Jun 092013
 

There must be something in the air at the moment; I was recently expounding the virtues of delaying a horse’s training under the saddle only to come across an article last week on The Horse website talking about (race)horse performance at 2, 3 and 5 years related to lesions.

The cause was at that moment of little interest, the age of the horses was. Should we be riding at such immature ages?

Despite being worlds apart, the racehorse industry and the home-hack do have one main thing in common, the wish to turn their beautiful horse into a beautiful rideable horse as soon as possible. After all, most of us don’t just want to look at our horse…

There is plenty of motivation to start early too. In dressage, there is a minimum age at which a horse may compete; according to FEI regulations for international dressage competition, it is six years but for many national events, the rules are different with the minimum age being as low as three. And when one considers horse-racing, the ages are even lower – the racing of two-year-olds is quite commonplace which requires them to be saddled up for the first time when they are not much older than 1½.

For the professional trainer and owner, it is all a question of money. Often the horse is – or can become – quite valuable. Keeping a horse costs money (ironically, for the owners of such horses, it is often just a fraction of their earnings) and the natural desire is to see the horse earn its keep as soon as possible. And eventually, a racehorse can be put out to stud and earn yet more that way – these days not even needing to attain a respectable age with the ability to freeze sperm – but the health of the horse is never the greatest consideration.

So what about the mere mortals of this world? Most horse owners will agree that a horse should not be ridden until it is about 4 years old. A respectable age, one could say; the horse is obviously no longer a foal and is more likely to grow outwards than upwards. However, the growth plates are still a long way off being closed. The last plates will close somewhere between 5½ and eight years old – and it is specifically these growth plates that are found in the back of the horse – all 32 of them!

Most growth plates lie across the weight bearing plane – think of knees, ankles, shoulders etc. – and are less affected by the carriage of weight. But the growth plates in the back lie parallel to the weight bearing plane whereby the back is easily streched and thus can suffer under the weight of the rider.

skeleton of the horseTo clarify, this is the order and the approximate age at which the growth plates close up:

1. Birth: distal phalanx (coffin bone)

2. Birth and six months: middle phalanx

3. Between six months and 1 year: proximal phalanx

4. Between 8 months and 1½ years: metacarpals/metatarsals (cannon bones)

5. Between 1½ and 2½ years: carpal bones

6. Between 2 and 2½ years: radius-ulna

7. Between 2½ and 3 years: ulna/femur, section that carries weight above the radius; tibia

8. Between 3 and 3½ years: humerus; bottom part of the femur

9. Between 3 and 4 years: pelvis begins to close, beginning with the extremities of the ischium, ilium and sacrum

10. Between 3½ and 4 years: lower part (that carries weight) of the scapula (shoulderblade)

; top neck vertebrae

12. From 4 years: tarsal bones then the growth plates between fibula and tibia (not without reason that 18th century literature forbade ploughing, crossing of deep mud and jumping for young horses)

13. Between 5½ and 8 years: vertebrae (the larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the growth plates to close up. For stallions, add another six months: this means a “warmblood” horse of about 17hh will not be fully grown until 8 years old.)

Of course, all this does not mean that we cannot do anything with our horses until they are eight, but it should certainly set us thinking about our training schemes.

For the professional horseworld, time is loss – except the economics are not taken into account. Maybe not so interesting for the racehorse owner – his horse is often little more than a money factory – but certainly for the livery and riding school owners. In much of Europe, the average age of a riding school horse is horrifically low and the general life-expectancy shows no correlation with what a horse should (healthily) be able to reach. Based upon the size of the animal and the size and rate of its heart etc., the horse has a potential life-expectancy of 50 years. Realistically a little lower at around 40 to 43 years. But a horrific number of horses has already been written off by the age of 20 – imagine writing off people when they get to 38 or 40…

Take a look at the table below – and decide for yourself which of the two columns fits your way of thinking best:

Begin training 3 years 7 years
Full potential 7 years 10 years
End “useful” life 18 years 35 years
Total work period 15 years? 25 years

Just by delaying the moment we start to ride by just 3 years, we can win 10 years in “useful” life. It makes you think…

