse owner is sometimes the underlying cause of equine obesity, most owners are aware when their horses are becoming overweight. Even the least observant owner can see their horse’s stomach increasing in girth, the neck becoming larger and developing a crest, and fat deposits occurring on the shoulders and flanks, but often the owner is struggling to set up a management regime that can control the weight of the horse. Owners are often restricted by factors such as; the residence of the horse, the management of the horse’s pasture or other environmental factors. But do not despair, here are a few ideas which could help to prevent the summertime spread this year.

1. Knowing how much you horse should weigh, finding an accurate way to measure your horse’s weight and keeping a record of change.

The first thing you will need to know when you embark on the battle with obesity is your horse’s ideal weight. Without a goal weight for your horse any measurement of the horse’s weight is going to be arbitrary. Although all horses differ with regards to their ideal weight, approximate ideals for your horse’s type and height can be found below. For each height range there is a range of ideal weights, if your horse is the top end of the height range or a draught bred then the horse’s ideal weight will be the top end of the range, and vice versa.

Height in hands 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Ideal weight in kg 120-230 230-290 290-350 350-420 420-520 520-600 600-725

(Adapted from Baileys Horse feeds [9])

Once you know your horse’s ideal weight you will need to be able to measure the horse’s weight. There are many ways to measure a horse’s weight, some more accurate than others. The most accurate method of measuring a horse’s weight is a weighing bridge, however unless you are liveried at a very well equipped yard or have convenient access to veterinary facilities it is unlikely that you will have access to a weigh bridge.

A more common method of measuring a horse’s weight is by using a weight tape. Weight tapes are placed around the girth of the horse, just behind the withers, and give an estimation of the horse’s weight based on the circumference of the girth . The accuracy of these tapes is debatable however, the tape provides a quantitative measure of weight which can be recorded and which will provide notice of the horse’s weight changing over time. Weight tapes can be brought from most equestrian stores, and on occasion tapes specifically designed for draught horses and ponies can be acquired. Buying a tape designed for your horse’s body type will increase the accuracy of the measurement.

As an alternative measure of the horse’s weight and condition there are body condition scoring systems, one of the most popular is based on work by Henneke et al (1983)[10]. Henneke et al’s body condition scoring uses the observation and ranking of the fat tissue present on specific areas of the body to score the condition of the horse. The areas observed for the accumulation of fatty tissue are; the neck, ribs, back, shoulder, wither and the top of the tail. When all the areas are taken into consideration an overall condition score, between 1 and 9, is attributed to the horse – 1 being of very poor condition with no fatty tissue present in the scored areas and 9 being of obese condition with significant fatty deposits visible on the . A picture chart explaining Heneke’s body condition scoring can be found at – http://www.admani.com/allianceequine/images/bodyconditionscoring/horse%20body%20condition%20score%20card.pdf , this picture chart is a good summary of the observations that should be made during condition scoring. A printable record sheet for Henneke et al’s body condition scoring mechanism can also be found at this link – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Information_Resources_Management/policy/im_attachments/2009.Par.52473.File.dat/IM2009-041_att1.pdf

There are potential problems with using body condition scoring as a method of weight measurement in horses. Scoring body condition is a subjective method and it is therefore possible for owners to over or under score their horses and, if no additional methods of weight measurement are used, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether the horse is indeed of a healthy weight. Ideally two or three people should score the horse independently and the middle score taken to be correct, such a precaution will help to minimise the effect of subjective bias. The body score of the horse can be recorded and over time any change in the horse’s condition can be monitored accordingly.

Whichever method of weight measurement you decide to use with your horses, try to keep a record at least once a month of the horse’s weight. This record keeping will allow you to see changes in the horse’s condition early and allow you to change his management before serious complications arise.

2. Cutting out the concentrate feed!

This one may seem obvious, but if your horse is overweight it is not necessary to supplement the horse’s roughage feed with concentrate! Removing concentrate feed, and therefore unnecessary calories, from the diet of the horse will help to prevent, or treat, obesity. If the horse is feed ad-lib, quality roughage including pasture, and is a good weight it is not necessary to supplement the horse’s diet with calorie-dense, grain concentrate. Should the horse’s pasture and roughage be of poor quality it may be a prudent idea to add a vitamin and mineral supplement to the horse’s feed, this will prevent any dietary malnutrition. As long as the horse maintains weight and does not become thin, and is not in a heavy exercise regime, i.e. intermediate eventing or above, the horse does not require extra calories. Should the horse be currently in a routine where he is used to receiving concentrate meals at certain times and will become distressed if his routine is changed then some molasses-free chaff or grass chop can be feed at these times to placate him.

