Choice is just an Illusion

Choice is just an Illusion

“If they didn’t like it they would just…” is the most infuriating excuse for the lack of understanding of how psychology wors. I hear this all the time, “if he didn’t like to jump he wouldn’t”, never mind the person beating him with a stick when he refuses a jump. “If the horse didn’t like being laid down, he’d just get up”, nevermind the person lunging them with a leg tied to their saddle until they fall back down….

We assume that a 1-2,000lb animals recognize their size, strength, and athletic ability to outdo us simple humans and that their compliance must be because they like us or the things we’re asking them to do. We like to think this to justify and overshadow the fact that we’re often using extremely manipulative and coercive methods of controlling them, emotionally, because we can’t physically. Much like the questions “why doesn’t that person leave their abusive relationship?” simply because the fear of leaving is worse than the fear of staying. This is often created through systematic conditioning of the victim to believe they can’t be safe without their abuser and even repeated occurrences of Tonic Immobility can speed up this process of attachment. The evil that you know is safer than the evil that you don’t.

Remember Tonic Immobility is a state the body goes into during fear so extreme the individual feels that death is inevitable. It reduces their suffering at the time of death (like being eatten by a predator) and gives them a potential source of escape if somehow the threat goes away. This occurs in times that Fight and Flight aren’t working. I discuss this in a post a few back with a video of a gazelle who survived an attack from a predator by going into tonic immobility when caught, then escaping when the predator was distracted. When a person lays out a horse, even with only mild force, you know it is TI created through repeated forceful experiences.

A horse is an intelligent, emotional animal, and through systematic training where escape and non-compliance is punished, they learn quickly that leaving isn’t an option – even when it seems an obvious choice. We’ve seen horses tied to objects that are not capable of holding them and we laugh, thinking, if only they knew! The truth is they’ve been conditioned through negative reinforcement and punishment that there is no choice. Even if they think jumping is dangerous, the person on their back is more dangerous, they comply, not because the human did 1 bad thing, but because of the history of conditioning to create that.

Stop justifying force, violence, and harsh training because the horse doesn’t leave. Especially consider this when watching work at liberty, what’s in it for the horse to comply? Are they complying because they feel they have no choice? This isn’t liberty.

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
Horses Didn’t Sign the Contract

Horses Didn’t Sign the Contract

Many people live under the belief that because they own horses and provide for them, horses owe them their servitude. Many human adults would love a job that is minimal labor and all their life needs will be fully met, a home and food, set for life (not mentioning the downside of giving up your freedom to have your needs met) this can seem like a sweet deal. The problem with this comparison is that human adults can read the contract and give their consent, our ownership of horses is not like this. Horses are our dependents (like children). They owe us nothing, because we put them in our custody without their consent.
Whether they were bred by humans or taken from the wild, we chose to create them or remove them from nature and in doing so we have agreed to meet all their needs. Under NO Contingencies! We own them, so we owe them a complete quality of care and appropriately high welfare. With no requirements from the horse. Simply because we chose to keep them as our own, we owe them an appropriate quality of life.
A horse’s labor is not a determining factor for their level of care or vice versa.
To be clear (to be cleeaarrrrr) I’m not saying people shouldn’t do things with their horses, I’m not saying don’t ride or work. I’m only saying, providing their care is a basic requirement of owning a horse and does not entitle you to their outright servitude.
I also implore horse owners to look into positive reinforcement, science-based, ethically focused training techniques that allow more choice and consent on the part of the horse. Then you can continue to accomplish similar goals, like riding and working. This allows the horses to learn and participate in the things that we like to do, but with something in it for them (as an extra, not a part of their requirements).

Image by Fed Up Fred

Posted by Empowered1 in Ethics, 0 comments
The Quadrants Aren’t Square Anymore

The Quadrants Aren’t Square 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 Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,
You are the change you wish to see in the world. You are in a small, special group of individuals who have made the decision to do what is   right, not just what is easy. Following the path that all the other kids your age are taking is easy, it’s fun, it’s well-established, but you have chosen to take a look from a new angle. You asked “what’s in it for the horse?” You are at the cutting edge of change in the horse world, you are the generation that will change the way humans look at and treat horses.
Being among the small few who change the world is a massive task that’s not for everyone, it’s a lonely road to take sometimes and sometimes it means rethinking things we thought we knew. I’m sorry you are carrying this burden. I wish I could hug you all and encourage you that this will be worth it! You need to be strong, independent, and passionate about the horse as a being, not a piece of sport’s equipment. This may not be easy, but when you’re an adult looking at the horse world in a new light, you’ll be so proud to have been among the first to stand up for the horse.
Every volunteer at my barn learns about clicker training, whether they’ve worked with horses traditionally or are just meeting horses for the first time. I get many questions I’m not sure how to answer, I struggle between wanting to be honest, but not wanting to hurt someone who is doing only what they were taught. Most kids who are new to horses never look back from clicker training, the idea of kicking, hitting, using bits or whips, just is something they never think about as an option. If someone were to encourage them to use these tools or handle the horses harshly, they already know this isn’t necessary, they already know they can have fun without force. But many of the kids who have worked with horses traditionally begin to see the flaws in their previous understandings.
These kids have been taught that kicking, hitting, or using bits or whips, doesn’t cause the horse pain, it just “communicates” with the horse. The kids are never taught how or why the tools work, or the signs to see pain or fear in the face of a horse. They learn that when a horse expresses their pain or fear, they are being “fresh” or “naughty” and to punish those displays. The kids struggle to understand why would an adult teach them to hurt an animal they both love? The adult LOVES their horse, they aren’t intentionally teaching violence to children, they are only doing what they were taught. They think this is the only way, because it’s all they’ve ever seen and they’re resistant to change because as hard as this is for you to handle change, they have many more years of justifying those techniques and tools. We have learned that it’s not the only way to work with horses. Who will be brave enough to make the change? To take the new information as something to be excited about, not afraid of, this is a new approach to horses that allows us to work with horses in a way that is wonderful for us both! But it does mean accepting the things we’ve done in the past and standing up against what is “normal”.
This is especially hard because not only are the teachers telling the kids all of the justifications we know too well, but so are their friends. Their friends are taking the same path as they are, the common, normal path, they’re being taught the same things. So then our kids who want to change the world may need to stand alone. Parents can be a big help here, helping support your kids for these decisions is HUGE, realize how hard this is for them and be proud of their choice. Their choice isn’t easy, but they are doing what they believe is right.
For parents and kids who are wondering, why is the traditional stuff “so bad”, well no it’s not evil! It’s just very outdated and stuck in the dark ages of tradition. This happens because people who want to succeed in the sport of horse riding need to look and act the same as those above them in the sport, change wouldn’t be welcome. Tools like bits, spurs, whips, and techniques like pulling, kicking, hitting, no matter how gently your child might be using these tools, these are training techniques based in fear and force. The horses are “broken”, quite literally they are taught that even though they are bigger and stronger, humans still have the tools and ability to inflict great pain, and the only escape is compliance. Complete compliance. To the point that we can cue very lightly, just a little squeeze, and they know “I better get moving or this is going to be bad!” This is a very rudimentary overview, but from a psychology perspective what they are using is classic, Negative Reinforcement (apply pressure until you get what you want, then relieve the pressure to reinforce the behavior) and Punishment (add something the learner dislikes to reduce a behavior). Many of the kids are taught these tools and techniques don’t hurt, but if they didn’t hurt (or have a history of hurting in the past) they wouldn’t work.
This is the norm in the horse world because we broke horses for labor, war, and then sport, for thousands of years and techniques have changed very little. Because when you need 600 horses broke and ready for the battlefield, you aren’t going to take the horse’s feelings into consideration. Then sports were made to replicate these processes of breaking horses, riding in various extreme situations one might see on the battlefield. So very little changed, we moved the nose ring into the mouth and made more extreme leverage devices for control. No one is intentionally being unkind, but change is hard, when there are decades of tradition to overcome.
If your kids has decided that this is the path they want to take, they’re doing so for the horse, because with positive reinforcement we learn to use our brain to communicate, not our brute force. We learn about behavioral science, psychology, neurology (of emotions), we learn the importance of nutrition, exercise, and a healthy, species appropriate lifestyle. This means making sure horses have plenty of time outside, living like a horse with their friends. They get an appropriate diet with plenty of forage all day, clean and safe homes to come in when they’re done playing. They learn to use positive training to achieve all the same goals they’re used to and more with horses, and they learn how fun that can be for the horses too! They have made a hard choice because they want to learn and do what’s best for the horse, even if it’s hard in their social settings. So the best we can do is support them, especially at times of conflict, when they’re struggling with whether this is right for them or not. How are kids meant to make decisions when their respected adults give them conflicting messages? They can learn both sides and decide for themselves, but these decisions aren’t always easy.
Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 0 comments
What is an Aversive?

