Behavioral Science

The Food Question

The Food Question

“The Food Question”

This is probably the biggest question people ask when starting positive reinforcement training “Do I need to use food?”, “Won’t food make my horse bite?”, “Isn’t using food bribery?”, “Won’t food take away from my personal relationship with my horse?”.

I’ll address these one at a time.

“Do I need to use food?” well, no, but it is the fastest, easiest, cleanest reinforcer to use. There are thousands of reinforcers to use with the horse, food and scratches are the most common, but we have our situational reinforcers, opening the door, turning out with friends, and anything the horse wants in a given scenario. But what’s the one thing our horses *always* want? FOOD! What’s the one thing that makes us happy, feel good, that never gets old? Food! Scratches are most people’s back up, but the value of a scratch is usually much lower than food, it’s also heavily variable, depending on the day, location, season, and so on. Food is consistently desired, maintains a fairly level value to the horse, and is super quick and easy to use as a reinforcer.

“Won’t food make my horse bite?” The horse does the behavior that’s reinforced. If the horse investigates your body and receives food, next time they will forage your body again. Each time this behavior is reinforced the stronger it gets. If the behavior stops being reinforced with no alternative, often the horse exaggerates this by foraging more extremely, like pawing or biting. Just like they might with a food producing toy. The horse is not being fresh intentionally, they’re doing the behavior that worked. So if you don’t want your horse biting you for food, teach them safe ways they can earn food reinforcement, standing facing forward, touching a target, sending to a target and so on.

“Isn’t food bribery?” We get this alot, like we’re some mafia dealers paying off the cops with little bits of carrot. First of all, bribery is a human construct, we have an ugly association with it due to corruption in politics and so on. But horses have no construct about what bribery is or isn’t, only if it works. That being said, no training with food reinforcers isn’t bribery, just like being paid for your job isn’t bribery. A bribe comes *before* the behavior, like a direct food lure (which we may use sometimes! but like I said, horses don’t think this is some dirty deed). While reinforcement comes *after* the behavior. When the horse does the goal behavior we bridge (marking the desired behavior) then we pay them for it with something they value.

“Won’t food take away from my relationship with my horse?” Oh this is a big one. Most of us who are looking for more ethical ways of working with our horses are doing so because we love them and want a special relationship with them. Early in our training it can feel the horse is very focused on the food – because it’s such a high value reinforcer, while our companionship is really not. Of course horses are focused on the food early on! It’s the only consistently good thing in their life. But if we hope to modify the behavior of our horse, and not just spend quality time with them, we have to influence their behaviors one of two ways – having them work to avoid or work to earn.

Remember Classical Conditioning? How when something with no meaning is paired with something with meaning the first stimuli gains the meaning of the stimuli is was paired with. Just like after several times of the click being followed by a treat, the click takes on the meaning of the food – as well as all the emotional responses correlated with the food. While we can always sit in the field as a companion to our horses, becoming a neutral stimulus in their environment – if we hope to modify their behavior in anyway it’s going to require some interaction from us. In training a behavior we can add something the horse finds aversive, so we can remove it when the horse does our desired behavior. But how does that classically condition us and our presence? When they’re with us we are adding and removing aversives – we become a conditioned aversive. While if when we’re training a behavior we use shaping, targeting or capturing, and then reinforce the behavior with something the horse finds appetitive, how do we become conditioned then? If everytime we are with them they are earning reinforcers and feeling good, we become a conditioned appetitive in our horse’s life.

Very rapidly our relationship becomes appetitively conditioned, our own presence is treasured by our horses because we have been connected with all the good things in our horse’s life. So while early on the food is all they’re focused on, very quickly the relationship begins to be equally treasured. When i walk into my barn my horses buzz with joy, each horse wants to be the one chosen to play, they race us to the agility ring, they enjoy our company. The relationship is so purely wonderful for both partners. For the first time in history we humans have a way to work with horses in a completely *mutual* way. It’s incredible, we should rejoice!

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The 3 Training Categories

The 3 Training Categories

There are three main categories of training within the horse world, each come with their own sets of preaching, justifications, and reasons why they are the “right” method to use with your horse. Various trainers have nuanced each style and try to sell it as their own, using specific tools, names for skills, styles of handling, and keeping of horses – but they all share the same foundations. So let’s look at this analytically, let’s strip away the pretty language, the theories and ideas behind why their techniques work, and the well-proven FALSE dominance theory. So what’s really happening with each of these styles? From a science perspective, how does each teach a behavior?

Traditional training was started when horses were divided out from livestock and began to be used as modes of fast transportation and skilled warfare. This relies on the classic use and understanding of Negative Reinforcement (increasing the frequency of the behavior by removing an aversive). They apply an aversive stimulus directly to the horse, when the horse responds accordingly the aversive is relieved. It’s extremely straight-forward.

An example would be squeezing or tapping legs on the horse’s sides, when the horse moves forward, the squeeze is released. The horse learns to avoid the discomfort by moving forward. This is basic yielding to pressure. The pressure/stimulus used in the training MUST be aversive to the horse, it may be very mild, but it must be something the horse dislikes enough that they are willing to work to avoid it. If the stimulus is not aversive the horse will not work to avoid it, won’t work for the relief of it. This is Relief not Reward, this is utilizing escape/avoidance in training.

Natural Horsemanship is an evolution of traditional horsemanship, with a goal to be kinder and more species appropriate and for the horse as an individual. Unfortunately it is riddled with romanticized misinterpretations of how horses behave in nature. They also rely on the outdated and misunderstood concepts about dominance (about this here: Dominance). They attempt to train in a way similar to how horses communicate with one another. Unfortunately we aren’t horses, horses don’t think we’re horses, we physically can’t take most horse-horse communications, and horses don’t ask anything of each other (like standing tied, riding in circles, or using aversive tools on one another) they only ask the other to “stay away from my resource”. However, this movement has had great aspirations and focus on owners learning to train and work with their own horses. So while much of the foundational information is misguided, the results are forward moving and helping move the horse world towards it’s goal – ethical horsemanship.

So let’s look analytically, how does Natural Horsemanship train behaviors? Ironically, despite all the fancy words, it’s not all that different from traditional. They still apply an aversive stimuli, when the horse responds as desired, the aversive stimuli is relieved. So how is it different? The types of aversive stimuli are different, rather than always applying direct painful pressure (like a whip smack, spur poke, or bit pull, kick…) they may use other options like work (being chased around a round pen a signature of NH) or threats of aversives. These warning signals are another signature of natural horsemanship. This is where they condition a benign signal to predict an aversive, so eventually the handler can use gentle cues instead of always relying on the aversive cue.

This is done by using the non-aversive cue, then the aversive steadily increasing until the horse responds as desired, then the aversive is removed. Soon the time between the warning signal and the strong aversive shrinks, the horse learns to respond quickly to the warning signal, to avoid the aversive stimuli. So while they still use negative reinforcement, they also utilize classical conditioning to train the horse to respond to a gentler cue so we don’t need to use as many actual aversives. However, unfortunately we’ve learned the emotional reaction in the brain/mind is still the same, whether the stimuli is aversive or just conditioned to predict an aversive.

So really, in the thousands of years of working with and training domestic horses training has changed shockingly little. Even the tools have barely changed. We took nose rings and put them in their mouth instead, to make for easier steering from their back… But that was a few thousand years ago. We still use whips, bits, spurs, heels, hands, ropes, and “work” as aversive control devices for our horses. Whether we give them fair warning and use aversives in a wide variety of ways, it’s all the same basic principle. Negative Reinforcement.

So then what is Positive Reinforcement and how is it different? First let’s remember “positive” and “negative” are “adding” and “removing” not “good” and “bad”. Negative reinforcement is removing something the horse dislikes (an aversive) and Positive reinforcement is adding something the horse does like (an appetitive). So positive reinforcement training techniques involve feeding or otherwise giving the horse something they want, when they do the desired behavior. This means we first need to find a way to get the horse to do the behavior we want, so we can positively reinforce it. We have a few techniques for this, capturing (waiting for it to happen and catching it), shaping (reinforcing small steps towards the end goal), and targeting/luring (following a target or the food to guide them into the goal behavior), these options are limited only by your creativity and how well you know your horse. This new approach to working with horses has flipped the horse world on it’s head. Everything is now backwards, horses seeking instead of avoiding, horses rushing TO the arena, hoping training never ends, getting too excited to play with their favorite humans!

While R+ is new as a horse training method, it’s actually not all that new. These learning quadrants have always existed, even before we understood and labeled them. But marine mammal and exotic animal trainers have been utilizing R+ as training tools for decades. Using Negative Reinforcement limited exotic animal training to only what you could use to physically control the animals, which is difficult with large predators like tigers and marine mammals like whales. While possible, it’s impractical, tricky, and very dangerous. Positive reinforcement allows trainers to teach animals without needing to have physical contact or confrontation with the animals they’re working with. In fact they can teach from the side of the pool or the other side of a fence. Even some dog owners are now using remote control video camera treat dispensers to reinforce their dogs for being good even when their person isn’t home! Dog owners were the next to transition, while there’s still some use of aversives, most domestic pet owners utilize positive reinforcement for their training. Not just your classic dogs and cats being trained with treats, but also all sorts of brilliant, exotic birds, rodents, rabbits, bugs and even fish! Now if a wild, dangerous hippo can be trained to hold their mouth open for dental work, a shark to station in a basket for medicine, a lion to offer their paw for blood draws, giraffes to hold their feet up for trimming…. Why on earth would we be resistant to using this kind and forward thinking approach with horses?

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Let’s Go Back To The ABCs

Let’s Go Back To The ABCs

Let’s talk about our ABCs, they’re the foundation of everything right?

When we look at the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence chain we recognize that this loop is happening continuously, un-ending throughout every minute of every day. Antecedents are everything that’s happening in our environment, external and internal (hunger, thirst, social desires, etc…) they trigger behavioral responses from the individual. When the behavior happens it influences the environment and changes the antecedents, how these changes feel to the learner will determine whether they chose this behavioral option again in the future or not. If the behavior reduces a situation that the learner dislikes (R-) or if it adds something they do like (R+), the learner will likely pick that behavior again in that situation. If the behavior increases something they dislike (P+) or decreases something they do like (P-), the behavior will be less likely to happen in that situation again.

When we think about the Antecedents we have to remember that everything inside and outside our horse is part of this environment. How they feel in the moment will determine what behaviors they may choose, if they’re hungry, grazing might sound good. The internal environment of hunger (aren’t they always hungry?) triggers grazing behavior. The eating of the grass reinforces the grazing behavior. But now there is a rustle in the bush nearby, could be a predator? The horse is going to judge the value of this new antecedent. Is their hunger stronger than their sense of concern about this sound? Or is the sound so scary it’s worth giving up the next bite? The learner will judge the values of all the antecedents in the environment (remember internal as well!) and determine which behavioral response is most important at the time. When we talk about the “value” of these antecedents we don’t mean how much money they cost 😉 We mean how strongly they matter – Aversively or Appetitively. This judgment can be as quick as a reflex (sound=bolt) or as long and drawn out in conflict (is it really with getting on the trailer for that treat?) Though often these decisions are made without much deliberation, it’s not often in natural situations where there are two things that are close to equal in value but contradict one another.

Once the antecedent triggers a behavior, the horse will pick which behavior to respond with based on their genetics (primal, species, breed, line, parents, etc..) and their personal learned history. I like to picture the horse flipping through a rolodex of behaviors to chose from 😛 As the horse picks a specific behavior and it works for them, that behavior gets closer and closer to the front of the rolodex. They never truly throw out a known or instinctive behavior, but it may move to the very back of the list and be so unlikely to happen we never actually see it again. The closer to the top of the list the behavior gets the more likely it will be picked in an urgent situation where there isn’t much time to think.

Keep this in mind when train, we can move a behavior up or down the horse’s list by making it more or less successful for the horse. So if we like certain behaviors, by reinforcing them heavily and often we move that behavior to the front of the line, by not reinforcing it or by punishing it (should you choose to utilize punishment intentionally) we can move the behavior down the list, less likely to occur. These consequences can be natural or contrived. Natural consequences are just the reaction of the environment to the horse’s choices. Say the horse kicks a door and it makes a loud noise which startles the horse, the horse has just punished themselves through their own actions. No other being interfered with this situation, nothing was added or subtracted by anyone other than the active individual. As opposed to contrived consequences, this is where social learning (with their horse peers) and where human-training comes in. We control the consequences of their behavior.