3. Pasture maintenance

There are many aspects of pasture maintenance that can be managed to help combat obesity and weight gain in the horse. Below I will tackle the most important factors of pasture maintenance that can be managed by horse and land owners –

The right grass?

Many grassland species have been selectively produced to feed domestic livestock on intensive grazing patterns, as such many grass species commonly found in horse grazing are high in sugars. Grass designed to keep livestock at a good weight is often too rich for horses who are designed by evolution to each a great amount of poorer roughage. See below abstract by Menard et al (2001)[11] on the comparative forage intake of cattle and horses.

“Equids are generalist herbivores that co-exist with bovids of similar body size in many ecosystems. There are two major hypotheses to explain their co-existence, but few comparative data are available to test them. The first postulates that the very different functioning of their digestive tracts leads to fundamentally different patterns of use of grasses of different fibre contents. The second postulates resource partitioning through the use of different plant species. As domestic horses and cattle are used widely in Europe for the management of conservation areas, particularly in wetlands, a good knowledge of their foraging behaviour and comparative nutrition is necessary.

In this paper we describe resource-use by horses and cattle in complementary studies in two French wetlands. Horses used marshes intensively during the warmer seasons; both species used grasslands intensively throughout the year; cattle used forbs and shrubs much more than horses. Niche breadth was similar and overlap was high (Kulczinski’s index 0·58–0·77). Horses spent much more time feeding on short grass than cattle. These results from the two sites indicate strong potential for competition.

Comparative daily food intake, measured in the field during this study for the first time, was 63% higher in horses (144 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1) than in cattle (88 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1). Digestibility of the cattle diets was a little higher, but daily intake of digestible dry matter (i.e. nutrient extraction) in all seasons was considerably higher in horses (78 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1) than in cattle (51 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1). When food is limiting, horses should out compete cattle in habitats dominated by grasses because their functional response is steeper; under these circumstances cattle will require an ecological refuge for survival during winter, woodland or shrubland with abundant dicotyledons.

Horses are a good tool for plant management because they remove more vegetation per unit body weight than cattle, and use the most productive plant communities and plant species (especially graminoids) to a greater extent. They feed closer to the ground, and maintain a mosaic of patches of short and tall grass that contributes to structural diversity at this scale. Cattle use broadleaved plants to a greater extent than horses, and can reduce the rate of encroachment by certain woody species.”

Menard et al (2001)


As horses can consume great amounts of forage it is vital that the high-sugar, easily digestible and nutrient rich grass varieties fed to domestic livestock species are not feed in high quantity to horses. Obesity and laminitis will be difficult to avoid on rich grazing without restricting grazing, which in turn would be detrimental to the welfare of the horse. Sugars present in grass species, especially fructans have been correlated with laminitis in horses. Below is an informative short article on fructans from www.equinescienceupdate.co.uk.

Recent studies suggest that fructans might be involved in pasture-induced laminitis in horses. Fructans are storage molecules produced by the grass when it produces more sugars by photosynthesis than are needed for immediate use. Fructans are poorly digested in the foregut of the horse. If large quantities reach the hindgut they are rapidly fermented by the microorganisms, leading to a cascade of events that may result in laminitis.

In a three year study Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel, working at the Landwirtschaftskammer in Hannover, Germany, looked at fructan content in the species of grasses that are commonly found in horse pasture. They harvested grass samples every two or three weeks during the growing season. Samples were collected at 11.00 each morning to prevent the results being influenced by time of day.

Dr Grässler presented their findings at the Equine Nutrition Conference held earlier this month in Hannover. They found that Lolium perrene (Perennial ryegrass) and Lolium multiflora (Italian ryegrass) contain the highest amounts of fructans – an average throughout the year of 5.7% on a dry matter basis. However, they found that the fructan content varied throughout the year, being highest in May and October. The fructan content fell during the summer. They also found a difference between strains of perennial ryegrass. One strain (“Anton”) had the highest fructan level of 14.2%DM in autumn 2003 and 13.6% DM in spring the same year.

All other pasture grasses contained low fructan concentrations – on average about 3.5% DM. Again, the highest fructan concentration was found in the first growth in May and in October. The fructan content of the grass was lowest during the summer.

