May 202016
 
view from the saddle
unloading harry

Unloading Harry at first campsite, East Prawle, Devon.

Harry had only been backed the previous year, so was not an experienced horse. But he had proved to be reliable, calm and co-operative, and quite good in traffic. Since I would be camping with Harry, perhaps in the open, I accustomed him to being tied up for grazing, and line tied as well. The line tie is a 20 metre long rope, fixed between trees about 10 feet high. From this, a long lead rope drops down, via a swivel clip to Harry’s head collar. This allows Harry to graze the full length of the 20 metres during the night. I also used a pair of hoof boots (Renegades) for his front feet, and he took easily to these.
I planned the ride along bridleways and minor roads wherever possible. I was to start at Devon’s most southerly point, East Prawle, near Salcombe, going due north over Dartmoor and Exmoor to Porlock, then east to finish on the Quantock Hills in Somerset; a journey of about 160 miles. Since Harry would have to carry both me and all my camping gear, I estimated this would take about 2 weeks, doing 12 to 20 miles a day. Harry’s luggage load would weigh about 25 pounds.

I had no crew with me, being on my own for most of the trip, but checked the route beforehand with my partner, Rachel. To reduce Harry’s load I arranged some food dumps (for him and myself) at pubs and campsites on route. I also planned to have long midday stops at sites suitable for Harry to graze for an hour or two each day.

harry inspecting tent

Harry inspecting the tent at East Prawle.

In mid July with Harry loaded in a box, we drove to East Prawle. The following day, with good sunny weather, took me via quiet lanes and bridleways to a friend’s house, about 16 miles north. On the second day, I got to the southern edge of Dartmoor, east of Ivybridge and was offered a Gypsy caravan to sleep in for that night. I tied Harry to the shafts while I unloaded him, then used a nearby paddock for his grazing overnight.

harry with gypsy caravan

Harry at the static Gypsy caravan; my first night on Dartmoor.

The National Park Authority have a policy of not signing rights of way on the Moor itself, so the following day tested my map-reading and compass skills. I was heading for Princetown, about 14 miles away, where I’d arranged for Harry to have a field at Tor Royal Stables. I was also going to meet Rachel and some friends there. Harry was still not confident when crossing streams and had to ‘learn on the job’. Since he was slow to cross the first few streams, I went ahead of him, holding the 10ft lead rope, asking him to ‘walk on’; eventually, he would follow. By the end of the first full day on Dartmoor, he was much better at crossing water.
The ride from Princetown to East Okement Farm, near Okehampton two days later was the longest and most tricky part of the trek. Much of this ride was over featureless moorland so I had to rely on the compass (and good weather) to get me there.

lunchbreak at firing range

Harry tied to Army firing range marker post, during a lunch break.

This section crosses the Army’s firing ranges, so we checked the day before and were told there would be no firing during my ride. How wrong can one be! Thirteen miles into the day and I saw the red warning flags raised on the ranges: I was trapped! I couldn’t go back, and a detour would take me another 20 miles, by which time it would be dark. I tied Harry to the first flagpole and contemplated having to camp there the night. Fortunately I soon saw another rider coming towards me across the moor on a trusty cob. He proved to be employed by the Army, raising and lowering the flags as needed, on firing days. He said the firing had just finished, lowered flag to which I’d tied Harry up to, and wished me well on my way. More bleak moorland, some steep climbs and decents and about 7 miles later, I got to East Okement, with an hour of daylight to spare as well! I was exhausted and hungry but slept well that night in my ‘micro tent’. After a rest day I set off in hot weather, north-east towards Crediton where I had a food dump in a field next to the golf course. Harry had a field of lush grass to himself but came under attack from a large parasitic fly for a while.
During my route planning earlier in the year, I’d not been able to find anywhere to stay for the next night, near the village of Rackenford, so intended to use some common land there and line-tie Harry. Fortunately, following enquiries at the local shop, I was kindly offered the use of a sheep field for the night near the village. While I pitched the tent, Harry trotted around the edge of the field, then returned to graze alongside the tent. That night, I forsook the camping stove and had a meal in the village pub. It thundered with distant lightning that night, but never rained. I awoke to a heavy dew and the rhythmic sound of Harry munching grass close to the tent. On leaving Rackenford I met a rider on a palomino and joined her for a few miles, on my way to Exmoor and Tarr Steps. She showed me where best to cross the busy A 361, and soon I was on the southern edge of Exmoor.

