No Punishment Here

No Punishment Here

“We don’t use Punishment here”.

I say this a great deal at my barn (I often phrase it nicer depending on the circumstances). But it’s one of the first things I tell anyone coming to my farm. The intentional use of punishment isn’t allowed at my farm (stuff happens, sometimes we unintentionally punish or we make a mistake or have a habit reaction) but we aspire to punishment-free. The most common response is “You let them get away with Everything?!” (even if they don’t say that outloud). They think this means you allow your animals to walk all over you, to demand food, to be spoiled or to “dominate” you!! (Buzz word – I know!) But fact of the matter is, when we train well we don’t need punishment. Period. “Positive does not mean Permissive”.

First of all why should we avoid punishment?

Here’s the simple list, we can go into this further later – but the goal of this post isn’t to explain why punishment is bad, but rather why it’s unnecessary.

1) Violence begets Violence (I hit you, you hit me, the cycle repeats until someone is afraid enough to stop)

2) If you are adding a physical aversive you can physically hurt your learner

3) This doesn’t promote an active and happy learning environment, it results in a lack of try, the learner gives up – why would they try and risk being punished? As R+ trainers we need them to try and to offer behaviors – so this damages our future ability to train.

4) This can poison your cues AND your relationship!

5) Timing, consistency and appropriate intensity are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to master

6) The behavior can return when the punishment stops, you can only punish what is happening – not what happened 2 minutes ago or what will happen tomorrow

7) The behavior may only stop when *you* are there to punish it, so what was really punished, the behavior or being with you?

😎 It encourages the learner to find ways around you – sneakiness, do the behavior without being caught, or do the behavior but get away before you react! (My Belgian still leaps away when he thinks he’ll be punished, he doesn’t avoid the behavior he thinks will be punished but rather does it then leaps away to avoid the punishment).

9) Punishment is reinforcing to the punishER this is why we do it.

(When your dog is barking at you non-stop because they want to go out, and we loose it and yell at them, they may stop barking for a moment, hide in fear for a few minutes – we were Negatively Reinforced (relief from the barking) even if just for a moment. The punisher was reinforced for the punishment – the behavior was temporarily stopped, but not effectively removed as the problem still persists, the dog needs to go out.)

Ok that’s a lumped, quick and dirty summary of why we don’t use Punishment, all the side-effects of punishment. But like I said, we want to discuss why we don’t NEED it and how we can avoid it.

Let’s think about our ABC’s again (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence). We put a great deal of focus on the B-C of our training, what behavior did our animal do and what consequence do we offer to adapt that behavior the way we like. But there is a great big “A”-hole we need to fill! Antecedent arrangement is the number 1 way we can avoid the need for punishment. You don’t need to punish a behavior that doesn’t happen!

Find out what triggers the unwanted behavior and change it. Is the dog barking because they need to go out? Let them out at the first signs, before they start barking. Does your horse buck when you ride because the saddle doesn’t fit? Get a saddle that fits. Fix the problem so the unwanted behavior doesn’t happen.

Don’t forget about protected contact!! PC is not just for you but for your learner as well. Especially animals who have experienced a great deal of those pitfalls of punishment we just listed. They may be afraid to try, react emotionally and impulsively to defend themselves when things go wrong. This isn’t their fault or their problem. Working in PC can help encourage their try without fear and give them the learning room they need. This also prevents us from needing to use punishment to defend ourselves. “Remember, best block, no be there”- Mr. Miyagi. Change the way the horse feels and behaves before moving into full contact, allowing them and you to be comfortable in your contact – so neither of you need to become defensive.

What if we can’t? If we’ve adapted all the antecedents we can control, but life isn’t perfect we still have a few options. We can train the absence, for example if they always bite the lead when we’re leading them, reward when they’re not biting the lead. Wait for a good moment when they’re walking with you nicely and reward – this turns us towards teaching an incompatible behavior. If they’re biting the lead while we try to walk with them – but you can’t get rid of the lead and can’t get rid of the emotional triggers that cause this behavior (which should be our first steps!) we can train them to walk as calmly as possible, facing forward, with their nose beside us. The use of a target can be helpful for getting understanding and success in the early stages, just capturing those good moments can also be helpful.

If we arrange “A” as best as possible, then set all the R+ Consequences to counteract the unwanted behavior, we should end up with no unwanted behavior! It’s really as easy as that. We own our horses. They live in our world. We control every aspect of their life, whether we or they like it or not.

