Jan 292015
 

Horse clicker training workshop in the South West of England lovely indoor venue, all horses and owners welcome. Problem solving, fears, phobias, improving performance or simply teaching some fun tricks! Spaces for rider and/or spectator places available, see link for more details.

14 & 15 March

Cannington Equestrian Centre, Rodway, Cannington, Nr Bridgwater, Somerset TA5 2LS

More info…

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

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)

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)

Jul 012012
 

Welcome to my round up of some of the latest releases in equine science. These scientific equine papers have provided some interesting information sure to spark debate and inform our equine management and training practises; including a most important paper which provides evidence that horses ridden in hyperflexion may experience difficulty breathing because of airway obstruction.

Factors in Horse Training

Does learning performance in horses relate to fearfulness, baseline stress hormone, and social rank?

By Janne Winther, Line Christensen Peerstrup Ahrendt, Randi Lintrup, Charlotte Gaillard, Rupert Palme, Jens Malmkvist

“The ability of horses to learn and remember new tasks is fundamentally important for their use by humans. Fearfulness may, however, interfere with learning, because stimuli in the environment can overshadow signals from the rider or handler. In addition, prolonged high levels of stress hormones can affect neurons within the hippocampus; a brain region central to learning and memory. In a series of experiments, we aimed to investigate the link between performance in two learning tests, the baseline level of stress hormones, measured as faecal cortisol metabolites (FCM), fearfulness, and social rank. Twenty-five geldings (2 or 3 years old) pastured in one group were included in the study. The learning tests were performed by professional trainers and included a number of predefined stages during which the horses were gradually trained to perform exercises, using either negative (NR) or positive reinforcement (PR). Each of the learning tests lasted 3 days; 7min/horse/day. The NR test was repeated in a novel environment. Performance, measured as final stage in the training programme, and heart rate (HR) were recorded. Faeces were collected on four separate days where the horses had been undisturbed at pasture for 48h. Social rank was determined through observations of social interactions during feeding. The fear test was a novel object test during which behaviour and HR were recorded.

Performance in the NR and PR learning tests did not correlate. In the NR test, there was a significant, negative correlation between performance and HR in the novel environment (rS=−0.66, P<0.001, i.e. nervous horses had reduced performance), whereas there was no such correlation in the home environment (both NR and PR). Behavioural reactions in the fear test correlated significantly with performance in the NR test in the novel environment (e.g. object alertness and final stage: rS=−0.43, P=0.04), suggesting that performance under unfamiliar, stressful conditions may be predicted by behavioural responses in a fear test. There was a negative correlation between social rank and baseline stress hormones (rS=−0.43, P=0.04), i.e. high rank corresponded to low FCM concentrations, whereas neither rank nor FCM correlated with fearfulness or learning performance. We conclude that performance under stressful conditions is affected by activation of the sympathetic nervous system during training and related to behavioural responses in a standardised fear test. Learning performance in the home environment, however, appears unrelated to fearfulness, social rank and baseline FCM levels.”

http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/applan/article/S0168-1591(12)00168-2/abstract

Equine Welfare

Effect of head and neck position on intrathoracic pressure and arterial blood gas values in Dutch Warmblood riding horses during moderate exercise.

By Sleutjens J, Smiet E, van Weeren R, van der Kolk J, Back W, Wijnberg ID.

“OBJECTIVE:To evaluate the effect of various head and neck positions on intrathoracic pressure and arterial oxygenation during exercise in horses.

ANIMALS:7 healthy Dutch Warmblood riding horses.

PROCEDURES:The horses were evaluated with the head and neck in the following predefined positions: position 1, free and unrestrained; position 2, neck raised with the bridge of the nose aligned vertically; position 4, neck lowered and extremely flexed with the nose pointing toward the pectoral muscles; position 5, neck raised and extended with the bridge of the nose in front of a vertical line perpendicular to the ground surface; and position 7, neck lowered and flexed with the nose pointing towards the carpus. The standard exercise protocol consisted of trotting for 10 minutes, cantering for 4 minutes, trotting again for 5 minutes, and walking for 5 minutes. An esophageal balloon catheter was used to indirectly measure intrathoracic pressure. Arterial blood samples were obtained for measurement of Pao(2), Paco(2), and arterial oxygen saturation.

RESULTS:Compared with when horses were in the unrestrained position, inspiratory intrathoracic pressure became more negative during the first trot (all positions), canter and second trot (position 4), and walk (positions 4 and 5). Compared with when horses were in position 1, intrathoracic pressure difference increased in positions 4, 2, 7, and 5; Pao(2) increased in position 5; and arterial oxygen saturation increased in positions 4 and 7.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE:Position 4 was particularly influential on intrathoracic pressure during exercise in horses. The effects detected may have been caused by a dynamic upper airway obstruction and may be more profound in horses with upper airway disease.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22452499

More information on the above paper can be found at http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=20201

On the significance of adult play: what does social play tell us about adult horse welfare?

By Martine Hausberger, Carole Fureix, Marie Bourjade, Sabine Wessel-Robert and Marie-Annick Richard-Yris

“Play remains a mystery and adult play even more so. More typical of young stages in healthy individuals, it occurs rarely at adult stages but then more often in captive/domestic animals, which can imply spatial, social and/or feeding deprivations or restrictions that are challenging to welfare, than in animals living in natural conditions. Here, we tested the hypothesis that adult play may reflect altered welfare states and chronic stress in horses, in which, as in several species, play rarely occurs at adult stages in natural conditions. We observed the behaviour (in particular, social play) of riding school horses during occasional outings in a paddock and measured several stress indicators when these horses were in their individual home boxes. Our results revealed that (1) the number of horses and rates of adult play appeared very high compared to field report data and (2) most stress indicators measured differed between ‘players’ and ‘non-players’, revealing that most ‘playful’ animals were suffering from more chronic stress than ‘non-playful’ horses. Frequency of play behaviour correlated with a score of chronic stress. This first discovery of a relationship between adult play and altered welfare opens new lines of research that certainly deserves comparative studies in a variety of species.”

http://www.springerlink.com/content/a773802p37590541/

Training the Ridden Horse

Horse walker use in dressage horses

By T.J. Walker, S.N. Collins and R.C. Murray

“Horse walkers have become popular in the modern exercise regime for dressage horses, however recent investigations of injury risk factors have indicated a significant association between horse walker use and lameness. A detailed telephone questionnaire was conducted to document horse walker usage and assess whether horse walker use could predispose dressage horses to lameness. Information on horse walker features and use, and individual horse lameness history was recorded. Chi-squared tests were performed to identify horse walker variables associated with lameness. Although analyses failed to establish a direct link between lameness and any specific horse walker feature, the high proportion of lame horses in this study suggests that there is an underlying and, as yet, unidentified cause of lameness related to horse walker usage.”

http://wageningenacademic.metapress.com/content/j3q3511435340324/

The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses

By Paul McGreevy, Amanda Warren-Smith and Yann Guisard

“Any apparatus that restricts a horse’s movement can compromise welfare. Eye temperature as measured remotely using infrared thermography is emerging as a correlate of salivary cortisol concentrations in horses. This article explores the effect on the temperature of the eyes and facial skin of horses wearing devices that restrict jaw movements. In certain equestrian disciplines, unacceptable equine oral activity, such as gaping of the mouth, is penalized because it reflects poor training and lack of compliance. This explains the wide range of nosebands and flash straps designed to prevent the mouth opening. Some of these nosebands are banned from higher-level dressage competitions in which double bridles are mandatory, possibly because they are regarded as restrictive. Nevertheless, the current international rules overlook the possibility that noseband can appear innocuous even though some designs, such as the so-called crank noseband, can be ratcheted shut to clamp the jaws together. Some equestrian manuals and competition rule books propose that “two-fingers” be used as a spacer to guard against overtightening of nosebands but fail to specify where this gauge should be applied. The vagueness of this directive prompted us to undertake a small random survey of the finger dimensions of adult men (n = 10) and women (n = 10). There were significant sex differences in the measurements of fingers of adults (P < 0.001), thus illustrating that the “two-finger rule” is not a reliable guide for standardized noseband fastening. Infrared thermography was used to measure the temperature of facial skin and eyes of adult horses (n = 5) wearing a double bridle with and without a cavesson noseband.

A taper gauge was developed based on the mean circumference of adult index and middle fingers (9.89 ± 0.21 cm), and this was used as a spacer at the nasal planum or beside the mandible when tightening the noseband. The nosebands were fastened significantly tighter when the taper gauge was used beside the mandible than at the nasal planum (P = 0.02). Wearing double bridles and nosebands that had been tightened with and without the taper gauge caused an increase in eye temperature compared with baseline values (P = 0.012), and the tighter the noseband was fastened, the cooler the facial skin of the horse (and, presumably, the greater the impairment of vascular perfusion) when compared with baseline values (P = 0.016). This study suggests that horses wearing double bridles and tight nosebands undergo a physiological stress response and may have compromised vascular perfusion. Consequently, on welfare grounds, the use of nosebands that cause any constriction of jaw movement should be reviewed as soon as possible.”

http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(11)00143-2/abstract

Pilot study of behavior responses in young riding horses using 2 methods of making transitions from trot to walk

By Agneta Egenvalla, Marie Eisersiöb and Lars Roepstorffc

“According to the principles of negative reinforcement, when an aid has been given to an animal, it should be released as soon as the desired response has been achieved, and, if performed well, may be associated with fewer conflict behaviors than otherwise. In riding, pressure in the horse’s mouth from the bit is used to give signals to the horse, and both rein tension and patterns of releasing this tension will vary. The aim of this pilot study was to study horse behavior during 2 different methodologies used to shape relatively naïve horses to a deceleration signal while making downward transitions from trot to walk. Method 1 involved relief from rein tension at the first attempt to perform a correct response (M1), and method 2 entailed that rein tension was relieved at the completed correct response (M2). Four horses were ridden by 4 riders over 4 days (1 rider each day), and each horse made 10 transitions each day for each method, which produced 320 transitions. Rein tension was recorded, and horse behavior and rider signal behaviors were evaluated from video recordings. Horse behavior was divided into the following 3 different categories: “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating.” Linear models were constructed tracking the percent of the transition time that horses demonstrated at least 1 behavior in the “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating” categories, and with random effects for rider, horse, and transition number nested within horse. Fixed effects analyzed were the methods, proportion of the transition time above 30 N for each rein, and the rider signal behaviors. M1 and M2 had on average 19% (standard deviation: 16) and 38% (standard deviation: 23) of the time with >30 N per rein, respectively. In the models for the “pushing against the bit” behaviors, M2 increased rein tension and “exerting pressure on the reins” increased the level of these behaviors. “Releasing pressure” interacted with “pulling back on the reins”; this combination was associated with an increased level of “pushing against the bit” behaviors. The “decelerating” behavior was associated with lower rein tension. In the “decelerating” behavior models, “pulling back on the reins” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior, whereas “still hand” and “releasing pressure” led to increased “decelerating” behavior; however, the interaction “pulling back on the reins” and “releasing pressure” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior. “Moving away from the bit” had no significant determinants. We concluded that fewer “pushing against the bit” behaviors were created by M1 and that a lower rein tension was associated with the “decelerating” behavior. Reinforcing the horse’s attempts, to assist in finding the correct response, benefits the welfare of the horse, and importance of a light hand should be continuously emphasized during riding education.”

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787811001481

Equipment and training risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses

By Jo Hockenhull and Emma Creighton

“Ridden behaviour problems are prevalent in the UK leisure horse population and may have implications for horse welfare and rider safety. This study aimed to identify risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses from the training approaches and equipment used with them. An Internet survey was used to collect data on 1326 horses from a convenience sample of leisure horse owners. The survey asked owners to report the frequency their horses displayed fifteen ridden behaviour problems over the previous week. Data on the frequency of occurrence of behaviour in four components of related ridden behaviour problems were explored for association with details of the horse’s working life, including the type of tack, equipment and training used, and the frequency the professional services of saddlers and farriers were employed using logistic regression analyses. Behaviour data were generated for 791 individual horses. Risk factors associated with the ridden behaviour problems emerged as three themes. One related to the design and fit of the saddle, with dressage and working hunter saddles associated with a reduced risk of ridden behaviour problems compared to general purpose saddles. The horse’s footcare and shoeing regime was associated with three of the four groups of behaviour problems. An extended interval (seven weeks or more) between farrier visits was associated with an increased risk of discomfort behaviour. Taking an outcome-centred approach to training, for example through the use of artificial training aids, was associated with an increased risk of behaviour problems while spending more time with the horse outside of training situations, a more horse-centred approach, was associated with a reduced risk of problems. Further research is required to understand the causal relationships behind these associations, with the aim of improving the welfare of the horse and the well-being and safety of its rider.”

http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/applan/article/S0168-1591(12)00020-2/abstract

I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the abstracts 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)

Jun 182012
 

For those embarking on training their horses and wishing to use mostly or completely training which is based in positive reinforcement, the problem of how to encourage the behaviours they want to train to occur, so that they may be rewarded and propagated, is often encoutered. In conventional training desired behaviours are often encouraged through the use of pressure and there is the misconception that only free-shaping is available to those who practise positive reinforcement training. In free-shaping the trainer waits for the horse to perform the desired behaviour and then rewards its presentation. However, there are methods which can be used to encourage behaviour without the use of pressure or, indeed, waiting for the behaviour to occur of its own volition.

Targeting is the most popular positive method of encouraging wanted behaviour in the horse. For the purpose of targeting the horse is taught, using clicker training or another positive reinforcement method, to go to or follow a target object on command. This can be a static marker or a movable object. Once trained, the horse can easily learn to perform new and/or wanted behaviours by following the target. Full guides on how to teach targeting can be found in most clicker training books and my own book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-Your-Horse-Learning-Behaviour/dp/1405191643/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339968870&sr=8-1).

Teaching your horse to target can be invaluable for training both basic and complex behaviours; really the only limitation to training is the imagination of the trainer. Once the wanted behaviour is reliably occurring in response to the target, it can be put on an appropriate cue and the target is gradually removed over a short period of time. A common misconception in clicker training is that the target remains as part of the trained behaviour forever; however, this does not represent the goal of target training.

Some common applications of targeting training in horse training include:

Leading, head-lowering, staying in a desired location, basic safety behaviours (e.g. backing and coming on cue), head collar/bridling routines, mounting/dismounting, spook busting, teaching lungeing, and loading into trailers or horse boxes.

Target training has also been studied scientifically, and been observed to be an effective method of horse training. The links below describe research which investigated training horses to load using targeting.

http://www.univet.hu/users/knagy/Irodalomjegyz%E9k/Hendriksen%202011%20postive%20negative%20reinforcement.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1284337/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21310219

The second most popular method of positively encouraging the horse to present a wanted behaviour is ‘lure and reward’. The term ‘lure’ can often put people off due to negative associations with the word; a better name for this technique is possibly ‘guide and reward’. At its core the method is very similar to the previously describe target training, the horse follows a food guide, thereby performing a desired behaviour and receiving reward. Most trainers reward from a treat held in the other hand. Obviously doing this training with horses who have not yet learnt not to mug is unwise. However, other than this caveat, the training can be very effective and enjoyable for both horse and trainer. Again, once the horse is reliably performing the behaviour with the target a cue is given and the guide gradually removed. The guide should not be the cue. This process should not take longer than a few sessions, especially for a basic behaviour. Interestingly, this is one of the most commonly used training methods employed by respected dog trainers. Again comprehensive instructions on how to successful use this method with your horse can be found on the internet or in appropriate books.

Finally, using a cue to mean ‘well done, keep going’ as well as a separate ‘good, finish’ cue, can be useful for encouraging the expression of new desired behaviours. How you apply this in training will depend on the individual preferences of the trainer and the previously employed method of positive training. Personally, I like to use to different sounding clicks, which I make with my mouth rather than a clicker, but this is not the only possible method of application. One click sound means ‘continue as you are’, the other communicates ‘finish’. This allows me a more elegant flow of communication to the horse, as well as an active means of encouraging the horse to perform a wanted behaviour in a positive manner. Once the horse has performed the desired behaviour, they may be given the finish signal to indicate they did well and to rest and wait for reward (particular useful if the horse is at a distance from the handler).

If you would like more information on these training techniques briefly discussed here, please feel free to comment or message me at my email address (Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk).

May 262012
 
Hello Everyone,
 
Allow me to bring your attention to the Equine Clicker Conference. A brilliant event for all clicker entusiasts; whether you are a beginner or a professional trainer there will be learning oportunities for everyone.
 
    

“September 23rd 2012
At: Richmond Equestrian Centre

North Yorkshire 

Don’t miss out on these outstanding speakers!!

 
Alex Kurland
 
A Pioneer of Equine Clicker Training. Author of The Click that Teaches, published in 1998. For nearly 20 years she has been exploring, developing and teaching clicker training in order to “Change forever the way we train horses” www.theclickercenter.com
 

 Ben Hart 

 Author of The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses, published in 2008. Ben has worked with equines all over the world and with equine charities such as WSPA, The Brooke and The Donkey Sanctuary. “The journey to better horsemanship should be fun and enjoyable, even the tough bits.” www.hartshorsemanship.com 

 

Plus 6 Prominent UK Clicker trainers 

 Dr Helen Spence  

 Jo Hughes   

Becky Chapman 

Hannah Dawson  

Jenni Nellist  

Amanda Martin 

  

 Join Us for Dinner!! 

 Saturday 22nd September
Conference Dinner
Scotch Corner Hotel, North Yorkshire
With
The Clix Olympix Video Competition –
Screening of the short listed entries, judging and awards 

 
3 Course Dinner – A great chance to chat and meet other clicker trainers
After Dinner Speaker – World renowned equine clicker trainer,
Alex Kurland   

We Can’t Wait To See You There! 

 

Book Now!
Early bird tickets available for a short time only” 

http://visitor.benchmarkemail.com/c/v?e=18B81F&c=123C1&l=8768A1&email=K4GgOzfp%2Fdf17kxmoF 

Dec 132011
 


Despite many people using clicker training successfully on the ground with horses, people often feel confused by how how to apply it once on-board. I’ve tried a bit of ridden clicker in the past so thought I would share my thoughts and experiences. For me it is all down to two issues – exactly what I want to be rewarding and exactly why I want to be rewarding it. How to do it then rather falls into place a bit more just by using the same principles that we would use for CT on the ground.

So starting with what to reward…..

Firstly you can reward in a very general sense. You ride normally with the usual sort of mild -R that includes various cues and releases (if you’re doing it well, anyhow) and then click and treat periodically if you find the general effect pleasing. There are plenty of people who do this and claim that the clicker adds something to the training. I suspect that it does in some cases but only in the sense that the horse gets a bit of a break and a bit of nice experience and so gets a generally positive association with the session. That’s all a good thing but it doesn’t aid the learning very much because the click isn’t actually being paired with a specific behaviour. The potential pit-fall is that some horses will get very worried about trying to work out what behaviour they are being rewarded for and will lose that sense of positive association. Obviously if the pressure used is perceived by the horse to be quite aversive then that too will undermine the limited positive benefits of the rewards. For me, this approach isn’t actually clicker training because there are crucial elements missing – learning, choice, a genuine tapping of the brain circuits that govern learning via positive reinforcement and release dopamine….. So it’s not something I ever do and can’t see that changing…… (But never say never and all that!)

So alternatively we can reward something more specifically, still within a “normal” -R-based riding session. You still have the “generally positive” associations for the horse but with the added benefit that the click is being paired with a particular behaviour that you have chosen to work on. You use shaping in the normal way and the horse has the opportunity to learn the new behaviour, or refinement of an existing behaviour. You still don’t get the element of choice in your training and I would say it’s debatable how much the horse really feels positively reinforced when it is part of a schooling session in which the horse has not necessarily chosen to participate. But it’s a good way of marking exactly what you want so you give the horse a good opportunity to get the right answer quickly, rather than having to work out by more aversive-based techniques. Of course, you can still have a horse who is worried about getting the right answer because of the way you are combining +R and -R – how is the horse supposed to know when he is expected to offer behaviours and when he is supposed to follow cues? But if the pressure is minor (and always was minor, I don’t mean starting big and then scaled down so that the high-pressure stuff is always lurking there as a threat…..) then most horses should be able to cope. I’ve used this sort of approach a couple of times with my horse. Once I was trying to get him to speed up a bit instead of our slow dawdly sort of plod which can sometimes take forever to get anywhere. I confused the hell out of him and ended up with tiny steps instead. I was interfering with his natural rhythm and (in hindsight) actually what he needed was regular osteopathy and the freedom to just get on with it instead of being micro-managed. The other times I tried it was out hacking when he would dive for he hedgerow so much we took forever to get anywhere (can you see a pattern emerging…….??! It’s always down to the impatient human, isn’t it?!). I would click after a random number of steps, aiming to get him to eat after a click rather than when it suited him. We’d had a really successful time of doing this in-hand, going across a dairy pasture so I figured I could do it on-board. The main difficulty I had was that hedgerows are not all the same the way a dairy field is. I would click at the wrong moments because he wouldn’t want to eat whatever plant was there and he would continue to dive for the plants he wanted, click or no click. Again, I found we were more successful when I just gave up the micro-management and accepted that if I’m going to ride in a bitless bridle (and with half-rubbered reins with the rubber all wearing off so I have NO grip!) then I should take what I get. I probably just need some different reins…..

Finally there is the approach where you do the CT properly. You start from scratch and free-shape everything. This might involve following another horse so you can elicit the movement easily or you might use targets or you might genuinely free-shape it and wait for the movement to shape. Then you could incorporate something like David Dodwell’s Horse Morse Code where you have a clearly-defined set of cues to pair with the behaviours you have shaped. The more complicated the cues/behaviours the more you might be tempted to revert back to including a bit of -R to help clarify what you want, so if you want to stick to free-shaping you would need lots of imagination and lateral thinking to make it work. I took this approach with Jak for a while. We’d done loads of conventional dressage in the name of trying to keep him supple and hold off his arthritis. It made him miserable which was why I started looking at +R in the first place. So I started thinking how I wanted to start again and free-shape things. I didn’t really have anyone to do this with so didn’t have the option of following another horse (probably how I would want to do this with a new youngster or abused horses etc) so the way I tried was to elicit forwards motion on the ground by using a series of targets (upturned flower-pots) and then planned to extend this to on-board. It worked at walk but when trying it at trot I only ever seemed to succeed in annoying him. So I tried just sitting on him and aiming to capture forwards motion. There was a hilarious workshop when it tipped it down with rain and I spent 15 minutes or so sitting on Jak, everyone soaked and Jak immobile. There was absolutely nothing we couldshape into ridden CT work.

So this all really got me back to why I wanted to do it. By this point, when I took Jak out for a hack he would be enthusiastic, supple, fun and clearly not phased by my occasional use of pressure. I wanted to retrain dressage for his benefit but we’d kind of moved beyond that point. The hacking we do had him moving much more freely than the dressage ever did because he was much more enthusiastic and self-motivated. Treats weren’t going to change that. I could eventually see that the free-shaping dressage was a great clicker challenge for me and I wanted to do it for me. One day with another horse I may still do it but just getting on with it and having fun is right for Jak now.

CT for me is no longer about feeling I have to train everything with CT to make everything positive. It is more about doing enough CT and free-shaping that he can retain his sense of choice and autonomy that it is no big deal when I haul his head out of the hedgerow, or any of the other occasions when I resort to pressure. Most of our rides are just point-and-go, rather than planned training sessions. I prefer to retain CT for free-shaping stuff that doesn’t matter to me so he can have absolute choice in whether to participate. Anything else I feel dilutes the power of CT. But these thoughts are purely where I am with Jak today. Another day, another horse I may think differently and I think this flexible thinking is really crucial to these sort of discussions so people don’t feel there is a set way of doing things. A clicker is only a communication tool, you could use it to mean a smack is coming (please don’t!). Its use with horses is still relatively recent and we are all still exploring.

Oct 262010
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.