view from the saddle

The best view of the countryside; from the saddle!

The rest of the trek was much easier. Exmoor’s bridleways are generally well way-marked. Over the following days I went due north, crossing the River Barle at Tarr Steps, then a long climb up to Dunkery Beacon, dropping down to the coast near Porlock. That night I stayed at the Owl and Hawk Centre, in nearby Allerford. From here, for the last three days, my route took me east over the Brendon Hills to the Quantock Hills. Much of this section runs along the Coleridge Way which connects Exmoor with the Quantock Hills. Though some parts are footpaths only, it is well marked with long sections of bridleways, quiet lanes, shady tracks and woodland. I finished at Broomfield on the Quantocks. From here Harry was taken home in a trailer; a short trip to Axbridge.

Crossing River Barle

Crossing the River Barle, Tarr Steps, Exmoor.

Dunkerry Beacon

At Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor.

Camping with your horse for two weeks means you certainly get to know him. I don’t have an exercise yard for Harry, so much of his schooling has been taught out hacking. By minimising aversive methods during training, Harry’s progress has been very good and his behaviours fairly predictable. I was fortunate in having good weather for most of the ride. Indeed it was very hot and the main issue was clouds of horse flies, particularly on Dartmoor. The people I met along the way, whether horsey types or not were very helpful and this has encouraged me to plan more trips like this. I think there is a real advantage in going barefoot and I feel shoeing could cause more trouble than it is ever worth; a horse is more ‘self-reliant’ when barefoot and farriers are irrelevant. The Renegade hoof boots worked well and I would recommend them to anyone. Using a bitless bridle leaves Harry’s mouth unencumbered and easier for him to feed on route. I trained him to put his head down on cue, and let him graze as the opportunities arise.
I hate mobile phones. The whole point for me, of being out and about is that you are removed from contact for a while. But I took one with me, keeping it in my pocket, not on the horse! The phone was kept switched off. I would only have used it to call for help if I or Harry were really stuck. However, there was no signal for much of the ride particularly on Dartmoor. Harry also wore bright red metal dog-tag labels on his head collar and saddle with my contact details, in case we got separated. Doing a ride on your own, means you need to be prepared for everything. I took both a folding pruning saw and a small hacksaw, in case of any blocked gates/fences on route. Fortunately, I only needed the pruning saw on two occasions to clear some fallen branches; but if gates had been locked on any public right of way, I would have sawn the locks off. I took first aid stuff for both myself and Harry, so I could dress and sterilise minor wounds if needed.
While Harry is very aware of everything going on around him, he is not a nervous or flighty horse. Many horses react nervously to ‘new’ objects which appear in a familiar environment, they do not seem to do the same where the whole environment (the route being travelled) is new. So, when travelling along unfamiliar routes as we were every day, Harry accepted whatever he saw, such as road works, traffic lights, safety barriers etc. without a problem. Sadly, we met very few other riders during my trek, and no one else camping with their horse. The Dartmoor national park’s policy of not waymarking across the moor must put many people (not just horse riders) off. This seems wrong, since they should be encouraging such use of the countryside.
I weigh about 10st 4lb, but wanted to keep the weight down for Harry’s load, so weight was the critical issue with all the camping gear. To help Harry, I got off for at least 10 minutes each hour and walked him in-hand. I also dismounted when going up and down very steep hills, and where other ground conditions might be tricky for him. The tent is little more than a bivvy bag. It’s just about big enough for one person and little else. I stored my tack and food etc. overnights in a plastic storm shelter. I had some of my main meals in pubs along the way, and this meant less food had to be carried each day, plus I had some good beer! I kept a daily diary of my progress, as memory is not always reliable. I have another interest in bird watching, and riding often allows a close approach to wildlife. The ride started with very rare Cirl Buntings in south Devon, plus lots of Buzzards, Ravens, Yellowhammers and Stock Doves and the occasional Peregrine Falcon. Travelling at a few miles an hour from the back of horse is the perfect way to appreciate our countryside. I also felt a bit more in tune with how people would have travelled 100 years ago before cars tore the countryside apart with strips of tarmac everywhere. I wish more riders would try something like this. I’m planning another trip for this year…