The second part of the study looked at the fructan content of grass mixes that might be used for horse pasture. Grässler and von Borstel found that mixtures with a high proportion of Lolium perrene gave the highest fructan levels . The highest levels were found in pastures containing only Lolium perrene (15.2%). During the growing season the highest fructan content was measured in late June (11.4% DM average) and in October.

Grässler and von Borstel conclude that grass mixes with high amounts of Lolium perrene may contain high fructan concentrations, especially in spring and autumn, and are less suitable for feeding horses predisposed to laminitis.

To minimise the risk of laminitis they suggest that grass mixtures with reduced quantities of Lolium perrene should be used. Pastures with forage grasses such as Alopecurus pratensis (Meadow Foxtail) and Phleum pratense (Timothy) as the main components are suitable to produce low fructan concentrations.

Reference: Fructan content in pasture grass. Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel. Proceedings Equine Nutrition Conference. Pferdeheilkunde (2005) 21, 75 – 76.”[12]

The key message of the above article is; when planning the reseeding of your pasture please consider the grass species you are using and choose low-sugar grass species, such as Meadow Foxtail and Timothy, which will protect your horses against obesity, insulin resistance and Laminitis. Herbs and legumes can also be included for variety and additional vitamin and mineral availability. Sugar-dense grasses used to feed domestic livestock, such as dairy cattle, should be avoided as they are not suitable for healthy horse grazing. Rye grass is the typical example and is currently very common in the pastures of Britain’s horses. If you are at the mercy of a land owner it may be possible through democratic negotiation to encourage the seeding of horse friendly grass species.

Pasture fertilisation

Traditionally pasture fertilisation is recommended in the spring and autumn months. It is suggested that proper fertilisation will provide pasture with the nutrients to produce a good quantity of grass cover, minimising weed growth. In addition it is postulated that the nutrients needed to provide horses with a healthy diet are also infused into the soil during fertilisation. However, the relationship between fertilisation and grass nutrition is not straight forward, especially when considering non-structural carbohydrate concentrations (sugars). It is often assumed that fertiliser increases the sugar content of grass, however, it is well noted in scientific journals that grass grown in an environment deficient in either nitrogen or phosphorus is observed to be significantly higher in sugars than grass grown in fertilised conditions [13, 14, 15, 16]. The discovery of this correlation between nitrogen availability and the sugar concentration in grass has led to the postulation that nitrogen maybe a limiting factor for growth and therefore if the grass becomes deficient in nitrogen, growth stops and, rather than being used for the production of new plant matter, fibre and energy, the sugars accumulate in the grass[17].

In her 2005 paper titled – A Review of Unlikely Sources of Excess Carbohydrate in Equine Diets, Kathryn Watts considers data collected on the effect of pasture fertilisation on the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) concentrations of grass, and how pasture should managed to prevent an excess in sugar in the equine diet[17]. She writes “The following data was collected from the first cutting of forage from an established paddock of irrigated pasture at Rocky Mountain Research & Consulting, Inc. Each treatment was replicated 4 times in a randomized block design. The species represented are mostly Paddock meadow brome and Garrison meadow foxtail, which are standard commercial varieties in the area. Ammonia nitrate was broadcast in March, and irrigation was applied as needed for optimum growth to both fertilized and unfertilized plots. When the paddock was starting to head the end of May, samples for NSC were collected 4 PM, frozen immediately, and shipped frozen for analysis. A light frost occurred the night before sampling. The next day, 2 sq yards of plant material were hand clipped to ground level from each plot, and dried in an oven to obtain dry matter yield. The plots fertilized with ammonia nitrate yielded 3 times more dry matter, and were 29% lower in NSC concentration than unfertilized. This inverse relationship between nitrogen content and NSC concentration corroborates that found in plant science literature.

NSC %

Dry matter

Yield Tons

Dm/ acre

Pounds NSC /acre
35 lbs/acre

nitrogen as AmNO3

17.88 b 1.8 a 643 a
No nitrogen 23.10 a .6 b 277 b

Analysis by Dairy One, Ithaca, NY

The determination as to whether NSC concentration or pounds of NSC per acre is more important will be dependent on how the individual horse’s intake is managed. If a horse has continual access to pasture, it is possible to limit grass intake by starving the grass for nitrogen and overgrazing such that the amount of available forage does not exceed or even meet caloric needs. In this scenario, additional hay is often required. Because hay is generally lower in NSC than fresh grass, the higher concentration of NSC in nitrogen deficient grass may be offset by the lower concentration generally found in hay. In this type of situation, susceptible horse’s may be at increased risk of over indulging if the pasture is fertilized or irrigated, or a drought breaking rain occurs, which would then create more pounds of NSC per acre, while removing the limitations to intake imposed by slow grass growth.

