Emotional Science

The Importance Of Connection

The Importance Of Connection

A note on connection…

Since we separated Punk and Marshmallow from Oro a few years ago, Oro has continued to digress emotionally. When he arrived here at less than a year old he was sweet and happy and loved his new family of Punk and Marshmallow. But he soon outgrew them and his play got too rough for them. They had enough and we had to separate them. At the same time the human who had been working with him had moved on to other parts of her life. His only known connections, his only family, was gone.

Of course, we never let him be alone, he was consistently trained by others who volunteer here. But as his anxiety increased his behavior became increasingly unsafe, meaning fewer people could work with him. We also made sure he always had a turn out partner, we tried all our draft mares with him. But they wanted no part in his baby antics. They only had a kick or bite for him if he tried to engage with them. They were not a comfort to him, they just took his things, stressing his resource guarding stress he developed in holding with the other stallions. He loved playing with uncle Blitz, our silly belgian who thinks he’s a 3 year old! Unfortunately he’s 33 and not able to keep up with the young one anymore.

At the same time as his family was changed up we were working on teaching him injections. We were under the idea that his behavior was getting worse because of this injection training. I overlooked what was happening to him emotionally, what amounts to very real trauma. His anxiety sky-rocketed and his behavior got worse. Soon he became a chronic biter, he was only safe to train in Protected Contact, he was over-threshold just existing. His world was broken.

If he were a human child and we watched this emotional and behavioral change, we would know exactly what he needs, comfort.

He needs safety in his relationships, he needs the comfort of a peer, the love of a family. He needs an emotional connection. This sense of belonging, reassurance of who he is, of comfort and security lives within the CARE system, which negates the PANIC/GRIEF system. We can take an educated guess in saying, he is spending most of his days living deeply stuck in the PANIC/GRIEF system. No amount of behavioral modification will change his emotions, he needs a lifestyle modification. He needs his emotional needs to be met.

To do this, we got a bit lucky, while usually we only take in hospice care drafts, we got a surprise other young male horse joined our herd, Zephyr! Our hope from when we knew we’d be getting Z was that they would become fast friends and be a comfort to one another. As Zephyr is undergoing a major life change also, he’s separated from his horse mom for the first time, and his human mother passed away (she was my horse mom too which makes him my brother!). We were hopeful they would quickly be able to fill the void in one another’s hearts. Unfortunately with Zephyr’s illness we have not been able to try putting them together yet – but just by being next to one another, over fences and over doors, they have developed a wonderful relationship already! We are eager for the day they can “move in” together as their own little bachelor herd. Hopefully they will be able to spend their lives together. We are very eager to see his CARE system soothe his broken heart. It’s already beginning…

In the meantime, on the human side, I’ve been spending an awful lot of time with him. I sit with him very often just outside of his reach so he can’t bite me (to try to get me to play with him) 😉 I engage in much safe play with him, rubbing his lips and massaging his gums, playing keep away with ropes… We have begun to really enjoy each other’s company, but I’m not horse, and protected contact has limited our ability to develop connection through touch. We have been building his behavioral skills to the point where he is now safe to train in full contact, so long as things are set up for success. Sharing space, playing safe games, training positively, and snuggling when possible has helped him progress a great deal.

While great progress is beginning, I am anxious and eager for the future. I always want the best for our animals, appropriate management is key to healthy living and successful training. But some things, like which horses we have at the rescue, and how our fences are set up are just not that quick to fix. It’s been a difficult period for this sweet baby, but it is looking up.

Posted by Empowered1 in EE Rescue Stories, Emotional Science, 0 comments
Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance

I’ve been trying to understand a phenomenon in the horse world. We understand Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility and why humans chose to utilize these psychologically distressing tools. They are effective restraints and control devices for emotionally sensitive animals. We also understand the extreme emotional cost using these tools comes at for horses, instilling life-long trauma and avoidance behaviors, and redirecting into dangerous reactivity, and majorly compromising the welfare of a sentient being. But how do some horses still come out of this world looking relatively undamaged? Functioning well and appropriately in their job or sport?

Tonic Immobility occurs in times of extreme distress, feelings of being trapped, out of control, and devoid of all hope. The animal freezes physically and disconnects emotionally from the reality of their situation. In horses we witness this when the horse is forcibly laid down, extreme restraints (multiple hobbling with no prior training), and when twitched. Freezing and disconnecting preserve the animal from greater distress and suffering. While little is known about the evolution of this psychological event, we can presume it became a safety measure to protect animals from the suffering of immanent death (like when caught by a predator). It can also go a long way to increasing chances of survival, if they are entangled in something and they were to continue to thrash, they would likely do much more harm to themselves. If they were to fight with the predator they would likely lose. But by remaining totally still they allow the minimal damage done to their body and something may distract the predator (other predators or scavengers) giving the animal a chance to escape.

Learned Helplessness is a similar such occurrence, when repeatedly exposed to unavoidable, yet horrible stimuli, the learner stops trying to escape it – even if given an easy escape route. We see this often in horses who are being “sacked out” or “desensitized” to items, the horse is chased and hazed by the frightening object and they are either kept in a small, inescapable pen or are tied. So they quickly learn they cannot escape the frightening stimuli, they give up hope that escape is possible. Then even when escape is very possible, even easily presented to them, they no longer try. This hopelessness is convenient for riders, as the horse will no longer fight or flee from upsetting stimuli. However damaging to their psyche.

But in reality, we don’t want a horse in total learned helplessness or tonic immobility all the time. While these are beneficial for us to impose our will on animals far more powerful than us, they’re not effective for sporting or getting a job done. So what is happening in the mind of the horse when being responsive to aversive aids and stimuli? When they are light and responsive to aversive aids, we know this is not Learned Helplessness, because the horse is actively working to resolve their uncomfortable situation. Complete LH would mean the horse is non-responsive to aids, you could kick all day long and the horse would just stand there and suffer. So what is happening in the mind of a horse who is responsive to aversive aids, but not fighting against or inappropriately reactive to these aids? Why do some horses adjust and even seem comfortable, I might not say “happy”, but they are ok with their circumstances?

I recently read a book on dealing with depression and anxiety (DBT Skill Training Manual, second edition by Marsha M. Linehan). In it it discussed a concept of “Radical Acceptance”, this is “a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering. While pain is part of life, radical acceptance allows us to keep that pain from becoming suffering.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/radical-acceptance)

Some people are able to do this readily, others have to learn this as a skill. Sometimes this can be a healthy coping mechanism, sometimes this can become toxic and inappropriate. When we get the alert for a tornado in our area, we can not just sit there and say “this isn’t fair!”, “I don’t want a tornado”, “not today, I’m busy”, “why does this always happen to me?”… Instead we need to accept the reality of the situation, the tornado is coming and there is nothing we can do about it. We need to do what we can to alleviate the damage of the tornado, block our windows, lock things up, weigh things down, make everything as safe as possible, using whatever techniques you know to help keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as possible. There are some things in life we must accept as unchangeable, unalterable, all we can do is respond accordingly and reduce the damage as much as possible.

The horses who are thriving in a world of unavoidable pain, and yet aren’t suffering, have mastered this coping skill. They may have felt LH and TI from an early age (extreme imprinting techniques can do this), or seen enough of it to accept that their fate is inescapable. They have accepted the reality of their situation and learned to cope within it. By responding quickly and appropriately to their aversive aids they have reduced their suffering to the lowest they are able to. While this isn’t ideal or something I promote or condone, it makes sense to me now how some horses can live a relatively happy and comfortable life, even when handled with harsh aversives and even when exposed to extreme techniques of LH or TI.

However not all horses are so lucky. Few horses live a life full of pain, especially when the pain is unavoidable and inescapable (like when techniques used to cause LH or TI are used) and cope with it well. There are some, and I understand now how they have managed, but most have not. So my next article will be on how to help those horses who have not. Those horses who are left with trauma, reactivity, “shut down”, “explosive”, or just not right. Those horses who have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like stereotypical behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, explosive reactivity, superstitious behaviors, or internalize their suffering turning into health issues (like ulcers). We need tools to help these horses overcome this history. While switching to R+ can and does better the welfare of all horses, even those who were coping well with aversive techniques, it’s not the only thing we can be doing to help those horses who are left with trauma from their past.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Tonic Immobility

Tonic Immobility

I am SO sick of seeing posts/jokes about horses who “Play dead” when asked to do something simple, like being tacked up or wearing a blanket. What’s horrifying is that there is nothing funny about this. This is a deeply traumatic event for the horse and seriously dangerous for everyone involved!!