*No behavior they offer is their fault*.

If they are performing an unwanted behavior it’s not because they are naughty or fresh (and definitely not because they’re “Dominant”), but rather because that has been reinforced in the past (even if it’s self reinforcing – biting the lead can be a self soothing behavior or let out some frustration).

So change your A’s and focus your C’s to what is constructive and preventative and your horses’ B’s will always be what you want.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Force Isn’t Safer

Force Isn’t Safer

Aggression is frequently, I dare say, almost always correlated with fear. Fear of harm, something bad happening to you, or fear of losing something of value. Hmm… those sound familiar, something bad being added or something good being taken away… wait, I know, PUNISHMENT! Aggression is caused by fear of punishment (whether a natural consequence or intentional by another being).

So why do we often resort to punishment when things go bad? Funny enough, our circle is complete, FEAR!! When we humans are afraid, afraid of being harmed by our horse, shamed by our peers, or our horse being harmed (losing something valuable), we often resort to, you guessed it, aggression! Because we are afraid we feel the need for more physical control (control and fear are contradictory). We give ourselves a strong illusion of control by using forceful methods to manipulate our horse. This is reinforcing to us, the punisher, because it often works, at least in the immediate short term, to reduce our fear. Even though it almost always creates more problems in the long run.

When you see someone become aggressive with their horse, don’t get mad, get sad, because they are afraid and they don’t have the tools to handle their emotions and respond appropriately to the situation. My only two horses who have an ounce of aggression in them are my most frightened horses. One is a violent resource guarder, the other a history of abuse. Both only aggress when they are afraid for their safety or losing something they value. So before you raise your hand to the horse who is aggressing, stop and think, will punishment, the thing they are afraid of, reduce their fear? Not likely!

Instead we should aspire to bring comfort and a sense of safety to those who are afraid. Provide them with tools to feel in control, to feel their safety and their resources are not at risk. Allow them dignity as they overcome this difficult emotion, give them tools to express their fear without aggression, and give them comfort when they are afraid.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
The Importance Of Connection

The Importance Of Connection

A note on connection…

Since we separated Punk and Marshmallow from Oro a few years ago, Oro has continued to digress emotionally. When he arrived here at less than a year old he was sweet and happy and loved his new family of Punk and Marshmallow. But he soon outgrew them and his play got too rough for them. They had enough and we had to separate them. At the same time the human who had been working with him had moved on to other parts of her life. His only known connections, his only family, was gone.

Of course, we never let him be alone, he was consistently trained by others who volunteer here. But as his anxiety increased his behavior became increasingly unsafe, meaning fewer people could work with him. We also made sure he always had a turn out partner, we tried all our draft mares with him. But they wanted no part in his baby antics. They only had a kick or bite for him if he tried to engage with them. They were not a comfort to him, they just took his things, stressing his resource guarding stress he developed in holding with the other stallions. He loved playing with uncle Blitz, our silly belgian who thinks he’s a 3 year old! Unfortunately he’s 33 and not able to keep up with the young one anymore.

At the same time as his family was changed up we were working on teaching him injections. We were under the idea that his behavior was getting worse because of this injection training. I overlooked what was happening to him emotionally, what amounts to very real trauma. His anxiety sky-rocketed and his behavior got worse. Soon he became a chronic biter, he was only safe to train in Protected Contact, he was over-threshold just existing. His world was broken.

If he were a human child and we watched this emotional and behavioral change, we would know exactly what he needs, comfort.

He needs safety in his relationships, he needs the comfort of a peer, the love of a family. He needs an emotional connection. This sense of belonging, reassurance of who he is, of comfort and security lives within the CARE system, which negates the PANIC/GRIEF system. We can take an educated guess in saying, he is spending most of his days living deeply stuck in the PANIC/GRIEF system. No amount of behavioral modification will change his emotions, he needs a lifestyle modification. He needs his emotional needs to be met.

To do this, we got a bit lucky, while usually we only take in hospice care drafts, we got a surprise other young male horse joined our herd, Zephyr! Our hope from when we knew we’d be getting Z was that they would become fast friends and be a comfort to one another. As Zephyr is undergoing a major life change also, he’s separated from his horse mom for the first time, and his human mother passed away (she was my horse mom too which makes him my brother!). We were hopeful they would quickly be able to fill the void in one another’s hearts. Unfortunately with Zephyr’s illness we have not been able to try putting them together yet – but just by being next to one another, over fences and over doors, they have developed a wonderful relationship already! We are eager for the day they can “move in” together as their own little bachelor herd. Hopefully they will be able to spend their lives together. We are very eager to see his CARE system soothe his broken heart. It’s already beginning…

In the meantime, on the human side, I’ve been spending an awful lot of time with him. I sit with him very often just outside of his reach so he can’t bite me (to try to get me to play with him) 😉 I engage in much safe play with him, rubbing his lips and massaging his gums, playing keep away with ropes… We have begun to really enjoy each other’s company, but I’m not horse, and protected contact has limited our ability to develop connection through touch. We have been building his behavioral skills to the point where he is now safe to train in full contact, so long as things are set up for success. Sharing space, playing safe games, training positively, and snuggling when possible has helped him progress a great deal.

While great progress is beginning, I am anxious and eager for the future. I always want the best for our animals, appropriate management is key to healthy living and successful training. But some things, like which horses we have at the rescue, and how our fences are set up are just not that quick to fix. It’s been a difficult period for this sweet baby, but it is looking up.

Posted by Empowered1 in EE Rescue Stories, Emotional Science, 0 comments
Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance

I’ve been trying to understand a phenomenon in the horse world. We understand Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility and why humans chose to utilize these psychologically distressing tools. They are effective restraints and control devices for emotionally sensitive animals. We also understand the extreme emotional cost using these tools comes at for horses, instilling life-long trauma and avoidance behaviors, and redirecting into dangerous reactivity, and majorly compromising the welfare of a sentient being. But how do some horses still come out of this world looking relatively undamaged? Functioning well and appropriately in their job or sport?

Tonic Immobility occurs in times of extreme distress, feelings of being trapped, out of control, and devoid of all hope. The animal freezes physically and disconnects emotionally from the reality of their situation. In horses we witness this when the horse is forcibly laid down, extreme restraints (multiple hobbling with no prior training), and when twitched. Freezing and disconnecting preserve the animal from greater distress and suffering. While little is known about the evolution of this psychological event, we can presume it became a safety measure to protect animals from the suffering of immanent death (like when caught by a predator). It can also go a long way to increasing chances of survival, if they are entangled in something and they were to continue to thrash, they would likely do much more harm to themselves. If they were to fight with the predator they would likely lose. But by remaining totally still they allow the minimal damage done to their body and something may distract the predator (other predators or scavengers) giving the animal a chance to escape.

Learned Helplessness is a similar such occurrence, when repeatedly exposed to unavoidable, yet horrible stimuli, the learner stops trying to escape it – even if given an easy escape route. We see this often in horses who are being “sacked out” or “desensitized” to items, the horse is chased and hazed by the frightening object and they are either kept in a small, inescapable pen or are tied. So they quickly learn they cannot escape the frightening stimuli, they give up hope that escape is possible. Then even when escape is very possible, even easily presented to them, they no longer try. This hopelessness is convenient for riders, as the horse will no longer fight or flee from upsetting stimuli. However damaging to their psyche.

But in reality, we don’t want a horse in total learned helplessness or tonic immobility all the time. While these are beneficial for us to impose our will on animals far more powerful than us, they’re not effective for sporting or getting a job done. So what is happening in the mind of the horse when being responsive to aversive aids and stimuli? When they are light and responsive to aversive aids, we know this is not Learned Helplessness, because the horse is actively working to resolve their uncomfortable situation. Complete LH would mean the horse is non-responsive to aids, you could kick all day long and the horse would just stand there and suffer. So what is happening in the mind of a horse who is responsive to aversive aids, but not fighting against or inappropriately reactive to these aids? Why do some horses adjust and even seem comfortable, I might not say “happy”, but they are ok with their circumstances?

I recently read a book on dealing with depression and anxiety (DBT Skill Training Manual, second edition by Marsha M. Linehan). In it it discussed a concept of “Radical Acceptance”, this is “a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering. While pain is part of life, radical acceptance allows us to keep that pain from becoming suffering.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/radical-acceptance)

Some people are able to do this readily, others have to learn this as a skill. Sometimes this can be a healthy coping mechanism, sometimes this can become toxic and inappropriate. When we get the alert for a tornado in our area, we can not just sit there and say “this isn’t fair!”, “I don’t want a tornado”, “not today, I’m busy”, “why does this always happen to me?”… Instead we need to accept the reality of the situation, the tornado is coming and there is nothing we can do about it. We need to do what we can to alleviate the damage of the tornado, block our windows, lock things up, weigh things down, make everything as safe as possible, using whatever techniques you know to help keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as possible. There are some things in life we must accept as unchangeable, unalterable, all we can do is respond accordingly and reduce the damage as much as possible.