 

Growth plate information: Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses, Dr Deb Bennett, 2005
“Useful Life” table: based on observations by Pierre Enoff, bio-mechanical engineer
Original article published in Dutch: http://www.kobolt.nl/gezondheid/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/   https://sabots-libres.eu/site/engagement/2013/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/

Jun 042013
 

Saff223May07.........Clicker training is one of the recent success stories of equestrianism. It makes use of a bridging signal to indicate the moment of the desired behaviour, followed by positive reinforcement. We are told that training with positive reinforcement is more ethical than training with negative reinforcement and/or punishment. We are told that positive reinforcement activates the pleasure circuits of the brain, releasing dopamine in a way totally distinct from the regions activated by techniques involving pressure and release. As clicker trainers we are adept at handling the various erroneous criticisms by sceptics – that horses in the wild do not use positive reinforcement, that hand-fed horses will be encouraged to bite, that understanding behavioural science predisposes us to being unfeeling scientists who can’t work with practical behaviour. We have horses who appear to engage in their training enthusiastically, sometimes they even don’t want us to end the session. It is just one long string of clicks and treats for us!

So what’s the problem?

Firstly there is the perception that clicker training can only be positive. We are giving a horse treats which is better than him having no treats. Therefore it is good. This is a somewhat simplistic view. Skinnerian stimulus-response chains do not take into account anything about the horse’s lifestyle and environment. In fact, Skinner seemed even to deny that they were relevant. If a horse pulls faces when you put his saddle on then you can clicker train him to make a happy face instead. If a horse won’t stand still in his stable you can target train him to stand motionless while you do things to him. You can train him to adopt dressage postures. You can train him to move at gaits that would require more advanced training if taught conventionally. You can train him not to respond to all manner of scary objects. You can even train him to lie down, permit you to lie down with him and take a great photo for your website. And so much more….

The trouble is that none of these training situations take into account the underlying reasons for the behaviour. The poorly-fitting saddle may be causing pain. The stabled horse may feel worried about a neighbouring horse. He may not have the right musculature to adopt the requested positions or perform advanced movements. He may learn to tolerate the scary objects but what if his fear of them is still greater than the pleasure of the treats? And lying down is all very well if he wants to do it but what about when the ground is hard or there is something in the vicinity which means he’d really rather not?

But horses wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to?

This is the age-old question. It has been (and is) said of race-horses, show-jumpers, riding school horses, horses trained with natural horsemanship techniques and even the original process of domestication approximately six thousand years ago. Of course, these forms of horsemanship all include aversive stimuli, both physical and emotional, which provide some level of threat to the horse – “choose to do as I say, or else”. So the horse complies, apparently willingly, and the aversive stimulus can remain invisible to all but the most perceptive observer.

Clicker training is different because we are providing something pleasurable for the horse. We are absolved from guilt. Or are we? Domesticated horses have had a lifetime of complying with our wishes and they continue to do so when we pick up a clicker. The rules may have changed and we may be permitting the horse to offer a behaviour before confirming that it is the correct behaviour, but it is still the human who decides whether it is the correct behaviour. We want the horse to choose to offer behaviour spontaneously but it has to be the “right behaviour” – such mixed messages bestow a lot of emotional pressure on an animal who has previously been so well-conditioned to do as intstructed. It is like having “creative thinking” or “independent learning” timetabled at school (as indeed occurs these days), as though autonomy can be switched on and off. Good trainers who understand how to use variable schedules of reinforcement are then able to extract more and more behaviour out of the horse in return for the reward. This “Brave New World” of horse training can often be so blind to what the horse would really choose.

And then we have repetition. Just in case the horse is in any doubt as to who is calling the shots, some trainers seem to feel the need to train a behaviour over and over again. There seems to come a point where any pleasure circuitry triggered in the brain by the treats is more than compensated for by the conflict behaviours seen in the horse – the frustration and aggression, the sexual over-arousal, the boredom, the conditioned suppression, the worry. And the reason for this repetition is typically the perceived need for the horse to respond “less emotionally” or more “cleanly”. So our goal has become something coming dangerously close to the shut down automatons of some of the more aversive training methods we have tried to leave behind. What is going on?

The trouble with clicker training is that it is incredibly powerful. The trouble with horses is that the majority are very compliant because they wish to avoid conflict. It is very easy to evolve inadvertently from a novice clicker trainer, who wants to help her horse become more enthusiastic and have a more enriched life, to a more advanced clicker trainer who is looking for perfection and control and has rather forgotten why she started clicker training in the first place. I have never met anyone who actively clicker trains her horse because it is such a good way of exerting her authority. Yet that is so often how it has become. That desire to become a better and more achieving trainer just cannot help getting in the way of what is important to the horse. Yes, with clicker in one hand and treats in the other, we can become over-controlling, aversive stimuli who are actively, albeit inadvertently, working towards reduction of our horses’ autonomy and, hence, welfare.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about combining clicker training with negative reinforcement and punishment – that was the subject of a previous article so I shall spare you that this time…..

So what do I like about it?

Despite all these concerns, I really do rate clicker training very highly and would love to see it taken up by more people. Positive reinforcement (with or without a clicker) allows us to interact with horses in a way to which no other training method even comes close. But in order to tap into this wealth of potential, we really need to change our focus. We need to start again and look at what attracted us to clicker training in the first place.

When starting clicker training we tend to offer a neutral target; either through natural curiosity or by accident the horse touches it. He hears a click and receives a reward. After a few repetitions we see that incredible “light-bulb moment” as the horse works out what is happening. The horse realises that he can turn the human into a vending machine – it is the moment of a surge of self-confidence, empowerment and autonomy. As horse-loving owners/trainers we are hooked from this moment onwards. It is why we wanted to clicker train, we liked seeing our horses so happy and expressive. We liked the moment of being able to read our horses’ minds. I like clicker training when we stay in this place, when we don’t move out into the world of training behaviours just because we can, or over-training, or worrying about excessive stimulus control or trying constantly to deal with so-called behavioural problems.

When engaged in a simple free-shaping session, such as this, we are conveying a very powerful message to the horse. We are saying that he can choose to participate or not (even better if the session is in the field so grass is always available as an alternative to training). We are saying that he can earn rewards or opt not to earn rewards and nothing bad will happen, whichever option he chooses. We are saying that we will respect the decisions he makes, rather than trying to find alternative ways of obtaining compliance. The horse choosing to say “no” is not a slur on our training or on our relationship. It can be a sign that he is in good psychological health and feels sufficiently secure in his relationship with the owner that he can say “no”. After previous years of being conditioned to do as he is told, learning that he can opt to do or not to do something is incredibly liberating. When we turn clicker training into something bordering on authoritarian, we lose the most enlightened element of it – the opportunity to reinstate the horse’s autonomy. This is where clicker training has advantages in its ability to increase welfare; any technique using pressure and release cannot increase a sense of autonomy.

Despite being a strong advocate of positive reinforcement, often to the point of being misquoted as attempting a route of pure positive reinforcement, I have come to believe that autonomy is perhaps the most beneficial gift we can incorporate into our training. When positive reinforcement training is controlling and manipulative it erodes autonomy and diminishes the value of the rewards – it becomes a poisoned cue in itself. Horses have evolved to make many decisions for themselves – the erroneous idea that the majority of horses just blindly follow a leader is outdated – and there is no reason for this to have changed over the relatively brief period of domestication. Yet the vast majority of domesticated horses have no say in what they do when, are fed a prescribed diet at specific times and have no choice as to their companions. Indeed, the manner in which most horses are managed is contrary to even the most basic ethological time-budgets.

I do not pretend to use positive reinforcement all the time, but I reserve it for when I want to encourage my horse’s autonomy, alongside careful consideration of his evolutionary needs. I will use discrete and well-defined free-shaping sessions to reinforce the message that I will listen to my horse’s opinions. This is not to say that I will never over-ride my horse’s opinions because sometimes I do – afterall, none of us has autonomy 24/7 – but within a free-shaping session it is all his choice. The balance needs to be found where the horse has the self-confidence and trust in the owner that he can offer opinions confidently without feeling “shut down” if the opinions are over-ruled. I don’t use clicker training to train away problems or to train behaviours I actually care about training. I use clicker training to build a sufficiently strong relationship from which I can later use mild negative reinforcement when I feel it is appropriate. Obviously it depends very much on the horse as to how much of a balance must be struck between the need for free-shaping sessions and the appropriateness of incorporating mild pressure. In the early days of working with a new horse it may be that every interaction needs to be the horse’s decision. The long-term shaping plan will include being able to cope with direction from the human.