If the caretaker were limiting intake by restricting access to grass, by use of grazing muzzle, portable fencing, or removal to a dry lot for part of the day, then fertilization, which decreases the concentration of NSC per mouthful of grass, would be the best option.” [17]

When considering whether it is healthier for your horses to fertilise your paddock or to leave it to grow organically it is necessary to consider whether the higher yield of grass obtained through fertilisation is likely to cause your horse to have higher sugar in his diet than the lower yield, higher sugar concentration grass of organic pasture? If your horse’s residential property has a low horse-acreage ratio, then it is possible that the high yield gained by fertilisation will create to much pasture for the horses to graze without becoming overweight. However, if there are a significant amount of horses grazing the pasture of your horse’s residence the extra grass yield of fertilised pasture should be spread between enough animals that the lower sugar concentration of fertilised grass is beneficial. Optimum fertilisation is a balancing act, one that must be considered carefully by horse owners.

To be continued….

Next time we will consider more pasture management ideas and exercise routines design to fight horse flab.

By Emma Lethbridge

(info@emmalethbridge.com)

References

[1] http://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/

[2] Johnson P.J., Wiedmeyer C.E., Messer N.T., Ganjam V.K. Medical Implications of Obesity in Horses—Lessons for Human Obesity. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2009; 3(1): 163–174.

[3] Hoffman R.M., Boston R.C., Stefanovski D, Kronfeld D.S., Harris P.A. Obesity and diet affect glucose dynamics and insulin sensitivity in Thoroughbred geldings. J Anim Sci. 2003;81(9):2333–2342.

[4] Kearns C.F., McKeever K.H., Kumagai K., Abe T. Fat-free mass is related to one-mile race performance in elite standardbred horses. Vet J. 2002;163(3):260–266

[5]Lawrence L.M., Jackson S., Kline K., Moser L., Powell D., Biel M. Observations on body weight and condition of horses in a 150-mile endurance ride. J Equine Vet Sci. 1992;12:320–324.

[6]Garlinghouse S.E., Burrill M.J. Relationship of body condition score to completion rate during 160 km endurance races. Equine Vet J Suppl. 1999;30:591–595.

[7] Cymbaluk N.F., Christison G.I. Environmental effects on thermoregulation and nutrition of horses. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 1990;6(2):355–372.

[8] Henneke D.R., Potter G.D., Kreider J.L. Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency of mares. Theriogenology. 1984;21:897–909.

[9] http://www.baileyshorsefeeds.co.uk/feedingexplained/calculator.htm

[10] Henneke D.R., Potter G.D., Kreider J.L., Yeates B.F. (1983). Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J. 15(4):371-2

[11] Menard C., Duncan P., Fleurance G., Georges J-Y., Lila M. (2001). Comparative foraging and nutrition of horses and cattle in European wetlands. Journal of Applied Ecology. 39 (1); 120-133.

[12] Article at http://www.equinescienceupdate.co.uk/fructan.htm on the paper- Fructan content in pasture grass. Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel. Proceedings Equine Nutrition Conference. Pferdeheilkunde (2005) 21, 75 – 76.

[13] Smith D. Nonstructural Carbohydrates. In Butler G.W., Bailey R.W. ed. Chemistry and Biochemistry of Herbage, vol 1. London: Academic Press, 1973;105-155.

[14] Belesky D.P., Wilkinson S.R., Stuedemann J.A. The influence of nitrogen fertilizer and Acremonium coenophialum on soluble carbohydrate content of grazed and non-grased Festuca arundinace., Grass Forage Sci 1991;46:159-166.

[15] Donaghy D.J., Fulkerson W.J. The impact of defoliation frequency and nitrogen fertilizer application in spring on summer survival of perennial ryegrass under grazing in subtropical Australia, Grass Forage Sci 2002;57(4):351.

[16] Morvan-Bertrand A., Boucaud J., Prud’homme M. Influence of initial levels of carbohydrates, fructan, nitrogen and soluble proteins on regrowth of Lolium perenne . L. cv. Bravo following defoliation. J Exper Bot 1999;50:1817-1826.

[17] Watts K.A. A Review of Unlikely Sources of Excess Carbohydrate in Equine Diets. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2005; 25(8): 338-344

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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