The horses who are thriving in a world of unavoidable pain, and yet aren’t suffering, have mastered this coping skill. They may have felt LH and TI from an early age (extreme imprinting techniques can do this), or seen enough of it to accept that their fate is inescapable. They have accepted the reality of their situation and learned to cope within it. By responding quickly and appropriately to their aversive aids they have reduced their suffering to the lowest they are able to. While this isn’t ideal or something I promote or condone, it makes sense to me now how some horses can live a relatively happy and comfortable life, even when handled with harsh aversives and even when exposed to extreme techniques of LH or TI.

However not all horses are so lucky. Few horses live a life full of pain, especially when the pain is unavoidable and inescapable (like when techniques used to cause LH or TI are used) and cope with it well. There are some, and I understand now how they have managed, but most have not. So my next article will be on how to help those horses who have not. Those horses who are left with trauma, reactivity, “shut down”, “explosive”, or just not right. Those horses who have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like stereotypical behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, explosive reactivity, superstitious behaviors, or internalize their suffering turning into health issues (like ulcers). We need tools to help these horses overcome this history. While switching to R+ can and does better the welfare of all horses, even those who were coping well with aversive techniques, it’s not the only thing we can be doing to help those horses who are left with trauma from their past.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Tonic Immobility

Tonic Immobility

I am SO sick of seeing posts/jokes about horses who “Play dead” when asked to do something simple, like being tacked up or wearing a blanket. What’s horrifying is that there is nothing funny about this. This is a deeply traumatic event for the horse and seriously dangerous for everyone involved!!

Tonic Immobility is “Muscular paralysis that occurs during significant stress or injury, e.g., as an animal is fleeing or trying to fight off a predator. It is a common reaction experienced by animals and humans faced with overwhelming force, e.g., in battle or during sexual assault.” (https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/tonic…)

This is no mild emotional response, this is a complete body shut down. Only the basic survival systems carry on – heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestive systems all lower, the muscles become paralyzed and either rigid or limp, the mind goes blank (from human testimonies). There are many theories for why this exists, but it seems to be a final defense when fight or flight are not an option (in the mind of the victim – there may be an apparent escape that the victim can’t utilize). This technique is a last resort to spare the mind of the suffering of the inescapable horror happening to them. Humans who have survived these experiences often feel like it is an out of body experience, or feels surreal, or even can’t remember the time they were paralyzed, just the extreme horror they felt. This phenomenon can be life saving, thus how it likely developed, if a predator has prey in their mouth, and the prey struggles the predator will continue thrashing. While if the prey goes limp the predator may lose interest or get distracted by something happening (another predator or scavenger), reducing the damage done to the victim until a chance may arrive for escape. This is also beneficial in situations where the animal becomes entrapped, going limp reduces the damage done to them while they may slip free or wiggle loose in small, contained bursts, rather than sustained thrashing which can harm them seriously.

This emotional reaction is, I might say, the most extreme reaction to a set of circumstances, an ultimate level of inescapable horror. This is not an emotional reaction to take lightly, to think of as funny, and NEVER should be utilized in training or on purpose.

Often when horses who used to be fine with these things suddenly develop this type of response, they likely have a health issue going on. Some sort of neurological damage or pain inhibiting their ability to escape, intensifying their fear. If a horse suddenly has this response out of nowhere, this is no joke, he hasn’t learned a new trick, this is a SERIOUS health and safety issue for the physical and emotional wellbeing of your horse, and your own safety! You don’t want to be riding a horse who may spontaneously collapse.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, 0 comments
Overcoming FEAR With Enrichment

Overcoming FEAR With Enrichment

Is your horse spooky? Are they pessimistic, assuming everything is out to get them? Do they freak out about every little change? Does it seem like they’re just making stuff up to lose their mind over?

These comments are all too common. This can happen for hundreds of reasons. Often horses who live in a punishment-based environment learn quickly not to explore or try new things, because it will likely go bad. Horses living on fancy farms often lives very sheltered lives, in small stalls, small paddocks, separate from other horses, working in quiet indoor arenas. Horses are often under-exposed in an attempt to keep them safe (we all know how easily our horses hurt themselves!) But often this lack of exposure and lack of engagement can cause more health and behavioral issues than they prevent. By taking away everything that may harm them we also take away everything that satisfies their emotional and behavioral needs. This creates outbursts of unnatural and undesireable behaviors that can include hurting themselves.

Instead of sheltering your horse, turn their fear and pessimism into confidence and curiousity. The first step to this is enrichment. Enrich their lives as much as possible, in as many different ways you can. You can supplement them socially introducing new peers or other species. Visually, with funny looking items, pool noodles look solid but are flimsy, mirrors show strange reflections, light up toys, large stuffed animals, etc… You can enrich them audibly with music, noise makers, recordings of sirens or different animal vocalizations. Tactile options can include brushes, hanging rugs on walls or fences for rubbing against, itching boards, or various different substrate flooring. Scent can be very enriching with the use of essential oils or natural smells from around the farm, like letting them smell another animal’s poop. Novel food can be engaging and fun to explore, including melons and pumpkins to crush and munch. Food can also provide mental enrichment as they problem solve new ways to engage with their environment to work out food puzzles.

The enrichment is mentally stimulating and interesting, but it’s important that the enrichment also include some positive outcome for the horse a good amount of the time. While we often present the new stimuli without any added food (we don’t want to pressure them to approach or handle the stimuli faster than they are ready) once they are comfortable around the new item we often add food to it. Some enrichment is self-sufficient, exploring smelly items, or interacting socially would be good examples. But if engaging with the stimuli isn’t very interesting, adding food can help push the stimuli from being benign to being a good thing in your horse’s mind. The more often these new experiences have a good outcome the more optimistic your horse will become. Soon “new” will become a source of curiosity, something worth trying. Changing their entire outlook on life and the world around them.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Emotional Science, 0 comments
Engaging the CARE System

Engaging the CARE System

Engaging the CARE system

Due to the advancements in Neuroscience we have been able to better understand the emotions of our equine learners than ever before. With this new knowledge it’s vital we adapt and grow our training and care systems, the more we know the better we can do for our equine partners. We already know that Positive Reinforcement is the way to go when it comes to training. We know this is a forgiving, kind, safe, and effective means of communicating and motivating our equine learners to participate in our training. We have learned that not only is it effective but it works within the brain/body systems (SEEKING and PLAY) to make a happier, more resilient, more engaged learner.

But did you know there is another brain/body system that we should be paying attention to in our animal partnerships? Of the 7 major systems only 4 feel relatively good to the individual (when stimulated appropriately) – SEEKING, PLAY, LUST, and CARE. SEEKING system is what we engage when training, having the horse learn to problem solve their environment to earn reinforcement. When done right, positive reinforcement techniques often frequently engage the PLAY system as well. The LUST system we should leave alone, let the horses take care of that among themselves. It may mildly interfere with your training if your mare is in heat or you’re working with a stallion, but there are many management techniques for both of these situations. Mostly we want our horses to sort that out in a natural way among their herd.

The CARE system, however, is frequently overlooked when discussing training. This system not only feels good, but is vital for the mental health of the animal. If the CARE system is not satiated a horse may develop anxiety problems, especially around separation from their peers, or it may present as depression, shutting down, or restlessness, hypervigilance (easily spooking), or general feelings of insecurity. The CARE system is vital to social animals like equines, for their feelings of safety and comfort.

Many people struggle with horses who exhibit separation anxiety related behavioral problems – not wanting to leave their peers, their farm, balking on trails, bolting home, or being over-threshold when out of sight of their friends. In these cases what we’re seeing is that the horse’s CARE system is only being fulfilled by their equine peers. They are dependent on their herd to meet their emotional CARE needs. It would be unkind, even cruel to push a horse beyond this threshold, and often include a good deal of fall out behaviorally. We also want to be sure we aren’t using positive reinforcement to coerce a horse beyond their threshold for comfort and safety. By luring a horse with food outside of their comfort zone we not only set ourselves up for failure, but we also poison the food – at some point the need for safety in their peers is going to outweigh the desire for food. Now the food has become something the horses see as a risk, not an opportunity.

So what do we do about all this? The answer is simple, we need to be a source of engagement to their CARE system as well. By stimulating the hormones, by engaging the emotions, by creating the bond that lives within the horse’s individual CARE system we become the source of safety and comfort the horse is seeking. This does not, ever mean reducing, replacing or removing their equine herd. No matter how hard we try we will never be able to replicate or artificially supplement what horses get from one another.

So how do we become a source of CARE for our horses? The first key ingredient is a tough one, TIME! Time is hard for us humans, it’s one of our most valuable resources, but being so valuable it matters a good deal to those who it’s given to. By sharing space and being present with our horses, by spending time with our horses we become a part of their social unit. Not as another horse, but as another being who chooses to share their valuable life with one another. Coexisting creates a beautiful, gentle, force-less connection between beings.

We want more than this though, while it’s a vital first step it isn’t the only step. We also need to make sure the time we spend together is as valuable to the horse as it is to us. Do you ever sit and watch your horses in awe of how magical, perfect, and wonderful they are? They bring us such joy. We need to stimulate a similar feeling in our horses about us. We can do this by ensuring our shared time is wonderful.

A key way that horses develop social bonds is through mutual grooming. If your horse is comfortable with you spending time physically connecting can reach new, deeper levels of connectedness. While we touch, letting our presence bind us together, we also want to make sure it feels good, non-invasive, and is done with full consent. We love our horses and often want to reach out, grab them in ways that feel good to us. We want to stroke their face, hug their neck, and get lost in their mane. Our horses would much prefer we scratch their withers or their bum cheeks. Much less romantic to us, but feels so much more wonderful to our horses. We can explore our individual horses and find what feels good to them. They are all unique. Try rubbing, scratching, or grooming specific areas and watch your horse’s reaction. If you stop, do they seek out more? Do they make groomy faces? Or do they step away and toss their nose at you like a pesky bug? Find what they enjoy and spend time making them feel nice.

Another way horses show their social bonds is in sharing resources. This is one of the biggest things for horses, their resources are their life-line. Most horses in domestication have learned that resources are limited and need to be defended through violence. To see horses sharing resources shows great trust in their peers and their access to resources. This doesn’t mean we need to graze with our horses, but we can take our horses to a sweet, extra special grazing spot. Ever sit in the sun while hand grazing your horse on the nicest part of the lawn? Just magic. But we not only share resources with our horses, we provide them! This makes us extra special, almost maternal. We are a source of comfort and safety emotionally, but also fulfill their physical needs. With no need to assert “dominance”, we are not competition for their resources – we ARE the resource and everything they want.

When being with us is stimulating their CARE system we become a source of comfort and fulfillment for our equine partners. Ensuring they feel safe and engaged with us as their friend, their peer, and their provider, knowing that with us not only are they physically safe, their needs are met, and they are loved.

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, 0 comments
Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and Kids with R+

Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

Our horse rescue is run primarily on kids, teens, and people with extra needs or mental health struggles. When they volunteer here and work with our horses they learn not just to care for horses, but to communicate with compassion, empathy, and clarity. Our volunteers and students learn so many life skills by working with horses from a positive reinforcement (R+) lifestyle. R+ isn’t just a way of training but a wholesome care-taking style including a natural living environment, plenty of enrichment, positive training, and developing a loving partnership.

In using positive reinforcement to train and handle our horses young people learn kind and effective ways to communicate what they want and appreciating the efforts given in response. Through formal positive reinforcement training with the horses the young people learn to break down goals into achievable steps, organizing and prioritizing their missions. They learn critical and creative thinking skills as they puzzle out new ways to encourage the horses to reach the goal behaviors without needing to use force, violence, or invasive control techniques. They learn to be resilient when things don’t go according to plan, how to stop and re-evaluate their plans and goals, then determine how to better approach the situation.

More importantly they develop loving partnerships with their horses built on clear communication, compromise, and lots of love. They learn to value their relationship with their horse more than what they can get the horse to do for them. Taking the focus away from themselves and into developing the partnership. They learn to respect the horse as a sentient companion with emotions, deserving of empathy and compassion. Rather than aspiring to control the horse through force or manipulation, they work together with the horse as a partner.

Many of our rescue horses have emotional or physical difficulties to overcome, helping our volunteers develop their empathy by relating to their equine peers. Through understanding and relating to the horse on an emotional level, and then compromising and problem solving to achieve their goals with their horse. They learn to be understanding and forgiving with themselves. This helps them raise their own emotional awareness and self-compassion.

They develop their own self awareness.

They are also made acutely aware of the hardships and rewards that come in life, including some painful decision making. Our volunteers understand that our horses have special needs and our priorities are to improve their quality of life. This means we don’t always get to do what’s fun for us, and sometimes we have to do things that are hard for us. Including participating in their medical care or letting go when the time is right. Learning about the value of life, how to honor the lives of our equine friends, and assure them the highest quality of care in the time they have with us.

These young people not only learn to work with horses in a kind and effective way but also learn to advocate for the horses. They learn values that extend to every area in life. Standing up to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Choosing compassion and kindness, even if it means not always fitting in with their peers. They learn to do what’s right, even if it’s not always what is easy.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Dealing With Trauma

Dealing With Trauma

“I finally summarized the most amazing lecture I’ve been to in a while… This was a lecture from Dr. Frank McMillan focused on Post Traumatic Stress in animals. Let’s just say we discussed this for over 2 hours and I left absolutely buzzing with thoughts, ideas and questions. This is a summary of just the basic overview of trauma, the causes, and ways to help – I tried to angle it particularly to horses, but of course most of it overlaps species.

One aspect to keep in mind when discussing emotions and how they relate to horses is that sometimes emotions don’t work according to plan. Whenever one emotion reaches an extreme we call it “over threshold”, the horse becomes reactive with emotional displays, no longer in a thinking or learning mind. We see this most often with the FEAR and RAGE systems, but it can really happen in any direction. FEAR responses are important to survival and learning from past circumstances prevents major issues in the future – this is healthy and appropriate.

This being said, there are times these experiences don’t leave the system entirely. Whether it was one awful scenario, a few bad situations, or a prolonged and unavoidable difficulty they can all leave lasting damage. We call this emotional trauma “pathological” when the body/mind doesn’t return to normal (homeostasis) after the event is over causing the FEAR system to remain active even in when the trauma is over. If you remember how stimulus stacking works, you’ll recognize how this can be dangerous. While a survivor of trauma may be able to function and appear normal, they may learn to cope with the level of FEAR hormones their body is continually pumping out – but this will remain a constant piece of a stimulus stack. Resulting in a much quicker reaction to other stimuli. Those with Trauma can seem to explode over “nothing” or seem to “make things up to get upset over”. Triggers related to the trauma can be as subtle as a smell or a flashback. Triggers may not even be related to past trauma.

Unfortunately we can’t talk to our animals to determine their level of trauma – whether or not they have nightmares or flashbacks. We also don’t always have complete histories on our animals, so it can be hard to differentiate trauma from a lack of socialization. So to measure trauma related to these incidents we need to rely on the tangible behavioral responses. We consider this pathological trauma in animals when the individual begins reacting to harmless stimuli and when the fear responses interfere with normal behavior. We can measure their level of avoidance – observing what triggers reactions and what degree of generalization the avoidance has reached. We can measure their arousal and reactivity levels, an individual with PTS will have extremely exaggerated startle response and hyper-vigilance. We can also measure changes in their disposition, mood and cognition – but only if we knew them before and after the trauma, which unfortunately rarely happens with animals. They may appear jumpy and irritable, easily triggered. The fear may generalize to such an extreme where the whole world becomes a threat. Some of the most extreme expressions of PTS in animals can include: screaming, self-injurious behavior, stereotyped behaviors, trance-like state, unpredictable aggression, instability, depression, trembling, pacing, withdrawal, clingyness, timidness, avoidance of people or specific stimuli…

Trauma has been grouped into levels to help categorize and understand how to handle/treat the trauma. Level 0 is when there are no long-term consequences. Level 1 is Learned Fear, only affecting life when the stimulus is present or anticipated, totally fine otherwise. Level 2 is when learned fear is generalized to similar stimuli or antecedents, but the learner is still fine most of the time. Level 3 is when the fear has turned severe or phobic, it impairs normal function, reducing pleasurable activities whenever the stimulus is present or anticipated. Level 4 is when the severe fear becomes generalized. This impairs normal function when stimulus is present or not, the fear has been generalized to multiple aspects of life.

In human research it was shown that only about 25% of survivors of trauma resulted in an emotional disorder. We most often think of Post Traumatic Stress as the only emotional disorder as a result of a traumatic event. But trauma can lead to a spectrum of emotional disorders including Post Traumatic Stress, Phobias, Generalized Anxiety and Depression.

What stunned and shocked me most was the list of situations that cause trauma – and just how many of them applied so directly to horses, almost unavoidably so! The causes include abuse, neglect, aversive confinement, multiple re-homing, hoarding, natural disasters, social deprivation, fighting, racing, forced work, service/military duty, laboratory research/testing, physical trauma/injury. Often many of these overlap and go hand-in-hand. Almost all of these are just common, normal keeping of horses! This absolutely shook me to hear. How does any horse come out of life without trauma?!

Ok, so trauma is obviously common in the horse world, frequently overlooked and even justified. Ideally – we who choose to educate ourselves will be working our hardest to not only prevent this, but heal it when and where we can. Most of us don’t have horses from birth (that would be a super lucky horse). Most of us are cleaning up damage other humans (and sometimes ourselves) have caused. But how can we help repair a horse who’s been through trauma and has lasting damage?

One of the biggest things we can provide our horses is a sense of control in their life. Having the perception that we can control, turn off or prevent certain events in our life can reduce the lasting effects of trauma and help individuals be more tolerant to unpleasant situations. This is one of the biggest benefits of Positive Reinforcement training, when used ethically. With R+ horses can walk away, say no to training or even initiate the next repetition. Allowing our horses to have more choice and control in their training and ultimately their lives. A horse with a strong sense of control and choice will be more resilient to aversive situations (like vet emergencies) than a horse who is already feeling a lack of control.

Social companionship is the next best thing for preventing and reducing the effects of trauma. Social support has a buffering effect shown in every social species. It’s important to remember that humans are rarely enough social support for a social species like horses – having other, healthy horses can substantially speed their recovery and buffer the effects of future trauma.

Our goal should be to restore and maintain our horse’s sense of security and trust in humans, other animals and the world in general. While we would love if we could write up a rehab program or provide a medicine to fix this problem, healing from trauma can be a slow process with frequent steps back. Realistically our goal with any trauma survivor is to help them be able to function in regular life with the capacity to enjoy life and engage in positive social relationships. Letting horses enjoy play, positive training, and a healthy social world. Luckily recent studies in dogs with PTS have shown that most are able to nearly or completely re-adapt to regular life.”

Posted by Empowered1 in Emotional Science, Ethics, 0 comments
Clicker Training And….

Clicker Training And….

Did you know that there is so much more to the positive reinforcement lifestyle and care approach than just clicking and treating when we like what our horses do?

While positive reinforcement simply means adding a reinforcer to maintain and increase the feequency of a behavior, it has been taken beyond just the training session and into an entire lifestyle. With a heavy focus on relationship, choice, consent, and species appropriate care and enrichment.

Usually this lifestyle starts with health and wellness. Meaning we carefully balance their diets to be species, breed, location, and medically appropriate diets. This means heavily forage based in a variety of enriched and slow fed options. As horses were designed to consume forage 24/7 while moving slowly, it helps to have many slow feeders and enrichment feeding stations. It means ensuring they have their regular medical needs met, hoof trimming, dentals, parts cleaning 😉 and their special medical needs addressed. If they have special dietary concerns or management needs. This also includes looking into their mental health and wellness. Most emotional problems can be overcome quickly just by ensuring healthy lifestyle management as well as meeting their social needs appropriately. Horses depend on their peers for safety and comfort, even if they don’t particularly like each other, they depend on each other.

These social and emotional needs can be well met even on small backyard farms or large hyper-managed facilities. By providing enrichment to supplement their needs wherever their life may be lacking or just for added stimulation. Enrichment can be cognitive, social, food focused, scent based, visually engaging, or tactile (like scratching posts or substrates to roll in). But we also need to consider the horse/human relationship in the meeting of their social and emotional needs.

In the horse/human relationship not just is it developed really magically with the use of positive reinforcement. In our training we not only teach and reinforce behaviors but we also positively condition our relationships and connections. We become correlates with the cognitive and engaging fun that we bring. But it’s not limited to just positive trainingm we are also the providers of enrichment and opportunities for fun. As well as just sharing time and space. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in spending our idle time together we become a part of their social unit and dynamic. Especially when this shared time is spent doing something they enjoy, like taking them to the nicest grazing spot in the sun, scratching their itchy spots.

We can also use our positive training to teach our horses 2 way communication techniques and concepts like consent. This can include things like the bucket game, stationing skills, always reinforceable behaviors, yes/no signals, even communication boards where the horse can ask for specific reinforcers. But we also have our own ability to know our horses as individuals and how they communicate their wants/needs. Being a good listener is always more valuable than being a good trainer.

Our comprehensive care goes much deeper than just our use of positive training, but to an entire, wholesome, relationship, science-based, compassion focused care.

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