This is our greatest tools as humans, as we control all the antecedents in a horse’s life, we then control every consequence to every behavior. So any behavior that happens that we don’t like – is OUR fault! Think about this before you utilize punishment 😉 Because we have either not properly set the antecedents or not appropriately adjusted the consequences. How can you better set the antecedents and consequences to empower your horse to make good choices?

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Punishment Is Reinforcing?

Punishment Is Reinforcing?

Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher. The girls were talking today about their friends who ride traditionally, even those that know about R+, but they use whips and harsh bits and even spurs if their trainers tell them to. Its hard for the girls growing up here to understand why their friends, who are good people and do really love their horses, would knowingly hurt their horse. Because using aversives, punishing the horse, is reinforcing to the rider. We kick, the horse goes, this is fun for us. The horse does something we don’t like, we swish a whip at this and scold them, the horse stops doing the thing we dislike. This is reinforcing to us. Controlling an object or animal through force works – it gets us what we want, and often very quickly, this reinforces the person in control. So while the love and care may be there, it doesn’t outweigh the reinforcement history of having fun riding and being in control.

But what happens when a behavior that was reinforced stops being reinforced? What happens when the horse finally has enough? When they say “no more”?! Well the same thing we see in any animal, the behavior has an extinction burst. We call this a “temper tantrum” in laymen’s terms. When something that used to work stops working. We simply do it bigger and more extremely than before.

So when we are reinforced by using aversive control methods, punishment or R-, when it stops working, we escalate it. At some point it likely will stop working, because animals aren’t inanimate objects, eventually they get sick of getting pushed around. While they may remain compliant for a while, things change. If a pain issue pops up, if a strong distraction happens in the environment, if we finally ask for too much… the horse may finally say “NO”. At that point, the extinction burst happens.

Even for the olympians. Even for the people at the top of the horse industry, they are subject to the same emotions inside all living beings, the same behavioral science. They too have extinction bursts, temper tantrums, when a behavior that was reinforced stops working. So they get out their switch and beat the horse harder.

How can we expect to teach our children empathy, compassion, and doing the right thing (even if the wrong thing feels better)? When the top role models of the industry demonstrate these values? Aren’t we supposed to remind children to make kind and healthy choices, even if the wrong choice sounds more fun or cooler (drugs?)? 🤔

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What Qualifies As A Reward

What Qualifies As A Reward

At the Equine Affaire I went to the only event that even sounded remotely R+. It was a seminar about how to use rewards effectively. The first slide and I knew I was in the wrong place, “rewards don’t have to be food”. But I thought, let’s give it a chance, there is likely some valuable tools in here. But when the slide appeared listing the rewards they did use I knew for sure I was in the wrong place.

They listed rewards they used, “rest, quiet, calm voices, gentle/soft hands, loose rein, downwards transitions, consistency, routine, verbal praise, familiar humans, equine buddies, scratches, strokes, and massages”. I rearranged the order so i can discuss them logically. Despite the speaker explaining the difference between R- and using rewards, as well as expressing the benefits of using reward instead of R-, the whole first half of this list IS R-. From rest to downward transitions these are all ways to relieve pressure. These “rewards” are not rewards, they are “relief”. Let’s look at the difference.

Reward “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.” (Oxford) Or another ” a stimulus (such as food) that is administered to an organism and serves to reinforce a desired response” (Miriam-webster)

Relief “a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.” (Oxford) or “removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful, or distressing” (miriam-webster)

So let’s be honest, the first half of that list is, in fact, just an effective use of R-. Being aware the release/relief of the aversive is the reinforcer is beneficial, but it IS R-, not any sort of reward.

Now consistency and routine, this is very beneficial to horsemanship. Predictability is safe and comforting to an animal such as horses, who can be naturally neophobic. But this leads to a rather boring life without positive enrichment or variability. But boring can be safe, so definitely a good thing. But still, not a reward. This is just good practice, maintaining consistent cues and an appropriate daily routine is just expected, it should not be contingent on the horse’s behavior.

You know what else should not be contingent on good behavior? “Familiar humans and equine friends”. Connections are not a gift, they are a necessity! These are necessary for an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate life! This is not a reward, its something that is expected. When we domesticate a social animal keeping them in isolation is inhumane and unacceptable (aside from medical needs, then it is a temporary misfortune). But providing a horse their basic needs is NOT a reward. Its just ethical animal care.