Greg Glendell, Somerset.
2014.

Photos by Rachel Lewis and Greg Glendell

e-mail: mail@greg-parrots.co.uk

This and the previous article (Returning to Riding – part 1. Training Harry ) were originally published in 2015 in the Equine Behaviour Forum printed journal; the EBF is a member-0nly organisation. Greg Glendell is planning another trip with Harry at the end of May 2016.

 

Aug 012013
 

In my work as an equine behaviourist one of the main concerns of my clients and potential clients is how long it will take for a problem to be resolved and how much time will they need to invest to solve the problem. Both concerns are of course completely valid and it is important that the horse owner knows and understands the process, the steps involved and the estimated timeline of progress. However, I am often surprised at people’s expectations when it comes to how long it might take to solve a problem.

Some people are very happy when I suggest, for example, that within 2 months, very often sooner, they should see significant improvement but some are taken aback and want to see quicker progress. Their viewpoint is often not linked to how much time they can invest in helping their horse or how long the problem has been going on for. For example, (the following is based on experiences but not on any one client in particular) an owner has had a horse on box rest for eight months due to a long process of veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Every day in those eight months the owner’s workload has been much more than when the horse has his/her usual regime and turnout. The owner has needed to visit the horse more often resulting in early mornings and long nights – they have had to arrange additional feed, additional support to clean the stable regularly, and time investment in taking the horse for in-hand grazing opportunities. After the horse has been given the all clear by the vet for limited turnout he starts showing distress in the field and seems to ‘want’ to be stabled. The behaviour is escalating and the horse is becoming more difficult to handle in many situations to the point where the owner calls me in for behavioural advice. In this illustrative case, we would look at the management routine of the horse, the relationship between horse and owner and would create a phased, step-by-step programme to reintroduce the horse to a routine involving turnout. I might say that if aspects of the management are changed and the owner spends often just 5-10 minutes dedicated training with their horse per day then within 2 months (often much sooner) we would expect the horse to be comfortable to spend time in the field and that if the steps are followed that there would also be an improvement in the other issues. Some people recognise that this isn’t much work needed to solve the problem that is causing them significant time investment (to manage a constantly stabled horse) and that will improve the life of the horse but others say that they don’t have 10 minutes a day to work on the behaviour modification programme. In such cases we can consider other options, bringing other people into the solution and so on but time and time again I am surprised by the reluctance to invest a small amount of time to solve a problem that is causing much more time and heartache, not to mention the compromised welfare for the horse.

The rush to solve problems nearly instantly has been pushed in recent years by various methods of horsemanship promoting their approach with the selling point that it is so quick. Demonstrations introducing young horses to tack and riders in sometimes less than 30 minutes draw large crowds and I’m sure are partly responsible for creating expectations for all problems to be ‘solved’ in a short time. Training has moved away from being seen as a gradual process to something that can change with a ‘recipe’ for quick results. However, is everything as it seems? The answer is ‘no’ – being able to ‘get’ a horse to do something in half an hour in one situation is not the same as having solved an issue. And that is before even considering the emotional side-effects for the horse of some of these methods. Effective, ethical and easiest behaviour modification and training is done through small steps – desired behaviour is ‘shaped’ gradually, building confidence as we progress through the steps.

Another key element is that learning isn’t just turned on or off when we want to define a training session. The inspiring trainer Ben Hart (Hart’s Horsemanship) very correctly points out that every moment we spend with our animals teaches them something. When a horse is tied up in the sun and a pile of hay while we chat to our yard friends the horse is learning that although they can’t move away the yard is an OK place to be as it’s somewhere you can eat and nothing much is expected of you. When we poo pick in the field the horse learns that when their human enters a field it doesn’t always mean that being caught and ridden is the result. It is easy to forget this – for example, one owner’s horse used to pull and break away when being lead from the field to the yard. Every day the owner spent around 20 minutes longer than it should have taken catching and re-catching her horse as they not very efficiently made the journey across a field. To re-train this behaviour would have only taken a few minutes a day and much of that could have been during the walk they had to do anyway but the owner claimed to have no time to do the training. What was not understood, until we explored things further, was that every time they made the journey the horse is learning – even if that is learning that the journey between field and stable takes 20 minutes and involves a break away to see other horses across the fence!

This article is a plea to think about the time we spend with our horses and what they are learning from us in that time, to slow things down and allow ourselves and our horses time to learn gradually in steps building confidence along the way. We don’t have to make time for behaviour….we just need to recognise that the time we spend with our horses is teaching them something, and we need to be mindful of what!

Suzanne Rogers
– Animal Welfare Consultant and Behaviourist – Learning About Animals (www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)
– Trustee – TAWS (www.taws.org)
– Co-Founder/Programmes Advisor – Change For Animals Foundation (www.changeforanimals.org)
– Animal Welfare Advisor – CVA CPD Programme

Jul 122013
 

The first question is why do we need anything other than the customary practice we’ve built up over the years? And the answer would be that many of those practices are remnants of a past that was radically different from today.
You only have to go back a little over a 100 years and the horse was still the single most important utility in human society. Large numbers of horses were used commercially, for transport and draft in and around towns and cities, requiring them to be kept locally and intensively. Large numbers of military horses were concentrated in cavalry line accommodation to allow for daily group training or immediate deployment.

Those conditions of use and the utility value of horses joined together to produce an attitude that was completely different to that of today: the following quote is from a recent book by Ann Norton Greene: By century’s end, the people driving the horses were in most cases mere employees, who thought of horses as company property. As managers demanded the hauling of larger and larger loads, the employees sometimes abused the horses to satisfy them. (1) Pretty much the whole focus of horse management during the age was how the greatest use could be made of the horse – and, once the horse is confined in a building behaviour becomes of less importance, except where it either interferes with or restricts use.

Go back further in history and we come to a time in which many horses were kept extensively by nomadic or semi nomadic peoples. Their survival required that they knew the horse in a very different way. Without fences and walls and gates your ability to manage and maintain a herd of horses for the use of your immediate or extended family depended entirely on how well you understand their behavior. Each day your primary task was to make certain the herd had sufficient feed and water, or you could expect them to voluntarily relocate! With the horses constantly moving they tended to stay far fitter and healthier, and there was far less need to protect the tough durable hoof that such movement produces. But competing stallions, geldings and mares need to be effectively managed, and in such a way that organized cavalry maneuvers can be mounted rapidly. Very little of the knowledge from this older past has trickled down, often because it was held by people with no written language – which is a great shame. There may be a lot more useful lessons to be learnt from those more distant times than from much closer history.

And so here we are at the present. We have a very different environment to that of the 1800 or 1900s. The commercial and military use of horses across the developed world has all but vanished. There is no longer the necessity for large groups of horses to be kept so close into towns and cities that they need to be managed intensively and in confinement. By contrast there are greater pressures on real estate, which, for a space hungry animal such as the horse, is a major threat. There are also developing concerns over the environment, requiring that we think about how horses fit into the larger, sustainable, picture. Plus there is the growing movement of people that want to connect with animals in a more open, respectful, practical and ethical way.
Arguably what we need is an up to date and complete philosophy suited to these present needs, rather than a mish-mash of customary practices from the past that reflect a different reality. Behavior based horse management (BBHM) is one attempt to create one.

You’ll note that the word ‘natural’ is completely absent so far – and for good reason, since the meaning is so very open to perception. For example ‘natural behaviors’ would likely refer to those found in an ethogram of a particular feral or semi-feral group – in a single, specific, environment. But whilst free expression of those behaviors has often been seen as synonymous with ‘good welfare’, the behaviors a native pony may need to carry out in the New Forest, or a brumby in the Australian outback, are not necessarily going to be the same as those of a fully domestic horse living in the suburbs of an industrial city. In each case what the horse needs is to carry out a package of behaviors that allow it to become functionally adapted to its specific environment. How natural or not those behaviors are, or by what standard they’re ‘naturalness’ might be judged is really irrelevant.

In any case for most horses it’s the human element within their environment that has by far the most powerful impact. And if the horse is going to survive in a domestic environment its ability to interact with people successfully is essential. There are behaviors that might work for feral horses but that don’t fit the majority of domestic environments. Encouraging the expression of a behavior from the ‘wild’, but that has a negative effect on the ability of the horse to function well in a domestic environment makes no good sense, no matter how ‘natural’ it might be.

BBHM operates on a principle, shared with conservationists and the organic movement (2), that what is needed is a caretaker, whose role is defined as “a human who assists animals in their daily interplay with their environment”. (3)
So the caretaker’s role is to assist the horse to adapt functionally, and fortunately horses are very adaptable creatures. Even so, there are going to be environments to which it is simply not possible for the horse to adapt, and in which it fails to function well. What makes sense in that situation is to acknowledge the reality, and move the horse out and into one where successful adaptation is possible. Across the remaining range of environments how much work the caretaker has to do will depend; in some the horses are going to need a lot of assistance to get through each day, in others far less.

So what would ‘successful adaptation’ mean? Let’s consider a horse kept primarily for riding. The horse will need to be healthy, and both physically strong and fit enough to carry the rider’s weight in comfort and safety. The horse’s senses need to be operating efficiently so that the horse is able to make decisions while being ridden that impact on rider safety. The horse needs to be well rested and in a well balanced emotional and psychological state in order to interact well with both the rider and the riding environment. Effective communication must exist between horse and rider, plus a co-operative attitude in which the horse carries out the movements that are communicated to it willingly – and for that to happen the attitude of the horse to that particular person, and really to people in general, has to be good. And obviously the adaptation should have some duration – so however the horse is kept it has to be sustainable over an extended period.

If they are to assist the horse to adapt functionally caretakers have to be able to design and manage environments that reliably produce the desired outcome. And for it to have widespread value it has to be done at a reasonable cost.

A majority of the horses that are slaughtered each year have failed to adapt in some way. Physical problems such as with feet from insufficient movement, or lower leg lameness’s from being put into work too early, allergic reactions to housing, obesity and other systemic issues from feed problems, plus the raft of psychological problems; dangerous or anti-social behavior, stereotypies, work intolerance, anxiety and depression. The aim of a philosophy like BBHM is to facilitate successful adaptation to the benefit of all involved – horse, people and the greater environment.

By Andy Beck

www.equine-behavior.com

1. Norton Greene, A. (2008) HORSES AT WORK – Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Harvard University Press.
2. Algers, B. (1990) “Naturligt beteende – ett naturligt begrepp?.” Svensk Veterinartidning.
3. Segerdahl, P. (2006) Can natural behavior be cultivated? The farm as local human/animal culture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2007) 20:167-193

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Jun 192013
 

I have a rocksteady faith in building a relationship through lots of positive reinforcement, before you’re even allowed to actually work with pressure. And that’s not just because then you can’t do what you’ve always done quite instinctively (push just a little bit, pull just a little bit, tap just a little bit, hit just a little bit); instead you now have to start thinking about how learning actually works. Learning to work with positive reinforcement teaches you what it really means to “get what you reward”. Only after understanding more of that, you can start working with pressure in a more ethical and yes, more efficient way.

“It is highly likely that there are emotional components to operant conditioning, and that affective states themselves can act as reinforcers or punishers.” is a sentence coming from the research paper ‘Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning‘. I’m always intrigued by how carefully these things are being worded – “it is highly likely” that horses experience emotions during training, and that influences the training outcome? Duh!

Anyway, in this paper horses are being tested on two tasks: going to a target at a distance, and moving forward under saddle. Targeting works best with positive reinforcement. Moving forward works best with negative reinforcement (leg aids).
Ofcourse, my immediate reaction as a clickertrainer is that this perfectly shows how inefficient food rewards in the saddle are when you don’t have a bridge, and when your horse didn’t learn long ago already that it’s perfectly alright to actively experiment towards the right answer, until he hears the bridge. It’s the bridge, stupid! (*).

But that’s not what this research is about, really. The paper actually shows how the efficiency of a method (from the learning quadrant) changes with the task and the accompanying arousal. Leg aids tap into the flight reflex of a horse, so the arousal is higher and the efficiency as well. On the other hand, when a horse gets too aroused from positive reinforcement, it might hinder learning efficacy as well, depending on the task. Yes, we’ve all seen that, especially  when we start a horse with clickertraining.

But, the researcher adds: “there are good reasons to preferentially use positive reinforcement”, because “all operant training approaches will be negatively affected by a negative affective state.” With that she means that horses become optimists or pessimists, with all accompanying long-term hormones and plenty of room for poisoned cues (the lay word for approach-avoidance conflict).

“Arguments that certain operant conditioning approaches are more effective than others may be true in some circumstances yet may fail to take into account the merits of first manipulating arousal levels and affective state to create conditions in an animal that best complement training methods associated with ease of application and promotion of positive affective state and appropriate levels of arousal.”
Or, to use more common words: the most important is that your horse gets to know you as a nice person, before you start taking dance lessons (tango or rock&roll or walzing) when both of you start frowning about who puts which foot where, and if you go there, then where do I go. Because it’s the relationship that makes all the inevitable muddling and jumbling and pulling and pushing and staying behind the movement alright. It’s the relationship that gives plenty of room for making errors with a smile.

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.

Jul 212012
 

A common criticism of those who train horses using positive reinforcement is that we are so busy discussing behavioural theory that we do not do anything practical with our horses, just a few “tricks”. Or that our training is so constrained by theory that there is no “feel”. Or that what little practical work we do with our horses takes so long it is not viable for most people. Or that we have dangerous horses who gallop into busy roads and leave us waiting desperately for them to stop so we can click and treat.

I’m not being facetious, I have been accused of all these things and I would argue that none of them is true. So what do we do with our horses?

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as “just tricks” by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick. It involves the horse spontaneously touching a novel object in order to earn a treat. The handler clicks at the exact moment the horse performs the correct behaviour and this helps the horse to understand which behaviour has earned the reward. In order to succeed, via a certain amount of trial and error, the horse must overcome any fear or wariness of the target, it must inhibit any other behaviours such as mugging or biting and it must make a choice to act autonomously. The horse also starts to associate us and our training with good things happening. So even in the early stages of clicker training, we are using the clicker to help the horse develop in confidence, self-control and personal growth, as well as potentially helping to improve our relationship. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

A free-shaping session such as this (i.e. using pure positive reinforcement without cues or lures) can be particularly valuable for a horse who is reluctant to offer behaviours as a result of previous aversive training. It provides a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and not corrected. The horse can learn to make choices, secure in the knowledge that there will be no negative consequence of choosing the wrong answer. Free-shaping can therefore be an extremely valuable tool in the rehabilitation of mistreated horses, with very strong analogies with human counselling. An acute level of “feel” is crucial, taking this approach well beyond the crude “stimulus-response” training of the 1950’s behaviourism movement.

But for the average horse-owner who is not trying to rehab a rescue case…..

Clicker training can be a great tool for solving minor problems. On one livery yard I had to take my horse across a dairy pasture in order to reach his field. All the horses would dive for the grass and we would struggle across, trying unsuccessfully to hold their heads up. I thought it would be a nice clicker exercise and used shaping to teach my horse that it was OK to graze when he heard the click. Initially I would click every couple of strides *well before* he tried to dive for the grass. He started to wait for the click because he knew he was then allowed to have grass. Gradually we increased the number of strides before the click. It wasn’t long before we could cross the dairy pasture before grazing – unlike all the other horses who continued to dive for the grass. I like this example as it illustrates nicely that, although clicker training and shaping may initially appear to be long-winded, they actually save time and solve problems more quickly in the long-term because we are appealing to the horse’s choices rather than fighting them.

Some clicker trainers choose to have a clicker with them at all times so as to “capture” any behaviour they like at any time. Thus clicker training can be used alongside any general handling or riding that people do. For various reasons (and a whole new article in itself), I prefer to reserve clicker training for well-defined clicker sessions but those sessions might specifically be for teaching behaviours such as picking up feet, loading, leading, standing still or learning to move away from light physical pressure. Most commonly I use clicker training for free-shaping over, under, through or around obstacles, picking up a toy or pushing a football for increasing confidence, patience and enhancing a relationship based on mutual trust and choice. I also use it as a way to give my horse scratches on his itchy spots without him demanding too “emphatically” – he will spontaneously back away from me to “ask” for a scratch which is much safer than his previous barging.

Perhaps another key point is not so much what I do as what I do not do. I try to be aware of any inadvertent reinforcement I might be giving my horse which encourages him to behave in ways I see as undesirable. I take note of any behaviours he gives me and, instead of trying to stop them happening, I try to ignore them* and learn the circumstances under which they arise. This takes me to the root cause of the behaviours and so I can remove the cause, rather than worry about the behaviour which typically then disappears of its own accord. Ignoring unwanted behaviours is an essential part of training with positive reinforcement and is perhaps one we tend to over-look when we are thinking about “what to train”. Learning to just sit and observe is difficult, particularly if we perceive that our safety is at risk, but the more I trust in the horse’s innate cooperative nature, the more I can avoid confrontation, increasing both our safety and our mutual trust yet further.

When not engaging in a clicker session I am happy to use mild pressure to make requests of my horse, particularly when riding. But that does not stop me from using the basic principles of learning theory – I am careful to release pressure with good timing and I try to keep the pressure constant so that the horse has a chance to learn how to release it. And, perhaps most crucially, I continue to use shaping. Shaping – i.e. the breaking down of any task into its tiniest component steps – is arguably the factor that is the difference between keeping safe and becoming a liability. If I do not want to exert excessive pressure on my horse in order to keep us safe then I need to have completed sufficient early training that excessive pressure would never be required. It is shaping that almost guarantees that we will not have a dangerous horse who gallops into traffic because we would have never put him in a situation like that – we would have devised a shaping plan with an end goal of “riding safely in traffic” and broken the task into many training steps. There may be the odd rare occasion for which we cannot prepare, but the more we use shaping and a non-confrontational approach, the less we find that our safety is compromised.

(* it may sometimes be necessary to extract myself as quickly and as safely as possible, perhaps resorting to aversives if need be – but this would be a one-off situation into which I would avoid getting again without additional prior shaping/training)