Behavioral Science

Riding Extinction Bursts

Riding Extinction Bursts

Riding an Extinction Burst?

Once a behavior has been learned to be a source of reinforcement and the reinforcement ends extinction will begin. So if a behavior was reinforced but now is not, the behavior will begin to fade. A behavior that is not maintained with reinforcement won’t maintain itself, it will begin to be less reliable, accurate, and consistent. The behavior won’t just fade away, it will actually burst like a bubble. Starting at the narrow point of the accurate, correct, and consistent display of the behavior. As the behavior goes un-backed up the learner will begin to vary the behavior (maybe I really need to do it a little different?) often making the behavior bigger and more dramatic to try to get the reinforcement response they were looking for (if you don’t want it like this, how about I do it twice as big?!)

This phenomenon of behavior bursting before extinguishing happens with all species and carries with it the same feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and desperation. So when we’re training our horses and reinforce a behavior we like, then decide later we no longer want that behavior, be aware of extinction bursts. Even if you didn’t originally intend to reinforce that specific behavior. For example, often when people start hand feeding their horses the horse learns to invade the human’s space and take treats out of the human’s pockets directly (why not it’s easier than waiting?) We decide we don’t like this new “mugging” behavior, and find it rather rude, so we stop hand-feeding, but the horse gets worse and worse, eventually even biting! Now we are resorting to punishment to defend ourselves, our horse is frustrated and we think “hand feeding was such a terrible mistake!” But what really happened was a misunderstood extinction burst. The lack of clear behavioral criteria with the food in the beginning, plus the sudden removal of reinforcement for a behavior that had previously worked is the combination that lead to the inappropriate expression. Just like the child at the store counter.

Understanding this pattern can help us recognize it and avoid it. However there are some trainers who try to use this to their advantage in training, we call this “riding the extinction burst”. Where they train a behavior, reinforcing it lightly and unpredictably. This helps the horse understand what behavior is wanted, but then when it’s not reinforced they exaggerate and vary the behavior making it bigger and better. Then the behavior is reinforced again to stop it from growing beyond this exaggerated point. As the behavior settles back into it’s normal lower expression, reinforcement with be withheld again, causing it to begin bursting again. This is extremely upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and enraging for the learner. It becomes just like gambling, even addictive. It’s an inappropriate and dangerous approach to training. It can easily lead to an outburst of behavior that’s misplaced, it creates negative emotions that could easily be turned into aggressive behaviors. This is the most inappropriate use of R+ training I’ve seen out there. Extremely dangerous for human and extremely upsetting for the horse.

So let’s make sure we work well to prevent this dangerous cycle. As we’ve seen removing the reinforcement isn’t the ideal option, avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem. So we need to use reinforcement appropriately:

1. Rate of reinforcement – make sure your RoR is high enough to match the effort of the behavior, in early learning this will begin very rapid and can settle into a more relaxed rate as the horse becomes comfortable with which behavior earns which reinforcement.

2. Food value – using a lower food value can help reduce the learner’s desperation for the reinforcement and reduce the amount of over the top effort they will put towards that behavior. So make sure to match the value of the food with the difficulty of the behavior (for your individual, a high spirited horse may need more satiating and low value food compared to a mild-mannered, quiet horse, who may need slightly higher value, more interesting food to be a strong motivator)

3. Food quantity – using larger quantities of lower value food is more appropriate, like getting a bag of rice rather than a candy bar, it’s satiating and satisfying, but not exhilarating.

4. Alternate source – making sure there are other options available to the learner, so their only source of reinforcement isn’t just through working with you. This will reduce their desperation and frustration levels. Using hay or a treat toy while you’re training can help this.

5. Focus on calm – reinforce soft, mild expressions of behavior if the horse gets worked up while training…

6. Dial it down – provide a moment of satiation, using an easy behavior you can reinforce heavily and frequently, then break down the criteria of the behavior you’re having trouble with, into smaller and easier reinforceable steps.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
Conditioned Aversives

Conditioned Aversives

Conditioned Aversives

“The whip is just an extension of my arm”, “The whip is just encouragement”, “The whip just provides direction”, “my horse isn’t afraid of the whip”.

These are super common phrases used by people who just don’t understand how conditioning happens. Conditioning is when A=B. It only needs to happen once or twice for someone to learn A=B. For example most of us know not to touch an open flame, it will likely burn, we’ve seen flames heat things enough to know how flames=hot.

So whether the whip gently touches the horse, swings gently behind the horse, or just follows the horse without ever touching them – if the horse is working to avoid the whip, it’s aversive. You don’t need to touch the horse with the whip for it to work effectively as an aversive motivator for a horse. It’s still an aversive. Still negative reinforcement.

I see so often traditional and natural horsemanship trainers work so hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, rubbing the whip on them, moving the whip around – but if the horse flinches or seeks escape the horse is punished. All until the horse stands and tolerates the whip flapping all about them. However in the next move they use the whip to ask the horse to move away – if the horse does not the whip is flailed, flapped and smacked until the horse can bear the fear no more and moves off. If the horse is actually no longer afraid of the whip and does not move away they either strike the horse with the whip, reconditioning it as something to be feared and escaped from – or they tie a plastic bag onto the end to make it extra scary!!

So why desensitize them to something you do want them to be afraid of? Because most of us don’t want to believe we are using fear and threats to control our horses. Most of us truly love our horses and train them in the ways we’ve been taught as “correct” and even ethical. We want to believe our horses are doing what we ask out of love for us, trust or even “respect”. But the fact of the matter is that’s just not the way it works.

If they aren’t afraid of the whip more than they dislike the work being asked of them, the whip won’t work.

It’s as simple as that, a math equation, which is better, stand here and allow the whip to flap around, maybe even hit me – or work? It varies horse by horse how aversive the tool needs to be to get how much “work” out of the horse (and how aversive that horse finds the job being asked), but the equation remains the same. “But my horse isn’t actually afraid of the whip”, many people say this too, but if it were true the horse wouldn’t work to avoid it. It’s really as simple as that.

The same is true but opposite for a target. A horse will work to seek out a target so long as it’s value is stronger than the work – except in this case the value is appetitive, not aversive. The target can give direction more clearly and completely than whips – in that it shows them where TO go, not where NOT to go.

Often people, in an attempt to justify the use of their tools or training techniques, in their own mind or others – people will soften the language around these tools. “It’s just an extension of my arm”. Maybe if your hand is as aversive as a whip? It could be! Many of my rescues move rapidly away from a fast moving hand… But is that really the relationship you want your horse to have with your hands? With you? Don’t forget when conditioning is happening it’s not the tool alone that’s being conditioned, you and everything else that’s around are being wrapped up in that picture.

How do you want your horse to see your tools? your hands? You? Do you want to be a conditioned aversive? Or a conditioned appetitive?

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
Safety Is NOT A Contingency

Safety Is NOT A Contingency

I saw an argument against using food reinforcement, supposedly from behaviorists, suggesting a horse values safety and comfort more than food. Thus food is not a primary form of reinforcement (despite the piles of behavioral science texts defining primary and secondary reinforcement).

It took me a moment to let the ringing in my ears settle down so i could process this into a coherent discussion.

At what point did we decide that it was acceptable to use a sense of safety as a contingency in training?!

Safety, comfort, wellness (physical and emotional) is a given. Our domestic horses we purchased or adopted, we are supposed to ensure they feel as safe and comfortable as physically possible. We are meant to meet all their needs as a living, sentient, emotional being – upon NO contingency!! They are in our care, through no deliberate choice or understanding of their own, they have signed no contract of agreement. Their life is in our care and we owe them the best wellness we can provide (within reason of each individual health and living situation). It is listed in all the animal welfare laws, the five freedoms, the humane heirarchy, the basic common sense of animal ownership. You provide for your animal’s needs 100%, always, bar none.

Safety should never be contingent on anything!

What is the human stigma against using food? We love food! Who wants to go to a party without food? What family gathering or holiday is not entirely centered around food? Why are we bothered by the idea of using food with our animals. The biological act of feeding and sharing food is a bonding experience throughout most social species. I saw a quote recently shared that stated “the sad objective of these trainers seems to be to reach the end of the dog’s life having dispensed as few rewards as possible. It’s difficult to explain why an animal trainer would aim to be as stingy as possible, given the evidence of how powerful and safe positive reinforcement is. Maybe it’s psychological.” – Jean Donaldson

We use food because it is the most humane, effective, ethical and easy to control resource in most animals’ lives (though we may use access to heat sources, light, vibration, scents, etc.. for other species who are less enticed with food). We can easily control food with horses, without ever having to withhold in an unhealthy way, or emotionally creating frustration. We can control the values of food, from something as mild as hay all the way up to molasses candy treats. We can determine quantity per delivery, frequency of delivery and everything we may need to influence the horse’s behavior. We can control their outside of training acess to food as well to provide them more choice and consent within training. We use food because it is the safest and most appropriate resource to put contingencies on. We would not put water on contingency, because colic. So why would we ever want to use a sense of safety as a resource they need to work for?

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Classical and Operant

Classical and Operant

Let’s talk conditioning… what’s the difference between classical and operant conditioning? And when do you utilize each in training? Why does it matter?

Classical conditioning is what most people are familiar with, the bell rings, dog anticipates food. Some people know this as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning. Simple pairing of two stimuli X=Y. Respondent behaviors are behaviors that happen reflexively, involuntarily, such as blinking, increasing heart rate or respiration, wincing, etc… Respondent behaviors happen in “response” to the environment. For example food will trigger salivation. Respondent conditioning is when we add a predictor signal, so while the food causes salivation, the bell predicts the food. Once the bell and food have been sufficiently paired, the bell alone will trigger the response, salivation in anticipation of food.

We can utilize this way of learning through pairing in our training in a wide variety of ways. Most commonly we will condition a sound (like a clicker or whistle) with food, so we can use it in clicker training. We can also condition aversive stimuli, the presence of a whip being paired with the physical sensation of being hit, the whip becomes conditioned as a predictor of pain. This is what we are seeing when a horse picks up speed when the rider is just holding the whip, not using it, because the pairing is understood. We can take any stimuli (sound, sight, touch, etc…) and condition it to predict something else. Once paired consistently the first stimuli takes on the meaning of the second stimuli.

This is important to remember in training. The first stimuli predicts the second one. If you feed, then click, then food is being conditioned to predict the sound. When what we really want is for the sound to predict the food. So we click and then present the food.

We can also take this respondent conditioning one step further. If the horse has an association with a stimuli we can change their response to it through pairing. So a horse may dislike being sprayed with fly spray, but by pairing the fly spray with something they do like (food) we can change how they feel about the spray. So by spraying (starting somewhere the horse is comfortable with the spray) then adding food, the horse learns that the spray predicts food. Soon you have counter conditioned the spray. But keep the order in mind, if food predicts the spray, you may counter condition the food to be something they dislike. We see this often where horses who have been bribed with food learn “the food is a trap”. This is conditioning happening in an unintended direction. The key is the order in which the stimuli are presented.

Operant conditioning is not just giving a stimuli a meaning, it adds a behavioral component. Rather than the environment triggering a reflexive response, this time it triggers a voluntary behavior which will be influenced by the results. The environment triggers a behavior which has a consequence. If the consequence is good the learner will do that behavior more in that scenario again. If the consequence is bad the learner will do that behavior less in that scenario again.

This is where our learning quadrants come into play. These are the 4 possible consequences of a behavior.

Reinforcement is when the consequence a behavior will happen more in the scenario.

This can be done by adding (positive) something the learner likes

Or removing (negative) something the learner dislikes.

Punishment is when the consequence causes the behavior to happen less in the scenario.

This can be done by adding (positive) something the learner dislikes

Or by removing (negative) something the learner likes.

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Ownership Not Leadership

Ownership Not Leadership

Did you know that the old theories related to dominance have been debunked?

Dominance is not related to leadership, but rather about ownership. The dominant animal has priority access to resources, meaning the other animals in the group know to let them have what they want first. They know this because they’ve previously fought and determined who will have first choice. Because they live in groups it’s wise to make these determinations and not question it often, otherwise constant fighting would weaken their group. Often these dominant individuals will vary based on the resource, some many have first choice of food resources, some may have first choice when it comes to mating, others may defend limited shelter, and so on. Dominance will also vary if the group changes, sometimes 2 horses will work together to get a resource from a horse who is dominant over each separately. Depending how limited the resources are and how desperate the individual is for the resource, these priorities may change. If food is plentiful (like horses on plains full of grass) no one really cares who eats first. The individuals with priority access to resources have no other benefits, they aren’t leaders or bosses, they aren’t in charge.

In a domestic setting dominance can be more linear than in nature, because resources are often far more limited and groups are made of unrelated peers chosen by humans, not families and chosen friends. When resources are limited the importance of priority access is increased. If there is only 1 hay pile, the horses need to determine who gets it, if the hay pile runs out quickly, they’re less likely to be willing to share, for fear of “starving”. Remember horses are designed to eat 24/7, even if our food is too rich for them and they are fat, they still feel hungry when they go without forage. So there may be increased aggression in domestic settings if we don’t spread resources and ensure there is plenty to go around.

While we should take our horse’s established dominance roles into consideration when we manage the environment, it doesn’t affect our training. We can reduce inter-herd fighting and displaced aggression and food related anxiety by managing the environment with plentiful access to resources. With the use of enrichment and slow feeding, track systems and feed variety we can make sure the horses have everything they need without being unhealthy. This being said, dominance has nothing to do with our training.

Because we own and provide everything for our horses, we have no need to fight over the resource. We already decide who, what, when, where and how our horses live their entire life. We already have all the control over all the resources, so acting aggressively towards our animals has nothing to do with dominance, it’s just acting aggressive. Instead of controlling our horses with force and attempted dominance displays, we should use our brain. Using science based training techniques we can positively reinforce the behaviors we want to see more of.

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No Punishment Here

No Punishment Here

“We don’t use Punishment here”.

I say this a great deal at my barn (I often phrase it nicer depending on the circumstances). But it’s one of the first things I tell anyone coming to my farm. The intentional use of punishment isn’t allowed at my farm (stuff happens, sometimes we unintentionally punish or we make a mistake or have a habit reaction) but we aspire to punishment-free. The most common response is “You let them get away with Everything?!” (even if they don’t say that outloud). They think this means you allow your animals to walk all over you, to demand food, to be spoiled or to “dominate” you!! (Buzz word – I know!) But fact of the matter is, when we train well we don’t need punishment. Period. “Positive does not mean Permissive”.

First of all why should we avoid punishment?

Here’s the simple list, we can go into this further later – but the goal of this post isn’t to explain why punishment is bad, but rather why it’s unnecessary.

1) Violence begets Violence (I hit you, you hit me, the cycle repeats until someone is afraid enough to stop)

2) If you are adding a physical aversive you can physically hurt your learner

3) This doesn’t promote an active and happy learning environment, it results in a lack of try, the learner gives up – why would they try and risk being punished? As R+ trainers we need them to try and to offer behaviors – so this damages our future ability to train.

4) This can poison your cues AND your relationship!

5) Timing, consistency and appropriate intensity are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to master

6) The behavior can return when the punishment stops, you can only punish what is happening – not what happened 2 minutes ago or what will happen tomorrow

7) The behavior may only stop when *you* are there to punish it, so what was really punished, the behavior or being with you?

? It encourages the learner to find ways around you – sneakiness, do the behavior without being caught, or do the behavior but get away before you react! (My Belgian still leaps away when he thinks he’ll be punished, he doesn’t avoid the behavior he thinks will be punished but rather does it then leaps away to avoid the punishment).

9) Punishment is reinforcing to the punishER this is why we do it.

(When your dog is barking at you non-stop because they want to go out, and we loose it and yell at them, they may stop barking for a moment, hide in fear for a few minutes – we were Negatively Reinforced (relief from the barking) even if just for a moment. The punisher was reinforced for the punishment – the behavior was temporarily stopped, but not effectively removed as the problem still persists, the dog needs to go out.)

Ok that’s a lumped, quick and dirty summary of why we don’t use Punishment, all the side-effects of punishment. But like I said, we want to discuss why we don’t NEED it and how we can avoid it.

Let’s think about our ABC’s again (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence). We put a great deal of focus on the B-C of our training, what behavior did our animal do and what consequence do we offer to adapt that behavior the way we like. But there is a great big “A”-hole we need to fill! Antecedent arrangement is the number 1 way we can avoid the need for punishment. You don’t need to punish a behavior that doesn’t happen!

Find out what triggers the unwanted behavior and change it. Is the dog barking because they need to go out? Let them out at the first signs, before they start barking. Does your horse buck when you ride because the saddle doesn’t fit? Get a saddle that fits. Fix the problem so the unwanted behavior doesn’t happen.

Don’t forget about protected contact!! PC is not just for you but for your learner as well. Especially animals who have experienced a great deal of those pitfalls of punishment we just listed. They may be afraid to try, react emotionally and impulsively to defend themselves when things go wrong. This isn’t their fault or their problem. Working in PC can help encourage their try without fear and give them the learning room they need. This also prevents us from needing to use punishment to defend ourselves. “Remember, best block, no be there”- Mr. Miyagi. Change the way the horse feels and behaves before moving into full contact, allowing them and you to be comfortable in your contact – so neither of you need to become defensive.

What if we can’t? If we’ve adapted all the antecedents we can control, but life isn’t perfect we still have a few options. We can train the absence, for example if they always bite the lead when we’re leading them, reward when they’re not biting the lead. Wait for a good moment when they’re walking with you nicely and reward – this turns us towards teaching an incompatible behavior. If they’re biting the lead while we try to walk with them – but you can’t get rid of the lead and can’t get rid of the emotional triggers that cause this behavior (which should be our first steps!) we can train them to walk as calmly as possible, facing forward, with their nose beside us. The use of a target can be helpful for getting understanding and success in the early stages, just capturing those good moments can also be helpful.

If we arrange “A” as best as possible, then set all the R+ Consequences to counteract the unwanted behavior, we should end up with no unwanted behavior! It’s really as easy as that. We own our horses. They live in our world. We control every aspect of their life, whether we or they like it or not.

*No behavior they offer is their fault*.

If they are performing an unwanted behavior it’s not because they are naughty or fresh (and definitely not because they’re “Dominant”), but rather because that has been reinforced in the past (even if it’s self reinforcing – biting the lead can be a self soothing behavior or let out some frustration).

So change your A’s and focus your C’s to what is constructive and preventative and your horses’ B’s will always be what you want.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Force Isn’t Safer

Force Isn’t Safer

Aggression is frequently, I dare say, almost always correlated with fear. Fear of harm, something bad happening to you, or fear of losing something of value. Hmm… those sound familiar, something bad being added or something good being taken away… wait, I know, PUNISHMENT! Aggression is caused by fear of punishment (whether a natural consequence or intentional by another being).

So why do we often resort to punishment when things go bad? Funny enough, our circle is complete, FEAR!! When we humans are afraid, afraid of being harmed by our horse, shamed by our peers, or our horse being harmed (losing something valuable), we often resort to, you guessed it, aggression! Because we are afraid we feel the need for more physical control (control and fear are contradictory). We give ourselves a strong illusion of control by using forceful methods to manipulate our horse. This is reinforcing to us, the punisher, because it often works, at least in the immediate short term, to reduce our fear. Even though it almost always creates more problems in the long run.

When you see someone become aggressive with their horse, don’t get mad, get sad, because they are afraid and they don’t have the tools to handle their emotions and respond appropriately to the situation. My only two horses who have an ounce of aggression in them are my most frightened horses. One is a violent resource guarder, the other a history of abuse. Both only aggress when they are afraid for their safety or losing something they value. So before you raise your hand to the horse who is aggressing, stop and think, will punishment, the thing they are afraid of, reduce their fear? Not likely!

Instead we should aspire to bring comfort and a sense of safety to those who are afraid. Provide them with tools to feel in control, to feel their safety and their resources are not at risk. Allow them dignity as they overcome this difficult emotion, give them tools to express their fear without aggression, and give them comfort when they are afraid.

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Overcoming FEAR With Enrichment

Overcoming FEAR With Enrichment

Is your horse spooky? Are they pessimistic, assuming everything is out to get them? Do they freak out about every little change? Does it seem like they’re just making stuff up to lose their mind over?

These comments are all too common. This can happen for hundreds of reasons. Often horses who live in a punishment-based environment learn quickly not to explore or try new things, because it will likely go bad. Horses living on fancy farms often lives very sheltered lives, in small stalls, small paddocks, separate from other horses, working in quiet indoor arenas. Horses are often under-exposed in an attempt to keep them safe (we all know how easily our horses hurt themselves!) But often this lack of exposure and lack of engagement can cause more health and behavioral issues than they prevent. By taking away everything that may harm them we also take away everything that satisfies their emotional and behavioral needs. This creates outbursts of unnatural and undesireable behaviors that can include hurting themselves.

Instead of sheltering your horse, turn their fear and pessimism into confidence and curiousity. The first step to this is enrichment. Enrich their lives as much as possible, in as many different ways you can. You can supplement them socially introducing new peers or other species. Visually, with funny looking items, pool noodles look solid but are flimsy, mirrors show strange reflections, light up toys, large stuffed animals, etc… You can enrich them audibly with music, noise makers, recordings of sirens or different animal vocalizations. Tactile options can include brushes, hanging rugs on walls or fences for rubbing against, itching boards, or various different substrate flooring. Scent can be very enriching with the use of essential oils or natural smells from around the farm, like letting them smell another animal’s poop. Novel food can be engaging and fun to explore, including melons and pumpkins to crush and munch. Food can also provide mental enrichment as they problem solve new ways to engage with their environment to work out food puzzles.

The enrichment is mentally stimulating and interesting, but it’s important that the enrichment also include some positive outcome for the horse a good amount of the time. While we often present the new stimuli without any added food (we don’t want to pressure them to approach or handle the stimuli faster than they are ready) once they are comfortable around the new item we often add food to it. Some enrichment is self-sufficient, exploring smelly items, or interacting socially would be good examples. But if engaging with the stimuli isn’t very interesting, adding food can help push the stimuli from being benign to being a good thing in your horse’s mind. The more often these new experiences have a good outcome the more optimistic your horse will become. Soon “new” will become a source of curiosity, something worth trying. Changing their entire outlook on life and the world around them.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Emotional Science, 0 comments
Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

Our horse rescue is run primarily on kids, teens, and people with extra needs or mental health struggles. When they volunteer here and work with our horses they learn not just to care for horses, but to communicate with compassion, empathy, and clarity. Our volunteers and students learn so many life skills by working with horses from a positive reinforcement (R+) lifestyle. R+ isn’t just a way of training but a wholesome care-taking style including a natural living environment, plenty of enrichment, positive training, and developing a loving partnership.

In using positive reinforcement to train and handle our horses young people learn kind and effective ways to communicate what they want and appreciating the efforts given in response. Through formal positive reinforcement training with the horses the young people learn to break down goals into achievable steps, organizing and prioritizing their missions. They learn critical and creative thinking skills as they puzzle out new ways to encourage the horses to reach the goal behaviors without needing to use force, violence, or invasive control techniques. They learn to be resilient when things don’t go according to plan, how to stop and re-evaluate their plans and goals, then determine how to better approach the situation.

More importantly they develop loving partnerships with their horses built on clear communication, compromise, and lots of love. They learn to value their relationship with their horse more than what they can get the horse to do for them. Taking the focus away from themselves and into developing the partnership. They learn to respect the horse as a sentient companion with emotions, deserving of empathy and compassion. Rather than aspiring to control the horse through force or manipulation, they work together with the horse as a partner.

Many of our rescue horses have emotional or physical difficulties to overcome, helping our volunteers develop their empathy by relating to their equine peers. Through understanding and relating to the horse on an emotional level, and then compromising and problem solving to achieve their goals with their horse. They learn to be understanding and forgiving with themselves. This helps them raise their own emotional awareness and self-compassion.

They develop their own self awareness.

They are also made acutely aware of the hardships and rewards that come in life, including some painful decision making. Our volunteers understand that our horses have special needs and our priorities are to improve their quality of life. This means we don’t always get to do what’s fun for us, and sometimes we have to do things that are hard for us. Including participating in their medical care or letting go when the time is right. Learning about the value of life, how to honor the lives of our equine friends, and assure them the highest quality of care in the time they have with us.

These young people not only learn to work with horses in a kind and effective way but also learn to advocate for the horses. They learn values that extend to every area in life. Standing up to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Choosing compassion and kindness, even if it means not always fitting in with their peers. They learn to do what’s right, even if it’s not always what is easy.

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Overcoming Trauma

Overcoming Trauma

So your horse has trauma…

Sometimes we bring our wonderful new horse home, only to discover that their emotional damage runs deeper than we imagined. They don’t always believe us when we say “your life is different now”. We may not always know the cause of their trauma, and to be honest, it’s not always important to know exactly what happened. Many people get hung up on what might have happened in their past to make them feel and behave the way they do. In honesty, it doesn’t matter so much where it came from, just where they are now. Understanding their current triggers and responses (behavioral and emotional) really is the important part. A horse with trauma tends to express this one of two ways, by shutting down or by becoming reactive. But again, the solutions will be similar regardless of which direction they swing. Regardless of how they express their trauma, the problem has the same root – fear, conflict, confusion, or lack of healthy connections.

We have a few points to create – security, connection, control, and clarity.

A sense of security in their home and their resources is vital. When discussing security we are talking about their physical sense of safety, this involves their environment and their resources. This comes down to ensuring their environment is what suits them best. Whether they need the security of protected contact from other horses/humans or space to measure their own comfortable distance. Our sweet rescue, Taina, had no confidence to meet other horses loose in a field, she would hide as far from them as possible. But being able to meet the horses over a fence and through stall doors gave her the confidence to greet them and assure she could escape if needed. We also need to consider access to resources. Feeling secure that their needs will be met is vital to an emotionally balanced horse. This can be difficult with “easy keepers”, but providing slow feed options to ensure they never run out can go a long way to helping a horse feel secure in their resources. Knowing their physical needs for safety and access to resources are met can go a long way to soothe their anxiety.

Connection is another vital ingredient to an emotionally healthy horse. Horses are social beings, a huge part of their sense of safety comes from living in groups. Even if they feel safer separated from the other horses, knowing they are nearby is very important. Especially for horses who have anxiety over access to resources, they may prefer division from other horses, at least at first. Usually horses will find at least one or two other horses they bond with, adjusting their turn out or living environment so they can be with a horse they feel safely connected with. A huge key to telling if a horse feels safely connected with another horse is if they mutually groom. While other animals like sheep, goats, or donkeys may make good companions for a horse, unless previously bonded with them, they are not the ideal single companion. Our blind mini, Butterfly, struggles with relationships with other horses because she is not able to read their visual language. She enjoys her relationship with other horses when divided by a barrier, but in full contact the lack of clear communication is frightening for her and she becomes aggressive. However she lives very comfortably with her sheep, they are noisy so she always knows where they are and soft, should she bump into them. They also don’t bite or kick at her. But she is able to express mutual grooming and healthy equine-specific relationships with horses over a partition.

Don’t forget about your own connection with your horse. This will be important in helping overcome human-related trauma, but also giving them a safe relationship to depend on when other aspects of their life are imperfect (like travelling, moving homes, or medical issues). To develop a strong emotional connection with your horse, not just a good working relationship behaviorally, you’ll need to spend TIME. Horses connect with one another through touch, shared space, and shared resources. So we can mimic this to develop our interspecies relationship. Grooming in a way that is satisfying to our horse, not with the intent to make them clean, but to feel good. This is especially easy in the buggy season when our horses are itchy and appreciate a good rub down. I like to spend this grooming time out in their space, rather than bringing them in and putting them on a tie or in a closed stall (if we can). This way our relationship becomes a part of their life, not divided or separated from their day. Sharing space and sharing resources is easy, but requires time from us, which we often dismiss as “not constructive” because we aren’t doing anything. But this further integrates us into their life, rather than being a separate or interruptive part of their day. No, you don’t actually have to graze grass with them, but spending time sitting with them while they graze or doing positive training can go a long way to building positive associations.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Emotional Science, Ethics, 0 comments