Beauty is Pain?

Beauty is Pain?

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

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

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

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

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

The Quadrants Are All-Encompassing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is Not Disposable

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

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

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

Before pictures:

This is no longer necessary.

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

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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Riding Extinction Bursts

Riding Extinction Bursts

Riding an Extinction Burst?

Once a behavior has been learned to be a source of reinforcement and the reinforcement ends extinction will begin. So if a behavior was reinforced but now is not, the behavior will begin to fade. A behavior that is not maintained with reinforcement won’t maintain itself, it will begin to be less reliable, accurate, and consistent. The behavior won’t just fade away, it will actually burst like a bubble. Starting at the narrow point of the accurate, correct, and consistent display of the behavior. As the behavior goes un-backed up the learner will begin to vary the behavior (maybe I really need to do it a little different?) often making the behavior bigger and more dramatic to try to get the reinforcement response they were looking for (if you don’t want it like this, how about I do it twice as big?!)

This phenomenon of behavior bursting before extinguishing happens with all species and carries with it the same feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and desperation. So when we’re training our horses and reinforce a behavior we like, then decide later we no longer want that behavior, be aware of extinction bursts. Even if you didn’t originally intend to reinforce that specific behavior. For example, often when people start hand feeding their horses the horse learns to invade the human’s space and take treats out of the human’s pockets directly (why not it’s easier than waiting?) We decide we don’t like this new “mugging” behavior, and find it rather rude, so we stop hand-feeding, but the horse gets worse and worse, eventually even biting! Now we are resorting to punishment to defend ourselves, our horse is frustrated and we think “hand feeding was such a terrible mistake!” But what really happened was a misunderstood extinction burst. The lack of clear behavioral criteria with the food in the beginning, plus the sudden removal of reinforcement for a behavior that had previously worked is the combination that lead to the inappropriate expression. Just like the child at the store counter.

Understanding this pattern can help us recognize it and avoid it. However there are some trainers who try to use this to their advantage in training, we call this “riding the extinction burst”. Where they train a behavior, reinforcing it lightly and unpredictably. This helps the horse understand what behavior is wanted, but then when it’s not reinforced they exaggerate and vary the behavior making it bigger and better. Then the behavior is reinforced again to stop it from growing beyond this exaggerated point. As the behavior settles back into it’s normal lower expression, reinforcement with be withheld again, causing it to begin bursting again. This is extremely upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and enraging for the learner. It becomes just like gambling, even addictive. It’s an inappropriate and dangerous approach to training. It can easily lead to an outburst of behavior that’s misplaced, it creates negative emotions that could easily be turned into aggressive behaviors. This is the most inappropriate use of R+ training I’ve seen out there. Extremely dangerous for human and extremely upsetting for the horse.

So let’s make sure we work well to prevent this dangerous cycle. As we’ve seen removing the reinforcement isn’t the ideal option, avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem. So we need to use reinforcement appropriately:

1. Rate of reinforcement – make sure your RoR is high enough to match the effort of the behavior, in early learning this will begin very rapid and can settle into a more relaxed rate as the horse becomes comfortable with which behavior earns which reinforcement.

2. Food value – using a lower food value can help reduce the learner’s desperation for the reinforcement and reduce the amount of over the top effort they will put towards that behavior. So make sure to match the value of the food with the difficulty of the behavior (for your individual, a high spirited horse may need more satiating and low value food compared to a mild-mannered, quiet horse, who may need slightly higher value, more interesting food to be a strong motivator)

3. Food quantity – using larger quantities of lower value food is more appropriate, like getting a bag of rice rather than a candy bar, it’s satiating and satisfying, but not exhilarating.

4. Alternate source – making sure there are other options available to the learner, so their only source of reinforcement isn’t just through working with you. This will reduce their desperation and frustration levels. Using hay or a treat toy while you’re training can help this.

