Beauty is Pain?

Beauty is Pain?

This diagram shows how horse’s express pain through their face, we call this their “grimace” or “pain face”. We’ve studied equine facial and body language expressions of discomfort and pain. In doing so we’ve learned to recognize and even measure the pain expression on a scale. Because horses are stoic, for their own safety, signs of pain can be subtle. Some horses won’t show lameness or internal pain until the symptoms are extreme. But we can learn to recognize the signs of pain before they become extreme, often very late to begin treatment.

In equestrian culture pain behaviors and expressions are often dismissed as an inconvenience or misbehavior. How often do we see people punish horses for acting out while being girthed? Or when a horse is reluctant to speed up? Or when they toss a buck when asked to bend? Or when they become reactive to being touched? What about horses who do whatever they can to avoid the rider getting on? How often are screaming signs of pain ignored because it’s inconvenient to us as riders? So often blaring signs of pain or fear of pain is just ignored as the horse being “fresh”, “disrespectful”, or “rude”. But since when is it disrespectful to honestly express their pain? If it’s constantly ignored the horse is going to have to scream louder and louder to be heard, until they are labelled “dangerous” or has “behavioral problems”.

What’s more disturbing is if you look at the horse pain face or the horse grimace scale, you’ll notice something concerning. Horses in Art are almost always displaying a face of pain or fear. How often do we look at a beautiful piece of art of a horse, seeing their ears turned back, their lips wrinkled tight, their eyes in a clear triangle, nose flared… Why do we look at these images of apparent pain and think “wow how beautiful?” Suffering has been so dismissed, that we’ve turned it around into something we consider beautiful! We are so used to seeing horses displaying pain that we’ve reproduced it in art as something nice to look at.

We need to start recognizing what we’re seeing, understanding how serious it is to see a horse displaying pain. Whether the horse is injured, sick, or if the tack/tools we’re using are creating pain. We need to accept the information the horses are showing us as fact and address the problem. Get your tack fit, learn to ride more gently, call your vet, nutritionist, body worker, etc… Do not dismiss pain in your horse, and learn to recognize it at farms and events you go to. Learning to see these things is vital to equine welfare and so is responding appropriately. Take the time to learn this, take the time and money to get the professional help your horse needs. Pain isn’t acceptable.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
The Quadrants Are All-Encompassing

The Quadrants Are All-Encompassing

When some people see the learning quadrants they think it’s too simplistic, too narrow, it’s too limiting to understand all that’s going on within a horse’s mind and their highly evolved social-communication skills. It can appear this way because the quadrants are so simple, but they’re not over-simplified, they’re all-encompassing. Everything in life falls within them, often many at once, often creating a wide variety of emotional impacts and behavioral changes.

In the simplified version we know of “Positive” as adding and “Negative” as subtracting, “Reinforcement” as the behavior happens more and “Punishment” as the behavior happened less. Should we look at an empty world, the horse and a single stimulus we can see which quadrant is in action.

So if the horse does a behavior and the stimulus is added – the behavior will either happen more or less in that scenario again. If the behavior happens more, it’s been Positively (because the stimulus was added) Reinforced (because the behavior happened more). If the behavior happens less we know it’s been Punished, and the stimulus was added, so Positive Punishment.

If the horse does a behavior and the stimulus is removed (negative) – the behavior will happen more or less in this scenario. If the behavior happens more then it was Negatively Reinforced. If it happens less it was Negatively Punished.

We also have the terms “Aversive” and “Appetitive”. Aversives are something the learner dislikes, something they work to avoid, something they would prefer not to be exposed to. An Appetitive is something the learner is willing to work for, something they seek out, want, desire, something they enjoy.

We know that:
If a stimulus is added and it reduces a behavior (positive punishment) the stimulus added MUST be aversive
If a stimulus is added and it increases the behavior (positive reinforcement) the stimulus added must be appetitive
If the stimulus is removed and it reduces the behavior (negative punishment) the stimulus removed must have been appetitive
If the stimulus is removed and it increases the behavior (negative reinforcement) the stimulus removed must have been aversive

We know these things by putting two and two together logically.

But in real life nothing is ever that simple. Even if we put a rat in a box and add and subtract 1 stimulus at a time, we have the simple fact that the rat is confined to a box interfering with the data. There is always multiple things in play at any given time. ALWAYS.

We have to consider the entire external environment – the pasture, the fences, the other horses, the human, the tool the human is holding, the sounds of traffic in the background, the wind blowing the rustling leaves, the smell of fresh cut grass… There is so much happening in any being’s life moment to moment. We also have their internal environment, this is their genetics, their personality, their hunger, thirst, energy level, their emotions, their social life, their learning history… All of these and many more, influence the horse’s behavior at any given time. It’s deeply complex. There is so much happening in the environment that we don’t control, but these are still influencing the learner’s behaviors through the quadrants.

Negative Reinforcement may happen when a horse goes into a shed to get away from the flies (going to the shed was reinforced by the removal of the aversive flies). A horse is frequently positively reinforced by sniffing around the ground for the best bites of grass or plants. This is happening in life all the time, many overlapping examples all the time.

That being said, in our formal, planned training we have the choice to decide what we add and subtract in the equation. We aren’t horses, horses don’t think we’re horses. Horses don’t train other horses to perform behaviors on cue. They certainly have deep and complex social lives and communication skills, but they aren’t training one another, the way we train horses. They interact with each other as I might a friend, I’m not trying to modify their behavior, I’m just hanging out with them. But if we want to actually modify their behavior, put behaviors on cue, cue them when we want them, and alter them for our convenience or ability to provide care, then we need to decide how we’re going to go about that. We need to be good listeners and observers of what they’re communicating to us, but we can choose how we communicate with them. All of the quadrants are about modifying behavior, all of them are coercive in the sense that we control them completely. There are ways to make both techniques less coercive, less controlling and more focused on choice and consent. But the entire point of training is to change their behavior.

We can communicate through aversive application and removal (negative reinforcement) or appetitive addition (positive reinforcement) to train behaviors. We could also use aversive addition (positive punishment) or appetitive removal (negative punishment) to reduce behaviors. We also have tools like training incompatible behaviors to reduce unwanted behaviors.

Our positive reinforcers can be anything appetitive, anything the horse likes. But food is the easiest and most convenient tool. We can control the amount and value of the food as desired. Using higher quantities of lower value food is more satiating and relaxing. Using smaller amounts of higher value food is more exciting and arousing.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Life Is Not Disposable

Life Is Not Disposable

It’s time to end the culture of disposable life.

If you are going to use a horse for your benefit you owe them appropriate care throughout life and to their humane end of life.

Horses are no longer a Beast of Burden. Modern countries no longer rely on horses for labor or transportation. Horses are now purely a leisure and entertainment animal. While our sports mimic old jobs and times of war where horses had previously given their lives, this is no longer necessary. No job done “just for fun” or entertainment should cost the life or wellbeing of an animal. I would say the same for humans, except humans are capable of understanding the risks and potential consequences of participating in extreme sports and dangerous activities – animals can’t understand these concepts in order to consent to the risk. Horses were used as tools of work, sport, and warfare since we domesticated them thousands of years ago, transitioning the harsh tools we used on them to manipulate them in a variety of clever new ways. Turning livestock nose rings into bits, adding spurs to sharpen our boot heels, using wide variety of whips, chains and pressure-point knots used to inflict pain and control these animals. Being manipulated, controlled, and used their whole life, then used for breeding and eventually destroyed when they are no longer useful. Our excuse was “it’s necessary” for food, labor, and warfare. So we accepted these necessary evils.

Before pictures:

This is no longer necessary.

It’s time we, as a modern society, decide to stop this cycle of abuse and disposal of animals. For the sole purpose of entertainment and sport.

The number of horses cycling into slaughter houses because they are old, lame, sick, or unable to be ridden, or because they no longer compete up to the standard the owner had aspired to. These horses are used up and thrown out. Often these horses were believed to have been given to “safe” retirement homes, “Free to Good Home” is a death sentence for animals. So we as a culture need to stand against this. Make this socially unacceptable. Whenever you work with a horse, whenever you pay to interact with a horse, whenever your child goes to riding lessons or summer camps, when you buy a horse, when you lease a horse, anything, make sure this horse is SAFE for life. So many stables for competition, lessons, trails, pony rides, camps, and so on use their horses as long as they can and immediately dispose of them when they’re no longer able to do the job. This happens all the time, in all parts of country. Even if the owners tell you “Oh no, we send them to a good retirement farm”, we all know that’s as true as when our parents told us our puppy went to live in a “farm up north”. We need to hold our society accountable for this. Even if it means that owners must make the decision to humanely euthanize these horses. Even though this is not kind, death is not a welfare issue, death is not suffering. When they leave a home they are not just at risk of getting a bad home – but much more likely for those who are un-useable, is that they will end up bouncing auction to auction until they end up on the slaughter pipeline where they are shipped repeatedly until they make it over the border to Mexico where they are slaughtered. If they survive the trip, they do suffer the whole way. So while I believe anyone who uses a horse should be responsible for them until their appropriate end of life, if that must be cut short it should be done in the least awful way, the least suffering, humane euthanasia in the arms of loved ones.

Our community has got to make it unacceptable to dispose of old, broken, sick, or used up animals. This needs to be no longer ok. This means everyone must do their part to make sure the horses they use are safe.

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

Safety Is NOT A Contingency

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

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

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

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

Safety should never be contingent on anything!

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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments


When athletes decide to dedicate their life to the sport of their passion, they do so knowing they are making great sacrifices and taking extreme risks. They know they will spend most of their lives obsessively perfecting their skill. They give up any hope at a normal life in order to achieve these goals. They may sacrifice traditional academics, their social and family life, a healthy sleep schedule, and their physical wellbeing. They push their bodies to extremes beyond what human bodies are meant to do. This extreme can leave them with lifelong pain and health issues. They do all this knowing their dreams and careers can come to a crashing halt should they be injured, even some sports can have life-threatening risks. These humans make these choices out of passion and competitive drive, they are an inspiration, showing us the reach of the human body and spirit.

The problem is that animals don’t get to choose. They don’t know the sacrifices and risks they are being faced with, they don’t get to decide to which degree they’d like to compete. They are the only competitors who can be publicly whipped, spurred, and brutalized into competing when they are frightened or over-faced. Extreme sports that require extreme sacrifice and risk should only be done by those who are able to understand and consent. It’s time to evolve equine sports and competitions, they can be done at a level that remains fun, enriching, and competitive, without compromising the wellbeing and choice of the animals involved.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
No Punishment Here

No Punishment Here

“We don’t use Punishment here”.

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

First of all why should we avoid punishment?

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

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

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

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

4) This can poison your cues AND your relationship!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*No behavior they offer is their fault*.

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

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

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

Force Isn’t Safer

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

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

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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 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.” (…/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
Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

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

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

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

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

They develop their own self awareness.

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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 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