What is Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility? Is it necessary?

Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility are a big topic on the internet right now. Seems education is spreading around, I’m so glad for this. For the well-being of horses everywhere, understanding these commonly used and exploited coping mechanisms are not only dangerous, but also cruel. If you’ve studied psychology or seen videos of animals “hypnotized” or doing “yoga” or maybe the awful shark flipping techniques, you may have heard of these topics, it’s been shown to be something present in all species of animals. To start, there is a lot of misconception about what these terms really mean, so let’s clear that up. We’ll let science define the terms to keep us all on the same page. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

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

Learned Helplessness

There is a “funny” image of a horse who fell down and got her foot stuck on an electric fence, the horse goes dull and unresponsive. Everyone thinks this is a big act of drama by the horse, “haha what a silly horse, she’s only caught a little, doesn’t she know she’s fine?”

Obviously not…

Have you never been so scared in your life that you are frozen with terror? That you disconnect with reality? You imagine its happening to someone else, not you? You just go limp and pray for it to be over quickly? This is tonic immobility, this is such extreme fear the horse feels they have already lost, the monsters are there to eat them, they disconnect with reality. Nothing, nothing, nothing about this emotion is funny.


Often animals who experience this a few times in their life fall into this state more and more quickly. So while running (possibly in fear not play) then falling, a serious sliding fall, and then feeling trapped by the leg is actually a horrifying experience for anyone, it may not have been the horse’s first time feeling this way and fell into this state of shock quickly. Perhaps they were “laid down” by humans, or sacked out, or twitched regularly… who knows. But still. Not. Funny.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Alternative Equine Lifestyles

It takes a special type of person to turn away from society’s norms and work to change the world for the better. It’s very easy and comfortable to live a life within traditional expectations, gender roles, following the rules, and keep your questioning to yourself. It can be difficult, painful, and rather isolating to step outside that box, even if it’s for the better. I believe this barn became the ethical, forward-thinking, animal care facility it is because it’s run by those people who have walked outside normality. I am proud to be a part of such a beautiful group of humans and animals.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way” – Martin Luther King Jr. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica

Desensitizing Whips?

To Desensitize: to render insensitive; to make indifferent, unaware; diminishes emotional responsiveness to an aversive or appetitive stimulus

Negative Reinforcement (R-) is the removal of a stimulus that increases the frequency of a behavior. The learner would have to find the stimulus that was removed aversive for it’s removal to be reinforcing. If the stimulus were neutral, it’s removal would be indifferent to the learner. If the stimulus were appetitive, it’s removal could even be punishing to the learner (P-).

More of this here: https://empoweredequines.com/clicker-training/training-articles/conditioning/

I watched a professional trainer (I won’t use their name to be nice) at a local expo thoroughly confuse a horse with a swinging whip. Spend the first few minutes rubbing the horse down with the whip, each time the horse became uncomfortable and tried to scoot away he “corrected” the horse with a few tugs on the rope halter, stopping any movement. When the horse relaxed he continued to rub the whip on them. Then he held the whip and spun the short string in a circle towards the horse’s hip. The horse stood calmly, as he had been taught, but didn’t realize that the trainer now wanted a behavior, hip away. As the horse didn’t respond correctly, the handler increased the spinning until the tip of the string began flicking the horse’s hip. At this point the horse reacted and scooted his hip away from the sensation. Clearly this sensation was aversive to the horse as it’s removal increased the frequency of behavior as they repeated this. They practiced on both sides. The horse became fluent in moving his hips away. They returned to rubbing the whip on the horse’s body, the horse smartly moved his hips away as the whip approached his hip. He was punished with a few snaps on the lead. Now the trainer wants stillness. They repeat this until the horse allows the whip to be rubbed all over him while staying still. They continued to proof their cue just as we do with R+, by alternating between moving hips away and staying still until the horse understood the whip’s contingency. The trick here is that the whip was not desensitized, rather contingencies have been placed on the whip. It’s aversiveness hasn’t changed, but the way to find relief/avoidance has changed based on the tool’s position.

So why desensitize a tool designed to be used as an aversive?
To learn about tools like these that have been conditioned to be aversive read here: https://empoweredequines.com/2019/11/13/conditioned-aversives/#more-1790
I see trainers work very hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, because they don’t want their horse to be afraid of the whip – but then they use the whip as something the horse should work to avoid. If you succeed in desensitizing the whip thoroughly, the tool will no longer motivate behavior or reinforce the behavior when the whip is removed. The same can be said for any tool we intend to use as a removal tool. We wouldn’t desensitize a horse to our leg cues, as we want them to respond to the lighter cues. We want them to respond while the cue is mild, not ignore or be dull to the leg, so we need to increase for them to perform. We could desensitize it a degree, taking the edge off the tool, so we can rest our legs on their side without a reaction, hold a whip in their area without them panicking, but we wouldn’t want to desensitize the tool completely, where the horse is not responsive/reactive to it. You want the horse to be sensitive to the tools you’re using – not desensitive!

Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

We can do this too with our R+ tools, bring down the value without completely desensitizing.  I’ve found a few times I like to do this, often with new horses who are over-aroused or too excited and focused on the food we’re using to train. I want my rewards to be of a high value (like we want the aversive tools to be strong so we can use them gently), but not so high the horse isn’t able to think or enjoy their time learning.  However if I have an aversive I’m looking to desensitize, I’m likely to look at a gentle, systematic approach with counter conditioning to help reduce/remove the aversive value. While with something that is appetitive, I’m more likely to desensitize it through flooding! I decrease the value by providing alot of it, the more access to the food I’m using, the less exciting it is to get it. This is why I like to use hay pellet/stretcher, I can allow the horse to have some on the side, either in a bucket or toy food dispenser, knowing they have another choice available can reduce the value of the food in my pocket. I can also satiate by feeding high quantity handfuls in the beginning of the training, and decrease as the horse feels satiated. However my sheep will remind me not to oversatiate or desensitize a certain food or they’ll get sick of it, it will lose it’s appetitive value, and (like the whip in my example) it will lose it’s effectiveness as a reinforcer.


People often try hard to desensitize tools like whips so as to feel better about using them, so they don’t feel as though their horse is scared of the tool. But if they don’t find the tool something worth avoiding, it won’t work to motivate behavior, it’s removal wouldn’t be reinforcing if they didn’t dislike the tool to some degree. Often people who spend this time desensitizing tools like whips end up having to buy flags or some other tool to get the same reaction as a whip used to! Which is rather counter-intuitive.


Courtesy of Fed Up Fred

But if a horse allows you to rub an object/whip/flag, all over them, but still moves away from the whip when cued, isn’t that desensitizing? Not quite. See, they would have successfully put strong contingencies on the whip. Meaning to avoid conflict, remain still and calm, the tool is desensitized to a near neutral level of sensitivity when it’s held out and rubbed all over their body. But the tool does hold an aversive meaning when swung behind them, held up beside them, or otherwise used to cue behavior. We know it has an aversive value because the horse is willing to work to avoid it. If they didn’t work to avoid it, it wouldn’t be aversive, but we also wouldn’t get the behavior we were asking for with R-. At this point we either need to resensitize the tool, teaching them that when held in this position it will escalate until the correct behavior is elicited (moving away).

Posted by Jessica

Why Would a Horse Prefer an Aversive?

Some people tell me, “I tried bitless, but my horse prefers using a bit” or “my horse prefers R-, I tried R+ but traditional training just works better for him”. This seems counter-intuitive to us who understand that these situations are actually aversive to the learner. Our horses are not masochists, so why would they choose the more aversive of two options? Why would a horse prefer force over treats? Why would a horse prefer an invasive tool over a softer external tool?

