The Issue with Consent

Sport/Working Horses – The Issue with Consent

I’m going to start by being very upfront on my position when it comes to this topic – I know this can be a heated issue with a number of aspects to consider. I’m not against the use of horses in sports or work, when done kindly and with careful and compassionate decisions made for the best of the horse. It does require education, empathy and a motivating factor for the humans to want to choose what is right for the horse (and not just for winning or completing the job). I am not against working/sporting horses, but I am an advocate for stronger regulations and better education for the well-being of the horses who work or participate in sporting events.

Gummy Bear – A life of labor, 12 years as a laborer, his disease + the work he did ended his life prematurely and created much undo suffering.

In the sport and working horse worlds we often see equines compared to human athletes and laborers, in regards to the physical damage and risks they might obtain – but we have one correlation that just doesn’t match up. The issue is with consent. Adult human athletes are able to understand that when they push their body to these extremes it comes with great risk. Damage comes naturally at these extreme athletic and work levels. Whether it’s working on pavement, pulling carriages in the city, the repeat concussion on the legs can weaken and damage the legs and joints. There are sports which require the horse to jump extreme heights, run at extreme speeds, pull large weights, perform gymnastically difficult maneuvers, and so on, pushing the body and mind to new reaches. This takes a toll on the body and mind of the individual, and while amazing to watch and participate with an equine partner, there is regular damage that comes with this work and great risk as well. These jobs and sports come at risk of not just career, but also life-ending injuries.

We watch with great admiration as human athletes push themselves to the limits for their passion and our entertainment. But adult human athletes are able to understand the damage, consequences, and huge risks they put themselves in when they participate in these events. When a human runner, long jumper, basketball player, football player, and so on participate in their events they do so knowing the daily impact it has on their body, with trainers and doctors advising their progress and steps. They also comprehend the big risks they put themselves in, whether they get hurt and end their careers, remain with a life-altering injury, or even the risk of death. We’ve seen the tragedy of human athletes losing their career or their lives for the passion of their sports.

The problem is, horses may (and often do) have the same passion for their sports that human athletes do – they are bred for their job, the passion is born in them (often, with some exceptions). Horses, however, can’t understand that running at high speeds many days in a row can put themselves at risk. They can’t understand that they may fall, break a leg, or die. They can’t understand that this excess work is gradually degrading their joints and that they may live their older years in great pain. They don’t understand that giving it their all this time, may be the end of their well-being. So while they may have the same passion for their jobs and sports as human competitors, but they can’t understand the risks they are signing up for. They can’t sign the contract, they can’t read the small print. They can’t give their knowledgeable consent to participate.

My husband is a High School Football coach in our small town – I am watching the revolution in childhood sports firsthand. We look at human athletes who have trained their whole lives to be incredible football players, soccer players, gymnasts, and so on – in order to compete with the best they need to begin at a young age. But we run into this same problem again – children can’t give their knowledgeable consent. A child who has only lived 10 years can’t understand what it means to have a life-long injury, the risk of paralysis, or even death. damaged knees may not just stop a football career, but may become a physical problem for life, seriously damaging the quality and future for that child. With parent and social pressure to participate in sports many children feel compelled to give it their all, without full understanding of the risk. Their desire to participate may be honest and intense, but they aren’t capable of understanding what may occur, due only to their age and limited life experiences. If you’ve only ever scraped your knee, you can’t imagine the pain of a broken bone or even a life-altering injury. Repeat concussions and head injuries is a serious problem in many youth sports, leading to life-long consequences.

What sports can look like when fun, safety, and consent are taken into consideration

Yes, it’s true, injuries and even death can occur to a horse or human who was born sick, or just had a tragic accident while going about their happy day to day. These events are tragedies – they do happy. It’s a terrible truth that even the most loved and cared for horse can be seriously injured or die because of any random event. Lightning could strike, a horse could fall, colic happens, infection happens, it can be terrible. There is a risk just in living life. But we can’t compare these risks with those of animals who are bred and trained (often with force-based techniques) to participate in not just regular activity, but activities proven to be dangerous. We can’t even begin to compare the rate of damage, career-ending or even life-ending injuries from a horse by a true accident compared to those who participate in extreme sports of jobs. The numbers are astronomical. When we compare this with human children, we know that playing in sports is normal and acceptable, but we would not ask our child to participate in a sport we believe is dangerous. Kind parents wouldn’t encourage their child to push themselves beyond their physical and emotional well-being just to get the win. They wouldn’t sign their child up for a sport that puts them at great risk. Sports are being regulated and controlled to provide more extreme safety measures to protect children. These same measures need to be taken for our animals.

What “Work” can look like when fun, safety, and consent are taken into consideration

Football is undergoing a revolution. Parents are stopping their children from competing. Due to this, many states are changing the rules so certain ages can only participate in flag football, learning the rules and techniques without the impact. Even still by highschool students are competing with full impact, freshman are often substantially out-sized and out-matched by seniors, their growth stages and maturity levels are at their most intense, their desire to compete can convince students to play through serious injuries, hiding their injury so they can continue to compete. Sometimes just for the love of the sport, and sometimes for the promise of the better future (and money) this sport may hold for them if they do well. Horses have the same trouble – not that the promise of money is going to make them want to compete, but their riders may. Their riders may mask injuries with painkillers, may push further than they ought to, may ask for just a bit more than the horse is really capable of, in love of the sport, in desire to win, and the many benefits that come from it.

Because of our major issue with consent the child and animal sport worlds need a major upheaval, in regards to safety and well-being of each individual participating. This means not only do we need more strict regulations protecting the participants, more care and participation from educated professionals like trainers and veterinarians, but also more motivators for riders, owners and competitors to actually comply with these regulations. One of my students wanted to bring our donkeys to a just for fun donkey show. But our donkeys had never traveled, with only a few days to prepare, our donkeys were not able to get on the trailer and participate in the event without great undo stress. The child who wanted to participate was disappointed – but we still went and she brought her life-size stuffed donkey to decorate our booth (where we were teaching about clicker training). The judge came and told her that she could have her stuffed donkey participate in one of the events, they won “most creative costume” as her donkey “Squinky” was a stuffed animal dressed as a real donkey! They child had just as much fun (if not more) without undo stress on our real animals. While I’m not suggesting we replace show jumpers and dressage riding with stuffed animals, we do need incentive put in place for the humans to choose when to NOT participate with their horses. There needs to be a benefit for those who choose what is right for their horse, like this wonderful judge did at this just for fun donkey show. We have also seen a great increase in “Hobby Horse” competitions where people rider toy horses. The human competitors continue to enjoy their sport, without putting living animals at risk.

Oh but, if we didn’t have sports and work for horses to do people would stop having them?! Well maybe, but they would also stop suffering for our entertainment. Horses will continue to do what we breed them for. If we continue to breed and compete more extreme athletes, horses will continue to participate and be put at risk by extreme athletics – while we could breed more overall healthy horses, balancing their well-being with the sport we participate in. We can also balance out the sports with regulations to be more fun and less physically extreme. We have done so a great deal in the dog world. We have rules an parameters around dog agility, pulling events, herding events, even showmanship. These changes made to each competition (while still greatly imperfect) continue to better the safety and well-being of our beloved dogs. Allowing us all to enjoy our sports of old, but kept more fun, safe, and appropriate for our friends who are unable to consent to the risks of extreme sports.

Posted by Jessica

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

Equine Yoga

Emerson and I have begun doing some self-care related yoga and exercises. It's been helping our sore muscles from all the barn labor and the cold winter days. As we did a session we both looked at each other and said, we gotta do this with the horses! So we filmed our starting sessions with each horse. Everyone is at a very different place in their training and physical well-being, but they all have begun their yoga regimens! We'll do regular posts to update as we progress. In the meantime enjoy these videos! Emerson narrated her work, so you can learn alot of what we are doing from her videos, I'll try to write about what we're doing in my sessions - I'm not so coordinated to narrate while I go!

Our goal with our equine yoga is the same as with human yoga. To connect the mind to the body, bringing our horses' awareness inside themselves, learning about their bodies in a variety of fun and engaging ways. The goal is to gain flexibility, strength, and balance through a wide variety of exercises. All done with positive reinforcement to help them actually learn about their body (not just have themselves be physically manipulated).

Read More

Posted by Jessica

Taina’s Rainbow Day Miracle

A couple days ago we set up our Rainbow day decorations and as usual I let Taina out into the barn aisle. We did our usual training and target sessions and I showed her our tree and let her meet Rainbow. When I told her about the special day she was so inspired she immediately walked right outside!!! WHAT?! Outside - in the snow!! She threw herself a bit over threshold and scared me quite a bit. Haha! But after she composed herself and reconnected with me we explored the area just outside the barn and we played with the snow a bit before returning happily to her stall.

Read More

Posted by Jessica

Taina’s Opinion on Aversives

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

Read More

Posted by Jessica

Wispy’s Winter Fitness Update 1

It's been a couple weeks but Wisp and I are still doing well!! Janneke helped kick us off on the right foot with lots of ideas to play with. We have been mixing it all up to keep it as interesting and engaging as possible. Too much of anything gets old, even something good! First of all, I have to say, Tumble Mats have become one of the greatest investments in our whole barn! Everyone is enjoying them. They have given us a list of fun exercise behaviors to do with Wispy too! We are starting on easy as Wisp and I don't do "stretching" - we both need a little yoga! So here we go, double sized Yoga mats for Wispy and we're ready to get started!

Read More

Posted by Jessica