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Some thoughts on Punishment

Some thoughts on Punishment

Traditional horsemanship relies a great deal on punishing unwanted behaviors from the horse. It can be hard to shake these habits even if we’ve switched to more positively reinforcing training methods. Sometimes when we are confronted with a behavior we dislike we instinctively want to punish them, especially if the behavior is potentially dangerous or makes us feel afraid. Being afraid often triggers our feelings of needing to defend ourselves through fighting back. But we have some major pitfalls that come with using positive punishment that could actually be far more dangerous than finding another way to communicate that we dislike that.
First it’s important to remember that horse’s aren’t being “good” or “bad”, they are simply responding to their environment with their best guess as to how to get what they want and avoid what they don’t. If by performing a behavior we dislike (bucking) finds them relief from what they don’t like (the rider falls), that behavior is being reinforced. The horse chose the “correct” behavior to fix their problem, even though we might dislike it. So it’s important to remember that behaviors are happening for a reason other than “he’s a jerk” or “she’s just being fresh”, horse’s aren’t inherently bad, they are just solving their situation. So the behaviors we are trying to reduce are behaviors we “dislike” or are “unwanted”.

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Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Turning Fear into Curiosity

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 undesirable    behaviors that can include hurting themselves.
Instead of sheltering your horse, turn their fear and pessimism into confidence and curiosity. 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 Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting
How to Change Behavior

How to Change Behavior

It’s important to remember that when we are dealing with training horses, or trying to solve behavioral problems with our animals, it isn’t limited just to training. Training increases or decreases the likelihood of a behavior happening in a chosen scenarios. It allows us to put behaviors on cue and recall them when we may like them performed. Training also allows us to train an appropriate behavior to reduce the chances of the learner choosing an unwanted behavior. Just reinforcing the incompatible behavior makes the unwanted behavior less likely to happen.

But adding and subtracting behavior isn’t the only way we can progress and support our horses’ behavioral improvement. Management is an important tool, it can be as easy as switching which stall the horse goes in, rearranging some fences, reorganizing your turn out groups, putting up some temporary fencing or partitions. We can also use food placement and different feeder styles to reduce issues with resource guarding or food anxiety. Using the support of their peers can help a horse overcome difficult or stressful situations. Visual barriers can help reduce social anxiety or stress related to certain environments. With various management techniques we can help reduce the likelihood of unwanted behaviors occurring, reducing aggression, anxiety, and promoting a healthy lifestyle. Even if we address unwanted behaviors through training, using management can help reduce how often the learner practices the unwanted behavior, reducing the strength of the behavior.
Enrichment is another under-utilized and under-valued training tool. So many people think of enrichment as an optional, fun thing to do for your horse. In reality, it’s an indispensable tool for fulfilling your horses’ emotional needs and expressions of natural behavior. There aren’t many times a horse is engaged in natural behaviors when placed in a barren paddock, using enrichment can simulate a wide variety of natural stimuli.

Enrichment can be used as a great way to prepare your horses for all that life may throw at them. We can engage them with a wide variety of novel food, puzzles, toys, and whatever silly sensation we can entertain them with! We can use enrichment to help them meet their own needs, such as scratching posts to rub against, pools to splash in, toys to play with, and friends to find comfort in. We can help them keep up with their exercise, meet their dietary needs, expose them to new things, and offer a mentally stimulating life.
Enrichment is a great and healthy outlet for unwanted behaviors that horses want to express, such as rough play and mouthing objects. We may not want them to do that with us, but if they have an appropriate place to meet those desires, they’re less likely to do them where they’re unwanted. Enrichment can also help teach our horses about new behaviors we may want to capture on cue. It can also make new, difficult scenarios seem easy and fun, the vet’s tools are just another fun enrichment, nothing to be scared of.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting


“To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination” – Jean-luc Picard
He’s my hero, and he’s absolutely right. In regards to animal training, I often hear people say “oh but you can’t train X with positive reinforcement”. To which I say “this is a failure of imagination”. Every behavior, every one, that the animal CAN do can be taught with R+. R+ isn’t just a training technique – it’s a learning quadrant. R+ isn’t targeting, or luring, or capturing, those are just methods used to give you something to reinforce. If a behavior can be done by the learner’s will, all you need to do is find out how to engage it, then reinforce it.

Most often we utilize tools like targets, this is easy to control and encourages large chunks of behavior to happen at once. We can use targets in a number of ways, like a lure, they can follow targets with their nose (teaching them to go places, over, into, or around obstacles, etc…) We can use body targets to encourage movement of different parts of their body, moving their hips, shoulder, knee, hoof, etc… Wherever we place the target. We can send our horse away from us to a target or series of targets, into, onto, over, or around obstacles as well. Last of all we can use targets to teach a horse to station still on the target, whether a mat or nose, chin, cheek target for various stationary skills (like standing for veterinary procedures).

Aside from targeting we can also capture behaviors as they happen freely. Being prepared with reinforcement while your horse is going about their day we can catch certain behaviors in the act. We can help this along by knowing our individual well. Do they always drink after eating? Do they often roll when they are wet? Do they like to run when they are first turned out? Knowing their habits and patterns can help us be prepared to capture anything our horses do. With this we can capture a complete behavior and get it on cue with minimal training effort.
With arranging the environment, knowing our learner, and getting creative we can train any behavior they are capable of performing and put it on cue. A skilled trainer can even train a horse while sitting in a chair on the other side of a fence, simply by marking and reinforcing the approaches toward the goal behavior. With the help of antecedent arrangement and positive reinforcement, the reaches of your training is only limited by your imagination.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Troubleshooting

Food Arousal

As clicker trainers we want our horses to be happy and eager to participate with training, but not so excited that they’re not able to be thoughtful or focused. Often when people start training with food they go to the store and buy a nice bag of treats, or they chop up apples and carrots, their horse’s favorite snack! But when they begin training the horse is SO excited they aren’t able to focus, invade the human’s space, and get so worked up they’re hardly able to even think about what you’re working on. This is often the point where new clicker trainers give up or throw out the food and try to use scratches or pats instead.

Unfortunately, unless scratches are highly valuable to a horse (like a horse with sweet itch) this isn’t likely to work effectively to earn you the behaviors you’re aiming for. Scratching is also not an efficient or easy to use reinforcer as you advance, a good reinforcing scratch needs to be a good minute or so long, deep and thorough enough to engage a happy grooming face from the horse. Too short or not creating a “happy” grooming face, the scratch really wasn’t all that reinforcing. This gets more and more inconvenient and too low a value when you progress to agility, riding, vet work or other advanced training skills.

The truth is that most horses are hungry all the time. They think they’re starving within an hour or two of finishing their last bite. This is because they are designed to be ingesting food slowly but consistently all day, never going long gaps without consuming food. This is grazing, trickle feeding, type consumption. So, many horses in domestication often develop anxiety problems related to food because often they get their healthy allotment of food and they consume it quickly and run out, leaving them feeling “starving” the rest of the day – even though they had an appropriate amount of food and look a good weight. When their food is split into just 2 or 3 meals with long gaps in between horses often develop issues with stress around food. Especially if they have to fight other horses or eat rushed to get the food before another horse moves them off of it. This develops into serious anxiety problems which often becomes a major issue when we attempt to use food in training.

Even if your horse has never known a hungry moment in their life, they may still have tension and over excitement around food. So how do we safely and effectively use food as a reward system for our horses? 

1) Food consistency – outside of training horses should have access to forage 24/7. If you need to limit forage for weight reasons, use slow feeders and enrichment feeders to make sure the horse will eat slowly throughout the day, not binge and starve. This will reduce overall feeding time anxiety. Also make sure there is no competition for food – make sure there are more food locations than number of horses, so no one is ever without. If there are 3 horses in a field, make sure there are 5 or 6 spots to get food.

2) Enrichment – Providing enrichment opportunities that also provide food (puzzle toys, treat balls, likits, and so on) allow the horse the opportunity to work for food without the connection to humans, reducing the intensity of wanting to be around people.

3) Low food value – in training we want to carefully monitor the value of the food we’re using. In situations where we have a horse who is over-aroused, too excited for the food, we want to use very low value food in training. I like to use hay pellets, chopped hay, chaffe hay, hay stretcher, hay cubes, or carb safe pellets (these are great for donkeys or IR ponies/minis). The more time the horse gets to chew this food the more it will allow the horse to feel satiated and relax into the training.

4) Large handfuls – with our low value food we’ll feel larger handfuls or feed small amounts very quickly to help the horse feel satiated and have time to chew. This is relaxing for the horse allowing them to think and process between offering behaviors.

5) High Rate of Reinforcement – when training reinforce at a high frequency – feed often. If your horse isn’t performing the behavior well enough to earn reinforcement that frequently, make the behavior easier. Break down the difficulty of the behavior and make the correct answer easier by arranging the environment to make it easy for your horse to succeed. This will allow you to keep the frequency of reinforcement high enough to feel successful, satiating and motivating to the learner without hitting frustration.

6) When to use higher value – Save the higher value treats for untrusting horses, high speed activities, or advanced training. Using small, wonderful treats, will encourage alot more enthusiasm and engagement from your horse. This is great for horses who are nervous and uncomfortable around people. Putting a pan down and back away with a small amount of higher value food, then when the horse engages you put the next pan down and back away, each time the horse will approach more and more readily towards you. When you’re able to handfeed mixing the high value food into the lower value handfuls can help them have the chew time and value balanced. When working on high speed behaviors a small amount of high value food can encourage the enthusiasm you’re looking for without loosing energy to chew time, but this and other skills like these are for more advanced training, after relaxation has been established and can be re-achieved easily. It can also help to mix in high value treats to your chewy food when working on “the real deal” situations with the vet or farrier or trailer loading, as opposed to your usual low value food for just preparation work.

7) Start with calm – if you’re approaching your horse to work with them and they are buzzing with excitement, this may not be a good place to start. What can help is giving them some free food, scattered on the floor, a flake of hay, or a puzzle toy with food. Once the horse is calmly satiated with this food source, then begin your training.

8) Have an alternate available – Make sure there is another food source available while training, a hay net, a food toy, or even just a bucket of free food. This will ensure you keep your training up to par or the horse can easily just go to the other food. This will allow the horse to be more honest in how difficult your training is becoming.

9) Protected Contact – utilizing protected contact is one of the easiest ways to help your horse be successful learning with positive reinforcement, and to keep everyone safe and having fun. This is where you work with any physical barrier between you and the horse, a fence, a stall door, even a temporary pool noodle “fence”. This allows the horse to explore behavioral options without putting the human at risk and needing to resort to punishment or the use of aversives to defend themselves. This also allows the horse time to relax between behaviors and not have to be “on” and perfect throughout the whole session, where they may forget their training and invade your space or forage around your body. It reduces the number of “wrong” choice the horse may make to make the goal behavior easier for the horse to perform. If you’re standing there with a bucket of food it’s awful hard to notice the target off to the left when all their focus is on that bucket! So having a barrier keeping that option unavailable allows the horse to focus on what is available, maybe a target they can reach. This is beneficial for horse and human especially in the early stages of training and should be utilized whenever possible. It’s also great to utilize in advanced training to allow the horse more choice and control in their training and provide more safety for ourselves when first working on high energy behaviors, like using a “reverse round pen”. Those are a round pen made out of small portable fencing of any sort inside a larger area, where the horse works outside of the pen and the human is inside the pen.

10) Safe Space – work in an area the horse feels safe and comfortable. This is usually a quiet, familiar place with other horses nearby, but separated so the horse doesn’t need to resource guard you and the food. If you’re working on going somewhere away from the comfortable place, remain within a comfortable bubble and slowly stretch the distance as your horse grows in confidence.   

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Troubleshooting

Force-free, Fear-free, LIMA, Emergencies

As R+ trainers we often get asked “but what will you do in an emergency?” Just because we try to avoid the use of aversives in our training doesn’t mean we won’t do what’s necessary in a real emergency. However, there are some options we can look at first. This is a summed up, easy list of options shortened from our larger post on dealing with emergencies (here). It’s important to remember these are techniques we can use when presented with an urgent health or safety situation we were not prepared for. This is not to make up for proper training and taking the time to prepare our horses for what they may experience in life. Continue reading →

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

The Quadrants Aren’t Squares Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Troubleshooting

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

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.

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