There are alot of answers to these (Are you using the right tools? Did you choose one that is actually gentle? Do they fit right? etc…) but the simplest one underneath it all is “the devil you know”. The devil we know is always better than the devil we don’t, because we understand how it works, we understand how to avoid the bad and reach the good. A horse who “prefers” the bit isn’t truly saying they like having an invasive and uncomfortable bar placed inside their mouth and used to manipulate their head and neck. They are saying they understand this, they know how to respond to these aids and avoid extreme pain or discomfort, reaching relief more quickly. Quite simply this is uncomfortable but safe. While they may actually prefer a gentle bitless side pull (ya, we know not all bitless options are kind! So don’t swap one aversive for another) they may not actually understand these new sidepull cues as clearly as the bit they knew well. They may not recognize the warnings before the aversiveness of the tool needs to escalate. These are new and different aversive sensations they don’t yet understand how to avoid and can be much more concerning than a stronger aversive they do know how to avoid. They may need to go through the learning process again, either through R- or R+ to learn how to respond appropriately to the tool and avoid the aversive created by the tool. Even gentle sidepulls are still something wrapped around their head and manipulating their movement. This devil they don’t know may ultimately be much kinder, but because they don’t understand it yet it can be or seem much worse. The fear of the unknown outweighs the known bad they have learned to control.

This same principle applies when people say their horse prefers to use negative reinforcement. What humans mean by this is that the horse finds the right answer more quickly (faster results) and with less negative emotional expressions. Why does this happen? Negative Reinforcement works by applying an aversive which maintains or increases until the horse performs the correct behavior, at which point the aversive is relieved. This learning method requires an aversive to work, if they don’t want to avoid it they won’t work for relief. So, why would any being choose this over working for a reward? Why would anyone prefer avoidance over seeking? Quite simply because they understand it better. Not because R- training is better or more clear, but rather because that one human (their trainer) is more fluent in and better at using R-. The human may be more clear, more consistent in their timing, clearer criteria, and better rate of negative reinforcement, making it easier for the horse to succeed. While the human (who is often very new to understanding R+ and behavioral science) may be clumsy, have poor timing, poor antecedent arrangement, too low a rate of reinforcement, unclear criteria, and so on, making earning reinforcement difficult and frustrating for the horse. So the horse is not preferring the aversive R- over the appetitive R+, but they are preferring the clarity and understanding, the safety in knowing how to respond appropriately and the consequences of their behavior. There is comfort in clarity and consistency, even if its consistently unpleasant. As opposed to unclear, confusing, sometimes good, sometimes terribly frustrating.

So what do we do about this? We need to recognize first that these are not the horses’ problem, this is something caused by the person. The person handling the horse may be better at using R- or not willing to take the time to retrain known R- behaviors or to retrain new, gentler tools so then the horse doesn’t understand these new tools or forms of communication. So the horse seems to prefer the “devil they know”, but in truth they just don’t know what gentler tools mean or how R+ could be wonderful if done right. So no, your horse does not prefer the more aversive tools or techniques, they prefer the clarity and safety in understanding how to avoid them. So we need to educate owners on how to use R+ properly, how to adapt it to different horse personalities and different human goals. We need to help people understand how to get what they want with consistent timing, clear criteria, and appropriate rate of reinforcement.

We often get horses at our rescue who are retired work horses, they understand a life of R-, we often use these cues and their previous learning, because this is a language they know and taking it away from them can be confusing, scary and overwhelming if done all at once. We need to retrain their language a piece at a time and not turn their world on their head, especially if we are working with them in anyway (like the vet or farrier). So we use what they knew until we can replace it with a kinder language. But there are some things we will throw out immediately, the things just for us, for our benefit, i throw those out because i won’t subject a horse to aversives for my own pleasure (this is my ethical line). So things like riding will wait until i retrain it with R+. I will also choose the kindest tools i feel safe with to train with R+. Because any behavior can be put on any cue with R+, we can use any tool (or no tool) to work with our horses. More on this here…

Posted by Jessica

R+ Kids and Horses Belong Together

Kids and horses are a beautiful pair, there is a special bond between a child and their first heart horse, something hard to ever create again. The stress and added mental work of adulthood can take away that unfiltered love given to a horse. This relationship of complete vulnerability, trust, and love molds a child into an amazing adult. The R+ lifestyle helps to foster these relationships in fun and creative ways to adapt to every child and horse. With protected contact, modified methods of feeding, the use of targets and costumes the options are limitless with kids and horses. We've watched time and again here at EE, kids bringing a breath of new life and joy to horses who were so broken they'd forgotten what happiness felt like. Children have an impeccable way of cracking that outer shell and providing unconditional love in a way that can reach horses. We adults are often clouded by hopes, plans, goals, overthinking, problem solving, busy minds... We forget to live in the moment and enjoy the time we have, we forget to be present with the horse in front of us.

The kids here don't just participate they often get to help make the big decisions - in every aspect of our horses, from the rescue to the rehabilitation, and eventually helping the horse pass on. One day on a farm field trip to the aquarium (where we learned about clicker training sharks!! It was so cool for the kids to see R+ in a very different realm) we saw the carriage company we rescued Revel from. We stopped and chatted with the people who owned them and most of the horses looked good, big, fat Percherons, younger and healthy. Except this old roan Belgian sitting in the back, as we got out hands under his coat we felt his bones, one of the older girls locked eyes with him and saw his lost soul. I told the owners that when they were ready to let him go, call us first. They did about a year later. He had lost much more weight and was struggling. On arrival we found out he is close to 30, and due to an unknown accident he had lost all the teeth on one side of his face (which explained his struggle with weight). The kids set up his rescue, we visited him the day we were told we could have him, they took the day off of school to go pick him up, then enjoyed spoiling him rotten. They've participated in the rescue of every horse who's come in, we made a 3 hour (both ways) detour driving from Maryland to Arkansas on our way to New Mexico, to visit Taina while she was in quarantine from the kill pen. Then while in New Mexico, one of our older girls fell wildly in love with a baby mustang who was at our friend's rescue Mustang Camp - so when we got the devastating news that Taina had lost her baby, we knew just what to do! Baby boy Celest made the road trip home!

The kids learn a great deal as they help the horses recover from their past. They get to learn from a variety of professionals - vets, dentists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, farriers, and specialists of all varieties. The kids have learned to help hold their horses when sedated for dentals or pass tools to vets as requested. Relationships aren't formed just on the good times or during the heroic rescues of special friends, but through the challenges and stressful times as well. I've felt my heart attach firmly to a horse while holding them through the most painful times of their life - this connection becomes unconditional, driven deep into our hearts and lasts a lifetime. It's important the kids get the opportunity to participate in these aspects of their relationships with their horses (when safe to do so). The kids learn about dealing with wounds, problem solving diagnostics when we can't tell what's wrong, juggling opinions of peers and professionals, and knowing how to watch our horses for signs that something isn't right. They learn about the different topical meds and when they might be needed, what situations and times they're appropriate. They know when it's time to call me or when it's time to call the vet, the day Marshmallow cut her face wide open Larkin came running down to my house with the vet's number already ringing, so we could get her here as soon as possible. Larkin also helped hold Marshmallow's head up, get a bucket of warm water and wound cleaner and braided her fluffy mane out of the way so everything was ready when the vet arrived. The kids also got to visit Wisp while she was in the hospital and learned all about equine surgeries, medications, fasting, and refeeding. These aspects of care are often left out at traditional farms where kids only come for riding, because they aren't fun, they're often gruesome and sometimes have sad endings. But a concept we remind our kids is not just the relationship building aspect of this experience, but also that the presence of someone they love and trust can make these times easier for our horses. Knowing someone safe is watching over them can provide them great comfort in times of extreme stress or pain (when safe to do so).