What is an Aversive?

Many people struggle with the concepts of negative reinforcement, pressure/release, how and if it is aversive, and to what degree. Negative Reinforcement relies on the removal of a stimulus to reinforce a behavior. This means something was taken away that made the horse feel enough relief that it reinforces the behavior. Which in turn means, the thing that was taken away must have been aversive to the horse. This means it’s something they want to avoid, something they dislike. If the stimulus had no value, its removal wouldn’t influence the behavior.

A stimulus must be aversive, for its removal to reinforce the behavior. So negative reinforcement requires an aversive. Often we, the human, add the aversive stimuli so we can remove it at the desired time. We’ll use stimuli like pressure, tapping, invading their space, swinging a rope, waving a stick, or otherwise something of concern to the horse. This is where some people struggle. They think “I only just touch lightly” or “I never actually hit them, I just swing the whip/rope” so think that because they are being gentle the negative reinforcement isn’t aversive. But remember, if its not aversive, it won’t influence the behavior. If the rope swinging elicited behavior, then the removal of the swinging reinforced the behavior (as seen by the behavior happening again in a similar scenario) we know the stimulus is aversive.

But how is it aversive if I haven’t even touched them? Or I touched them lighter than I brush them, they like to be curried firmly, so I know the tapping isn’t that bad?

Remember, “Pressure” isn’t the problem, physical contact isn’t necessarily aversive. Pressure in the form of currying, massage, itching, rubbing, all may be physical contact the horse might even enjoy. It’s up to the horse to decide if the stimulus feels good or bad. So pressure isn’t necessarily aversive, but if it’s working to reinforce the behavior, the thing removed must have been aversive.

This is where we see “Unconditioned Responses” and “Conditioned Aversives” in action. An Unconditioned Response is a reflexive reaction to a stimulus that is inherent from birth, not learned. This is a natural, instinctive response to the stimulus. For horses a quick moving object is something that naturally elicits the fear response of fight or flight, this is often used in training. The stimuli is still aversive, it’s naturally, unconditioned, aversive, even without a learning history. We also have the opposite which can be in effect, Conditioned Aversives. This is when the horse learns that a stimulus can be aversive and to respond to a warning signal. This can be done through pairing or escalation. So we apply a very mild stimulus that the horse doesn’t necessarily care about, it could have little or no value, but it’s escalated to the point of being aversive or paired quickly with an aversive. So we might wiggle our finger then slowly add more and more aversive pressure on the lead rope until we get the response we want from the horse. Soon they learn to respond to the warning before you ever need to utilize the aversive. That’s because the warning signal, is threatening enough on its own, it’s become conditioned as an aversive, even though it wasn’t inherently aversive. So while the signal we’re using may very extremely benign, it could be verbal cues, hand signals, or whip signals, but they carry with them the heavy threat of the aversive it was previously paired with.

So whether you’re using direct pressure/release, using unconditioned responses to elicit an instinctive reflex, or using conditioned aversives as a threat, all of them are still aversive. We know this because it works. If its removal reinforces the behavior, we know it was aversive in some way, even if there was no contact or very gentle contact.

Posted by Empowered1 in Behavioral Science, 1 comment