Free shaping allows the horse to behave in the most open and honest way, rather than just trying to avoid pressure whichever way he can. It is a means of communication, two-way communication as opposed to formal training. As a result, we are provided with the closest insight as to how a horse might be thinking. We can use this information to improve the life of the horse – we can learn about his learning style, what he likes and dislikes, how he values things, what he feels scared about. We can apply this information to any form of equestrianism in which we wish to participate – not to exploit and manipulate but to add value and reduce conflict.

I strongly believe that this approach to horsemanship is analogous to some of the methods used in human psychotherapy, most notably, the person-centred style of therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers (e.g. On Becoming a Person). There is also a beautiful description of such therapy applied to a six year old boy, thought to be mentally deficient but given the opportunity to develop a positive relationship with play therapist, Virgina Axline, and transform into the highly intelligent and advanced boy he was (Dibs: In Search of Self). This book shows the power of free-shaping in action and is remarkable for so many reasons, not least because the therapy took place for only one hour a week with the boy returned to a fairly aversive home life in between. Rogers believed that a therapeutic relationship hinged on three key factors – empathic understanding, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. While his earlier work studied the relationship between therapist and client, he later extended it to just about all relationships. I see no reason why this should not apply to horse-human relationships as well. Working with a troubled horse requires these same three attributes – an understanding of how that horse might be feeling, the patience to allow that horse to behave how he needs to behave without trying to manipulate or creating an agenda and respect and appreciation for every try that the horse makes. I think it’s fair to say that no equestrian discipline has these core points at the heart of the horse-human relationship. Yet…..

Catherine Bell is an equine behaviourist and independent barefoot trimmer with website http://www.equinemindandbody.co.uk and Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/ThinkingHorsemanshipForum

Nov 062012
 

The round pen, rope halter and lead rope. These combination of things seem to have become as much a part of each other as bit, spurs and whip have been over the course of many centuries. As opposed to bit and spurs, the round pen and the lead rope seems to have an image of kindness and friendliness whereas bits and spurs do not. “Working the horse gentle and without violence” is what I hear people say about it. When I ask people why it is so friendly, they mostly reply that it is natural to the horse to be handled in this way. Hence the term ‘Natural Horsemanship’ that is often used to describe a way of working with a horse with rope halter, rope and round pen.

Question is, is this way of working and handling the horse really natural from the horse’s point of view? What really is the effect on the horse’s physical and mental state?

Let us take a closer look at the biomechanics and mental factors behind working the horse in a round pen. I am now only going into the round pen itself. For my views and experiences concerning the rope halter, please read ‘bitless is not always bitless’.

Round versus square

In Europe we put horses behind or train them in square or rectangular paddocks, arena’s and picaderos since ancient history. Round penning or corrals seem to be associated with the ‘Far West’, the Cowboys and mustangs. Indeed, I presume the round shape is a good choice to chase in wild horses. Here I see a clear danger with corners either for the panicky horses themselves or the humans that need to handle them. Nowadays, the wild horse scene has become a rare image. Still the round pen is used and not only in the US, it has come to Europe. More and more we see the round pen being used for just one horse and often not a wild one at all. I have asked western trainers and trainers who call them selves horse whisperers or natural horsemanship trainers, why they use a round pen and not a square pen, to me known as a picadero or simple an arena. The answer I received was: “Because the horse can not ‘hide’ in the corners.” If there are any other reasons to it that you, reader, might know, please enlighten me. But so far, that is the only one I have heard over many years from many people. The horse can not ‘stop’ in the corners, or use the corners to change direction, brace himself etc. The use of the round pen, when googling, tells me it is first and foremost to ‘break (in)’ horses. Breaking a horse would indeed need a pen where he can not hide, stop or brace so that makes a lot of sense. However, where does that leave this ‘non violent’, ‘kind’, ‘gentle’ and ‘Natural’ training in relation to the round pen? I shall come back to that later.