5. Focus on calm – reinforce soft, mild expressions of behavior if the horse gets worked up while training…

6. Dial it down – provide a moment of satiation, using an easy behavior you can reinforce heavily and frequently, then break down the criteria of the behavior you’re having trouble with, into smaller and easier reinforceable steps.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
Conditioned Aversives

Conditioned Aversives

Conditioned Aversives

“The whip is just an extension of my arm”, “The whip is just encouragement”, “The whip just provides direction”, “my horse isn’t afraid of the whip”.

These are super common phrases used by people who just don’t understand how conditioning happens. Conditioning is when A=B. It only needs to happen once or twice for someone to learn A=B. For example most of us know not to touch an open flame, it will likely burn, we’ve seen flames heat things enough to know how flames=hot.

So whether the whip gently touches the horse, swings gently behind the horse, or just follows the horse without ever touching them – if the horse is working to avoid the whip, it’s aversive. You don’t need to touch the horse with the whip for it to work effectively as an aversive motivator for a horse. It’s still an aversive. Still negative reinforcement.

I see so often traditional and natural horsemanship trainers work so hard to desensitize their horse to the whip, rubbing the whip on them, moving the whip around – but if the horse flinches or seeks escape the horse is punished. All until the horse stands and tolerates the whip flapping all about them. However in the next move they use the whip to ask the horse to move away – if the horse does not the whip is flailed, flapped and smacked until the horse can bear the fear no more and moves off. If the horse is actually no longer afraid of the whip and does not move away they either strike the horse with the whip, reconditioning it as something to be feared and escaped from – or they tie a plastic bag onto the end to make it extra scary!!

So why desensitize them to something you do want them to be afraid of? Because most of us don’t want to believe we are using fear and threats to control our horses. Most of us truly love our horses and train them in the ways we’ve been taught as “correct” and even ethical. We want to believe our horses are doing what we ask out of love for us, trust or even “respect”. But the fact of the matter is that’s just not the way it works.

If they aren’t afraid of the whip more than they dislike the work being asked of them, the whip won’t work.

It’s as simple as that, a math equation, which is better, stand here and allow the whip to flap around, maybe even hit me – or work? It varies horse by horse how aversive the tool needs to be to get how much “work” out of the horse (and how aversive that horse finds the job being asked), but the equation remains the same. “But my horse isn’t actually afraid of the whip”, many people say this too, but if it were true the horse wouldn’t work to avoid it. It’s really as simple as that.

The same is true but opposite for a target. A horse will work to seek out a target so long as it’s value is stronger than the work – except in this case the value is appetitive, not aversive. The target can give direction more clearly and completely than whips – in that it shows them where TO go, not where NOT to go.

Often people, in an attempt to justify the use of their tools or training techniques, in their own mind or others – people will soften the language around these tools. “It’s just an extension of my arm”. Maybe if your hand is as aversive as a whip? It could be! Many of my rescues move rapidly away from a fast moving hand… But is that really the relationship you want your horse to have with your hands? With you? Don’t forget when conditioning is happening it’s not the tool alone that’s being conditioned, you and everything else that’s around are being wrapped up in that picture.

How do you want your horse to see your tools? your hands? You? Do you want to be a conditioned aversive? Or a conditioned appetitive?

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
Tiny Taina

Tiny Taina

My tiniest princess dragon. Taina (Ty-ee-nah)

So full of rage, underneath it fear, underneath that grief…

Trust and hope had been stolen from her. She had retreated into her mind and violently tried to make the suffering stop, but there was nothing she could do. She never truly shut down, never truly given up, always continued to rage against the torment in her life. But she would be compliant to avoid additional suffering. She has always been obedient, if I held her should would stand for vets or hoses (to get the waste off her legs) or farriers. She was ridden at the slaughter pen, she performed correctly. She did everything right – but inside was boiling over in fear and rage.

Many people would be happy with this compliance despite the obviously visible emotional torment. She never kicked or bit a human, she knew better, rather she’ll attack her walls or fences, pace in her stall and throw her body into the wall. She would hurt herself to release the pain and hysteria she was holding inside the whole time she was in the hands of a human. But for many people this would be acceptable, because she was compliant and “respectful” (I hate that word).

On arrival here Taina retreated to the back of her stall and her self-harm reduced to just gently banging her sides into the wall, or biting the wall. It was only after vet work or a stressful experience she would have an episode of kicking or biting or throwing herself into her walls (or fences, she has an indoor/outdoor). She remained terrified of the other horses, she wouldn’t leave her stall if any of the others were out (even with a fence between them). She retreated in terror of her whole world. We only invaded her world for medical care, otherwise we only offered ourselves with kindness. This was met with great suspicion.

Then one day she started to want to open up. She shared breath with me, it was her first unguarded moment of relationship. After several minutes of breathing gently and sweetly in my face and me breathing back gentle, loving thoughts, she stopped then it seemed to dawn on her what had happened and she jumped away from me and attacked her wall. From that day forward she began to truly progress.

We eliminated all aversives from her life (aside from medical). If she disliked something we made sure she didn’t have to deal with it, which took a great deal of creative problem solving, as she hated everything. Soon we were letting her loose in the barn aisle so she could explore on her own (as she wouldn’t go outside when other horses were there). From there she began to meet the other horses in her own form of “Protected Contact” she would scream at them through their stall bars and tell them how much she hated them and how scary they were. Most ignored her or walked off, some engaged in this screaming fight. But soon she began to trust them. Soon she began to go out and show heat to the boys over the fence, or strike with the girls, even a rare moment of mutual grooming over a fence. She still won’t go near them in full contact though, she likes being able to retreat.

We spent many months enriching her environment gently and positively. Adding small, new objects that were easy to avoid but had valuable payout if she explored. Soon she began to get excited for and love all these new things. Then we started letting her explore more and more of the farm. First on lead, we let her take us for walks (sometimes Hannah would be stuck with her for hours as Taina walked her around the farm!) Then we realized we were just in her way and confusing her, so we let her wander on her own. She has free range of our farm when we were out with her. She will greet the other horses from her safe distance and will check to make sure everyone cleaned their food dishes. She will explore their stalls and make sure we clean the barn right (but don’t you bring that broom too close!) and she’ll inform us when she’s ready to have her treat ball in her stall again and settle in for the night.

She has taken control back of her life. She is still “obedient” when needed for vet or farrier, and this fear will return, but much less so than ever before. She is 100% herself, alive and animated and oh so opinionated. She is honest and complete. She is happy.

We have no aspirations for her, we don’t know the extent of the physical and emotional toll her previous life has taken on her and will never test those limits. She will never be a riding horse again, though I’m sure I could hop on and go for a smooth gaited ride around the farm and she would accept that – but I don’t believe she will ever be able to let her guard down enough to enjoy that. Maybe agility someday? For now, we do “yoga” on her exercise mats, this she enjoys. We play with toys, she tells us when she wants a cuddle or an itch, and she tells us when she’s done. And we always listen. Her smile grows and her eyes relax with each day that passes and the good outweighs the bad.

Posted by Empowered1 in EE Rescue Stories, 0 comments
Safety Is NOT A Contingency

Safety Is NOT A Contingency

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

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

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

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

Safety should never be contingent on anything!

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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments


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

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

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Classical and Operant

Classical and Operant

Let’s talk conditioning… what’s the difference between classical and operant conditioning? And when do you utilize each in training? Why does it matter?

Classical conditioning is what most people are familiar with, the bell rings, dog anticipates food. Some people know this as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning. Simple pairing of two stimuli X=Y. Respondent behaviors are behaviors that happen reflexively, involuntarily, such as blinking, increasing heart rate or respiration, wincing, etc… Respondent behaviors happen in “response” to the environment. For example food will trigger salivation. Respondent conditioning is when we add a predictor signal, so while the food causes salivation, the bell predicts the food. Once the bell and food have been sufficiently paired, the bell alone will trigger the response, salivation in anticipation of food.