Tonic Immobility is “Muscular paralysis that occurs during significant stress or injury, e.g., as an animal is fleeing or trying to fight off a predator. It is a common reaction experienced by animals and humans faced with overwhelming force, e.g., in battle or during sexual assault.” (https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/tonic…)

This is no mild emotional response, this is a complete body shut down. Only the basic survival systems carry on – heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestive systems all lower, the muscles become paralyzed and either rigid or limp, the mind goes blank (from human testimonies). There are many theories for why this exists, but it seems to be a final defense when fight or flight are not an option (in the mind of the victim – there may be an apparent escape that the victim can’t utilize). This technique is a last resort to spare the mind of the suffering of the inescapable horror happening to them. Humans who have survived these experiences often feel like it is an out of body experience, or feels surreal, or even can’t remember the time they were paralyzed, just the extreme horror they felt. This phenomenon can be life saving, thus how it likely developed, if a predator has prey in their mouth, and the prey struggles the predator will continue thrashing. While if the prey goes limp the predator may lose interest or get distracted by something happening (another predator or scavenger), reducing the damage done to the victim until a chance may arrive for escape. This is also beneficial in situations where the animal becomes entrapped, going limp reduces the damage done to them while they may slip free or wiggle loose in small, contained bursts, rather than sustained thrashing which can harm them seriously.

This emotional reaction is, I might say, the most extreme reaction to a set of circumstances, an ultimate level of inescapable horror. This is not an emotional reaction to take lightly, to think of as funny, and NEVER should be utilized in training or on purpose.

Often when horses who used to be fine with these things suddenly develop this type of response, they likely have a health issue going on. Some sort of neurological damage or pain inhibiting their ability to escape, intensifying their fear. If a horse suddenly has this response out of nowhere, this is no joke, he hasn’t learned a new trick, this is a SERIOUS health and safety issue for the physical and emotional wellbeing of your horse, and your own safety! You don’t want to be riding a horse who may spontaneously collapse.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, 0 comments
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
Engaging the CARE System

Engaging the CARE System

Engaging the CARE system

Due to the advancements in Neuroscience we have been able to better understand the emotions of our equine learners than ever before. With this new knowledge it’s vital we adapt and grow our training and care systems, the more we know the better we can do for our equine partners. We already know that Positive Reinforcement is the way to go when it comes to training. We know this is a forgiving, kind, safe, and effective means of communicating and motivating our equine learners to participate in our training. We have learned that not only is it effective but it works within the brain/body systems (SEEKING and PLAY) to make a happier, more resilient, more engaged learner.

But did you know there is another brain/body system that we should be paying attention to in our animal partnerships? Of the 7 major systems only 4 feel relatively good to the individual (when stimulated appropriately) – SEEKING, PLAY, LUST, and CARE. SEEKING system is what we engage when training, having the horse learn to problem solve their environment to earn reinforcement. When done right, positive reinforcement techniques often frequently engage the PLAY system as well. The LUST system we should leave alone, let the horses take care of that among themselves. It may mildly interfere with your training if your mare is in heat or you’re working with a stallion, but there are many management techniques for both of these situations. Mostly we want our horses to sort that out in a natural way among their herd.

The CARE system, however, is frequently overlooked when discussing training. This system not only feels good, but is vital for the mental health of the animal. If the CARE system is not satiated a horse may develop anxiety problems, especially around separation from their peers, or it may present as depression, shutting down, or restlessness, hypervigilance (easily spooking), or general feelings of insecurity. The CARE system is vital to social animals like equines, for their feelings of safety and comfort.