First I would like to explain, why, if you want to work in a way that will benefit your horse, you better use a picadero (square pen). The answer to that is: because the corners benefit the horse’s physical development.

When a horse walks, trots or canters in a square or rectangular arena, every time he really goes through the corners, he lifts his shoulders and comes out of the corner more straight and uphill. Therefore the corners are a big part of the Gymnasium (= anciently known sequence of exercises that empowers the horse) for a horse who takes a corner produces a small Shoulder In. Shoulder in, is in fact a horse walking as if going through a corner, but then keeps his shape and walks in a straight line forward. Of course, when you work a horse free in a rectangular space which is to large, the horse will often cut the corners. That is why a picadero was invented. It is a square measuring 12 by 12 or 15 by 15 meters. Within the picadero, just following the track in walk, trot or canter will benefit your horse by lifting his shoulders each corner.

Horse correctly worked in a picadero with Body language, the corners help the horse to remain straight and balance in which he can go naturally uphill. Picture horsesandhumans.com

Hide and seek

The next benefit for your horse is the very thing which was called a disadvantage by users of round pens: The horse can ‘hide’ in the corners. So why would that be an advantage? Because you can learn about the best of way of handling that specific horse. If your horse seeks to evade you, he simply does not feel comfortable with you or sees any benefit in doing what you are asking. If your goal is the benefit of your horse, you are very happy with that knowledge. For you want to adjust your question or the situation thus ,so your horse does feel more comfortable. Only this way will he truly learn to trust you because he’ll know, the things you’ll ask him are for his benefit and never will harm him or cause him pain, fear or discomfort.

Horse able to go long and low because of correctly being supported by the corners of the picadero and the body language of the human. This way, the horse will not injure his shoulders. Also see: Forward and down: the story of the nuchal ligament. Photo: Horsesandhumans.com

Turning on the inside shoulder

“Okay, so the round pen does not have the benefit of the corners”, you might think, “so what”? Well, it is not just that the round pen lacks the benefit of the corners, it presents the horse with the exact opposite of this benefit. You see, the problem with the lack of corners produces a health hazard to the horse as soon as he starts walking, trotting or cantering along the track. Going round in circles is an unnatural move to a horse. A horse is shaped to eat from the ground and go, walk, trot and canter in sort of serpentine lines, never really round and never on a true straight line. In nature, just going straight constantly or round will never happen. So, the equine body is not equipped to do circles and straight lines. In a round pen however, the horse makes continuous circles. The effect of this will produce the following: The horse will pivot around his inside front leg and shoulder. This will, over the long run produce contra collection, crookedness and lameness. The horse will immobilise himself and will become very hard to work in hand or ride in lightness. By chasing a horse in a round pen, you chase the collection out of the horse and produce exactly the opposite.

Picture number 1: Horse chased in a roundpen completely pivoting around the inside foreleg. The only way to keep moving is to contract the lower neck muscles. This stagnete the use of the longissimus dorsi (long back muscles) and will put the horse in contra collection.

picture number 2: With this horse the problem has become even worse, his whole body falls to the inside, all the weight is on the inside foreleg. He therefore needs to keep his lower neck muscles contracted as to not tip over and fall on his nose.

Working the horse in hand in lightness

To help the horse develop his body in a way so that he can carry his human without harm up till at least 25 years of age, lunging on the soft cavesson is a basic tool. For many years I never had any problem, by some simple body language, to ask a horse to walk, trot and canter on the lunge. Horses usually like this work if done correctly, for here too, the danger of working the horse on his inside shoulder is lurking, if you do not do this correctly. But over the last couple of years more and more horses that are brought to me for training are almost impossible to ask for nice, free, proud and forward movement on the lunge. The first problem is that they will not want to move. The horses do not want to leave your side and constantly turn their head towards you and their hind quarters away from you. This is due to the following causes: First of all, these horses are in contra collection due to being forced to walk on their shoulders in the roundpen as explained before. A contra collected horse litterly moves himself in to the ground with his front legs. The only way a contra collected horse can move forward fast is by lifting the head way up high, contracting the lower neck muscles, for if he does not do so, he litterly tips over. The opposite of collection in which the head and neck supported by the contraction of the upper neck muscles lift the forehand by means of suspending the four joints in the hind legs. This whole natural system which every horse is born with is completely destroyed by chasing him regularly in the roundpen.

So that is why these horses do not want to go forward, especially on the small body language cues an untrained or well trained horse would go (note that in natural reaction, both should react the same!).

The second problem is that the horse will constantly turn towards you. This has two reasons. First the contra collection in which the horse has been rendered makes him constantly lean on his forelegs by means of his triceps. There is almost no weight on the hind quarters, therefore if you ask the horse to move, only his hind legs will be able to move from their place, as the front legs are completely immobile from the weight of the horse. To top that, I have seen trainers have the horse do this movement as an exercise, in which they constantly pressure the hind quarters to move whilst the horse keeps the weight on his front legs, which of course only makes the problem worse.
In addition, even if the horse would be able to move freely and proudly on the lunge, he surely would not dare. After all, he has learned that walking around a human is punishment and standing with the head close to him or following him is what the human wants and makes the harmful and pointless movement in circles end.

Lastly, there has been used so much pressure on these horses with an enormous amount of rope swinging, that the horse has grown completely deaf for small cues. All the lightness in the horse is gone. Often the limit of pressure used has gone over the top and the horse has decided to stop moving, no matter what. No rope or whip can make him move, whether he is hit or not. The reason lies mostly in pain in the body. Moving round in contra collection has become so painful, that standing and taking blows from whip or rope has become the less distressing option. Many trainers then give up, saying the horse is untrainable and hence people call on our yard as a last resort.

Because of this more and more occurring phenomena, I and my students have to put months into simply helping the horse off his shoulders, then to microshape, so he is able to react to tiny and soft cues of body language and touch again and lastly to get the horse to understand and trust that he is allowed to move freely, proud and foreward and that asking him to move is not a punishment but a means to help him improve his body.

Having said that, a horse that has been chased in a roundpen often will keep this sort of ‘lid on his energy’. The horse remains fearful to ‘give his all’, afraid that he then still will be pushed over his limits,as has been done before. His prey instinct tells him to remain enough energy to be able to flee from predators at all time. Understanding the horse and therefore ‘the way of the prey’ means that you shall never ever fatigue a horse! Only then will he trust his human enough to ‘give his all’. Horses that have been over pressured, lost mobility in their body by being forced to move in a harmful way and have been fatigued more than once, shall almost never truly dare giving their all again.

Antoine de Pluvinel tells us for a reason we should bring the horse back to his box as fresh as we took him out!

Correctly lunged horse. The horse is straight and moves ‘as if going through a corner’. The inside foreleg is underneath the shoulder, the most weight is taken up by the outside hind leg. The shoulder is free.

Whispering?

The round pen and the rope, is often an image that comes with so called horse whispering. However, if we take a closer look to what is happening in a round pen a lot of times, whispering, from the horse’s point of view, isn’t actually what is happening. On the contrary, if we look at this from the horse’s point of view, being chased with a rope in a small fenced area, no matter round or not, is no whisper. It is – in my view – down right yelling, screaming and terrorising.

But it is about ‘leadership’, is a phrase that is often heard. But what is leadership?

Dwight D. Eisenhower has the following to say about it: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” This, to me, says it all. Leadership is about inspiring others. This way you will lead by example. I in fact learned about leadership from horses! When we study natural horse behaviour we see, that the image we have of horses and their picking order is not their natural way at all. There is one thing that makes the difference between naturally following a leader or being bullied into coercion:
The fence.

After many years of studying the birth of democracy, (or what democracy once meant), which was around the same time when the first ‘dressage for the horse ‘training book was written, and studying natural horse behaviour, I came to a conclusion:

Horses must have been the inventors of true democracy. Horse leaders do not force other horses to ‘follow’. They have no means to do so. Why not? Simple, the other horses simply can leave if they do not like a certain horse to be in charge. After all, once again, there is no fence! So some horses have their own idea on things because of intelligence and experience and other horse learn that following those horses will bring them good fortune. This in short is their reason for following a certain horse, or horses. So, when the leading horse leave, the other follow, but they do not have to, they choose to!

So, if you want to be the leader of your horse, ask yourself, and this is crucial – from the horse’s point of view – do you bring your horse good fortune? Hopefully I do not have to add here that this not about fancy rugs and bling bling bridles! Do you offer your horse that which helps him stay healthy and improve himself both mentally and physically?

Many say: “but this is how horses treat each other, I see it every day”. Within the fences yes, we can see that the anti social bully type of horses, that no one would get near in natural environment, have the glorious change of a lifetime. It is not their intelligence or experience, it is simply their strength that makes them ‘leader’. But take the fence away and all horses would run from him and never come near the bully again. It is only logical. A bully will make stupid choices and injure horses which will make their chance of survival much smaller. A true leader however, will only do what he thinks is best for himself and will allow others to join in, on his beneficial experience. Thus pulling the string, without really meaning to.
Freedom to follow makes leaders, closed confinements make dictators. We see it with humans too. A fence can be your ‘paycheck&mortgage’. You do as you told, even though your boss makes your life hell on a daily basis. What if you won the lottery? You would be gone in a heartbeat! But what if you have a boss that takes care of you and makes you feel you can expand your potential and creativity? You’d would at least wait until your boss had found someone new before you left, no way would you leave a boss like that in trouble. Or you would not work there anymore but stay friends with your boss. But it works also on a larger scale: think about the so called ‘Iron curtain’ around the former Sovjet countries or the wall of Berlin.

When you are within the fence with your horse, next time you train, ask yourself: if the fence would disappear, would my horse remain? Ask yourself: what reason would my horse have to remain with me? Believe me, ‘buying expensive rug’ is not a related answer for a horse.

So, chasing a horse with a rope is not a way to become his leader, okay, but then what is, you might ask. Good question! Indeed what? The thing is, that if, and indeed ‘if’ your horse elects you as leader, it will be because of many small things you do and don’t over the course of time.

If your horse learns that being with you, and following your lead, will bring him nothing but good things, then your horse will follow you. Do remember that even in nature, horses have their own free mind and will, even while having the best alpha horse’s imaginable. The same will count between you two. Your horse might starting consulting you – and if that happens, you are already really far! – in different situations he will always again chose whether to follow you or not. Every horse is different, every situation is different and you yourself can feel or be different day by day. Nothing is absolute in this. So I suggest you start working on your friendship first, by providing all things your horse needs, both mentally as well as physically. Next, whatever you do, lead by example! Read more of this in ‘human manners’

One training system for every horse?

Scaring a horse out of his wits with a rope within a fence will not make you his leader, you will probably agree. It can make you his bully if the horse is young or of a certain soft nature. But if you have an alpha type of mare, stallion or even gelding, you can be presented with a really dangerous challenge and rightly so. Only losers can come out of this, either an injured human, or a traumatised horse. Horses with true leadership qualities will henceforth often be rendered ‘un-trainable’ and dangerous, as they will choose to attack their chaser and with good reason, might I add. With which I touch on the subject of the following: often many training techniques are designed for ‘the horse’. But there is no such thing as ‘the horse’! Foals, fillies, colts, mares, alpha mares, stallions, geldings, traumatised horses, injured horses, anti social horses… or mixes between all these! Every different type require such a different way of handling! And even within these groups, every individual is different. There is no training system for every horse. Each horse requires his own unique training system!
Working with many ‘un-trainable’ horses over the past 20 years, this is the greatest conclusion I have drawn and the core of why within Natural Riding Art we have success with horses, most trainers are unable to work with.

Conclusion

Before you start training a horse, first ask yourself what your goal with that specific horse is. If you, like us, want a horse to become Equus Universalis; all he can be, both mentally as well as physically, please, do not chase your horse around.

By Josepha Guillaume

www.josepha.info

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.)