Agility Training

May 11th 2019
We have been having a little trouble getting out of the field as there is a very friendly pony who always gets to the gate first.
Mojo was OK to get out of the field, I had Liz with me and she distracted the pony who keeps chasing Mojo away. I took him into the stable to groom and pick out feet. He offered all 4 feet with me just saying “lift”. This is the cue my yard owner has been using, so I need to keep the consistency. No kicking, snatching or putting them down before I had finished cleaning them. He was eating his lunch at the time but got a few more treats for being so good.

Then we went in the arena and I put out an L-shaped corridor. We did that one way and then he backed on cue a few steps with in the poles. I asked him to back over a pole which he did well but then I decided to try the corridor again but going the other way. He got a bit confused and thought I wanted him to walk over the poles.

We ended with him standing on the tarp and getting a handful of treats. I left him in the school whilst I put a few things away. I had bunting tied to the fence as the yard owner wanted to do some obstacle training with her son and his pony in the afternoon. As i was unravelling it Mojo came to have a look, he was very eager to touch it.

April 2019

Well finally got Mojo in the school to do some pole work and short lining. We haven’t managed much recently apart from grooming and a little targeting on the yard. I used my new short lines from Whinny Reins – they were brilliant, very easy to hold and didn’t get all tangled up like the feather lines, I must take a photo next time.

Anyway Mojo was very good, he walked well over the poles from a “walk on” cue and stopped on a “whoa”. He went to the frisbee I threw for him and even had a little trot, must now get the trot on a reliable cue. Only did a few minutes and now must build it up so we do more and then some ridden sessions.



Mojo Ridden

A couple of snippets from our 2nd lesson with Sally Ede. Mojo was calm and relaxed and focused. I used my body and a slight open rein to turn. We used scratches as reinforcement and he was forward going so only a slight touch with the leg to indicate ‘yes” that is what I want.

I now want to add verbal cues to the rein cues but that will come after I get more confident riding. At the moment Mojo doesn’t seem bothered by my riding and as long as he is under his emotional threshold all is well.

I did feel a little guilty as I wanted to use more positive reinforcement in our ridden sessions but I also need to know he can be ridden  by anyone, as he will most probably out live me.

April 2018

I took Mojo into the school this afternoon, he did get a bit over excited as I haven’t done much with him recently. He was watching this morning when Liz whilst rode Smoke and saddled Indi and sat on him, I thought at the time Mojo looked as if he wanted his turn. So after lunch he got his wish.
He followed me over the poles and then I threw his frisbee for him to target.
He lined up at the mounting block and targeted on the off side. Did his ‘carrot’ stretches and then I got out my little trimmers and did some SD and CC with them. He wasn’t bothered about them until I walked around a bit, but the reaction was just a slight elevation of his head and neck.
He did target them fine when off and after a few minutes he targeted my hand with the trimmers running. I stopped there and gave him a big jackpot and lots of praise. Lots of scratches too as he is shedding like mad and I have just bought some lovely grooming mitts.
Then I left him eating and went to put some hay in his stable. He then didn’t want to come out of the school, so I just stood and held his head collar at arms length – he soon came and but his nose in and went back in his stable – he was going to have his tea before going out again.

Mojo Up Date

It has been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, winter is always a difficult time of year for horse owners. Our fields are muddy and Mojo is a mud monster. He is still out unrugged, he does come in if the weather is particularly foul or the fields get too poached.
Consequently I have only done basic care with him, a little bit of target training on the yard so he remembers, and some standing still on the yard too. He has a stationary target and stands there and eats hay whilst I groom him or pick out his feet. I am revisiting foot lifting as his fronts are perfect now but he still struggles a bit with the hinds, some times more than others. One of the liveries said when she got him in from the field he seemed a little stiff – probably slipped in all the mud. I checked him and did his stretching exercises – I do these with a target stick and he was very supple laterally. He is not so good at stretching down between his front legs but that was more that he was unsure of where the target was at first. He stretched his near hind but was a little stiffer on the off side, this is always the side the physios pick up on.

We have regular physio visits and/or massage therapy. Plus saddle checks – not the I sit on him very often but it is important that he is comfortable.

I do hope the wet weather stops soon and the fields can recover, we are fortunate to have a good school that doesn’t freeze or flood, so I can take him in there to do pole work or long lining – I must get on and do these again but can’t rustle up the enthusiasm in the wind and rain. Horses like just to be horses and as long as they are cared for and happy they will be OK. Plenty of forage in the field and friends to groom and hang out with, some shelter by the trees and a stable to come in to occasionally to dry out and have a sleep.

I will make a list of things we need to revisit and reintroduce tack in the school before riding him, I don’t want him always to associate the arena with being ridden. The arena needs to be a place where fun things happen and I wont ride unless I know he is OK with everything to do with being ridden.

Gone are the days when I just got on a horse, even when they are fidgeting or moving away from the mounting block – yes I have done that in the past but I know better now. This equestrian journey is never ending – as it should be for everyone. We never know everything and learn all the time – if we don’t we get stuck in the past and never progress in our horsemanship.

Emotions in horses.

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 –

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?
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.