Desensitizing Whips?

To Desensitize: to render insensitive; to make indifferent, unaware; diminishes emotional responsiveness to an aversive or appetitive stimulus

Negative Reinforcement (R-) is the removal of a stimulus that increases the frequency of a behavior. The learner would have to find the stimulus that was removed aversive for it’s removal to be reinforcing. If the stimulus were neutral, it’s removal would be indifferent to the learner. If the stimulus were appetitive, it’s removal could even be punishing to the learner (P-).

More of this here: https://empoweredequines.com/clicker-training/training-articles/conditioning/

I watched a professional trainer (I won’t use their name to be nice) at a local expo thoroughly confuse a horse with a swinging whip. Spend the first few minutes rubbing the horse down with the whip, each time the horse became uncomfortable and tried to scoot away he “corrected” the horse with a few tugs on the rope halter, stopping any movement. When the horse relaxed he continued to rub the whip on them. Then he held the whip and spun the short string in a circle towards the horse’s hip. The horse stood calmly, as he had been taught, but didn’t realize that the trainer now wanted a behavior, hip away. As the horse didn’t respond correctly, the handler increased the spinning until the tip of the string began flicking the horse’s hip. At this point the horse reacted and scooted his hip away from the sensation. Clearly this sensation was aversive to the horse as it’s removal increased the frequency of behavior as they repeated this. They practiced on both sides. The horse became fluent in moving his hips away. They returned to rubbing the whip on the horse’s body, the horse smartly moved his hips away as the whip approached his hip. He was punished with a few snaps on the lead. Now the trainer wants stillness. They repeat this until the horse allows the whip to be rubbed all over him while staying still. They continued to proof their cue just as we do with R+, by alternating between moving hips away and staying still until the horse understood the whip’s contingency. The trick here is that the whip was not desensitized, rather contingencies have been placed on the whip. It’s aversiveness hasn’t changed, but the way to find relief/avoidance has changed based on the tool’s position.

So why desensitize a tool designed to be used as an aversive?
To learn about tools like these that have been conditioned to be aversive read here: https://empoweredequines.com/2019/11/13/conditioned-aversives/#more-1790
I see trainers work very hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, because they don’t want their horse to be afraid of the whip – but then they use the whip as something the horse should work to avoid. If you succeed in desensitizing the whip thoroughly, the tool will no longer motivate behavior or reinforce the behavior when the whip is removed. The same can be said for any tool we intend to use as a removal tool. We wouldn’t desensitize a horse to our leg cues, as we want them to respond to the lighter cues. We want them to respond while the cue is mild, not ignore or be dull to the leg, so we need to increase for them to perform. We could desensitize it a degree, taking the edge off the tool, so we can rest our legs on their side without a reaction, hold a whip in their area without them panicking, but we wouldn’t want to desensitize the tool completely, where the horse is not responsive/reactive to it. You want the horse to be sensitive to the tools you’re using – not desensitive!

Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

We can do this too with our R+ tools, bring down the value without completely desensitizing.  I’ve found a few times I like to do this, often with new horses who are over-aroused or too excited and focused on the food we’re using to train. I want my rewards to be of a high value (like we want the aversive tools to be strong so we can use them gently), but not so high the horse isn’t able to think or enjoy their time learning.  However if I have an aversive I’m looking to desensitize, I’m likely to look at a gentle, systematic approach with counter conditioning to help reduce/remove the aversive value. While with something that is appetitive, I’m more likely to desensitize it through flooding! I decrease the value by providing alot of it, the more access to the food I’m using, the less exciting it is to get it. This is why I like to use hay pellet/stretcher, I can allow the horse to have some on the side, either in a bucket or toy food dispenser, knowing they have another choice available can reduce the value of the food in my pocket. I can also satiate by feeding high quantity handfuls in the beginning of the training, and decrease as the horse feels satiated. However my sheep will remind me not to oversatiate or desensitize a certain food or they’ll get sick of it, it will lose it’s appetitive value, and (like the whip in my example) it will lose it’s effectiveness as a reinforcer.

 

People often try hard to desensitize tools like whips so as to feel better about using them, so they don’t feel as though their horse is scared of the tool. But if they don’t find the tool something worth avoiding, it won’t work to motivate behavior, it’s removal wouldn’t be reinforcing if they didn’t dislike the tool to some degree. Often people who spend this time desensitizing tools like whips end up having to buy flags or some other tool to get the same reaction as a whip used to! Which is rather counter-intuitive.

 

Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

But if a horse allows you to rub an object/whip/flag, all over them, but still moves away from the whip when cued, isn’t that desensitizing? Not quite. See, they would have successfully put strong contingencies on the whip. Meaning to avoid conflict, remain still and calm, the tool is desensitized to a near neutral level of sensitivity when it’s held out and rubbed all over their body. But the tool does hold an aversive meaning when swung behind them, held up beside them, or otherwise used to cue behavior. We know it has an aversive value because the horse is willing to work to avoid it. If they didn’t work to avoid it, it wouldn’t be aversive, but we also wouldn’t get the behavior we were asking for with R-. At this point we either need to resensitize the tool, teaching them that when held in this position it will escalate until the correct behavior is elicited (moving away).