Many people struggle with horses who exhibit separation anxiety related behavioral problems – not wanting to leave their peers, their farm, balking on trails, bolting home, or being over-threshold when out of sight of their friends. In these cases what we’re seeing is that the horse’s CARE system is only being fulfilled by their equine peers. They are dependent on their herd to meet their emotional CARE needs. It would be unkind, even cruel to push a horse beyond this threshold, and often include a good deal of fall out behaviorally. We also want to be sure we aren’t using positive reinforcement to coerce a horse beyond their threshold for comfort and safety. By luring a horse with food outside of their comfort zone we not only set ourselves up for failure, but we also poison the food – at some point the need for safety in their peers is going to outweigh the desire for food. Now the food has become something the horses see as a risk, not an opportunity.

So what do we do about all this? The answer is simple, we need to be a source of engagement to their CARE system as well. By stimulating the hormones, by engaging the emotions, by creating the bond that lives within the horse’s individual CARE system we become the source of safety and comfort the horse is seeking. This does not, ever mean reducing, replacing or removing their equine herd. No matter how hard we try we will never be able to replicate or artificially supplement what horses get from one another.

So how do we become a source of CARE for our horses? The first key ingredient is a tough one, TIME! Time is hard for us humans, it’s one of our most valuable resources, but being so valuable it matters a good deal to those who it’s given to. By sharing space and being present with our horses, by spending time with our horses we become a part of their social unit. Not as another horse, but as another being who chooses to share their valuable life with one another. Coexisting creates a beautiful, gentle, force-less connection between beings.

We want more than this though, while it’s a vital first step it isn’t the only step. We also need to make sure the time we spend together is as valuable to the horse as it is to us. Do you ever sit and watch your horses in awe of how magical, perfect, and wonderful they are? They bring us such joy. We need to stimulate a similar feeling in our horses about us. We can do this by ensuring our shared time is wonderful.

A key way that horses develop social bonds is through mutual grooming. If your horse is comfortable with you spending time physically connecting can reach new, deeper levels of connectedness. While we touch, letting our presence bind us together, we also want to make sure it feels good, non-invasive, and is done with full consent. We love our horses and often want to reach out, grab them in ways that feel good to us. We want to stroke their face, hug their neck, and get lost in their mane. Our horses would much prefer we scratch their withers or their bum cheeks. Much less romantic to us, but feels so much more wonderful to our horses. We can explore our individual horses and find what feels good to them. They are all unique. Try rubbing, scratching, or grooming specific areas and watch your horse’s reaction. If you stop, do they seek out more? Do they make groomy faces? Or do they step away and toss their nose at you like a pesky bug? Find what they enjoy and spend time making them feel nice.

Another way horses show their social bonds is in sharing resources. This is one of the biggest things for horses, their resources are their life-line. Most horses in domestication have learned that resources are limited and need to be defended through violence. To see horses sharing resources shows great trust in their peers and their access to resources. This doesn’t mean we need to graze with our horses, but we can take our horses to a sweet, extra special grazing spot. Ever sit in the sun while hand grazing your horse on the nicest part of the lawn? Just magic. But we not only share resources with our horses, we provide them! This makes us extra special, almost maternal. We are a source of comfort and safety emotionally, but also fulfill their physical needs. With no need to assert “dominance”, we are not competition for their resources – we ARE the resource and everything they want.

When being with us is stimulating their CARE system we become a source of comfort and fulfillment for our equine partners. Ensuring they feel safe and engaged with us as their friend, their peer, and their provider, knowing that with us not only are they physically safe, their needs are met, and they are loved.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, 0 comments
Dealing With Trauma

Dealing With Trauma

“I finally summarized the most amazing lecture I’ve been to in a while… This was a lecture from Dr. Frank McMillan focused on Post Traumatic Stress in animals. Let’s just say we discussed this for over 2 hours and I left absolutely buzzing with thoughts, ideas and questions. This is a summary of just the basic overview of trauma, the causes, and ways to help – I tried to angle it particularly to horses, but of course most of it overlaps species.

One aspect to keep in mind when discussing emotions and how they relate to horses is that sometimes emotions don’t work according to plan. Whenever one emotion reaches an extreme we call it “over threshold”, the horse becomes reactive with emotional displays, no longer in a thinking or learning mind. We see this most often with the FEAR and RAGE systems, but it can really happen in any direction. FEAR responses are important to survival and learning from past circumstances prevents major issues in the future – this is healthy and appropriate.