These times don't always end as we hope, we don't always get to come out the other side. This tragedy is never easy to go through, but it's a time our barn knows well, we often provide hospice care for horses in need. Our kids become a great support for each other during these difficult times, our family joins hands and hold each other strong so we can give our horses their best. Viking was the first and most painful loss for our farm - he was Emerson's first true heart horse, at 14 years old she had spent a long time working with him daily on his emotional control and physical rehab due to his neurological issue. But a growth spurt at 6 years old caused his untimely passing, despite Em's best efforts. This was a crushing blow for everyone, his death was so wrong, too soon, and so heart breaking. Em felt it best if she were there for him, she was the only person he fully trusted and fully loved, so she knew that the only way he would not be afraid was if she were with him. It was fast and dramatic, and so terribly sad, all the kids huddled around his body, holding hands, crying, and telling stories about their baby boy.

By far the hardest loss for our barn was losing our king, Revel, at 19 hands and 2,000lbs, with a personality 10x as big as his body he was everyone's favorite. He gave these kids so much fun, riding, agility, playing rough house, this silly boy brought so much joy to our farm. He broke his leg at the end of winter, but there was hope, we fought for 11 months to try to pull him through this. The kids helped take him for hand walks, cold hose his leg, massage him, build him tons of enrichment toys. They even helped open up a double stall for him and piled in 28 bags of bedding to help him rest. When the day came his supporting leg gave out the call went out to all his best friends who came to say goodbye. We made him buckets and buckets of treat soup, brought him out to graze and eat him slurpy peppermint candy soup, then said our most painful goodbye. The kids all held him, hugged him, then hugged each other, sharing stories and memories.

In contrast, Gummy Bear, he was the ideal, most perfect situation we could ask for. He came to our farm when he body was used up and he was ready to die, he was broken and on his way to be slaughtered, a terribly death. He walked off the trailer, saw his farm, got smothered with love by allll the kids, and he decided it was worth living. He cleaned up shiny and healed as much as he could, but his disease will degrade, he won't get better. He lived 2 amazing years, knowing he was a ticking time bomb, we knew he could go any day and we reminded the kids that his days were numbered. He spent every, single, day getting spoiled rotten, he did anything he wanted whenever he wanted. Whenever a kid had spare time they would groom him, cuddle him, and feed him tons and tons of treats. Sure enough the day came when he came in from outside much too slow. Something let go in one of his hind legs, the kids came and told me something was up, his hock was huge. With his disease we knew this was coming. I sat in the tack room crying for a few minutes with one of the older girls, then together we went out and told the kids that this was the day. We called the vet and the kids spent the rest of the hour opening every treat in the barn, one dad ran to the store for a bag of mints, he was surrounded completely by the love of every child who's life he touched. They all hugged and kissed him and went into the barn, I held him for the vet and the kids all came back to kiss him goodbye. It was perfect. He had 2 perfect years full of love, fun, and play, then a few minutes of pain covered up by love and candy.

After a horse here passes they get their own memorial garden in our big garden. We often use their feed tub or something special from them, Sugar Plum has an extensive fairy garden, the others have special representative gifts, and they all have beautiful flowers that match their theme. This allows the kids to take time to remember their horse, to still give to and care for a horse they loved. My childhood horse passed when I was 17, he was the love of my life, the first horse who I fell in love with with no conditions - he could never be ridden, he was neurological. Despite what he couldn't do for me as a horse, he did so much for me as a friend, he was silly, fresh and fun, we were so happy together. When he passed we put a toy rocking horse over his grave, but when we moved out of that property I took the rocking horse home with me and built him his own memorial garden too.

It's not all hard times, sorrow, and difficult life lessons. There's a lot of fun and play between hello and goodbye. This is where the love is made. The program allows the kids to pick favorite horses and work one on one with them and build a special relationship, of course that doesn't mean they can't go spoil someone else for a while! Each pair has different ways of having fun and goals to grow towards. These horses thrive, grow, and enjoy life. These horses aren't retired, they've been promoted to the fun part of their life! Dress up is one of the favorite activities with all the kids, whether they're kids, tweens or teens! They love to make decorations and costumes, get all dressed up and take photos with fancy backdrops in the woods, doing the agility ring, in front of the river, or out around the green fields. This is tons of fun for the horses, while some take some candy courage to put up with the ridiculous outfits the kids come up with. With R+ they work together to make sure this is fun for both of them, it's especially fun to go fun places together for photos. This is Butterfly's favorite activity, she doesn't know what's going on (she's blind) but she knows everyone is fussing and cooing over how precious she is and she gets lots of candy and cuddles!! The kids especially love rainbow butterfly parties! These costume photo sessions really help the young girls feel confident, beautiful, and special - they're able to express their true selves in whatever wild and creative ways they like. They get to carry these memories and fun times with them forever, giving them something to be proud of forever.

Agility is the other big thing, all the horses love it! Regardless of whether the horses can be ridden or not, getting to go play with obstacles and toys is really fun for everyone. Teaching practical skills like leading, tolerating vet care and tack/tools, moving certain body parts in certain ways, these are all valuable skills for the horse and human pair to be able to work safely together. But taking these practical skills to the agility ring can become the ultimate test of your abilities in a very fun way! This is a great way for the horses to get exercise in a fun and stress-free way. The horses love playing silly games with the kids, running around, bouncing over obstacles (or just crashing through them!) It also helps build our horses' confidence with a wide variety of things they may encounter in their life. Walking through pool noodles, going over poles, maneuvering a maze, weaving through crazy objects like pinwheels, and a variety of platforms. These strange objects are presented in a fun and familiar way for horses, preparing them for all sorts of situations in real life, like standing on scales, getting on trailers, going through the woods, going to events, and crazy emergency vet procedures.

Some of the horses are able to do light riding for some of the kids, some of the teens work with the horses to learn riding skills. While riding isn't our focus we like our horses who are able to, to know the skills of being ridden with R+. As a rescue we find it important to educate people, especially children, all about fun ways to enjoy horses other than just riding. Often riding becomes the end all, be all for horses, when they're no longer able to be ridden whether for physical or emotional reasons, often horses end up being disposed of. This is unfair for animals who deserve care for a full life and happy times with their humans, regardless of whether or not they can be used as an object to ride. So while we enjoy the occasional light riding and "Pony" (draft horse) rides for the young kids, we try to stress the point the riding is a fun addition and not a necessity or contingency for love. Many of our horses were driving horses at some point in their past, being draft horses, but it's actually Punk who will be learning to pull a small cart with his friend Larkin.

The kids also love for going on hikes and field trips with the ponies too! They're so portable we can bring them all different places. We love going on hikes, Punk has his own pack he carries on trails with the ponies' lunch while we carry backpacks with our own lunch. We explore all the local trail systems, for a short while Larkin had Punk trained well enough to ride him on trails before she outgrew him. The ponies love going on field trips, they go to our neighbor's Christmas tree farm to play with their donkeys and sometimes to the beach down the road. Marshmallow loves to swim in the water, luckily the kids are willing to go into that cold water with her! Punk is not a fan of the moving water, but he does enjoy a good roll in the sand and exploring all the smells, and especially getting the attention from anyone on the beach. The little ones also go to the equine affaire annually, Punk paints paintings for people while Marshmallow goes around and flirts with all the handsome stallions and snuggles treats out of all the kids walking around. The ponies love to teach people the wonderful benefits of R+ everywhere they go. Marshmallow is always game for an adventure, she leads the way and takes us for walks all around events, she likes to see everyone and everything. These fun adventures are awesome for the kids and horses alike.

The horses and the farm family also provide each other a great deal of emotional support. Horses have big ears, strong backs, and gentle hearts to carry us when we are weak - this doesn't need to be literal, sometimes just having them there to listen, hug, and feel loved is all we need. Whether going through hard times or not we are here for each other. A favorite summer activity is taking our favorite horse out on the nice grass front lawn to graze while we relax in the sunshine. Usually the sheep, cat and chickens will come join us. Friends will trickle in with their horse, we sit around and talk about nothing and everything. Our horses peaceful chewing, their check-ins and snuggle times really are just the support we need as we re-ground ourselves. We take time to appreciate what we have and fix what needs addressing. It's our mutual support time.

