Take a look at my new site for more musings about equine training and behaviour. I hope to keep this one as my personal training diary.
I haven’t done much with Mojo recently but he did get a bit cross the other day when I took him out of the field whilst the others horses had been fed, he thought he wasn’t getting anything. So the RAGE system kicked in and he was a bit tense, of course he got his food when got to the yard and I left him in his stable eating hay for a while until he settled down. Mojo’s emotions are often very subtle and I may have missed them a few years ago – before I studied equine behaviour and neuroscience.
So it does pay to learn as much as we can about our individual horses and learn to observe those, often very subtle signs, of discomfort.
Take a look at the Positively Equine site as it has articles on learning theory and the core emotional systems all mammals share.
Mojo was ridden by Liz Hibberd, he was very cool today, we used the “walk on” cue and the target. Then phased out the target and Liz just cued him to walk.
He had one little spook when he trod on his own feathers – I really must cut them again.
He even had a little trot at the end, then lots of praise, scratches and treats.
Liz also sat on Indi for the first time and walked a few steps, we used my hand as a target and then the “walk on’ cue. Indi was very relaxed and we called it a day after a few steps.
July 30th 2017
I had to a brilliant lesson today with Jo, Mojo still is not 100% OK with someone on his back and walking at the same time. So it back to the dummy rider and lots of SD and CC to weight and things flapping about.
The first video he is learning to stand still at the mountng block and not try to turn round for the reinforcement.
The second one is him targeting the cone so he takes a step forward, he was tense and a little worried by this and spooked twice – once when bitten by a fly and the other time when he touch my stirrup with his nose – my daughter thought he may have been punished in the past for this – as apparently people kick their horses nose away! It never occurred to me to do that. So Mojo may have expected punishment – we don’t know for sure that is why, but he was in a riding school at some point in his life and they may have tried to discourage this behaviour.
Thank you Jo, I now have to remember everything!
Jo has looked at the videos and thinks the second spook was due to Mojo touching a cone, there was some trigger stacking in play – the fly bit him and he was already at his emotional threshold – the cone touching his leg was the thing that send him over threshold.
There is always a reason for a behaviour – we just need to look closely.
I long/short lined Mojo for the first time this year. He was so relaxed and attentive. We only did a short session as it was very warm and humid. I set up the cones so he could walk from cone to cone. He seems to have learned to count to 4 now. I count down 4-3-2-1 bridge and treat. Must try next time with the cones in a straight line and gradually position myself further back.
What would you do if your horse had a behavioural problem?
Firstly check for any physical reasons for the behaviour – pain, ill-fitting tack, back problems, teeth, feet etc. Then check the environment is right for the horse – has he got friends, freedom and forage? Is he free from stress – e.g stabling for too long without enough forage can cause stress related problems such as gastric ulcers.
Look at the diet, is he over fed for the amount of work he is doing?
Then look at why he performs the behaviour, what is the purpose of the behaviour, is it a fear based behaviour, does he feel insecure, does he have separation anxiety etc.
Often changing the environment will make a huge difference.
Only then can a behaviour modification plan be formulated.
Training alone may never get to the root cause of the problem, at best it may put a sticking plaster over the problem, by suppressing the behaviour.
Yes you can train alternative behaviours to ones you don’t want, you can punish the behaviour e.g adding an aversive stimulus every time he performs the behaviour until he learns how to avoid the aversive and the behaviour stops. EG adding pressure to the halter every time he tries to run away. The use of aversive stimuli can either stop a behaviour (punish), or its removal can reinforce a behaviour. So are you punishing the running away or reinforcing the stopping?
Get professional help from an equine behaviourist well versed in the correct use of positive reinforcement. Behaviourists will need veterinary approval first – this is to rule out any physical cause of the behaviour.
Find one who can teach you to use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. This will change the emotions associated with fearful situations.
Horses are big, strong animals and we do need to stay safe but that does not have to mean using pressure halters or other controlling equipment. They may work as the horse learns to avoid the pressure but without examining the underlying cause of the problem it may reappear later.
Suppressed behaviours do have a habit of spontaneous recovery.
Horses need to feel safe, our relationships should be built on mutual trust.
I saddled Mojo for the first time this year, he was very good. He was in the school loose so had the opportuntiy to leave if he felt he needed to do so. We then walked around a bit before the bridle was presented, he stuck his nose in and stood whilst I fastened the buckles.
Mojo sidled up to the mounting block as soon as I stood on it and allowed me to get on. With a little moral support from a friend I asked him to “walk on” which he did and we got half a circuit of the school no leg pressure or rein contact.
Below are the photos my daughter took on her moble phone – as I left my camera in my car.
Over the past few months I have been studying with the Natural Animal Centre and have just passed the Equine Behaviour Qualification Stage 1.
Now I am busy writing some generic behaviour modification programmes, these will be adjusted for individual horses and handlers.
I am not rushing in to consulting at the moment, as I wish to do some more studying and learn some techiniques to help people change their behaviour. Presently I am reading a book on Transactional Analyisis.
Now this course is finished I can get on with more saddle and mounting block training with Mojo. Just wish the rain would stop for long enough to get him clean.
What will 2017 bring?
I am studying to be an equine behaviourist but so far am unsure whether I want to practice as a behaviourist. The equine part of the equation seems to be the easiest component. Changing peoples long held believes is very difficult, so many don’t even understand the basics of how animals learn. I don’t blame the average horse owner as they are not taught this at riding schools or even in colleges at diploma level.
If people are using pressure to motivate horses they need to understand that it is the relief of that pressure that reinforces the behaviour. This is basic negative reinforcement but I did not learn about this from the British Horse Society or even when I was doing natural horsemanship. I did learn that it is the release that teaches the behaviour but not that it was the use of an aversive stimulus nor was negative reinforcement ever mentioned.
It was only when I investigated clicker training that I learned about positive and negative reinforcement. The more I learned the more convinced I was that positive reinforcement is better for the emotional health of the horse, it gives them a choice. They can say “no” instead of being too afraid to object due to the adverse consequences of non-compliance. Even when I was doing natural horsemanship the horse was not allowed to walk away as this was seen as being “disrespectful”.
Benny taught me so much – he was very adept at escaping the escalating aversives and he introduced me to positive reinforcement.
Mojo is teaching me even more, horses can teach us so much, if we listen, than any human can.
We do not need to subscribe to any particular genre of horsemanship, we need to learn as much as we can from as many sources as possible. Only then can we truly decide what is in the best interest of the horse. To be blinkered or brainwashed by clever marketing is very limiting but unfortunately very common.
So I do find the human animal very hard to understand – it is the human who has to change if the horse is to have a better life.
The Cookbook Approach to Horse Training
There are many who would really like to know all the answers, to be able to work through a book to train the perfect equine. There are many who try to provide this service, they produce glossy ads and videos showing how you can have a rapport with your horse. Some even give you a step by step program to obtain the perfect partnership.
What is wrong with the Cookbook approach?
Well for a start each horse is different, as is each owner/rider. No horse has ever read the book so has no idea what people want him to do, he is just busy being a horse.
Any book or program can only provide a framework – the trainer needs enough knowledge to know how to adapt and improvise.
If we have a cookbook what happens if you don’t have all the ingredients for a recipe? It probably all goes wrong unless you have enough knowledge to be able to adapt a recipe or make one up from scratch.
The same can happen in horse training if all you do is watch a few videos or read a few books without a true understanding of the subject.
What knowledge does an owner need to be able to be the trainer of their horse?
They need to know how horses learn – so an understanding of operant and classical conditioning.
Some physiology and an understanding of biomechanics will help to keep the horse healthy and sound.
An understanding of equine body language and emotions is also needed.
Certain programs can teach you the basics of horse care – the BHS Horse Owners Certificate looks at the care of the horse physical needs.
Studying the learning theory and emotional side of things may be a bit more tricky. There are however excellent behaviourists around who can help and several good online resources.
However pick a course or person who is not attached to an organisation that uses only pressure/release types of training. This may have a place in training but it should not be the only way to motivate a horse. Avoid those who use escalating pressure to teach behaviours to horses. Horses are very good at learning to avoid the pressure but it can be detrimental to their emotional state.
Some organisation teach equine psychology but have an emphasis on their own brand of training, so they justify the use of aversive stimuli and ignore positive reinforcement. Some never mention that what they use is negative reinforcement so many are under the illusion of it being positive reinforcement.
We do have to be careful as any training done badly will cause problems – this goes for both negative reinforcement programs and clicker training programs. There is much more to reward based training than a clicker and some food.
