These are ethical discussions about the horse world and choices we can make

When is balance not better?

So you’ve started your journey into positive reinforcement training. You’re loving it. But some behaviors were fine with negative reinforcement why start them over to train them positively? Everyone in your barn uses traditional or natural horsemanship, you want to stick with some negative reinforcement to fit in. You would like to compete or at least appear normal in public, so you trickle in a bit of pressure. You’re worried about other people who may handle your horse, so you make sure he knows how to give to pressure. You want to prepare your horse for potential emergencies, so they ought to be used to some aversives in their lives. Anyway, life can’t be perfect all the time, so what’s wrong with using some aversives in training?

Well, let’s get into this more deeply. Let’s look at how these too quadrants work to create and motivate behavior. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Enrichment as a Supplement

Enrichment is a new concept to the horse world it’s vital we get this information out there. Enrichment sounds like a kindness, like providing an extra gift to our horses, but it’s actually a necessity. If you went to a zoo and watched a lion sit in the middle of a 40x40ft enclosure, with plenty of grass, food, and water – but nothing else – you would be horrified. If it were an elephant, rhino, hippo, or zebra, standing out in a barren field we would watch with sorrow. We’d likely see the animals pacing, circling, weaving, digging, chewing, becoming destructive, or just laying about with nothing to do. We recognize in these exotic animals the need for regular stimulation, ways to mimic their natural lifestyle and habitat. When we have an animal in a domestic or captive setting, we can measure their welfare by watching their behaviors. We watch and analyze an animal’s behavior in nature and compare it to domestication. If a species covers alot of ground, moving around alot, or if they have a stationary home area, spending more time at rest. If they exercise in short, extreme bursts, or slow, continuous exercise over a period of time. We can look at how they socialize, how often and with whom, with multiple species or just the same species, with males or females, small groups or large. We can determine how much time they invest in searching for food, how much effort and what types of food they consume. Do they eat off the ground, bushes, or trees? How do they problem solve variations in nature, breaking ice in water, digging for grass under the snow and so on. We learn how animals would choose to live their lives when they have free choice to do as they please, then we compare the behaviors expressed with our domestic species. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Emotions Before Behaviors

My lovely flower Taina and I have been struggling lately. Her world continues to shrink smaller as her fear overcomes her. With her trauma, the concept of new is scary, and right now - everythng is new, even the world changed colors and became so cold. Her fear turns quickly to aggression, she violently defends her safety bubble, her stall. Every day we go through the same terrible cycle when I need to clean her stall. She refuses to go outside, no amount of treats will lure her out, even on a lead she won't go out. Especially now that there is snow - I'm sure now that she's never seen snow before. We spent time playing with snow together, in a bucket I brought to her, she tolerated it to get the treats - but was not interested in going out and actually touching it. It was fun for us both to puzzle through in this small dose of enrichment, but in it's massive size and coldness make it not so fun. So, I need to clean around her. I usually put her soup in her bucket in the corner and clean carefully around her. But whenever the pitchfork comes close to her legs she jumps or kicks, or turns to bite me. We carefully work around that issue, but there is no clean spot in her stall to put her where the pitchfork doesn't have to come close. If I don't give her soup to keep her in one spot, we dance around the stall, me carefully avoiding invading her constantly changing personal space bubble. It's exhausting for us both. We had one bad day the other day where I was cleaning in the back of her stall, well away from her, and she turned and lunged a bite towards me. I don't know exactly what happened, there was some drama with people outside the stall which may have been the trigger. Unfortunately her teeth hit the pitchfork and she became overwhelmed with fear for a few minutes. She started stomping and biting in my direction, but not touching me - I could tell this took great restraint on her part to not actually kill me. I carefully slid down the wall of her stall and out her door. A half an hour later she was totally fine with me retrieving my tools and finishing the job. We have been spending the last few days working on things like touch acceptance and trying to push the boundaries of her comfort zone - this all together obviously stimulus stacked just too much over the passing days.

This wasn't the same day, but a clip I had gotten to show what her rage looks like when she really gets upset.

While behaviorally she does well here, you can see how conflicted she is about handling this situation.

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Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Can you Compete with Clicker Training?

This is a question we are asked over and over again, “Can you compete with Clicker Training?” or even “If Clicker Training works so well, why aren’t all the famous competitors doing it?”. There is so much to this I’m going to see if I can break it down. We have a few points to look at – the goals of competing (horse vs. human), the long standing traditions and strict rules of the competition world, the types of behaviors asked for in competitions and why, and which parts are beneficial or detrimental to the horse.

We know that positive reinforcement works just as well as negative reinforcement and can teach any behavior a horse is capable of. We know this because science and experience has shown this, so why is it that people who are excelling at clicker training are not competing and people competing are not excelling at clicker training? We know that if we train the behaviors that we expect our horses to perform in competition, put the behaviors on an appropriate schedule and build it into chains, we can refer to these behaviors even in a competitive environment where we can’t feed. But the nature of the competitions as they are currently doesn’t make it easy to avoid negative reinforcement. These competitions have been built, designed, and judged on standards created based on negative reinforcement training techniques that have been molded over centuries of using horses for labor, entertainment, and warfare. Rules regarding which tools are allowed and how the behaviors should appear were all decided based on these standards – standards of labor, entertainment, and warfare.  Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Ethics

Taina’s Opinion on Aversives

Taina tells me all day long "I HATE!" with her pinned ears and dragon face she says "back off!", she bares her fangs and swings her head to tell me she really, really wants to bite me. This is extremely kind of her. I try hard to listen to all of her communication, but her emotions are extremely conflicted and quickly changing. She wants so badly to trust and to be friends, she has really come to love me (if I do say so myself), but her fear is so deeply ingrained. Through her past life her whole world has become aversive, her whole world is a threat to her existence, all new, all different, is definitely dangerous.

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Posted by Jessica

Dealing with Emergencies

As positive reinforcement trainers many of us struggle with the fear of what to do in an emergency. What if our horse becomes aggressive or dangerous when spooking, how do we protect ourselves? What if our horse becomes over aroused and potentially aggressive? What if our horse gets hurt or sick and we need to perform a medical procedure we haven’t had time to prepare for? What if our horse is sick and can’t be given food? How do we ensure our safety and our horse’s wellbeing without becoming aversive?

First and foremost. We may all aspire to reducing or eliminating aversives in our horses lives, but the truth is that they are bound to happen. Life isn’t always perfect and emergencies do happen. Even poorly performed R+ can become aversive for a confused learner. So while we may (and I feel we should) aspire to being aversive free we must forgive ourselves the times life isn’t so perfect. We can utilize tools like the Humane Hierarchy which encourages us to assess the horse’s lifestyle, management, nutrition and health care, then arrange the antecedents, before moving towards a training approach with positive reinforcement to alter the behavior. Only then consulting professional trainers, veterinary behaviorists, or anyone with experience to help ensure you’ve tried all logical options before progressing to using aversives to overcome an issue. There will be times we may need to slide down this hierarchy very quickly, ruling out adjustments and training techniques in our mind very quickly in order to keep a situation safe. We may even act instinctively, defend ourselves or fall back on our pre-learned habits to get a job done quickly, rather than rethink a new alternative way to handle it. Ideally we would save these more extreme options for situations like a veterinary procedure that is non-optional. We wouldn’t want to use restraints, confinement, or aversives, just to teach our horse something fun we want to do for ourselves, but rather for something that is needed for their own well-being.

If you’re contemplating going to an aversive extreme to get something you want from your horse, stop and think about how important it really is that it be done, and who is this really for? Is it really vital your horse learn to carry you if it’s emotionally damaging to themself? As opposed to a medical or safety situation which is truly vital.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Operationalizing Whips

Operationalizing Whips
Let’s take the whip discussion and operationalize it. I find a lot of psuedo-science and romanticized opinions are clouding our ability to look at the use of this tool appropriately.

Remember Classical Conditioning? Repeated pairing of any stimuli, the first being conditioned to predict the second. Keep that in mind as you review the next ABC scenarios… Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Heart Horses

Heart Horses
Many of us equine-enthusiasts strive for what we consider a special relationship with our ‘heart horse’…
We have millions of definitions, descriptions, stories and romantic ideas of what this “relationship” should be or look like. A common image is a horse and human riding together in a whimsical setting, with no tack or tools to bind them, just two souls connected by the heart. We dream of clear communication letting our horses know exactly what we want from then and when, creating beautiful, dance-like riding. We also dream of a horse who has the self-created desire to comply. The horse who wants to do what we ask, for no other reason than their love for us, their beloved human. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Ethics

Quality over Quantity

Quality over Quantity
I was talking to a friend about some of the horses we have at the rescue and some of the difficult choices we make for them. We are in a constant battle between quantity and quality of life. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Ethics

Choosing the Tack

Choosing the Tack
With R+ we can teach any behavior through targeting, shaping, capturing, and luring – then we can put any behavior we teach on ANY cue. I joke with my kids that we can have “rainbow ponies” who respond to the names of colors as cues. “Blue”=walk on, “Red”=stop, “Purple”=Turn right. It’s just a joke, this wouldn’t be practical or ideal, trying to remember everyone’s code would be a calamity to say the least.  But the truth is with the power of R+ communication we can assign anything we want to be the cue for any behavior. We can assign opening a door to be a cue to back up or we can use any array of sign language to communicate what we like.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics