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 252012
 

As an equine behaviourist one of the common reasons people contact me for help is separation anxiety – their horse isn’t coping when taken away from other horses or when left alone. Sometimes horses form such a strong bond or attachment to a particular equine friend that even if other horses are present they can’t cope with being apart. When owners want to ride or bring their horse in from the field at different times it can be very stressful for both horse and owner – some of my clients have had to arrange elaborate yard rules for turning in and out to avoid horses jumping fences, vocalising, or cantering up and down the fence-line. I have even had cases when horses have developed the dangerous habit of jumping out of their stables to avoid being left alone when the other horses in their yard are turned out before them. Some people are turning towards individual turnout systems to prevent separation anxiety from developing but I argue that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water…. there is no need to deny horses a social life – they can learn to be alone at times.

Why do horses not like to be alone?

Horses are social herd animals. Naturally, during the first four weeks of a horse’s life, foals associate mainly with their mothers but after their first month they spend more time with other foals of a similar age. Foals play and mutually groom together and partly because these two activities work best in pairs, they tend to pair up and form close friendships.

Horses living in stable herds usually choose a partner that is the same age, sex and size as themselves but if this is not possible they will form a relationship with any horse available – and if no horses are available they sometimes become attached to other animals – such as goats or donkeys. In the domestic setting it is positive when two horses form a strong bond because social interaction is important for their well-being. I would not recommend separating horses who are attached to each other in an attempt to ‘prevent’ separation anxiety, we just need to teach them to cope with being apart at times.

Horses have a priority of needs and if they do not feel safe they are unable to perform other aspects of their ethogram (repertoire of natural behaviours such as eating, drinking, exploring etc) and are unable to respond to training. This means that if a horse doesn’t feel safe without other horses present he will be unable to perform other behaviours, such as grazing (in the same way that we might find it difficult to eat when we are worried about something, or find it difficult to sleep after watching a scary movie). This is why having access to hay in the stable, or grass in a field, is not enough to distract a horse that has ‘separation anxiety’.

The solution…

Sadly some of the ways that people try to address separation anxiety instead make it worse. There is a growing tendency for yards to offer ‘individual turnout’ as a selling point. The main rationalisation is that this will cause fewer injuries from horses kicking and biting each other (avoidable if horses are introduced to each other appropriately and if there are enough resources so that the horses do not need to compete for them), but often individual turnout is also said to avoid problems with horses forming strong bonds and thus avoiding separation anxiety. How sad – not being allowed to make friends and do all the things that horses should do when hanging out together to avoid the possibility that the friendship will be so important to them that they will fret when they are separated! There is a better way – we can help the horse to have the confidence to be relaxed in the field, stable or yard when alone or away from other horses or their close friends.

This is a gradual process consisting of five main aspects:

* Removing the predictors of anxiety by changing the pattern of events leading to separation from the other horses. For example, it is important to identify the point at which the horse becomes anxious. If it is when a head collar is brought into the field to catch the horse’s friend we need to break the association of the head collar being a predictor of being separated by repeatedly putting the head collar on and taking it off but not resulting in separation.

* Very gradually building-up of time away from the other horses; starting from just a few metres away from the other horses for just a few minutes and building up the time and distance gradually (the time-frame will depend on the individual horse).

* Making the time alone pleasurable so that the horse learns to associate being away from other horses with positive experiences. This might include being fed, or groomed, or trained using reward-based training methods.

* Ensuring that the horse doesn’t have any bad experiences when away from other horses as this could reinforce the fear and anxiety of being alone.

* Building up the horse’s confidence in people so that he can draw some reassurance from people and not just other horses.

It is important to be able to read your horse’s body language to be aware of the point at which he is first becoming anxious so that you don’t expect too much too soon. Early signs of anxiety in horses are triangulation of the eye, muscle tension, tail swishing and displacement behaviours such as pawing the ground.

The process of teaching a behaviour gradually is called ‘shaping’ – we think about all the small stages, or steps of a ladder, that must be done on the way to the desired behaviour (being alone without being anxious). Thus, if a horse becomes anxious when he is removed from a field on his own, steps might include being caught and groomed in the field before being released again, then being caught and taking some steps to the gate before being released again, then being caught and going through the gate before turning around and being turned out etc. building up gradually to being taken further away from the herd for longer. Note that a step from being led away from the herd but in sight of the herd to turning a corner so that he can’t see other horses is a significant step. Each step should not be repeated in sequence, rather, when the horse has completed a few ‘steps’ they should be mixed up so that sometimes less is asked, sometimes more. If you need to help your horse to be able to cope with being alone a qualified behaviourist will be able to help you design appropriate steps in the process for your horse taking into consideration the set-up of your yard and other practicalities.

It might sound like a drawn out process but if done properly horses can learn very quickly that being alone at times is a positive experience – and surely better than resorting to individual turnout.

These videos from YouTube show the classic signs of a stressed horse due to their companion being out on a ride while they are left in the field alone.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXrHtIAp154
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1on309QhJk

(www.learningaboutanimals.co.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).

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 102011
 

Here are a collection of briefs (abstracts) from the latest papers published in Equine science. The abstracts below include information which may inform your training, your husbandry or at least provide some interesting commentary on equine-kind and how we as humans interact with them in the domestic environment. Included are a collection of abstracts from the latest scientific papers published this year and so provide the most current insight into the horse and their behaviour. Whether you are a casual rider or a professional horse person this is information that you need to know. I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the below abstracts, or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment and I will happily answer your questions.

Behaviour

Concurrent Lactation and Pregnancy: Pregnant Domestic Horse Mares Do Not Increase Mother-Offspring Conflict during Intensive Lactation

Jitka Bartošová, Martina Komárkova, Jana Dubcová,Luděk Bartoš, Jan Pluháček

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022068

Lactation is the most energy demanding part of parental care in mammals, so parent-offspring conflict arises over milk provided by the mother. In some species females commonly become pregnant shortly after parturition of previous young. This further intensifies mother-offspring conflict due to concurrent pregnancy and lactation. In equids it has been well established that pregnant females wean their foals earlier than non-pregnant ones. Intensified mother-offspring conflict was presumed to associate with pregnancy also during the period of intensive lactation, i.e., before the weaning process starts. We investigated the effect of pregnancy on suckling behaviour characteristics as indicators of mother-offspring conflict in domestic horses. Contrary to expectation, here we provide evidence of a decreased mother-offspring conflict related to pregnancy in lactating females during first two trimesters of pregnancy. Pregnant mares provided longer suckling bouts and did not reject or terminate suckling of their foals more often than non-pregnant mares. Our results suggest that pregnant mares cope with parallel investment into a nursed foal and a foetus through enhancing nursing behaviour in early stages of pregnancy before the initially low requirements of the foetus increase. They compensate their suckling foal with the perspective of its early weaning due to ongoing pregnancy.

Effects of Repeated Regrouping on Horse Behaviour and Injuries

Janne Winther Christensen, Eva Søndergaard, Karen Thodberg, Ulrich Halekoh

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 133, Issues 3-4, Pages 199-206, September 2011

Domestic horses are faced with social challenges throughout their lives due to limitations in social contact, space restrictions and frequent changes in social companionship. This is in contrast to natural conditions where horses live in relatively stable harem bands. Currently, little is known about how repeated regrouping affect horse behaviour and welfare, and it is unknown whether horses may adapt to regrouping. In this study, we aimed to investigate the effects of an unstable group structure, caused by weekly regroupings, on behaviour and frequency of injuries in young horses. Forty-five horses were included in the study and were randomly assigned to the treatments; Stable (S; seven groups of three horses) or Unstable (U; eight groups of three horses). The experimental period lasted 7 weeks, during which horses in Stable groups remained in the same group, whereas one horse was exchanged between Unstable groups every week. The groups were kept in 80 m × 80 m grass-covered enclosures and were fed additional roughage on the ground daily. Social interactions were recorded in Unstable groups immediately after each regrouping (30 min), and in both Stable and Unstable groups on day 1, 3 and 6 after each regrouping (2 × 20 min/group/day). Injuries were scored by the end of the experimental period. The level of aggression shown by horses in Unstable groups immediately after regrouping was not affected by week (F5,35 = 0.42, P = 0.83), indicating that horses neither habituated, nor sensitized, to repeated regrouping. Compared to horses in Stable groups, more agonistic behaviour was shown by horses in Unstable groups (i.e. non-contact agonistic; F1,65 = 5.60, P = 0.02), whereas there was no treatment effect on other variables. The level of play behaviour appeared, however, to be more variable in Unstable groups. There was a significant effect of week on the level of contact agonistic interactions as well as greeting behaviour, due to a high occurrence in weeks 4–6. Non-contact agonistic interactions constituted the major part of agonistic interactions (66%). Possibly as consequence, no serious injuries were registered and there was no treatment effect (U = 184; P = 0.11). We conclude that the behaviour of young horses is affected by group management, and that horses appear not to adapt to weekly regroupings.

Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls (II): Effects of Free Exercise on the Behavior in the Stable, the Behavior during Training, and the Degree of Stress

Hanna Werhahn MS, Engel F. Hessel Prof Dr, Herman F.A. Van den Weghe Prof Dr Ir

Journal of Equine Veterinary Science

July 2011

Although housing horses in single stalls limits their natural behavior to a great extent, this housing system is widespread in Germany, especially for competition horses. To improve the welfare of this system, free exercise on pastures or paddocks is deemed suitable, but it is also feared because of injuries and decreased willingness or motivation to perform. In the present study, three treatments were investigated with regard to their effect on the behavior of six competition horses in the stable, behavior during training, and on their degree of stress: daily training without free exercise (no turnout [NT]), solitary turnout for 2 hours after training, and 2-hour turnout in groups of two after training (group turnout). The horses’ behavior in the stable was continuously analyzed through video recordings (2 pm to 6 am) on 3 days at the end of each treatment. The degree of stress was evaluated daily by heart rate variability at rest. The behavior during training was evaluated by a questionnaire answered by the riders, and the distance covered during training was measured by global positioning system. When NT was allowed, the horses showed less lying in the stable compared with the treatments with turnout. Heart rate variability measurements resulted in great individual differences, but generally, there was a higher degree of stress shown with the treatment NT according to the following parameters: standard deviation of inter-beat-intervals (SDNN), square root of the mean of the sum of the squares of differences between successive inter-beat-intervals (RMSSD), and ratio between low frequency and high frequency (LF/HF). The willingness to perform was evaluated as being slightly better in the treatments with turnout than in the treatment without turnout.

Motivation for Social Contact in Horses Measured by Operant Conditioning

Eva Søndergaard, Margit Bak Jensen, Christine J. Nicol

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 132, Issues 3-4, Pages 131-137, July 2011

Although horses are social animals they are often housed individually with limited social contact to other horses and this may compromise their welfare. The present study included eight young female horses and investigated the strength of motivation for access to full social contact, head contact and muzzle contact, respectively, to a familiar companion horse. Horses were housed individually next to their companion horse and separations between pens prevented physical contact. During daily test sessions horses were brought to a test area where they could access an arena allowing social contact. Arena access during 3 min was given after completion of a predetermined number of responses on a panel. Fixed ratios (FR) of 8, 16, 24, 32 and 40 responses per arena access were applied in a random order, one per daily test session, within each test week (Monday to Friday), and the number of rewards per daily test session was recorded. All horses could access all three types of social contact in a cross-over design, and an empty arena was used as control. Motivational strength was assessed using elasticity of demand functions, which were estimated based on the number of rewards earned and FR. Elasticities of demand for the three types of social contact were low (−0.20), and not significantly different, although increasing FR still resulted in a decrease in rewards obtained for all three types of social contact (P < 0.001). Across FR-levels horses earned more rewards for social contact than for an empty arena, as shown by much higher intercept values (2.51 vs. 0.99; P < 0.001). However, the elasticity of demand for infrequent access to an empty arena (−0.08) was lower than for social contact (P < 0.01) and not significantly different from zero (P = 0.07). Horses performed more social behaviour the lesser the restriction on social contact (full > head > muzzle). However, the finding that horses showed a similar and high motivation for all three types of social contact suggests that they are valued equally highly in a situation where the alternative is no social contact.

Preference and Demand for Exercise in Stabled Horses

Joyce Lee, Toby Floyd, Hollis Erb, Katherine Houpt

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 130, Issues 3-4, Pages 91-100, March 2011

Operant conditioning and two choice preference tests were used to assess the motivation of horses to be released from straight and from box stalls. The motivations for food, a companion, and release into a paddock were compared when the horses had to work for each commodity at increasing fixed ratios of responses (panel presses) to reward in an equine operant conditioning stall. The motivation for food (mean ± SEM = 258 ± 143) responses was much greater than that for either release (38 ± 32) from a straight stall into a large paddock alone or into a small paddock with another horse (95 ± 41) (P = 0.04). When given a two choice preference test between exercise on a treadmill for 20 min or returning to their box stalls, eight of nine horses chose to return to their stalls. In a two choice preference test six of eight horses in box stalls chose to be released into a paddock alone. Horses were given a series of two choice preference tests to determine how long they preferred to be in a paddock. After 15 min in the paddock the horses were re-tested, but all chose the paddock when released into a paddock with three other horses. They were retested every 15 min until they chose to return to their stalls. They chose to stay out for 35 ± 6 min when other horses were in the paddock but for only 17 ± 2 min when they would be alone. When deprived of stall release for 48 h the horses chose to remain in the paddock with other horses for 54 ± 6 min, but showed no compensatory behavior when they were alone (duration chosen = 16 ± 4 min). These findings indicate that horses are not strongly motivated to exercise alone and will choose not to endure forced exercise on a treadmill. The social context of voluntary exercise is important; horses are willing to stay out of their stalls longer if other horses are present and will show compensatory behavior only if other horses are present. These finding have implications for optimizing turnout time for stalled horses.

Training

Does Attention make the Difference? Horses’ Response to Human Stimulus After 2 Different Training Strategies

Paolo Baraglia, Chiara Maritia, Leonardo Petria, Francesco De Giorgiob, Claudio Sighieria

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 31-38, January 2011

We hypothesized that in an open environment, horses cope with a series of challenges in their interactions with human beings. If the horse is not physically constrained and is free to move in a small enclosure, it has additional options regarding its behavioral response to the trainer. The aim of our study was to evaluate the influence of 2 different training strategies on the horse’s behavioral response to human stimuli. In all, 12 female ponies were randomly divided into the following 2 groups: group A, wherein horses were trained in a small enclosure (where indicators of the level of attention and behavioral response were used to modulate the training pace and the horse’s control over its response to the stimuli provided by the trainer) and group B, wherein horses were trained in a closed environment (in which the trainer’s actions left no room for any behavioral response except for the one that was requested). Horses’ behavior toward the human subject and their heart rate during 2 standardized behavioral tests were used to compare the responses of the 2 groups. Results indicated that the horses in group A appeared to associate human actions with a positive experience, as highlighted by the greater degree of explorative behavior toward human beings shown by these horses during the tests. The experience of the horses during training may have resulted in different evaluations of the person, as a consequence of the human’s actions during training; therefore, it seems that horses evaluate human beings on daily relationship experiences.

Trailer-Loading of Horses: Is there a Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement Concerning Effectiveness and Stress-Related Signs?

Payana Hendriksen, Katrine Elmgreen, Jan Ladewig

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 5, Pages 261-266, September 2011

The traditional way to train horses is by the application of negative reinforcement (NR). In the past few years, however, the use of positive reinforcement (PR) has become more common. To evaluate the effectiveness and the possible stressor effect of the 2 training methods, 12 horses showing severe trailer-loading problems were selected and exposed to trailer-loading. They were randomly assigned to one of the 2 methods. NR consisted of various degrees of pressure (lead rope pulling, whip tapping). Pressure was removed as soon as the horse complied. PR horses were exposed to clicker training and taught to follow a target into the trailer. Heart rate (HR) was recorded every 5 seconds and behavior denoting discomfort was observed using one-zero sampling with 10 seconds sampling intervals. Training was completed when the horse could enter the trailer upon a signal, or was terminated after a maximum of 15 sessions. Of the 12 horses, 10 reached the criterion within the 15 sessions. One horse was eliminated from the study because of illness and 1 PR horse failed to enter the trailer. A Mann–Whitney U-test indicated that the horses trained with NR displayed significantly more discomfort behavior per training session than horses trained with PR (NR: 13.26 ± 3.25; PR: 3.17 ± 8.93, P < 0.0001) and that horses in the PR group spent less time (second) per session to complete the training criterion (NR: 672.9 ± 247.12; PR: 539.81 ± 166.37, P < 0.01). A Mann–Whitney U-test showed that no difference existed in mean HR (bpm) between the 2 groups (NR: 53.06 ± 11.73 bpm; PR: 55.54 ± 6.7 bpm, P > 0.05), but a Wilcoxon test showed a difference in the PR group between the baseline of HR and mean HR obtained during training sessions (baseline PR: 43 ± 8.83 bpm; PR: 55.54 ± 6.7 bpm, P < 0.05). In conclusion, the PR group provided the fastest training solution and expressed less stress response. Thus, the PR procedure could provide a preferable training solution when training horses in potentially stressing situations.

Using Differential Reinforcement to Improve Equine Welfare: Shaping Appropriate Truck Loading and Feet Handling

Charlotte Slater, Simon Dymond

Behavioural Processes

Volume 86, Issue 3, Pages 329-339, March 2011

Inappropriate behavior during common handling procedures with horses is often subject to aversive treatment. The present study replicated and extended previous findings using differential reinforcement to shape appropriate equine handling behavior. In Study 1, a multiple baseline across subjects design was used with four horses to determine first the effects of shaping target-touch responses and then successive approximations of full truck loading under continuous and intermittent schedules of reinforcement. Full loading responses were shaped and maintained in all four horses and occurrences of inappropriate behaviors reduced to zero. Generalization of the loading response was also observed to both a novel trainer and trailer. In Study 2, a changing criterion design was used to increase the duration of feet handling with one horse. The horse’s responding reached the terminal duration criterion of 1 min and showed consistent generalization and one-week maintenance. Overall, the results of both studies support the use of applied equine training systems based on positive reinforcement for increasing appropriate behavior during common handling procedures.

Fostering Adherence to Horse Behaviour Counselling

Ruth Jobling, Emma Creighton

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 5, Pages 276-286, September-October 2011

Counseling services that aim to improve understanding of horse–human interactions are on the frontline of the horse welfare agenda. The aim of this research was to determine characteristics of horse owners seeking advice about their horse’s behavior that predicted their adherence to that advice. The established science of human behavioral change has largely been applied in the field of health psychology to identify predictors of behavior. A thorough review of human behavioral change literature identified 10 cognitive variables (e.g., attitude toward horse behavior counselors) that had the potential to predict adherence to the advice of a horse behavior counselor. Established self-report questionnaire methodology was adopted to survey an opportunistic sample of 52 clients of horse behavior counselors before they received the advice (initial cognitive profile), 10 days after (post-communication changes), and at 3-month follow-up (long-term changes). Data were preliminarily analyzed using correlation analyses and subsequently, multiple regression analyses were used to generate a model for adherence. Horse behavior counselors cannot influence what clients perceive when they come into the process, but are able to influence cognitive variables during the communication. The amount of post-communication change in value of the outcome of adhering to the advice (β = 0.338, P = 0.033) and attribution of the horse’s behavior problem to external factors (e.g., facilities, time; β = 0.309, P = 0.050) were significant elements of a multiple regression analysis that explained 23.6% of the variance in adherence 10 days after the communication (F2,35 = 6.700, P = 0.003). At 3-month follow-up, there were no associations between adherence and the earlier cognitive profiles, but clients who showed a 3-month increase in positive attitude toward horse behavior counselors were more likely to show long-term adherence (r = 0.389, P = 0.019). Horse behavior counselors may benefit clients by demonstrating the effects of their advice early in the communication, so that clients value their efforts to adhere to the advice and continue to do so. Horse behavior counselors may also foster adherence to their advice by emphasizing external causes of the horse’s behavior problem, which clients may find more controllable than internal causes such as their level of skill or fear. Developing the client’s perception of a controllable cause of their horse’s behavioral problem may build confidence in their ability to address the problem and encourage adherence.

Thanks for reading,
Emma Lethbridge

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.

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.)