Someone asked me recently why I care so much about causes that are not my own?

Which made me wonder, what makes us choose which causes to care about? I realize, while these causes may not effect me directly in my day to day, I relate to these causes, I’m connected to them, because it effects the people and animals I love. I am connected to those that these causes do effect, so I care.

Connections are what drives us. Connections are where we find ourselves, how we identify ourselves, where we ground ourselves connecting us to the world around us, connections what give our life value and meaning. Fear, building walls, depression, shame, guilt, anxiety, self-depreciation, are what leads to disconnection. Having healthy connections is one of the most important pieces of having a healthy emotional state, for us and for our horses.

Welfare of horses is a cause I care about because I love them, I am connected to some individuals that make me care about the whole. But one aspect is to consider our horse’s connections. If we want our animals to have a healthy emotional state, resulting in being in a good place for training and learning, we need to assure they have an appropriate social life. This includes their connections to other horses, which is the baseline for them understanding who they are and where they belong in the world. (Insert song “This is where I belong” from Spirit). Horses are often a victim of their human’s whims, their herds are not chosen by who they like or consider family, but rather who the human wants as another horse. This leaves them limited and their domestic connections imperfect.

Their connections to their humans are also extremely important, but does not negate their need for their same-species peers. While they may have a tight bond with their human, there are social needs that just can’t be mimicked or met by a human who is only able to spend a few hours per day with them. Some horses are socially secure and light-hearted about their human partners, happy to work with anyone who treats them well. While others need the security of a well known and understood, consistent and safe human partner. While training is important, it can only come after an appropriate connection has begun.

Relationships and connections do not happen with a quick pat or showing up once a week for an hour ride. Connections are forged through time and cooperation. Working together to solve problems and to live in co-existence. Nothing builds a relationship like time spent together, without worrying about what you’re doing necessarily. But if the time you spend together feels good, it will hurry the bond along. Spend time grooming in free space, not for making them look nice, but for making them feel good. Be there to provide comfort after an upsetting moment, provide relief and a sense of familiar safety. Spending time sitting in the shade and sharing a lunch-time snack. Be together, be there for each other, and be a source of comfort.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Horse Training Ethics

Horse Training Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic by Fed Up Fred

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Choice is just an Illusion

Choice is just an Illusion

“If they didn’t like it they would just…” is the most infuriating excuse for the lack of understanding of how psychology wors. I hear this all the time, “if he didn’t like to jump he wouldn’t”, never mind the person beating him with a stick when he refuses a jump. “If the horse didn’t like being laid down, he’d just get up”, nevermind the person lunging them with a leg tied to their saddle until they fall back down….

We assume that a 1-2,000lb animals recognize their size, strength, and athletic ability to outdo us simple humans and that their compliance must be because they like us or the things we’re asking them to do. We like to think this to justify and overshadow the fact that we’re often using extremely manipulative and coercive methods of controlling them, emotionally, because we can’t physically. Much like the questions “why doesn’t that person leave their abusive relationship?” simply because the fear of leaving is worse than the fear of staying. This is often created through systematic conditioning of the victim to believe they can’t be safe without their abuser and even repeated occurrences of Tonic Immobility can speed up this process of attachment. The evil that you know is safer than the evil that you don’t.

Remember Tonic Immobility is a state the body goes into during fear so extreme the individual feels that death is inevitable. It reduces their suffering at the time of death (like being eatten by a predator) and gives them a potential source of escape if somehow the threat goes away. This occurs in times that Fight and Flight aren’t working. I discuss this in a post a few back with a video of a gazelle who survived an attack from a predator by going into tonic immobility when caught, then escaping when the predator was distracted. When a person lays out a horse, even with only mild force, you know it is TI created through repeated forceful experiences.

A horse is an intelligent, emotional animal, and through systematic training where escape and non-compliance is punished, they learn quickly that leaving isn’t an option – even when it seems an obvious choice. We’ve seen horses tied to objects that are not capable of holding them and we laugh, thinking, if only they knew! The truth is they’ve been conditioned through negative reinforcement and punishment that there is no choice. Even if they think jumping is dangerous, the person on their back is more dangerous, they comply, not because the human did 1 bad thing, but because of the history of conditioning to create that.

Stop justifying force, violence, and harsh training because the horse doesn’t leave. Especially consider this when watching work at liberty, what’s in it for the horse to comply? Are they complying because they feel they have no choice? This isn’t liberty.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Horses Didn’t Sign the Contract

Horses Didn’t Sign the Contract

Many people live under the belief that because they own horses and provide for them, horses owe them their servitude. Many human adults would love a job that is minimal labor and all their life needs will be fully met, a home and food, set for life (not mentioning the downside of giving up your freedom to have your needs met) this can seem like a sweet deal. The problem with this comparison is that human adults can read the contract and give their consent, our ownership of horses is not like this. Horses are our dependents (like children). They owe us nothing, because we put them in our custody without their consent.
Whether they were bred by humans or taken from the wild, we chose to create them or remove them from nature and in doing so we have agreed to meet all their needs. Under NO Contingencies! We own them, so we owe them a complete quality of care and appropriately high welfare. With no requirements from the horse. Simply because we chose to keep them as our own, we owe them an appropriate quality of life.
A horse’s labor is not a determining factor for their level of care or vice versa.
To be clear (to be cleeaarrrrr) I’m not saying people shouldn’t do things with their horses, I’m not saying don’t ride or work. I’m only saying, providing their care is a basic requirement of owning a horse and does not entitle you to their outright servitude.
I also implore horse owners to look into positive reinforcement, science-based, ethically focused training techniques that allow more choice and consent on the part of the horse. Then you can continue to accomplish similar goals, like riding and working. This allows the horses to learn and participate in the things that we like to do, but with something in it for them (as an extra, not a part of their requirements).

Image by Fed Up Fred

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments