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.
When looking at behavioural problems in horses we need to look at all aspects of the management and training of the horse.
It is rarely just one thing that is compromised. If you only take your horse to a trainer they will probably only look at the physical aspects of behaviour, many problems are due to how we keep horses, what we feed them as much as how we train and how often we train.
Stress is a major cause of equine behavioural problems – to much aversive training, little turnout (especially in the winter), a diet not suitable for the horses work or temperament.
All these need addressing, for feeding advice ask an independant nutritionist, for physical problems liase with your vet. Look at how aversive your training is for the horse, just because a horse is obedient does not mean he is enjoing the work. Horses are very good at learning how to avoid aversive stimuli – this is why they are easy to train. They will learn cues to perform a behaviour so we don’t have to escalate the aids.
There is a revolution in the horse world at the moment with more people learning about the impact of aversive training and turning to using more positive reinoforcement.
It is not a battle between traditional training or natural horsemanship or reward based training – it is a matter of our own consciences – what we feel is right for our horses. We know our horses better than anyone else, but I do know that I am not comfortable with chasing my horse around to make him do things, or to use pressure to force or coerce.
If we remove all tack and put down the sticks and strings what we have left is how the horse feels about us. Does your horse stay with you if you don’t have any equipment?
Is he free to leave without fear of punishment, can he just be a horse in your presence?
Of course some will stay due to previous aversive training – it can take a while for some horses to realise they can do something without being asked. Many horses are too afraid to do anything for fear of correction (punishment).
You only have to watch videos of natural horsemanship training to see horses who stand like robots until cued to do anything.
The stress, caused by being always vigilant, waiiting and watching for a cue and trying to get it right every time so they can avoid correction, can be great.
Even very animated horses are often in a state of frozen watchfulness, watching how to avoid the flick of the whip, we often see liberty trainers with sticks.
At one clinic I attended with Smoke the cliinician was insistant that the only way he could train more than one horse to do a liberty demo was to use escalating pressure – so the horse had no option but to obey or be punished.
There was some excessive waving of the lead rope and extremely big movements from the trainer to get Smoke to back up.
This is so much easier with a target stick and positive reinforcement.
So much of what I do is easier with +R, but we do have to let go all previously learned behaviour in ourselves. How do you get a precise marking of a behaviour with -R when, often, our timing is dreadful? Using a verbal bridge to mark a behaviour still need good timing but I find it is easier to click or say “good” than to release pressure.
So when you watch demos or videos or read about how to train behaviours bear in mind how the horse feels. Stress is a common cause of physical and behavioural problems. A little stress (excitement) is good but prolonged stress e.g never being able to relax – either in the field (if he hasn’t a pair bond), stable ( if he can’t interact with other horses) or in training (due to frozen watchfulness) is not good for our horses.
Winter is always a difficult period for equestrian folk, waterlogged fields, horses that have to be stabled more than usual, lack of daylight to ride and train. So many negatives but also a lot of positives.
If we can’t ride then a little groundwork goes a long way. Set up some horse agility type obstacles, weaving, poles, tarps, umbrellas and numerous other things can be used to desensitse horses to novel objects.
Clinics, lectures and demos at indoor venues are a good way to keep up the enthusiasm, choose a trainer/clinician whose ethos you share. I have just been to a talk by Alison Short, a well respected dressage trainer, on goal setting and rider strategies.
Of course there are always literature searches to do, I found this paper on the Psychology of Equine Performance
This quote is of particular interest to me:-
“The majority of training is based on the use of aversive stimuli in the form of either punishment to discourage undesirable behaviour or negative reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior . For the latter, it is the removal of the aversive stimulus which provides the reinforcement for the correct behavior and which, with consistency, leads to early anticipation and avoidance of the training aid so the animal becomes responsive to the most subtle cue from the rider. Timing is therefore critical and poor timing may lead to the learning of unanticipated and inappropriate responses . Although employed to a much lesser extent, training can also be achieved through positive reinforcement. Because responses are associated with reward acquisition, they are much more variable as, evolutionarily speaking, it pays an animal to explore the limits of what is required to obtain a reward so it can maximise efficiency through minimal effort . However, the key issue with positive reinforcement (and where it contrasts most with negative reinforcement and punishment) is that emotional responses to the training situation are often entirely positive rather than largely or wholly negative [42,43]. This may be extremely important in shaping the horse’s perception of being ridden and the relationship which develops between the horse and rider, as a result (which may be particularly important when the rider and the trainer are the same person).”
Plus this also:-
“Firstly, long-term inappropriate application of negative reinforcement schedules may result in a chronic stress situation for the animal, potentially leading to reduced health , high reactivity to acute stressors , or, for some individuals ‘learned helplessness’ (behavioral depression) . ”
As part of my equine behaviour course I am studying stress responses in horses and the impact excessive use of negative reinforcement and forceful training has on the immune system (immunosuppression is implicated in many equine illnesses) as well as the overall psychological well-being.
Some time ago I passed the Equine Psychology course run by the Centre of Excellence (written by Alizé Paris V.Muckensturm, of Fairhorsemanship). The content of their courses are good and as long as people realise they have no academic standing then they are fine. So I thought I would do the Applied Behavioural Analysis one – this will be useful for the Equine Assisted Learning CIC where I volunteer.
Over the last few months I have done some free short courses in human psychology and it is fascinating. Also much of it is very useful for horses too, especially the learning theory and affective neuroscience. We do need to learn as much as possible about how horses learn and communicate and how their emotions are affected.
I am now embarking on a course run by the Natural Animal Centre in Equine Behaviour. At this stage I am not sure I actually want to work as a behaviourist but is will be useful when Equine Partners are in a position to retrain rescue horses.
Almost at the end of the first part of the course and it is very interesting and is making me do some research and fine tuning my observational skills.
There was some competing motivation before we started today, hay in the field so he didn’t want to leave. However he did put his halter on and was good to bring in and go in the stable. Feet were a bit sticky but he was still enough to saddle.
Mojo was not settled enough today to line up correctly. I will only sit on him when he feels like he is calm and relaxed about it all. I am not agile enough and it is not fair to him either. May be I need a higher mounting block.
So we just played a little in the school and quit for the day.
This topic as been covered before but it is always worth revisiting.
According to Jaak Panksepp there are 7 basic emotional systems all mammals share.
What do we need to engage in training our horses?
SEEKING/desire system, PLAY/social engagement system and CARE/maternal system.
What do we need to avoid triggering?
FEAR/anxiety system, RAGE/anger system, GRIEF/separation anxiety system
Seems so simple but it is so easy to induce frustration in training, the horse will SEEK a reward by performing a behaviour and if we are late in rewarding a desired behaviour or the behaviour is one we don’t want and we ignore that behaviour, the horse may become frustrated. This is often the point people give up trying to use positive reinforcement.
Of course we can use negative reinforcement e.g pressure/release, and even positive punishment, in our training and insist our horses do as we ask. We can use pressure without it being aversive/uncomfortable for the horse but we need to be careful to monitor their emotional state. Each horse is different and we need to adjust our training to suit the horse.
Recently I saw a post where the person said that sometimes if we pick up a stick or whip it doesn’t have to be the object that is a threat but that the persons body language may change (e.g if the stick gives them more confidence). Interesting thoughts on very a controversial subject, are tools an extension of ones arm with no threat potential, just like a guiding hand? Or is it a threat – do this or there will be a negative consequence? Only the horse can say for sure, but we can look at their emotional response to our training methods and allow them to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable with our request.
My one problem is this – as horses have emotions just as we do, is it fair and ethical to force them to do things we want that may not be what they want? How do we know what they prefer, do we give them a choice? I know horses who line up at the mounting block and seem to enjoy going out to explore – activating the SEEKING system.
A very difficult question to ponder and to answer.
Also keep in mind the emotions elicited by the use of negative reinforcement. These are the negative emotions of FEAR and RAGE. An aversive stimulus is something the horse would rather not experience, so the discomfort of a pull on the halter, a whip to “encourage” them forwards. These work by the horse wanting to avoid them, so they comply with our very slight requests – what people call light or subtle aids.
As I have said before fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting.
The fidgeting can be divided in to appeasement behaviours and displacement behaviours. So the horse who can’t keep his feet still, the horse who snatches at grass in an abnormal way, the horse who can’t give us 2 eyes, the horse who lowers his head in an attempt to say “look I am not a threat”.
All these are worth thinking about especially as the International Society of Equitation Science have a huge influence over training and welfare, but also advocate the use of negative reinforcement in the initial training of horses. Although I do find their statements confusing as they have this after the paragraph explaining operant conditioning:
”WELFARE IMPLICATIONS: The use of pressure/discomfort has the potential for serious welfare implications that range from escape, aggression and apathy to learned helplessness.”
Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind: evolutionary perspectives and implications…
Cross-species affective neuroscience studies confirm that primary-process emotional feelings are organized within primitive subcortical regions of the brain…
PS I work with a wonderful set of people doing equine assisted learning, the horses always have a choice, if they start looking at all uncomfortable or stressed they are removed from sessions and given a break. Horses do pick up on our emotions and we do need to know our own horses very well and watch for signs of distress and fear/anxiety.