Finally scratches, strokes, and massages. Finally something that is actually a reward!! Something you are giving the horse that they don’t need to live, but feels good to them. These are valuable as a reinforcer and as a way to build connection with your horse. However, they are inconsistent and variable in the degree of reinforcement. Scratching and itchy spot is highly reinforcing, but scratching where there is no itch is not very reinforcing at all. Pats and stroking is low value and not worth high effort behaviors. Massages are wonderful but not easily delivered or utilized in the moment. The inconsistency and difficulty with delivering this reinforcement makes it a nice addition, but not an ideal reinforcer for regular use.

And so we return to food. Just like stated before however we aren’t to deny our horse food until they comply with our wishes, food is a necessity of life. But we can freely feed food throughout the day in convenient handfuls of values we can control. We can feed something as simple as hay, which horses consume vast amounts of during the day, or up to a delicious special horse treat, which can be used sparingly as a high value reward. This is the reward that is easiest to add in a safe and appropriate way to their daily life without denying them their needs. Just adding something the horse consistently and predictably values. This makes it the ideal reward for training with R+.

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Positive Is Not Permissive

Positive Is Not Permissive

Traditional horsemanship relies a great deal on punishing unwanted behaviors from the horse. It can be hard to shake these habits even if we’ve switched to more positively reinforcing training methods. Sometimes when we are confronted with a behavior we dislike we instinctively want to punish them, especially if the behavior is potentially dangerous or makes us feel afraid. Being afraid often triggers our feelings of needing to defend ourselves through fighting back. But we have some major pitfalls that come with using positive punishment that could actually be far more dangerous than finding another way to communicate that we dislike that.

First it’s important to remember that horse’s aren’t being “good” or “bad”, they are simply responding to their environment with their best guess as to how to get what they want and avoid what they don’t. If by performing a behavior we dislike (bucking) finds them relief from what they don’t like (the rider falls), that behavior is being reinforced. The horse chose the “correct” behavior to fix their problem, even though we might dislike it. So it’s important to remember that behaviors are happening for a reason other than “he’s a jerk” or “she’s just being fresh”, horse’s aren’t inherently bad, they are just solving their situation. So the behaviors we are trying to reduce are behaviors we “dislike” or are “unwanted”.

But if the behavior is “working” for the horse, earning them escape from something they dislike (R-) or getting something they want (R+) the behavior is being reinforced! So instead of any sort of punishment we need to make sure to reassess whatever might be reinforcing the unwanted behavior. Look at the environmental situation and find what is reinforcing the behavior. Remember not to just look externally, but also internally, they may have a physical discomfort that this behavior is resolving or an emotional reason this feels good. Maybe being locked in a stall has them pent up so they kick their door? Or maybe they have a stomach ache and kicking their walls is a good frustration release. If kicking their door gets them fed first, guess who’s always going to kick their door? Waiting instead for them to stop before feeding, or removing the door and using a stall guard, or turning the horse out so there is no door to kick, or feeding before they start kicking… These would all be ideal ways to stop reinforcing that unwanted behavior.

We can’t always wait out an unwanted behavior allowing it to extinguish without reinforcement. Some behaviors are even self-reinforcing, they just feel good to the learner. In these times we can use our redirect or reteach methods. If we can redirect our horse to an appropriate behavior and reinforce that soon they will learn to go directly to that more preferred behavior. Such as teaching a horse to station at a target during feeding time. Focus on what we do want our horses to learn instead of just getting mad at what we dislike. Punishment only tells them what not to do, it doesn’t give them an option that we prefer, so even if they stop pawing they may chose another unwanted behavior to fill the void (head tossing, wall biting, bar grinding…)

Remember positive training doesn’t mean permissive training, we don’t just sit there and allow our horse to bite us, drag us, kick us, or otherwise cause us harm, waiting to click when they stop. 😉 Instead we Reassess the problem, Remove the reinforcer, Redirect the learner, and Reteach a preferred behavior.

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Ethical Quadrants?

Ethical Quadrants?

There may only be 4 learning quadrants but there is a great deal of technique and methodology in each quadrant or in combination. We have endless options for how to influence, reinforce or punish behaviors. With so many options, approaches and techniques perfected and advertised by different trainers, how do we determine the ethical value of each? It’s important to remember that ethics are not a clear cut, yes/no, they are measured fluidly based on every aspect of the situation. Including the external environment, the individuality of the learner, the trainer, the speed at which the behavior must be changed, the purpose of the behavior, whether it’s for the animal or human’s benefit, safety, or just for fun. There are so many pieces to consider there is never a clear divide between what is and isn’t ethical.

