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Emotions in horses.

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While studying how animals learn I have been introduced to the work of Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp is a psychologist/neuroscientist whose research suggests all mammals have the same basic emotions.

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject – just my unscientific take on the emotions felt by horses.

Affective Neuroscience
Jaak Panksepp

7 systems for emotions according to Panksepp.

1 Seeking – on all the time
2 Rage
3 Fear
4 Grief – formerly panic
5 Lust
6 Play
7 Care

We must avoid anthropomorphism – i.e projecting human feelngs and attributing them to the horse.
Marthe Kiley-Worthingting termed the phrase “conditional anthropomorphism” which allows us to see that the horse does have emotions and can express rage, fear, lust etc.

How does this relate to the way we train horses?

Panksepp describes the SEEKING system as follows:
“This emotional system is a coherently operating neuronal network that promotes a certain class of survival abilities. This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including, of course, food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits. This system is obviously quite efficient at facilitating learning, especially mastering information about where material resources are situated and the best way to obtain them. It also helps assure that our bodies will work in smoothly patterned and effective ways in such quests.”

The seeking system stimulates the dopamine pathways – http://mybrainnotes.com/brain-ocd-dopamine.html

Play, care and lust are all positive emotions – they make the horse feel good.

Rage, fear and grief all have a reason and are necessary for survival – the need to run from predators or escape from capture.

I think the positive emotions are fairly easy to understand – mutual grooming, grazing, mating, playing.

Fear is a physical response to possible attack – invokes the flight/fight response. Which in extremes can caused them to run blindly, more normally it is short lived until the danger has passed. However it takes a while for the hormones to get back to a normal level.

Rage gives a captive animal the energy to struggle free, frustration is a mild form of rage and may be experienced if the animal doesn’t get what he wants.

Grief is more of a psychological reaction to extreme (in the horses mind) events – separation from friends can invoke this reaction.

With fear we can do systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning E.G to scary objects, dogs, hosepipes etc.

Grief is less easy to deal with – gradually separation from field companions – letting realise they will return (any other strategies – please feel free to comment).

The role of food in training.

All horses seek to eat – they are designed to graze continually – they have a complex digestive system which may be compromised by not allowing this behaviour.

Some horses show self-stimulating (addictive behaviour) around food. Geldings and stallions may become sexually aroused when training. They want more and more of the food we have. To help reduce this they need to have the time to chew and process what we teach them.

This is linked to frustration and can escalate to aggression in some animals – if we are stingy with the rewards.

Fixed Action Patterns

Kondrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for their work in developing an interpretive framework that crystallised the data they collected on animal behaviour in the field (ethology) and in the laboratory (neuroethology).

They observed what animals do and how and where the individual animals spent their time. They recognised that the behaviour of animals seemed to be constructed of elementary motor and sensory units. (Reference Animal Physiology – Eckert 4th edition 1997)

Motors units were called Fixed Actions Patterns and sensory units Key Stimuli.

The six properties of fixed action patterns:

1. they are complex motor acts, each consisting of a specific temporal sequence of components – they are not simple reflexes.
2. they are typically elicited by specific key stimuli rather than general stimuli.
3. fixed action patterns are normally elicited by an environmental stimulus: but if the experimenter removes the stimulus after the behaviour has begun, the behaviour will usually continue to completion. This all or none property distinguishes them from simple reflexes.
4. the stimulus threshold for fixed action patterns varies with the state of the animal, and the variation can be quite large.
5. when they are presented with the appropriate stimulus, all members of the species (perhaps that are the same age, sex or both) will perform a given fixed action pattern nearly identical.
6. fixed action patterns are typically performed in a recognisable form even by animals that have had no prior experience with the key stimulus. That is these patterns are inherited genetically, although in many species the patterns can change with experience.

The last property has provoked the debate about nature versus nurture and recently epigenetic studies.

All animals have innate behaviour patterns – to understand the species we must understand their ethology. What does mean in terms of horse training?

Is it this small statement that users of negative reinforcement take out of context? A horse will push another horse so we do the same?

They do use pressure when resource guarding – they push another horse off the hay – the other horse backs off. Horse innately know how to read the facial expression of other horses – so the flattening of the ears in a certain way may mean go away or I will do something more drastic.

Does this mean we have to use this system – no because the horse knows we are not a horse and therefore we do not have the same fixed action patterns.

Do horse receive positive reinforce  – yes, by grazing, mutual grooming, playing and mating.

So by our training we can habituate the horse to accept things it may be innately afraid of – e.g trailer loading, clipping etc.

Trailer Loading

Emotional systems which may be triggered:

fear – of being captured in an enclosed space
grief – separation anxiety on leaving the yard

Can we override these systems and replace with more positive emotions?

My thoughts on this are: (these are my personal and non-scientific thoughts) please correct if incorrect or you have any other suggestions.

For my example I will use trailer loading.

A trailer or lorry is an enclosed space which a horse would probably not naturally enter if he didn’t have an obvious escape route.

The horse therefore may be anxious – have a fear response on seeing a trailer – an unusual object.
We can encourage the horse forward by using negative or positive reinforcement or in some cases luring which is often a mixture of the two.

Negative reinforcement (pressure/release) – we can encourage the horse forward by applying pressure and releasing on the slightest movement forward – the removal of the stimulus (pressure) is negatively reinforcing. Repeat this over and over again and maybe go from phase 1 (a gesture to suggest the horse moves forwards) to phase 4 where there is more physical pressure put on the horse.
If all goes well the horse will eventually associate the gesture to load with an addition of the aversive stimuli and work to avoid the pressure.

The horse loads and continues to load and may even load himself. My question is – has the horse begun to like the trailer or has he loaded to avoid any unpleasant things happening? Is the innate emotion – fear – still there? Yes, they do eventually habituate to trailer loading if we are consistent.

Positive reinforcement (reward based training/clicker training) – the horse has already begun to be target trained so will follow a target to the scary lorry – bridge and treat for the slightest try.
Continue this targeting and reinforcement until the horse will load himself following the target.
Again the horse habituates to the trailer and load with us just using a cue. The inside of the lorry now has positive associations – satisfies the seeking emotion – food is provided.

So with positive reinforcement have we altered the horse emotional state from that of fear to that of seeking? So trigering dopamine release rather than just supressing the flight and fight respones?

http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878%2811%2900034-7/abstract
Above is a reference to research on the physical state of horse to trailer loading.

If grief is triggered in any scenario then that needs to be addressed as a separate problem – please add any thoughts on dealing with separation anxiety as I have limited experience.

In depressed, shut down horses the seeking system is switched off, some horses have been so micro-managed that they are afraid to offer any behviour incase they get corrected or punished – both clicker training and well timed, non-escalting pressure/release should never cause the seeking system to shut down. In fact in reward based the training the horse will often offer more behaviours in an attempt to get a reward, we can then capture the behaviour we want and reinforce.

Please feel free to comment, pull this apart and add your thoughts. I may be on the completely wrong track with all this – but it a fascinating and complex subject.


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