This being said, there are times these experiences don’t leave the system entirely. Whether it was one awful scenario, a few bad situations, or a prolonged and unavoidable difficulty they can all leave lasting damage. We call this emotional trauma “pathological” when the body/mind doesn’t return to normal (homeostasis) after the event is over causing the FEAR system to remain active even in when the trauma is over. If you remember how stimulus stacking works, you’ll recognize how this can be dangerous. While a survivor of trauma may be able to function and appear normal, they may learn to cope with the level of FEAR hormones their body is continually pumping out – but this will remain a constant piece of a stimulus stack. Resulting in a much quicker reaction to other stimuli. Those with Trauma can seem to explode over “nothing” or seem to “make things up to get upset over”. Triggers related to the trauma can be as subtle as a smell or a flashback. Triggers may not even be related to past trauma.

Unfortunately we can’t talk to our animals to determine their level of trauma – whether or not they have nightmares or flashbacks. We also don’t always have complete histories on our animals, so it can be hard to differentiate trauma from a lack of socialization. So to measure trauma related to these incidents we need to rely on the tangible behavioral responses. We consider this pathological trauma in animals when the individual begins reacting to harmless stimuli and when the fear responses interfere with normal behavior. We can measure their level of avoidance – observing what triggers reactions and what degree of generalization the avoidance has reached. We can measure their arousal and reactivity levels, an individual with PTS will have extremely exaggerated startle response and hyper-vigilance. We can also measure changes in their disposition, mood and cognition – but only if we knew them before and after the trauma, which unfortunately rarely happens with animals. They may appear jumpy and irritable, easily triggered. The fear may generalize to such an extreme where the whole world becomes a threat. Some of the most extreme expressions of PTS in animals can include: screaming, self-injurious behavior, stereotyped behaviors, trance-like state, unpredictable aggression, instability, depression, trembling, pacing, withdrawal, clingyness, timidness, avoidance of people or specific stimuli…

Trauma has been grouped into levels to help categorize and understand how to handle/treat the trauma. Level 0 is when there are no long-term consequences. Level 1 is Learned Fear, only affecting life when the stimulus is present or anticipated, totally fine otherwise. Level 2 is when learned fear is generalized to similar stimuli or antecedents, but the learner is still fine most of the time. Level 3 is when the fear has turned severe or phobic, it impairs normal function, reducing pleasurable activities whenever the stimulus is present or anticipated. Level 4 is when the severe fear becomes generalized. This impairs normal function when stimulus is present or not, the fear has been generalized to multiple aspects of life.

In human research it was shown that only about 25% of survivors of trauma resulted in an emotional disorder. We most often think of Post Traumatic Stress as the only emotional disorder as a result of a traumatic event. But trauma can lead to a spectrum of emotional disorders including Post Traumatic Stress, Phobias, Generalized Anxiety and Depression.

What stunned and shocked me most was the list of situations that cause trauma – and just how many of them applied so directly to horses, almost unavoidably so! The causes include abuse, neglect, aversive confinement, multiple re-homing, hoarding, natural disasters, social deprivation, fighting, racing, forced work, service/military duty, laboratory research/testing, physical trauma/injury. Often many of these overlap and go hand-in-hand. Almost all of these are just common, normal keeping of horses! This absolutely shook me to hear. How does any horse come out of life without trauma?!

Ok, so trauma is obviously common in the horse world, frequently overlooked and even justified. Ideally – we who choose to educate ourselves will be working our hardest to not only prevent this, but heal it when and where we can. Most of us don’t have horses from birth (that would be a super lucky horse). Most of us are cleaning up damage other humans (and sometimes ourselves) have caused. But how can we help repair a horse who’s been through trauma and has lasting damage?

One of the biggest things we can provide our horses is a sense of control in their life. Having the perception that we can control, turn off or prevent certain events in our life can reduce the lasting effects of trauma and help individuals be more tolerant to unpleasant situations. This is one of the biggest benefits of Positive Reinforcement training, when used ethically. With R+ horses can walk away, say no to training or even initiate the next repetition. Allowing our horses to have more choice and control in their training and ultimately their lives. A horse with a strong sense of control and choice will be more resilient to aversive situations (like vet emergencies) than a horse who is already feeling a lack of control.

Social companionship is the next best thing for preventing and reducing the effects of trauma. Social support has a buffering effect shown in every social species. It’s important to remember that humans are rarely enough social support for a social species like horses – having other, healthy horses can substantially speed their recovery and buffer the effects of future trauma.

Our goal should be to restore and maintain our horse’s sense of security and trust in humans, other animals and the world in general. While we would love if we could write up a rehab program or provide a medicine to fix this problem, healing from trauma can be a slow process with frequent steps back. Realistically our goal with any trauma survivor is to help them be able to function in regular life with the capacity to enjoy life and engage in positive social relationships. Letting horses enjoy play, positive training, and a healthy social world. Luckily recent studies in dogs with PTS have shown that most are able to nearly or completely re-adapt to regular life.”

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, Ethics, 0 comments
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
The Fluidity Of Emotions

The Fluidity Of Emotions

Disclaimer: These are huge concepts that are far to big to depict accurately in a graphic, so these designs are just to help us visualize these intense concepts. These are not literal representations.

Many people think about Panksepp’s Emotional Systems as something that is turned off and on, like with a series of light switches. But it’s so much more fluid and moving than that. I like to visualize the systems more like music or sound waves. There are volumes, depths, rhythm, and flow. There are parts that harmonize and work together while others that contradict and clash. Emotions ebb and flow, work together and influence each other all in response to the external and internal environment.

Most systems work together with each other in different scenarios. The SEEKING system is the most active system working with all the others. SEEKING is used both for finding relief from the emotions that feel bad (FEAR, PANIC, RAGE) and for finding what is desired in the good feeling emotions (CARE, PLAY, LUST). This is easy to conceptualize, SEEKING is what drives our behaviors, what tell us to perform to get what we need or avoid what harms us. In this description you can see quite easily where these emotional systems land within the learning quadrants. However it is much more complex than just that. Some bad feeling emotions might actually feel ok in the right scenarios and some good emotions might be uncomfortable at times.

We see this flip in emotional value often when the system becomes too high or too low. For example, a little FEAR can be fun when engaged in PLAY and SEEKING, while the CARE system is also providing the support the individual needs to feel confident. We might see a young horse cautiously approach a ball sniff, explore, and push the ball and run off bucking – only to return to more exploring. This level of FEAR is low level, comfortable, and the other systems are offering the support the individual needs to be comfortable with this. While should the FEAR spike too high it may shut down the PLAY system and plummet the comfortable CARE feelings that were keeping the learner strong, switching the SEEKING from having fun to finding escape and comfort. The foal may buck away from the scary ball and run to mom, maybe perform a CARE behavior like nursing (even if they are not actively getting milk) to soothe themself. RAGE can also be utilized in fun with PLAY, sparring with peers, but if it gets too high we can see it stop being fun. We see this a lot in children rough-housing when suddenly one says “that was too much!” and the laughter turns to tears. Those emotions that feel bad might be instigating and fun when the individual feels safe and secure in their world, but when it becomes a higher level it returns to being uncomfortable, even really aversive to the learner.

While good feeling emotions tend to become unpleasant when they are too low, the feeling is not being maintained. We see this most often with CARE and SEEKING, but we may also see it with LUST or PLAY. If a horse is young and active, a lack of PLAY outlet can result in frustration. If a horse is in season, looking to reproduce, that LUST system can start to feel uncomfortable and irritating. We’ve all seen our mares get pretty darn frustrated when the geldings just can’t quite figure out what they need. 😉 But CARE and SEEKING are where we really see the depletion become aversive to the learner. When the CARE system doesn’t feel it’s needs met the horse’s anxiety will rise, their PANIC increases as these systems work like a teeter totter (as one goes up the other goes down). And PANIC is almost always a terribly aversive feeling. Feeling isolated, alone, and insecure in yourself and your family (as a social species) it can be extremely upsetting for horses. When SEEKING is depleted we usually see this in animals who are shut down, depressed, or afraid of punishment. This lack of try and effort, lack of desire to meet their needs will result in a reduction of the other system, no longer looking for relief or reinforcement. It often results in a quicker turn toward the uncomfortable emotions, FEAR, PANIC, RAGE.

We could go on forever with examples and combinations. These systems work with a rhythmic ebb and flow, supporting or contradicting each other, encompassing all things we, as living beings, feel. We can see how they work within our behavioral quadrants, but we can also see how there is room for flexibility. As we understand how to systems interact and what feels good for our learners, we can use this to help support an emotionally healthy learner all around. By supporting their CARE system, engaging their PLAY system in healthy and appropriate ways, and by really promoting the SEEKING system in ways that feel good, we move our horses towards being happy, confident, and engaged.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, 0 comments
Changing Emotions?

Changing Emotions?

Why do we allow our horses to express themselves? What if we don’t like what they’re feeling or how they choose to express themselves? Isn’t it dangerous?

We allow our horses to express their feelings because they have them. If not allowed to express them in a traditional manner they won’t go away, we don’t stop feeling because someone told us to. We can’t expect our horses to turn off their feelings just because we dislike the fact that they’re feeling it or how they’re expressing it.

If we manage to suppress emotional expressions through force or punishment, we have only stopped THAT expression, we haven’t changed the way they feel. They may now express their emotions in much more dangerous ways. Have you ever heard the phrase “Don’t punish the growl or you’ll get the bite”? It’s true, if you punish the warning signs, the animal often learns to skip those and go right to the act of aggression. If we then punish this we need to repeat this cycle of violence begetting violence again and again until one of us gives up. No one feels better in the end. If we win, the horse has no choice but to shut down, give up, or even fall into learned helplessness.

But what if their emotional expression is dangerous? We have a few approaches to this. First and foremost we want to find the source of this emotional display. If the horse has become dangerous their emotions are extremely high, we need to break this down. If the horse is in pain, we need to moderate that pain through medical care. If the horse is afraid we need to break down the fear triggers and reduce the situation. While the horse is in this dangerous level of behavior we CAN NOT train! They aren’t in a space to think or learn, they are only in a space to survive. Your priority is to get to safety and reduce the situation wherever possible. Then learn from this to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are emergencies that we don’t always have the option to walk away and sort things out, learn about dealing with these here:


So listen to your horse’s expressions, so they learn to keep their communication quiet and gentle. If they get loud, someone might get hurt.

But we can change how they feel about most things. Even uncomfortable, gross, or mildly painful things they may need for the vet. Through systematic counter conditioning, we can introduce small amounts of a new situation and add in something they like, making the new thing predict the good thing, until they learn to love the new thing. So even if at first they are a bit resistant to the new thing they quickly learn that new=awesome.

For example in the video of Taina with the wet towel, you can see she is visibly uncomfortable and finding the towel concerning, she even pins her ears. See we have a few options, I could throw a halter on her, restrain her, and hose her off, but she would either lash out or shut down, neither option is one I want. I want her to be an active participant in her healthcare, I want her to enjoy being cared for, or at least comfortable with it. Not have it forced upon her (barring real emergencies). So we allow her start the repetition by targeting the towel, which gives us permission to touch her with it, we touch her and she cringes, we feed a treat. She hasn’t learned “cringe for treats” she has learned “towel=treats”, which will condition the toweling as something she enjoys. Soon the cringing, earpinning and such will stop as she finds this more enjoyable. This is the difference between Operant and Classical Conditioning. Remember Classical conditioning is always happening, even if we’re thinking only about the operant 🙂

So instead of surpressing their feelings, we want to CHANGE their feelings, through counter conditioning. In this we’ve kept everyone safe because they never get pushed to the point of needing to defend themselves.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Emotional Science, 0 comments
The Evil That You Know

The Evil That You Know

Some people tell me, “I tried bitless, but my horse prefers using a bit” or “my horse prefers R-, I tried R+ but traditional training just works better for him”. This seems counter-intuitive to us who understand that these situations are actually aversive to the learner. Our horses are not masochists, so why would they choose the more aversive of two options? Why would a horse prefer force over treats? Why would a horse prefer an invasive tool over a softer external tool?

There are alot of answers to these (Are you using the right tools? Did you choose one that is actually gentle? Do they fit right? etc…) but the simplest one underneath it all is “the devil you know”. The devil we know is always better than the devil we don’t, because we understand how it works, we understand how to avoid the bad and reach the good. A horse who “prefers” the bit isn’t truly saying they like having an invasive and uncomfortable bar placed inside their mouth and used to manipulate their head and neck. They are saying they understand this, they know how to respond to these aids and avoid extreme pain or discomfort, reaching relief more quickly. Quite simply this is uncomfortable but safe. While they may actually prefer a gentle bitless side pull (ya, we know not all bitless options are kind! So don’t swap one aversive for another) they may not actually understand these new sidepull cues as clearly as the bit they knew well. They may not recognize the warnings before the aversiveness of the tool needs to escalate. These are new and different aversive sensations they don’t yet understand how to avoid and can be much more concerning than a stronger aversive they do know how to avoid. They may need to go through the learning process again, either through R- or R+ to learn how to respond appropriately to the tool and avoid the aversive created by the tool. Even gentle sidepulls are still something wrapped around their head and manipulating their movement. This devil they don’t know may ultimately be much kinder, but because they don’t understand it yet it can be or seem much worse. The fear of the unknown outweighs the known bad they have learned to control.

This same principle applies when people say their horse prefers to use negative reinforcement. What humans mean by this is that the horse finds the right answer more quickly (faster results) and with less negative emotional expressions. Why does this happen? Negative Reinforcement works by applying an aversive which maintains or increases until the horse performs the correct behavior, at which point the aversive is relieved. This learning method requires an aversive to work, if they don’t want to avoid it they won’t work for relief. So, why would any being choose this over working for a reward? Why would anyone prefer avoidance over seeking? Quite simply because they understand it better. Not because R- training is better or more clear, but rather because that one human (their trainer) is more fluent in and better at using R-. The human may be more clear, more consistent in their timing, clearer criteria, and better rate of negative reinforcement, making it easier for the horse to succeed. While the human (who is often very new to understanding R+ and behavioral science) may be clumsy, have poor timing, poor antecedent arrangement, too low a rate of reinforcement, unclear criteria, and so on, making earning reinforcement difficult and frustrating for the horse. So the horse is not preferring the aversive R- over the appetitive R+, but they are preferring the clarity and understanding, the safety in knowing how to respond appropriately and the consequences of their behavior. There is comfort in clarity and consistency, even if its consistently unpleasant. As opposed to unclear, confusing, sometimes good, sometimes terribly frustrating.

So what do we do about this? We need to recognize first that these are not the horses’ problem, this is something caused by the person. The person handling the horse may be better at using R- or not willing to take the time to retrain known R- behaviors or to retrain new, gentler tools so then the horse doesn’t understand these new tools or forms of communication. So the horse seems to prefer the “devil they know”, but in truth they just don’t know what gentler tools mean or how R+ could be wonderful if done right. So no, your horse does not prefer the more aversive tools or techniques, they prefer the clarity and safety in understanding how to avoid them. So we need to educate owners on how to use R+ properly, how to adapt it to different horse personalities and different human goals. We need to help people understand how to get what they want with consistent timing, clear criteria, and appropriate rate of reinforcement.

We often get horses at our rescue who are retired work horses, they understand a life of R-, we often use these cues and their previous learning, because this is a language they know and taking it away from them can be confusing, scary and overwhelming if done all at once. We need to retrain their language a piece at a time and not turn their world on their head, especially if we are working with them in anyway (like the vet or farrier). So we use what they knew until we can replace it with a kinder language. But there are some things we will throw out immediately, the things just for us, for our benefit, i throw those out because i won’t subject a horse to aversives for my own pleasure (this is my ethical line). So things like riding will wait until i retrain it with R+. I will also choose the kindest tools i feel safe with to train with R+. Because any behavior can be put on any cue with R+, we can use any tool (or no tool) to work with our horses.

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