To learn safely and effectively try to find someone who can come out to you or who can do some video lessons and give good feedback.
All the time I learned to ride and train via both the BHS and natural horsemanship it was never explained that I was using negative reinforcement. Natural horsemanship did teach how to apply the aversive stimulus (pressure) and that is was the release of that aversive that reinforced the behaviour. However it was never called aversive or negative reinforcement.
Most people aren’t stupid and can understand the basics of learning theory if they are given the facts. Only then can they decide what motivation to use. The horse can be motivated by learning to avoid the application of pressure (-R) or he can learn to seek something he wants (+R).
Chasing, driving, applying more pressure can lead to a horse who suppresses his natural flight response. It can even lead to complete learned helplessness. This can be seen in traditional and natural horsemanship training, the dead to the leg riding school horses, the totally bombproof horses, natural horsemanship trained ones who don’t do anything unless told (because they fear the correction).
We need a balance – a safe horse but one with character, one who feels safe to express an opinion – even when it isn’t one we agree with. How many people mount horses who don’t willing stand at the mounting block – I know I have in the past got on my horse and before I was fully onboard she would walk off.
We can of course teach this with negative reinforcement – making the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing easy. However do we really have a willing horse if he only performs a behaviour to avoid the consequences of not doing so?
We can equally cause conflict if using +R if the horse is still afraid but wants the food. This is why we need to learn more than the basics, learn about different rates and types of reinforcement, learn to fade out targets and clickers for established behaviours. Learn what conflict looks like and how to recognise fear and frustration and how to avoid triggering flight responses. Learn what to do if things don’t go to plan, learn to read all the very subtle signs our horses give us.
What ever we can teach using negative reinforcement can equally be taught using positive reinforcement – the difference is how the horse feels about the process. We do need knowledge and imagination and lots of patience.
Dominance, leadership, respect are often spoken about but have little place in our relationships with horses.
Trust, partnership and providing all our horses needs is far better in my opinion.
Poor Mojo had a very sticky runny nose – very smelly too. The vet attended after a couple of days as Mojo was not a happy coblet.
The vet examined teeth etc and said Mojo had an acute sinusitis, so the options were antibiotics and hope it didn’t reoccur – but that is not always the case. Or to go to the veterinary hospital for a wash out, I opted for the wash out.
Mojo was booked in for a few days later and loaded well but as he doesn’t travel too well we took it slowly. He arrived and grew a few inches looking at everything. He was put in a nice cosy stable but looked very anxious – after booking him in I left him eating hay.
He was sedated for the procedure – to insert a tube in his sinus and wash it out. I explained to the staff and the vet how frightened he can get but I thnk because he does really show his fear they may have not understood him. It is surprising how many people only recognise fear when the horse is trying to flee or shaking or showing other obvious signs.
Anyway poor Mojo was not – in the words of the staff – a good patient. Even sedated he tried to escape, so he must have been way over threshold. All I was told was “when he learns some manners he will be OK”. so many people equate a suppressed horse with one with “manners”. Mojo had an opinion and made it known but no-one listened.
How most people instill “manners” is to use aversives to such an extent that the horse learns not to object for fear of the consequences.
The plan was to leave the tube in so we could wash him out at home but the vet deemed him too dangerous for us to do this. So he came home after 3 days with no drain.
We picked him up and he walked into the lorry but panicked once shut in – so he kicked the lorry sides a bit on the way home. I have a ot of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning to do with travelling. Once the fields are dry I may be able to park it in a field and do this at liberty.
Mojo came out of the lorry and called to the other horses – only the 3rd time I have heard him vocalise.
We turned him out with his friends and he cantered round the field and rolled and rolled. Then cantered some more – he is normally very sedate in the field, so it was obvious that he was very high on adrenaline.
Later in the day he woudn’t came any where near any person that tried to catch him, not even for a bucket of food – stressed horse often don’t eat so this is another sign of how upset he was.
The next day he was fed in the field and seemed to have calmed down a bit. Over the next few days he settled and came over to say hello and I groomed him in the field and got him to target the brushes so he could get some reinforcement.
Now he is back to normal and is due for the suture being removed. He allows me to touch his face and ears and hopefully the vet will have no problems with him as he will be at home in familiar surroundings.
We owe it to our horses to prepare them for veterinary care but sometimes things happen that we cannot foresee. I know that now I have to get him used to having a lot of people around him.