We can utilize this way of learning through pairing in our training in a wide variety of ways. Most commonly we will condition a sound (like a clicker or whistle) with food, so we can use it in clicker training. We can also condition aversive stimuli, the presence of a whip being paired with the physical sensation of being hit, the whip becomes conditioned as a predictor of pain. This is what we are seeing when a horse picks up speed when the rider is just holding the whip, not using it, because the pairing is understood. We can take any stimuli (sound, sight, touch, etc…) and condition it to predict something else. Once paired consistently the first stimuli takes on the meaning of the second stimuli.

This is important to remember in training. The first stimuli predicts the second one. If you feed, then click, then food is being conditioned to predict the sound. When what we really want is for the sound to predict the food. So we click and then present the food.

We can also take this respondent conditioning one step further. If the horse has an association with a stimuli we can change their response to it through pairing. So a horse may dislike being sprayed with fly spray, but by pairing the fly spray with something they do like (food) we can change how they feel about the spray. So by spraying (starting somewhere the horse is comfortable with the spray) then adding food, the horse learns that the spray predicts food. Soon you have counter conditioned the spray. But keep the order in mind, if food predicts the spray, you may counter condition the food to be something they dislike. We see this often where horses who have been bribed with food learn “the food is a trap”. This is conditioning happening in an unintended direction. The key is the order in which the stimuli are presented.

Operant conditioning is not just giving a stimuli a meaning, it adds a behavioral component. Rather than the environment triggering a reflexive response, this time it triggers a voluntary behavior which will be influenced by the results. The environment triggers a behavior which has a consequence. If the consequence is good the learner will do that behavior more in that scenario again. If the consequence is bad the learner will do that behavior less in that scenario again.

This is where our learning quadrants come into play. These are the 4 possible consequences of a behavior.

Reinforcement is when the consequence a behavior will happen more in the scenario.

This can be done by adding (positive) something the learner likes

Or removing (negative) something the learner dislikes.

Punishment is when the consequence causes the behavior to happen less in the scenario.

This can be done by adding (positive) something the learner dislikes

Or by removing (negative) something the learner likes.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
Ownership Not Leadership

Ownership Not Leadership

Did you know that the old theories related to dominance have been debunked?

Dominance is not related to leadership, but rather about ownership. The dominant animal has priority access to resources, meaning the other animals in the group know to let them have what they want first. They know this because they’ve previously fought and determined who will have first choice. Because they live in groups it’s wise to make these determinations and not question it often, otherwise constant fighting would weaken their group. Often these dominant individuals will vary based on the resource, some many have first choice of food resources, some may have first choice when it comes to mating, others may defend limited shelter, and so on. Dominance will also vary if the group changes, sometimes 2 horses will work together to get a resource from a horse who is dominant over each separately. Depending how limited the resources are and how desperate the individual is for the resource, these priorities may change. If food is plentiful (like horses on plains full of grass) no one really cares who eats first. The individuals with priority access to resources have no other benefits, they aren’t leaders or bosses, they aren’t in charge.

In a domestic setting dominance can be more linear than in nature, because resources are often far more limited and groups are made of unrelated peers chosen by humans, not families and chosen friends. When resources are limited the importance of priority access is increased. If there is only 1 hay pile, the horses need to determine who gets it, if the hay pile runs out quickly, they’re less likely to be willing to share, for fear of “starving”. Remember horses are designed to eat 24/7, even if our food is too rich for them and they are fat, they still feel hungry when they go without forage. So there may be increased aggression in domestic settings if we don’t spread resources and ensure there is plenty to go around.

While we should take our horse’s established dominance roles into consideration when we manage the environment, it doesn’t affect our training. We can reduce inter-herd fighting and displaced aggression and food related anxiety by managing the environment with plentiful access to resources. With the use of enrichment and slow feeding, track systems and feed variety we can make sure the horses have everything they need without being unhealthy. This being said, dominance has nothing to do with our training.

Because we own and provide everything for our horses, we have no need to fight over the resource. We already decide who, what, when, where and how our horses live their entire life. We already have all the control over all the resources, so acting aggressively towards our animals has nothing to do with dominance, it’s just acting aggressive. Instead of controlling our horses with force and attempted dominance displays, we should use our brain. Using science based training techniques we can positively reinforce the behaviors we want to see more of.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments