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)

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 172011
 

Over the years many horse owners have said to me ‘why does my horse seem to learn things over night and perform better the next day?’ Well that’s because your horse really does learn over night through a process called latent learning. Latent learning is really interesting! It is a psychological phenomena whereby information is better recalled 12 – 24 hours later than at the time of learning without further reinforcement. So if your horse, or indeed you, learn a new piece of information, over night your brain will consolidated the short term memories into long term ones and you will better be able to recall this information. Memory consolidation is also thought to be a key function of sleep, sleep thus aids learning, which is why it is not a good idea to stay up the night before an exam cramming information. The recall of this information will not be as good as if it had been learnt a night or so before. With regards to latent learning mammal brains behave in very similar ways, so you and your horse will have this learning process in common.

The science bit. Neurologically latent learning is thought to occur because neurons in the brain require time in order to create connections, or strengthen present ones, which encode the new information. The creation of connections in the brain is how we learn new information. For information to be transferred to long term memory from the short term memory engaged at the time of learning, something called Long Term Potentiation (LTP) needs to occur within Hebbian learning. Bare with me! Hebbian learning can be simply defined as the formation of new neural connections in response to new information to encode memory. These new connections require LTP to form a strong connections between neurons at the cellular level. LTP is how the neuron cells in the brain stregthen their connections.

The brain comunicates messages from cell to cell through the use of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. LTP is the formation of new neurotransmitter receptors which responds to the neurotransmitters release by connecting cells. The more receptors there are at the connection the stronger the response of the neuron cell will be. Stronger connections mean more effective consolidation of memories from short term to long term memory and thus better learning. For the protein necessary for LTP to be synthesised takes up to 24 hours and is aided by sleep. After 24 hours your horse will have a consolidated long term memory of their training.

(Interestingly, it is also theorised that the forgetting of information is caused by the weakening of neuron connections, known as long term depression.)

At the level of training this means that after you have achieved a reasonably high correct response rate in your horse, even if this has taken only a short amount of time, there is no point in continuing to drill the horse as LTP will still require time to convert the information into long term memories. Letting the horse ‘sleep on it’ is really the best thing you can do, because until the horse has had time to form the new neural connections and possibly strengthen old ones the horse can not perform at a higher level, even if the trainer drills them. In fact, if the trainer continues to drill the horse the horse may become bored or tired which would have the opposite of the desired effect. Not only will the horse be unable to produce a better response but, in addition, the horse may become bored or tired and thus have negative memories of the training. However, if the horse is allow to rest after the trainer has acheived a desirable correct response rate, the horse will be better able to perform the trained behaviour after this time as the new information will be encoded through enhanced connections in brain. Allowing time for latent learning to occur will mean that the horse will be more able to provide the correct response reliably during subsequent training sessions.

For example – You are training a new behaviour, say training your horse to perform a basic turn-on-the-forehand. After 15-20 min your horse is producing turn on the forehand steps on cue 8 or 9 times out of ten. Rather than continuing to drill the horse in turn on the forehand for an hour and maybe getting a 9 out of 10 correct response ratio, not to mention a very fed up horse, it would be best to reward the horse greatly for their correct response and end the session or move on to a different activity. The next day the horse will have consolidated the turn-on-the-forehand cue to long term memory and will be better able to respond correctly and the trainer able to continue refining the movement with out drilling the poor horse. This is the brilliance of the latent learning phenomena!

If you have any questions on anything included in this article feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you.

Thanks you for reading.

Emma Lethbridge

Oct 142010
 

Positive reinforcement (+R), particularly when used in conjunction with clicker training, is commonly combined with the use of negative reinforcement (-R) and/or punishment. Typically the aversive stimuli (i.e. the pressure applied) in these cases will be mild and the combined approach is used to clarify and/or hasten the training. Is there anything wrong with this? Are those of us who would say “yes” just being dogmatic and purist in our approach to positive reinforcement? Or do we all need to take a step back and think more carefully about just how positive our positive training actually is?

Firstly I still don’t know of anyone who uses only +R all the time with all their horses and don’t believe it is possible (or useful). But I do believe it is possible, and extremely valuable in some cases, to have discrete sessions in which only +R is used – i.e. free shaping. For some horses, in some stages of their lives, I would say free shaping should make up most of the interaction they have with humans. But that depends on the horse and the stage it is at. More generally, outside those specific free-shaping sessions, the vast majority of emotionally well-placed horses will suffer no ill consequence for the occasional mild aversive stimulus. A gentle pull on the reins to stop or to raise the horse’s head from the grass will not cause psychological trauma to the well-adjusted individual.

But if you are going to use – within the same session and/or to achieve the same behaviour – a combination of +R and -R then various things can happen. This isn’t only because of bad training but also because of what is going on in the horse’s brain at the time.

The first reason is practical – if the horse is experiencing two different reinforcers pretty much simultaneously then the horse is going to be reinforced more by one of them than the other. This is known as “saliency” and is effectively the relative value of the reinforcers from the perspective of the horse. Does he find more value in the release of pressure or the reward? They are unlikely to be identical in value. The presence of the click and treat may well help the horse’s understanding along and confirm to him that he is performing the correct behaviour, but that is not the same thing as true positive reinforcement. The horse may well still be changing his behaviour because he is searching for the release of pressure, not because he is actively trying to earn a reward. The presence of rewards does not make your training positive; it is all down to the horse’s perception of the training and the reasons why he chooses to change his behaviour.

Another objection I have to the combination of positive and negative reinforcement is the issue of what Karen Pryor termed “The Poisoned Cue” . Due to classical (i.e. Pavlovian) conditioning, if you are using pressure then the level of pressure the horse feels in its training will become associated with you and your training equipment/environment . It’s a bit like receiving a phone call from someone you don’t want to speak to, you start dreading the phone ringing. So if you combine the pressure with some form of positive reinforcement, the positive reinforcement will be diminished in value (like getting a pay cheque, knowing that it’s all going to go straight out again on bills), possibly to the point of being irrelevant. While you could argue that some +R is better than nothing (in fact I *did* used to argue that) I have also seen a demonstration by someone combining CT with a well-known pressure-based training method and it was really really awful. More on that in a moment….

If an animal is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then it is believed from neuroscience studies that a particular region of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This is the opioid which makes us feel good when something good happens. Over time, this dopamine release can take place even in the absence of an actual reward. So if we do lots of reward-based training and trigger dopamine, then even just our arrival at the field can do the same, whether or not we have treats. It’s not just about the horse wanting us for our treats. We make the horse feel good. This is the neurological basis for the Pavlov’s dogs result. We feel genuinely pleased when our payslip arrives, because of what it represents, even though it’s only actually a worthless piece of paper.

If we do pressure-based training or even just “neutral” training then there is no dopamine released, even when you release the pressure. A different brain circuit is stimulated and, depending on how much pressure you use, there may be an adrenalin release, i.e. a stress response.

If we mix the two whilst training the same behaviour then the dopamine response is likely to be over-ridden by the adrenalin. Even if you normally do -R (depending on the degree of pressure – either physical or emotional) and decide to have an occasional pure +R session, you may still not be getting the dopamine release because of what you normally represent to your horse. So the best-case scenario may well be that you are not positively reinforcing your horse at all. You might be giving it treats but that is not the same thing as the horse FEELING positively reinforced. That’s not to say this is necessarily bad, and it may help your training along a bit if your timing is good, but it makes sense to be doing what you think you are doing and not complicating the session with red herrings.

The use of +R can encourage a horse to offer behaviours in the attempt to earn a reward and this puts the horse in a very emotionally vulnerable position (which is why a proper +R free-shaping session will reassure the horse that it is ok and that there is no negative consequence for a wrong answer). If pressure is likely to be used as well when the horse gets the wrong behaviour then it can create a major conflict in the horse’s mind, increasing the stress yet further. If a lot of pressure is being used then the best thing for the horse to do is just do as he’s told so as to avoid the pressure. If he is being encouraged to offer behaviours spontaneously as well then it puts the horse is a very difficult position. It’s like when you’re at school and you have to summon up the courage to speak in front of the class and then the teacher tells you you’re stupid. This isn’t just “bad training”, it can also be technically good training in a very unempathic way and it is something I have seen from various trainers who (perhaps inadvertently) prioritise the achievement of certain behaviours above the feelings of the horse. The horse I watched who stands out in particular was being trained with a combination of a Natural Horsemanship method and CT. The pressure was all at a relatively low sort of level but that didn’t stop the horse being very stressed about what it was being expected to do. He clearly knew the cost of getting a wrong answer but was unable to just switch off and respond to cues because the CT element demanded that he offer behaviours. The difference in attitude of a horse under this sort of conflict and a horse having a true free-shaping session are just such worlds apart that it’s very hard to do justice to it on a keyboard….

There is nothing wrong with doing low-pressure or neutral work, no-one is living in a state of constant dopamine fix! But if you never receive it you are unlikely to be in very emotionally developed place. In humans we call it “depression”. The horse is not likely to be making psychologically healthy choices and enjoying his work, merely responding to cues and trying to keep out of trouble. The ideal is that the horse is engaging his brain and thinking “howabout if I try a step backwards”, rather than “I need to move away from pressure” – free-shaping is often very much about “brain exercises” rather than physical training. There are, of course, caveats to these generalisations that can be made in individual cases. When I clicker trained my horse to walk backwards, I did start the training by “cheating” and using a light hand pressure on his chest and so negative reinforcement was involved to help him understand the behaviour I wanted. But once he understood the right behaviour, he started to offer it spontaneously and any residual association with the pressure was clearly counter-conditioned by the on-going purely positive free-shaping. It is better if you can avoid this sort of short-cut by correct shaping but if the alternative is a horse who is likely to become frustrated by not understanding the right behaviour then it may be appropriate – feel and judgement are always crucial.

My personal preference for a horse in an emotionally “good” place is to have some pure +R free-shaping sessions interspersed with just “normal” -R. For dealing with specific problems I would take a step back and devise a shaping plan with tiny steps so that each step gives the opportunity for reward and positive associations with the task. For horses in an emotionally difficult place then I would say many more free-shaping sessions are necessary before the horse is ready for -R and these sessions may need to be spread out over a long period of time. It is time well-spent and will create the foundations for a much more successful horse-human relationship.

By Catherine Bell

(If you want to know more this is a brilliant video compliments the article – http://barnmice.ning.com/group/bodylanguage/forum/topics/rewards-and-dopamine-what.)

(Thank you to Catherine for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Apr 202010
 

When considering a way to train their horse using positive reinforcement, most horse owners find themselves investigating clicker training. However, once the horse owner starts to read into clicker training, or visits a few clinics, it soon becomes apparent that different trainers use clicker training in different ways. Clicker training is not one singular technique, but a tool, applied in different ways by different trainers. The benefits and potential difficulties associated with each of these approaches to clicker training will be discussed in this article, with the aim that this will hopefully this will abate some of the confusion that can be experienced by owners new to clicker training.

Before we begin, I will quickly review the basics of clicker training theory as applied to practical horse training. Very simply clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement being the addition of something pleasurable to the horses environment in consequence to the horse performing a desirable behaviour. Positive reinforcement encourages the desired behaviour to reoccur in the future. Anything that the horse finds pleasurable, for example food rewards or stroking, can be used for the purposes of positive reinforcement training, although food rewards are most commonly used. During positive reinforcement the reward must be delivered immediately as the desired behaviour is performed by the horse, so that only the desired behaviour is reinforced.

The definition of positive reinforcement – An increase in the future frequency of a behaviour due to the addition of a pleasurable stimulus immediately following said behaviour.

Positive reinforcement alone is a very effective training method, however, it relies on the immediate delivery of the reward as the horse performs the desired behaviour. Clicker training makes reinforcement of behaviour at the correct moment easier, because, rather than having to deliver the reward to the horse’s mouth at the moment they perform the desire behaviour, the click noise can mark the desire behaviour and the reward can be delivered as soon as possible. The association of the click noise with food reward, transforms the click noise into a secondary reinforcer, which simply means that the click has taken on reinforcing properties and thus become rewarding. Once an association between the click and food reward has been establish, and the click has become a secondary reinforcer, the click can then be used to communicate to the horse when they have performed a desired behaviour. Marking the behaviour using the audible ‘click’ of the clicker is beneficial to any training where the trainer can’t deliver reward immediately following a correct behavioural response, e.g. when the horse is at distance or being ridden. The click of the clicker is a good sound for marking correct behavioural responses because it is short and crisp. Some trainers prefer to use a ‘cluck’ sound made by the tongue for the same purpose. Currently, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the use of a tongue ‘cluck’ is less or more effective than the use of a clicker.

The definition of a secondary reinforcer – A secondary reinforcer, also known as a conditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus (such as a click) that when consistently paired with a pleasurable stimulus (such as food) functions as a reinforcer.

The use of the click sound within clicker training has been applied in different ways by different horse trainers. The key factor, which will be discussed in this article, is how different trainers apply the clicker practically during training. To address this topic, we will consider the use of the click as a terminal bridge and as an intermediate bridge. Now the key to understanding the use of clicker in training is to understand, but not get bogged down in, the terminology. I will explain the theory, but also how the theory is practically applied in everyday horse training. The first thing that needs to be explained is that the click of the clicker is know as a bridging stimulus, this is because it bridges the gap between the desired behaviour and the arrival of the food reward. The click says to the horse ‘yes that’s the behaviour I want and your reward is coming’. However, the click can be one of two types of bridge. It can be a terminal bridge that says ‘yes, well done, finished’, or an intermediate bridge which says to the horse ‘yes, keep going your on the right track’. In practise this mean that the click sound either signals to the horse that they were performing the desired behaviour and they can stop for reward (a terminal bridge), or in the case of the intermediate bridge, the click signals to the horse that they are doing the correct behaviour and to continue until the terminal bridge, which will be a different signal.

It is most common in training to use the click sound of the clicker as a terminal bridge. In practical terms this means that the click is used to signal to the horse to stop and receive their reward. For example, if you were teaching a horse to touch a target with there muzzle, you would click the horse once they touch the target and then reinforce the behaviour with the food reward. If you wanted the targeting behaviour to last longer you would shape the behaviour by gradually leaving longer periods of time between the start of the targeting behaviour and the click. This method of clicker training is used by Alexander Kurland (2001) and Becky Holden, amongst others. There are both pros and cons to this method.

The pros of the terminal bridge clicker training method –

◦This method can be used to teach everything, from basic ground work to advanced riding exercises.

◦The horse can be easily rewarded for desired behaviour, even at a distance or whilst ridden.

◦Owners can usually pick up this method easily under instruction.

The cons of the terminal bridge clicker training method –

◦The method doesn’t include a intermediate bridge stimulus so the horse can be told to stop to be rewarded but not to keep performing the same behaviour, instead the behaviour is modified using shaping or chaining.

Now to discuss the use of the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus. When the click sound is used as an intermediate bridge the click says to the horse – ‘Yes, keep going you’re on the right track’. Using the targeting example given earlier, to teach a horse to touch a target using the click as an intermediate bridge, the trainer would click the horse for touching the target to encourage the horse to continue touching the target, until the terminal stimulus was given. The click, which can occur a variable amount of times before the terminal stimulus is given, encourages the horse to continue the behaviour they are currently performing. Ben Hart (2008) is the most famous trainer that uses the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus. Ben trains using the hand going to the reward holder as the terminal stimulus. There are also pros and cons to the intermediate bridge method of clicker training.

The pros of the intermediate bridge clicker training method –

◦This method can be used to teach all ground work activities.

◦The horse can be easily rewarded for desired behaviour, even at a distance.

◦The horse can be given guidance as to whether or not the behaviour they are performing is desirable, and be given confidence to continue the behaviour, without stopping for reward.

The cons of the intermediate bridge clicker training method –

◦Some owners find applying the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus more difficult, although I suspect this is because most of the literature available describes the terminal bridge method.

◦The terminal bridge stimulus of this method of clicker training often isn’t audible, and thus this method is a little more difficult to apply if the horse can’t directly see the hander, e.g. during ridden work.

Both these methods of clicker training are effective modes of communication with the horse, as such both methods have been applied with great success to training horses for many jobs. Interestingly, neither method has been scientifically shown to be more effective than the other, therefore the deciding factor when choosing how to apply clicker training with your own horses must be which method best suits your horse, your ability and your training. I highly recommend reading literature from many different clicker trainers, and ideally, also seeing the methods demonstrated, before you decide which method will be best for you and your horse.

By Emma Lethbridge (www.emmalethbridge.com)

(Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

References

Alexandra Kurland (2001). Clicker Training For Your Horse. Ring Books.

Ben Hart (2008). The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses: A Positive Approach to Training Equines and Understanding Them. Souvenir Press Ltd.

Mar 212010
 

Are pressure halters and thin rope halters good or bad? Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.

These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.

If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.

The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.

My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.

I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?

Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.

It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.

With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.

We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.

If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.

The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.

However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.

For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.

I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.

If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.

It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.

I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?

If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.

The Dog Whisperer” who is currently starting a UK tour is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Ignorance is no longer a defence.

I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!

I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?

The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.

By Ben Hart

(www.hartshorsemanship.com)

Thank you to Ben for another fantastic and thought provoking article. Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.

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