Posted by Jessica

The Responsibility of Love

One of the most frustrating things I hear in the rescue world when people get rid of their animals is, “they can no longer earn their keep”. This is a very outdated way of thinking. There was a time when animals served humans as essentially, slaves, they labored, they suffered, they were used until they could no longer be used, then they were killed and used for their parts. This baseline assumption is a huge problem – the idea that animals owe us their lives, their labor, their bodies, and then still ask for their affection? The idea sounds absurd when we look at it from the outside, when we take out our personal bias. If we were to look at another culture doing the same actions to another species we would see our hypocrisy (for example when people get upset over the abuse, labor, and consumption of dogs, cats, and exotic animals in Asian wet markets).

We could debate forever the ethics of using animals for labor, for their products, or for their meat. I’m not going to get into that – but I encourage everyone to look at this topic deeply and think about it with your brain and heart and come to your own conclusions that you feel good about.

I’m here to talk about the choice to own, ride, and commit to our horses in particular. These poor animals fall everywhere from livestock to family member. Regardless of where they land on your sliding scale, most people have an assumption of labor for their horses. They expect to be able to ride, drive, or compete with their horses. Why get a horse if not to ride? Just get a dog if not, right? Horses aren’t just expensive pasture ornaments. But what’s in it for the horse to do so?

I think it’s time in modern society to shift our mindset when it comes to horses – it’s time for a change. Horses should no longer be expected to work or expected to conform to human goals, competitions, or aspirations. But the shift I’m asking for isn’t huge. I’m not going to tell people to stop riding their horses or working their horses – but rather shift our mindset to appreciation. We should now appreciate when our horses choose to participate with us, we should appreciate when they help us reach our goals.

There is a huge difference in this mindset of expectation vs. appreciation. When we expect something and it’s not delivered (for whatever reason) we feel betrayed, let down, and justified in breaking up a relationship. It’s as though they aren’t upholding their end of a deal or bargain – but there was no contract, they didn’t know the deal. When we appreciate instead of expect, we go in with no presumptions, no goals, nothing to lose, so everything they offer we can be grateful for. We can recognize the gift our horses have given us by choosing to participate and choosing to give us their labor and relationship. These things can be achieved with Positive Reinforcement, to show our horses what we like, what we want more of, and that we are grateful for it. It can also give them the ability to say “this is too much to ask for right now”. It provides the horses a level of consent and agreement. This concept of appreciation vs. expectation can be seen especially when the horse becomes injured, sick, old, or even just unhappy. So often horses are sold, given away, left at auction, or otherwise tossed out simply because they are no longer “useful” to the owner, because the horse is no longer meeting their person’s expectations.

When we think in the realm of expectations, we believe that a horse should do our bidding it puts us in the frame of mind of force, pressure, and even punishment should the animal not comply. While when we think in the realm of appreciation, we believe a horse owes us nothing but they may choose to give to us – this puts us in the frame of mind of reward, reinforcement, praise and signs of appreciation. I do have some degree of expectation to be able to provide my horse full care safely. I want to be able to tend to their hooves, clean their environment, provide enrichment and basic husbandry care – I expect this. I don’t expect them to be perfect and compliant for these things from day one, I expect to be able to work towards this so I can provide them a healthy and appropriate life. I do not expect them to participate in anything that is just for fun, just for me, or cosmetic in anyway, these things I just appreciate when they do participate. I show my appreciation through positive reinforcement (and non-contingent rewards and love!) This becomes a more mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationship for both partners.

When we make the decision to add a horse to our life we owe them a full contract of freedoms (freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress, and the freedom to express their normal behaviors) with low expectations (the ability to provide them care) and a great deal of appreciation for anything they chose to share with us. This is the responsibility of love, if we choose to love them and add them to our lives, we owe them all this. Ideally this will be for a lifetime partnership – there are situations where we can’t keep them, but it should never be for a horse not fulfilling an expectation they didn’t know about or sign up for.

Posted by Jessica

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