So first, what is our basis for our ethics? What is good or bad ethics?

I try to measure my ethics of animal training based on, “How does this impact the animal’s quality of life?” my aspiration is to always be improving their quality of life. So the ethical value decreases as it takes away from the animal’s QoL, and increases in ethical value as it increases the learner’s QoL. So when I look at a trainer’s techniques or approach to animal training I think of how this is supporting the physical and emotional wellbeing of my animal.

So if we are measuring the ethical value of behavior modification from how it impacts the life of the learner, we need to start at the top – before we even get to the training part. We need to start with the animal’s physical and emotional health, ensuring all their needs are met, medically and nutritionally. Also taking a good hard look at their lifestyle, are they being kept in a species-appropriate way? Given the ability to live and thrive, expressing their natural behaviors.

From there if there we need to split the behaviors into 2 categories, behaviors we want to happen more or happen less. Remember horses aren’t doing “good” or “bad” behaviors, they are doing behaviors that “work” or “don’t work” for them. So while we may dislike a behavior, it doesn’t make them “bad”, if they keep happening it’s because it “works” for the horse. So we must start by influencing the environment, arranging the antecedents, to make the choices we like easier than the choices we dislike. For example – the horse is scratching their big bum on the fence, we dislike this as it’s expensive and a lot of work to replace the broken boards. We can arrange some antecedents, like by providing a big brush stand that the horses prefer to scratch on. Providing an appropriate outlet for their behavior. Get creative when thinking up ways to influence the behavior by arranging the environment.

But this only works for behaviors the horses are naturally doing on their own. What about behaviors we want them to do in cooperation with us? Behaviors like participating in their care? Engaging in games, sports, or even riding? From here we need to look at actual behavior training approaches. So we need to assess the behaviors based on who and what is this for? In teaching these behaviors are they just for me to have fun? Are they fun for both of us? Something good and healthy for them, but they may not love to do on their own (exercise or mild medical things)? Something they MUST do for their wellbeing, but they don’t want to (medical needs)? Is this for their or our safety? So how important is it that these behaviors happen for them or for me? These questions will help us determine how far is it worth pushing to deal with this particular situation.

So from here we are ready to train some behaviors, we go right to our go-to training technique, positive reinforcement! This is our top option for training new behaviors, we start here because it is the “least intrusive, minimally aversive” option for training. When done well it should not be aversive to the learner in any way, it allows them choice and control over their training, and puts something in it for them to want to participate. This is our gentlest training approach. Though extremely effective. With good antecedent arrangement and attention to our timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement, we should be able to easily teach most learners anything they can possibly do using all R+. Though this takes time, consistency, and care to the learner’s emotional state. The few times R+ is not going to be the most effective training tools are in things with extreme constraints (this needs to happen right here, right now, regardless of how you feel about it). But when are those times really? In reality this should be reserved for medical emergencies and safety issues we weren’t prepared for.

In these times we are presented with a “right here, right now” situation, we do have a few R+ options to utilize, including my common go-to “Face Stuffing method” where they are distracted and focused on the food being stuffed in their face that they don’t seem to notice the vet in the background. This sure isn’t good training, but it works in an emergency. But if these options don’t work to get the job done we may need to resort to increasingly less gentle restraints, sedation, R-, or straight up force. But we need to remember that these situations are for extremes, not for everyday. If this is how your animal is living their daily life, in fear of punishment and confinement, you have seriously compromised their quality of life. We should learn from these rare experiences where we need to slide down into the use of aversive handling and do what we can to prevent it in the future. Did we put ourselves in a position we thought was safe but wasn’t? Did we not adequately prepare our horse for something they needed to participate in? Could we have used protected contact? We need to learn from these emergencies and do what we must to reduce their likelihood in the future.

As a rescue we are confronted with more than the average emergencies. Most of our horses arrive with compromised health or deep emotional difficulties. While often these get better quickly with appropriate diet and lifestyle and a good antecedent arrangement, there are some things we must do for them. In doing so we try to counter-balance this by ensuring the rest of our time together is spent more carefully positive and relationship focused. Because we already spend too much time pushing the boundaries for those medical necessities.

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Saying “Yes” To Your Horse

Saying “Yes” To Your Horse

With Positive Reinforcement we finally have the ability to tell our horse “YES”. We can tell our horse exactly what behaviors we like from them and give them incentive to do it. This makes it very easy to mark when they make good choices and communicate clearly what we want. This conditions all our training as something appetitive. As the only stimuli we’re including is appetitive. If they aren’t doing the right behavior, we simply ignore, redirect, or adjust the antecedents, we simply use the lack of “yes” to mean “no”…

Traditional/NH training gave us a clear “No”, we apply aversive sensations until the horse responds as desired, then we remove the aversive. So in this case we say “no” until they guess right then the lack of “no” means “yes”. This conditions our training as aversive, because the only piece we’re adding in the aversive, even though we also remove it. The experience felt unpleasant, even though they found escape in the end.

This seems like two halves of a whole right? Why not use both? We would think this would give our horses more clarity if we can use “yes” and “no”, right? Rather than two halves, they are actually opposites, they work against each other, not together. Behaviorally they both encourage the learner to do the desired behavior and not do the unwanted behaviors, but emotionally we see fallout. The aversive value and the appetitive value of the stimuli we add contradict one another, they don’t add clarity, they add conflict. Because one situation feels good and the other feels bad, putting them together, simply feels confusing, uncomfortable, and conflicting. In simple terms, a threat + a reward may get quick behavioral response, but not a good emotional response.

When we add both “yes” and “no” to the equation, both an appetitive and an aversive, we will create an emotional contradiction within the animal. We’ll see this in the form of conflict and avoidance behaviors, latency before the appropriate behavioral response, and reluctance to accept some reinforcement. If you start seeing conflict behaviors, avoidance, them not wanting the treats, being latency responding to your cues, or any disfunction, look for where the aversive might be sliding into your training. Maybe it wasn’t an intentional aversive, maybe they have a cracked tooth (like one of our ponies!) or something else going on. But if you’re tempted to help your horse out by adding a “no” into the equation, instead look into ways to set the scene to help make “yes” easier to find. Arrange your antecedents, use your shaping tools, and improve your timing, rate and criteria.

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Take Your Time

Take Your Time

“Slow down, you’ll go faster”, this is my favorite quote from the wonderful Shawna Karrasch 🙂

I have been reminded this a few times lately. I’m the type that once I’ve taught something I feel like “there it’s done” then if the horse slides back for any reason I have a tendency to push to get the full behavior again. For example, our baby mustang, Oro, has been great at putting on his halter for a long while now, then all of a sudden he wasn’t. My first reaction was ugh just put it on and to push for the full behavior. But the more we pushed the more upset he got and the less we are able to get the halter near him. I should know better, I know the truth, but it’s so hard to ignore those instincts of “just do it”. Finally we were all frustrated and the halter was no where near on him.

Then we decided to slow down. Gave him a little jackpot then started again. This time we started from the beginning like as if he’d never seen the halter. Have him target it, have him slide his nose it, have him lower his head. Oh here’s the problem, his ears. Out of nowhere he’s become “ear shy”, I think either his ears were pinched sometime when putting on his halter or it has to do with his loose baby teeth bothering him. Either way we broke down the steps. Practiced reaching over his neck, grabbing the halter strap, bringing it over his poll. Clicking and treating each baby step. In the end it only took 2 minutes to have him calmly putting on his halter again. As opposed to 15 frustrating minutes of him wanting to bite us and us getting more and more worked up. I was reminded “slow down, you’ll go faster”. It’s true.

Next time you are faced with a situation where you think “just push a little to hurry this up” remember to slow down. It’s actually faster. Neither yourself or your horse get worked up or frustrated. You may also help diagnose the problem, where in the process is the problem. Start again from the beginning you’ll slide through the steps, until you reach the sticking point, then you work through that, and you’ve solved your problem. But by trying to force the issue you create a problem where there was none. Now the whole situation is a problem, not just the little piece that was causing the issue to start with.

So, Slow Down, You’ll Go Faster!

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
R+ and R-, Does The Horse Have A Choice?

R+ and R-, Does The Horse Have A Choice?

Most people truly believe they listen to their horse, they understand and respect their horse’s communication, that they offer their horse consent and choice… But is that true?

Negative reinforcement doesn’t allow actual choice or the ability for a person to allow communication from the horse. Positive Reinforcement gives us more options, but can still be used in a controlling manner (out of coercion or for required behaviors).

I’ve heard the common joke, “they’re 1,200lbs, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to”. But the thing is they aren’t a 1,200lb brick you are trying to push over a jump – they are a feeling and learning animal. Fear, pain, fear of pain, can be used to control animals, regardless of how large and heavy or potentially dangerous they are. So long as they can feel bad, they will work to avoid the things that make them feel bad. So they can be controlled through force.

Unfortunately traditional and natural horsemanship methods rely on the use of “negative reinforcement” this is the application of an aversive stimulus, which is removed when the learner responds as desired. Often these methods include the use of punishment, adding something aversive to the horse to discourage unwanted behaviors. Many kind trainers use very gentle aversives, only escalating to more extremes when necessary. They use soft pressure on gentle tools. Unfortunately, the gentle gestures are not empty threats, the horse knows through past learning, that if they don’t respond correctly to the gentle aversive, it will get stronger. They learn to respond to the mildest predictor signal to avoid the stronger aversive.

So what does a horse have to do to have “no” be heard? See the problem is that when you are using an aversive to motivate and it’s removal to reinforce behavior – you can’t take “no” for an answer. If the horse says “no” in any way and you relieve the pressure, the behavior of saying “no” has been reinforced. They will choose this option more and more until they don’t comply with anything – because why would they? There is nothing in the equation for them to WANT to participate in the training other than to avoid the aversive… which if they can avoid it by saying “no”, just say no, right? Why put up with aversive motivation for difficult behaviors if you can stop it?

Positive Reinforcement offers us the option to allow our horses choice and consent. Because there is something in the equation that makes the horse want to participate in the training. However is can still be used coercively and without choice. We can utilize these choice-less methods of R+ to help pull us through an emergency, but they shouldn’t be something we utilize for regular training (if we want to have an honest, two way communication, with choice).

If you’re hoping to work with your horse with more choice with R+, some things to keep in mind is that every choice your horse makes needs to have a similar consequence. Meaning if your horse decides they don’t want to engage with you today, the response needs to be similarly nice for the horse. For example, one of our ponies has been feeling off lately, when we do agility he starts out having fun then gets bored and doesn’t want to play. He shows us this by being slow to start the next behavior after each click, by hovering near the gate and by being reluctant to leave the gate area, by walking instead of his usual playful jog around the obstacles So while we sort out what’s happening medically, we continue to listen to his communication. When he is done playing we leave the agility ring but allow him to graze on the nice grass in the lawn (in his paddock it’s eaten down). We know that playing is fun for him and he loves agility, we know this because he’s done it for years and eagerly rushes to the ring. So we know when he’s feeling better he’ll eagerly return to the fun. But something is obviously making this not his favorite choice. If we were to put him back in his empty paddock when he says he’s tired, it would be “punishing” to him, this choice to not participate means he has to go home and lose out on food and human interaction. We don’t find that fair, so instead someone grooms him on the lawn. This way he still gets yummy food and human love, which he appreciates, he just doesn’t need to do the part he’s not enjoying. THIS is choice, this is listening.

However when the vet comes he’ll be held in a halter, fed for desired behavioral responses and “no” won’t be an accepted option. We’ll sedate and use pain killers as appropriate and address his medical issues, but this is a situation where choice isn’t available.

So positive does not mean we have to be permissive of everything. It doesn’t mean we let our horses walk all over us, we just use minimal aversives and the least intrusive methods available to get the jobs that must be done, done. We also use ethical measurement to decide to what degree we allow free choice in each situation. For example, choosing not to play agility is totally fine. This is something that is meant to be fun for kid and pony alike, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.

Things that are “just for fun”, something we enjoy doing but isn’t important for the horse’s health or welfare we allow great choice. Meaning we ensure the horse can choose “yes” or “no” with relatively equal consequences, both result in similar reinforcement. In situations where we might want less choice, but not none at all, we might weigh one side of the choices with higher value reinforcement while the “no” option results in lower value reinforcement. Until the scale is totally tipped to no choice for medical or safety requirements.

Comic by Fed Up Fred

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments