Behavioral Science

What’s Really Extreme?

What’s Really Extreme?

You know what really gets my goat? Chupacabras…

Ok but really, what really upsets me is being considered an “extremist” or “purist” because I try to avoid the use of Punishment. Why is extreme to try to be kind? Why is it “purist” to aspire to minimal harm? What an odd cultural bias to think it extreme to avoid aversives… What ever happened to the Humane Hierarchy? Why is it an extreme belief to save the extreme options for last?

For me, punishment is the extreme option, something to be reserved for the most serious situations. I couldn’t say I never use punishment, and I sure couldn’t say my horses never feel punished (even if it wasn’t my intended goal). But I take my use of punishment very seriously, I take this to be an extreme option. These scenarios are usually regarding safety or medical needs. If I need to resort to punishment (even negative punishment) I consider this a screw up on my part, I have not managed the situation appropriately or prepared my horse well enough. Though sometimes the reality of life is that things happen we can’t prepare for or avoid. We do the best we can with the situation we’re handed. The important part is to learn from these experiences, for the sake of the horse, we learn what we need to better prepare for.

But isn’t it strange that in current horse culture, it’s normal to use punishment and aversive tools, but the extreme option is to utilize tools that reduce the need for punishment? Especially when these are regularly used in parenting, dog training, and marine mammal/exotic/zoo training. We are talking about the use of protected contact, positive reinforcement behavioral preparation, environmental management, antecedent arrangement, and enrichment. With these tools in use we can adjust the environment to provide us and our horses safety and security while their behavioral training progresses to meet our training goals. We can also use these tools to adjust the horse’s emotional state to ensure safety in handling and care until we are able to build the confidence and relationship to do these things with progressively less management.

Yet our egos often encourage us to take risks with our horses that may predispose the horse to punishment. In current horse culture there is a sense of trying to make ourselves look good, confident, or brave, by confronting a horse with a situation they aren’t able to handle – thus resulting in the need for punishment. We regularly push our horses too far, too fast, and it is the horse who suffers for our ego. This lack of management and preparedness rapidly sets our horses up to fail and results in punishment for safety or getting the job done, when it could have been avoided by smarter handling.

We also need to consider the human’s emotions, very often when we overface the horse we have a flood of emotions that lead to anger, frustration, and fear triggering physical defensiveness. When we feel the need to get the job done at all costs or need to save face and not be embarrassed by setting our horse up for failure. Or we utilize punishment just out of fear of being hurt by your horse or the horse hurting themselves. But it always starts with our lack of management and preparedness, our decision to overface our horse’s current emotional and behavioral ability to do what we are asking of them. Then we shift the blame to the horse to justify our use of punishment.

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Behavioral Science Basics

Behavioral Science Basics

The Science of Learning

The most basic aspects of learning science is “Conditioning”.

Classical Conditioning is when you connect a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that has meaning. This can be done in all sorts of ways, for example, connecting a sound with no meaning, like a click, with the delivery of food classically conditions the click to predict food is coming. Ever seen a horse become more forward just by the rider carrying a whip? The whip is a connected to the pain inflicted, it’s a classically conditioned aversive (unwanted stimulus).

We also have Operant Conditioning, this is where the learner learns how to operate their environment. Meaning, they learn the connections between their behaviors and actions and the results of them. This influences their future choices and encourages or discourages certain behaviors. This form of conditioning can happen in four ways, our learning quadrants. The learning quadrants are experienced by the learner in the “ABC”s, Antecendent (trigger), Behavior (the action the learner takes), and Consequence (the result of their choice). These ABC’s are then interpretted by the learner in one of the learning quadrants.

Our learning quadrants are rather simple but they contain the foundation of how all living creatures learn. Remember in science ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are equated to ‘adding’ and ‘subtracting’, not good or bad. ‘Reinforcement’ is anything that causes a behavior to increase, while ‘Punishment’ is anything that causes a behavior to decrease. Only the learner can decide how to interpret the stimuli added, some individuals will find some things reinforcing that others would find punishing or neutral and vice versa. I knew a horse who was hit repeatedly for biting, but the biting behavior continued and even got stronger, the consequence of being hit was actually reinforcing to this individual, rather than punishing like the owners thought.

Positive Punishment: The addition of an unwanted stimulus which decreases the frequency of the behavior

Negative Punishment: The removal of a desired stimulus which decreases the frequency of the behavior

Positive Reinforcement: The addition of a desired stimulus which increases the frequency of the behavior

Negative Reinforcement: The removal of an unwanted stimulus which increases the frequency of the behavior

As clicker trainers we primarily make use of the Positive Reinforcement (R+) to encourage behaviors we like [reinforcing]. Occasionally we touching in the Negative Punishment (P-) to decrease behaviors (though we usually use other methods when possible listed in [Eliminating Behaviors]). While traditional and natural horsemanship trainers primarily make use of the Negative Reinforcement (R-) quadrant (Pressure/release) to encourage behaviors and use Positive Punishment (P+) to discourage behaviors.

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Horse Training Ethics

Horse Training Ethics

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.

Comic by Fed Up Fred

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The Quadrants Aren’t Square Anymore

The Quadrants Aren’t Square Anymore

We know that all animals learn via the ABCs (Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence) thus determining the likelihood of this behavior happening again under this set of antecedents (this scenario). The learning quadrants as we know them neatly divide how animals learn into a set of four possible consequences. These consequences are simple, yet cover pretty much anything that can happen as a result of a chosen action – a stimulus is added or subtracted. If a stimulus the learner likes (appetitive) is added the behavior will likely (be reinforced) maintain or increase in frequency [Positive Reinforcement]. If a stimulus the learner dislikes (aversive) is added the behavior will likely (be punished) decrease in frequency [Positive Punishment]. If a stimulus the learner dislikes (aversive) is removed the behavior will likely (be reinforced) maintain or increase in frequency [Negative Reinforcement]. If a stimulus the learner likes (appetitive) is removed the behavior will likely (be punished) reduce in frequency [Negative Punishment].

These four neat little boxes cleanly wrap up the four possible consequences to any behavior. There is only one slight problem -it forgets to take into account the salience, the value, of the stimulus being added or subtracted. If I turned a comfortable room up only one degree, you may not even notice. While if I turned a room up 5-10 degrees, you will feel it! If you are satiated and I gave you a cookie crumb, you will likely not be terribly impressed, compared to the large cookie I am eating. The truth is, the value matters when discussing the impact a stimulus will have on behavior. Especially when we compare competing factors – if the room is already very, very hot and I turn it up another degree you may find that additional degree aversive, while before it didn’t matter. If you are starving, that crumb of a cookie may be extremely valuable, not better than the rest of the cookie, but this small portion suddenly has value.

We need to consider this when training our animals as well. Thinking about the strength of our reinforcers and punishers (if we chose to use them) and how strong they will be when competing stimuli are around. For example, my horses may comply with energy and enthusiasm working for hay pellets in the winter but not in the summer, why? Because in the summer we have grass at their feet that acts as a competing reinforcer. Why trot for some hay pellets when they could stay still for some grass? Not only is the nature of the sitmulus determined by the learner (whether it is appetitive or aversive) but so is the value. The learner may not find hay pellets more valuable than grass, but maybe mixing in some apple chunks or Delicious Horse Treats* may be enough to outweigh the competing motivator of the grass. Conditioning also comes into play when discussing value. My hay pellets may be of moderate value in the winter, but low value on grass, but if I’ve trained a behavior with a long and strong reinforcement history off grass, the behavior will be strongly conditioned and be more likely to happen when there is competition. This is why it’s vital to not only use appropriately matched reinforcers for the moment, but also maintain strong conditioning outside of the necessary times. This is why we spend a great deal of time practicing for veterinary procedures with high rates of reinforcement and high value reinforcers. This way the behavior will be strong enough to outweigh the aversive nature of the procedure.

Another thing the classic quadrants fail to take into account is that often when adding one thing we are subtracting another and vice versa. Are we adding food or subtracting hunger? Are we adding pain or subtracting safety/wellbeing? Are we adding heat or removing cold? Are we adding water or subtracting thirst? But remember how value fluctuates? Inherent value of the resource is fluctuated by how readily available that resource is and how the learner is currently feeling. If they’re hungry, food will carry more value than water. While if they’re dehydrated, the values may switch. While if water is only available a few minutes a day, they may drink even if they aren’t very thirsty – because they may not get water again soon. If food is available 24/7 it will reduce in value, they can eat whenever they like. If you’re starving even the crumb of a cookie would be found as very valuable, but if you’re satiated, just a crumb may not be terribly enticing. If you’re stuffed full, a whole cookie may not even hold much value – but this depends too on the learner, I can always eat more ice cream!!

This updated chart takes into account the value and strength of the stimuli added and subtracted, it also takes into account the the fact that these quadrants are tied together. When adding one thing we are subtracting another and vice versa.

So we want to look at the nature of the animal we are working with. Dogs tend to eat medium size, nutrient rich, meals only once or twice a day – meaning for training we need to divide their food into small quantities but high value. A pellet of kibble, a pinch of cheese, something small but rich. If we fed a cup of kibble each click the dog would likely reach satiation and the value of the food would decrease as their stomach size grew. This doesn’t make for practical training. Using food while training snakes for example, while we can divide a mouse into a few small bites, it’s natural for a snake to only eat one large meal every week or so. So we wouldn’t get very many clicks in before reaching satiation, we may want to look for another reinforcer – such as heat. While a cold snake may be willing to do anything for a warm rock to lay on, it wouldn’t be humane or ethical to let your snake be without heat. Yet again, we need to look at satiation level. A comfortable snake may still be happy to work for a warm rock, without depriving them of safety and comfort at first. This same concept applies to horses. We look at their nature, they spend their days working for huge quantities of low value food, we can match this in our training. Large quantities of low value reinforcers match what a horse is prepared for in nature – however if the horse feels as though they are starving it may be hard to find a low value reinforcer. Even if your horse is obese, they may feel as though they are starving if they have gone more than a few hours without food – because remember they are designed to consume a lot of food over many hours, but low in nutrition. So it may be important to satiate your horse before beginning training. To lower the value of the food you are training with. We can also provide competition to help lower the value of the reinforcer we are using – like the warm snake working for more heat, we can have hay available while we work to reduce the value of our pelleted hay (which is usually only a little better than plain hay). Knowing there is another option can help reduce the value of what we’re using.

We also want to take conditioning into consideration. If a behavior has been strongly reinforced for a long time, it has a strong history, making it a higher value and higher probability of occurrence than a behavior that is newer or has not been reinforced much. Other stimuli can be conditioned as well. We tend to use primary reinforcers when training, food, water and other things the learner inherently needs to survive and thrive. We can also use secondary reinforcers, these are things conditioned to be good – scratches, praise, play, or a specific behavior that is highly conditioned. These secondary reinforcers tend to be lower value and heavily fluctate in value as compared to primary reinforcers which remain more stable and predictable. Which is why we tend to train with primary. This applies to aversives as well. A stronger aversive will be a more effective punisher or negative reinforcer. Primary punishers are things that threaten a horse’s safety, wellbeing, or access to necessary resources. But punishers can also be conditioned, a signal from a hand or rope can be conditioned to predict the natural aversive. Again these conditioned aversives need to be maintained just as conditioned appetitives (reinforcers).

We need to know how to effectively increase and decrease the value of our reinforcers to ensure the comfort, safety, and effectiveness of our training. If our horse is starving and we are using small quantities of high value food, we will likely have a horse who is very over-threshold and not able to think or focus on behavior, because they feel desperate. We need to lower that value to have a thinking learner. While if we are working with strong competition (grass) we may need to know how to increase the value of what we are using – larger quantities or tastier options.

Another thing this chart takes into consideration is that when a stimuli added or subtracted is of low enough value it will have little effect on the behavior. If there is no inherent value to the behavior, it can easily be extinguished or fall behind more salient behaviors. I wish we had another word for this concept, we call it extinction, when a behavior fades because the value of the stimulus added or subtracted is not strong enough to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior. But this is more than just that. No behavior is ever truly extinct if the learner is still capable of it, it may appear again when other options fail or the learner is confused or desperate enough to give that old behavior another shot. We call this spontaneous re-occurrence. Sometimes a change in environment can reignite this previously lost behavior. Perhaps “lost” is a better word, for both interpretations. The behavior could lose out to a stronger behavior or the behavior may become lost in the environment.

An example of this may be a horse who kicks their stall door, in hopes of a food reinforcer. This behavior could become “lost” because the horse has been put on 24/7 turn out and their is no longer a door to kick. It may also “lose out” to a stronger behavior, being taught to station guarantees a food reinforcer with a higher rate of success than kicking. But it could re-occur if the winning behavior stops being as effective or if the turned out horse is put back in a stall. This becomes a competition of values. So while no behavior is ever truly extinct, its value can diminish to almost nothing.

This occurs even with punished behaviors. A behavior may have been strongly punished in the past – but if the value of the punisher decreases, the behavior may reappear. We see this often when a horse is sent to a strong and harsh trainer, using valuable punishers, but then when they are returned to their kindly owner who only uses mild punishers, the behaviors re-occur. Showing the reinforcement value outweighs the punishing value of that behavior. This happens alot with behaviors that are self-reinforcing. These are behaviors that are reinforced without our interference. This can be pawing feels good to a frustrated learner (I have terrible restless leg – I think I would definitely be a pawer if I were a horse!). Pinning ears works all day to provide safety and space from other horses and animals, so why not try on humans? Bucking may effectively remove the annoyance of a rider. Breaking the stall guard or door may lead to earning food and mental enrichment. While annoying for us, these behaviors work for the learner. Remember animals don’t do behaviors because they believe they are “right” or “wrong”, they chose behaviors based on what “works” or “don’t works”. So they may know that breaking a stall guard doesn’t “work” when a human is there to provide a punisher, but it does work when there is no human around. This is not being sneaky or fresh, but effective. Behaviors only fade when they are ineffective, so the value of the reinforcers needs to be low. Think of it as a cost/benefit analysis of behaviors.

This being said we also have to consider extinction bursts. This happens when a behavior has a strong reinforcement history but is now not being reinforced or is being punished. The learner will often exaggerate the behavior, trying it bigger, better, or more often, before the behavior begins to fade. The behavior has worked in the past, so rather than throwing it away because it’s no longer working, they will try to see what they may be doing wrong, trying close approximations to that previously working behavior or amplified versions. If pawing wasn’t enough, maybe kicking will be? If nibbling wasn’t enough, maybe biting will be? It’s not “bad”, it’s just an attempt to make the behavior work again. We do this as well. Ever get a stuck key on your key board? You don’t click it once, it doesn’t work, so you never use that letter again. You will likely hit it again, hit it harder, hit it repeatedly, even pop the key off to clean out under it and try again! This behavior works to get the desired result, if it stops working, you try to fix it, you don’t just give up right away. But if all that stops working, and maybe you’ve made a new button to do that job, you create a new habit. I have one friend who has been using 8 instead of B for years now because of one faulty computer!

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An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,
You are the change you wish to see in the world. You are in a small, special group of individuals who have made the decision to do what is   right, not just what is easy. Following the path that all the other kids your age are taking is easy, it’s fun, it’s well-established, but you have chosen to take a look from a new angle. You asked “what’s in it for the horse?” You are at the cutting edge of change in the horse world, you are the generation that will change the way humans look at and treat horses.
Being among the small few who change the world is a massive task that’s not for everyone, it’s a lonely road to take sometimes and sometimes it means rethinking things we thought we knew. I’m sorry you are carrying this burden. I wish I could hug you all and encourage you that this will be worth it! You need to be strong, independent, and passionate about the horse as a being, not a piece of sport’s equipment. This may not be easy, but when you’re an adult looking at the horse world in a new light, you’ll be so proud to have been among the first to stand up for the horse.
Every volunteer at my barn learns about clicker training, whether they’ve worked with horses traditionally or are just meeting horses for the first time. I get many questions I’m not sure how to answer, I struggle between wanting to be honest, but not wanting to hurt someone who is doing only what they were taught. Most kids who are new to horses never look back from clicker training, the idea of kicking, hitting, using bits or whips, just is something they never think about as an option. If someone were to encourage them to use these tools or handle the horses harshly, they already know this isn’t necessary, they already know they can have fun without force. But many of the kids who have worked with horses traditionally begin to see the flaws in their previous understandings.
These kids have been taught that kicking, hitting, or using bits or whips, doesn’t cause the horse pain, it just “communicates” with the horse. The kids are never taught how or why the tools work, or the signs to see pain or fear in the face of a horse. They learn that when a horse expresses their pain or fear, they are being “fresh” or “naughty” and to punish those displays. The kids struggle to understand why would an adult teach them to hurt an animal they both love? The adult LOVES their horse, they aren’t intentionally teaching violence to children, they are only doing what they were taught. They think this is the only way, because it’s all they’ve ever seen and they’re resistant to change because as hard as this is for you to handle change, they have many more years of justifying those techniques and tools. We have learned that it’s not the only way to work with horses. Who will be brave enough to make the change? To take the new information as something to be excited about, not afraid of, this is a new approach to horses that allows us to work with horses in a way that is wonderful for us both! But it does mean accepting the things we’ve done in the past and standing up against what is “normal”.
This is especially hard because not only are the teachers telling the kids all of the justifications we know too well, but so are their friends. Their friends are taking the same path as they are, the common, normal path, they’re being taught the same things. So then our kids who want to change the world may need to stand alone. Parents can be a big help here, helping support your kids for these decisions is HUGE, realize how hard this is for them and be proud of their choice. Their choice isn’t easy, but they are doing what they believe is right.
For parents and kids who are wondering, why is the traditional stuff “so bad”, well no it’s not evil! It’s just very outdated and stuck in the dark ages of tradition. This happens because people who want to succeed in the sport of horse riding need to look and act the same as those above them in the sport, change wouldn’t be welcome. Tools like bits, spurs, whips, and techniques like pulling, kicking, hitting, no matter how gently your child might be using these tools, these are training techniques based in fear and force. The horses are “broken”, quite literally they are taught that even though they are bigger and stronger, humans still have the tools and ability to inflict great pain, and the only escape is compliance. Complete compliance. To the point that we can cue very lightly, just a little squeeze, and they know “I better get moving or this is going to be bad!” This is a very rudimentary overview, but from a psychology perspective what they are using is classic, Negative Reinforcement (apply pressure until you get what you want, then relieve the pressure to reinforce the behavior) and Punishment (add something the learner dislikes to reduce a behavior). Many of the kids are taught these tools and techniques don’t hurt, but if they didn’t hurt (or have a history of hurting in the past) they wouldn’t work.
This is the norm in the horse world because we broke horses for labor, war, and then sport, for thousands of years and techniques have changed very little. Because when you need 600 horses broke and ready for the battlefield, you aren’t going to take the horse’s feelings into consideration. Then sports were made to replicate these processes of breaking horses, riding in various extreme situations one might see on the battlefield. So very little changed, we moved the nose ring into the mouth and made more extreme leverage devices for control. No one is intentionally being unkind, but change is hard, when there are decades of tradition to overcome.
If your kids has decided that this is the path they want to take, they’re doing so for the horse, because with positive reinforcement we learn to use our brain to communicate, not our brute force. We learn about behavioral science, psychology, neurology (of emotions), we learn the importance of nutrition, exercise, and a healthy, species appropriate lifestyle. This means making sure horses have plenty of time outside, living like a horse with their friends. They get an appropriate diet with plenty of forage all day, clean and safe homes to come in when they’re done playing. They learn to use positive training to achieve all the same goals they’re used to and more with horses, and they learn how fun that can be for the horses too! They have made a hard choice because they want to learn and do what’s best for the horse, even if it’s hard in their social settings. So the best we can do is support them, especially at times of conflict, when they’re struggling with whether this is right for them or not. How are kids meant to make decisions when their respected adults give them conflicting messages? They can learn both sides and decide for themselves, but these decisions aren’t always easy.
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What is an Aversive?

What is an Aversive?

Many people struggle with the concepts of negative reinforcement, pressure/release, how and if it is aversive, and to what degree. Negative Reinforcement relies on the removal of a stimulus to reinforce a behavior. This means something was taken away that made the horse feel enough relief that it reinforces the behavior. Which in turn means, the thing that was taken away must have been aversive to the horse. This means it’s something they want to avoid, something they dislike. If the stimulus had no value, its removal wouldn’t influence the behavior.

A stimulus must be aversive, for its removal to reinforce the behavior. So negative reinforcement requires an aversive. Often we, the human, add the aversive stimuli so we can remove it at the desired time. We’ll use stimuli like pressure, tapping, invading their space, swinging a rope, waving a stick, or otherwise something of concern to the horse. This is where some people struggle. They think “I only just touch lightly” or “I never actually hit them, I just swing the whip/rope” so think that because they are being gentle the negative reinforcement isn’t aversive. But remember, if its not aversive, it won’t influence the behavior. If the rope swinging elicited behavior, then the removal of the swinging reinforced the behavior (as seen by the behavior happening again in a similar scenario) we know the stimulus is aversive.

But how is it aversive if I haven’t even touched them? Or I touched them lighter than I brush them, they like to be curried firmly, so I know the tapping isn’t that bad?

Remember, “Pressure” isn’t the problem, physical contact isn’t necessarily aversive. Pressure in the form of currying, massage, itching, rubbing, all may be physical contact the horse might even enjoy. It’s up to the horse to decide if the stimulus feels good or bad. So pressure isn’t necessarily aversive, but if it’s working to reinforce the behavior, the thing removed must have been aversive.

This is where we see “Unconditioned Responses” and “Conditioned Aversives” in action. An Unconditioned Response is a reflexive reaction to a stimulus that is inherent from birth, not learned. This is a natural, instinctive response to the stimulus. For horses a quick moving object is something that naturally elicits the fear response of fight or flight, this is often used in training. The stimuli is still aversive, it’s naturally, unconditioned, aversive, even without a learning history. We also have the opposite which can be in effect, Conditioned Aversives. This is when the horse learns that a stimulus can be aversive and to respond to a warning signal. This can be done through pairing or escalation. So we apply a very mild stimulus that the horse doesn’t necessarily care about, it could have little or no value, but it’s escalated to the point of being aversive or paired quickly with an aversive. So we might wiggle our finger then slowly add more and more aversive pressure on the lead rope until we get the response we want from the horse. Soon they learn to respond to the warning before you ever need to utilize the aversive. That’s because the warning signal, is threatening enough on its own, it’s become conditioned as an aversive, even though it wasn’t inherently aversive. So while the signal we’re using may very extremely benign, it could be verbal cues, hand signals, or whip signals, but they carry with them the heavy threat of the aversive it was previously paired with.

So whether you’re using direct pressure/release, using unconditioned responses to elicit an instinctive reflex, or using conditioned aversives as a threat, all of them are still aversive. We know this because it works. If its removal reinforces the behavior, we know it was aversive in some way, even if there was no contact or very gentle contact.

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