Taina’s Opinion on Aversives

Taina tells me all day long "I HATE!" with her pinned ears and dragon face she says "back off!", she bares her fangs and swings her head to tell me she really, really wants to bite me. This is extremely kind of her. I try hard to listen to all of her communication, but her emotions are extremely conflicted and quickly changing. She wants so badly to trust and to be friends, she has really come to love me (if I do say so myself), but her fear is so deeply ingrained. Through her past life her whole world has become aversive, her whole world is a threat to her existence, all new, all different, is definitely dangerous.

In traditional horse training we use direct aversives. Very obvious and easy for the horse to comply to, once they learn they must. These aversives tend to be pretty clear signals, pressing on the spot you want to move away. Very straight forward. Pull back to stop, left or right to turn, squeeze to go. Then masters of the art of training fine tuned these behaviors into tiny, nuanced, beautiful movements - always sliding a bit away, a bit away, responding timely and accurately to the aversive cues. It works very well, but of course the training is very... well aversive! to the horse.

Modern trainers realized this, that in order to use small cues one must first have used big aversives to train the behaviors. They discovered what we call "Classical Conditioning", this is to give meaning to something that previously had none. So they discovered that they could use a predictor signal, something that was benign to the horse (a hand motion, a verbal cue, a soft touch, a gentle rein or whip touch, things we know aren't causing the horse pain or discomfort). They would use this benign predictor then escalate it progressively until the aversive was strong enough to elicit the behavior. This worked, the horse would start responding to the predictor signal. But periodically, just like we clicker trainers need to maintain the conditioning of our clicker, so does the conditioned aversive. So in order to keep a horse prompt and correct in their response to the cue, a trainer would apply the predictor and immediately escalate to a much stronger aversive. Soon the horse learns to respond very quickly to the predictor signal - OR ELSE! These predictors become "conditioned aversives" from the moment we pair the signal with the aversive, they have begun to gain that value for the horse.

We like to think the use of conditioned aversives is kinder in horse training than the use of direct aversives, like mentioned earlier. It gives the horse a chance to avoid the actual pain, discomfort, annoyance, and so on. The horse has learned how to avoid the aversive before the aversive ever really need to be applied. But this still creates an aversive situation. Now let's look at conditioning in the big picture. Whatever is around is being conditioned as well. So you, the human applying the threat, the tools your using, the environment you're training in, is all becoming conditioned as well, aversively.

In an extreme enough situation, or where the aversives are prolonged long enough, this fear will begin to generalize further and further into our world. This is where we met Taina, not only does she have fear of physical harm from everything in her environment, she also has fear of deprivation, things that are hers being taken and threatening her survival. Everything a human does in her presence is a conditioned aversive. Everything new and unidentified is aversive. Everything in her world is a potential threat to her wellbeing except the few things she has found to be safe (her food bucket, water buckets, hay net - all unless they are in the hands of a human). Her fear has started to downgrade a little bit, she has come down from trembling in a state of learned helplessness, but now she has learned she can control her fears by chasing them away with her rage face. Being violent has kept her safe.


So we are working on changing her perspective of the world. We need to flip the world on it's head for her, teach her that all "new" and "different" is actually an opportunity for good, and not a threat to her survival. This is going to be a slow and painful process for us. She has hidden herself away in her stall, as the outside world is still a bit too much for her, but I must clean her stall daily, this means a major invasion, daily. So our first goal is to counter condition this experience. Of course we have to break it down. She is great at clicker training with me and picked up on targeting right away. I decided we should work out of her stall to help prevent her stall from being hyper conditioned as the only good thing in the world, but outside was so stressful she would not stay with me (or even a pile of food without me). So we are working in the aisle. I started by introducing a new object that I don't think has a previous association from her past life, a tumble mat. I started with it folded up small and clicked for any investigation she may have with it. She was quickly standing on it joyfully! With no previous association she sorted this game out quickly and loved it. So I decided to use her love of her mats to help us through more things. I opted to go right to her fear of sticks, as using a pitchfork near her is like taking my life in my hands 😛 so we used the target extended out long so it was more stick like. We did simple stretching on the mat, she did well but showed some signs of anxiety when the stick went too far back. So we took this down another step and spent several sessions on her standing facing forward while I move around her, getting her comfortable. I worked on this until I could make full circles around her and reach high and low, crouching and touching her feet, but not her legs. Soon we'll begin re-introducing the target moving around her as well, maybe me holding our little kid's pitchfork.

But of course we ran into another generalized anxiety she has while doing this. Her anxiety has generalized so far that new people, or any more than 1 person, is too stressful. We knew this to a point, she stands and holds her feet nicely for our farrier if I keep the food coming, but she tries to bite him whenever he moves too much. She hates him, despite him being a wonderful person and feeding her many treats himself. So we had a friend who is very R+ savvy do a simple session with her. While she did great behaviorally, and seemed emotionally alright, when they dropped a treat and reached to pick it up, this was too much for Taina. She struggled with restraining herself from biting our friend, but after several big handfuls, she relaxed and was happy to do more targeting.

I think we'll break this down another step. I'll work on her standing then have someone approach, feed her a few treats, then leave, and repeat, until she sees the approaching human as a great thing. We are working endlessly with enrichment, food toys, puzzle games, socializing her with other horses, and so on to help her overcome this terrible generalized fear. And here we are... still pecking away at it, trying to find her a sense of peace after a lifetime of aversives taking over everything.