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Handling Problem Behaviors

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 14 July 2015 · 16 views

The usual question people ask when dealing with horses that have behavior problems is "how do I stop this behavior?" Another (better) question to ask is "what do I want my horse to do instead of this behavior?" Horses LEARN the behaviors they show around people, and it's up to us whether the behaviors we teach are good or bad.

B. F. Skinner elaborated the principles of learning many years ago. Simply put, rewarded behaviors increase in frequency, and punished behaviors decrease in frequency. Rewards (also called "reinforcement") and punishments are designated as "positive" or "negative" depending on whether something is added or subtracted. For example, treats are positive reinforcement, and letting a working horse stop and rest is negative reinforcement (subtracting the requirement to work). Historically, horses have mostly been trained with negative reinforcement.

The natural human reaction to problem behaviors is to punish them, usually by physical punishment such as hitting the horse (positive punishment). Negative punishment is more often used with kids than with horses (for example, taking away the car keys). However, people tend to do a bad job of punishment, so they often fail to succeed in stopping problem behaviors.

It's actually fairly difficult to perform punishment properly. Ideally, the punishment must be administered immediately after the problem behavior, every time the behavior occurs, and at exactly the right intensity. Unwanted side effects of punishment include making the animal fearful and/or aggressive. Punishment also creates a sort of vacuum --- it tells the animal what not to do, but it doesn't tell the animal what it should do instead of the problem behavior. Negative punishment is preferable to positive punishment, but no punishment is best of all.

So, if you shouldn't punish problem behaviors, how do you stop them? Think again about the principles of learning. Most problem behaviors are learned, which means they occur because they've been rewarded. The best way to stop them from continuing to occur is to stop them from being rewarded (a process called "extinction"). Be aware that, at the beginning of extinction, the problem behavior will actually increase, as the animal first tries harder to get the reward. Only when the animal finally realizes that it will no longer be rewarded will the behavior actually stop.

Many people, at this point, are probably thinking I'm crazy. They are convinced that they are punishing their horses' problem behaviors, not rewarding them. However, it is the HORSE that determines what is a reward or a punishment, not the handler. Many times, what we think is rewarding or punishing may not be seen that way by the horse.

The example I'll be using during this blog post is pawing, which is a problem behavior in many horses. So, let me start with using it to explain rewards vs. punishments. One reason why horses paw is because they're lonely and/or bored. Someone ties a horse up, then walks away and leaves it. The horse begins pawing, and the person yells at it. The person thinks that yelling at the horse is punishment. The horse sees it as a reward. It's gotten a reaction to its pawing, so (for at least a moment), it's no longer lonely or bored. When the reaction goes away, the horse paws again and gets another reaction. So, the pawing actually increases in frequency because it's being rewarded, not punished.

The first thing to do, then, in trying to stop a problem behavior is to identify what's rewarding it. The bare bones of a behavior analysis is identifying the behavior (something observable, like pawing) and what immediately precedes it (the antecedents) and follows it (the consequences). The antecedents (tying the horse up and leaving it alone) are usually what causes the behavior, and the consequences (yelling at it) are usually what rewards (or punishes) it. Identifying the antecedents and consequences should help you better understand why the behavior occurs. Tying the horse up and leaving it alone causes loneliness, boredom, and frustration. Frustration is what causes the horse to paw. Yelling at it does not decrease the frequency of pawing, so it is not seen by the horse as punishment. If the horse is lonely and bored, it may see being yelled at as rewarding, so the first step in decreasing the pawing is to stop yelling at the horse (remove the reward).

However, in looking at the antecedents, you've also identified the problem that tying the horse up and leaving it alone causes loneliness, boredom, and frustration. Pawing helps to alleviate the boredom and frustration, so pawing is what is called "self-rewarding" behavior. In other words, the pawing is still being rewarded even if you stop yelling at the horse. How do you address that snag?

As I noted above, one shortcoming of punishment is that it tells the animal what not to do, but it doesn't tell the animal what it should do instead of the problem behavior. The best way to get rid of a problem behavior is to choose an alternate behavior and reward that one instead of the unwanted behavior. If the problem behavior is self-rewarding, then the reward for the alternate behavior must be better than the reward for the problem behavior. The best alternate behavior is one that the animal can't perform at the same time as the problem behavior. (For example, a good alternate behavior for a dog that jumps on people would be sitting. The dog would be ignored if it ran up and jumped on someone but rewarded if it ran up and sat down in front of the person.)

An obvious alternate behavior for the pawing horse would be for it to stand quietly until the handler returns. Therefore, the plan would be to ignore the horse when it's pawing and reward it when it stands quietly. To succeed, you need to be able to reward the horse immediately when it does what you want (stands quietly).

Rewards come in two flavors. A primary reinforcer is something that is a natural reward for the animal, like a treat. A secondary reinforcer is something that is rewarding because it signals that a natural reward is coming. "Good boy!" is a secondary reinforcer if it is always followed by a treat (or some other natural reward). If it is only sometimes followed by a treat, it may or may not function as a secondary reinforcer. Therefore, if you are likely to say "good boy!" sometimes and NOT follow it with a treat, you might want to pick something else (like a clicker sound) to be your secondary reinforcer. The way to make something a secondary reinforcer is just to have a session or two where you make the sound and follow it up with the treat. When the animal starts looking for the treat as soon as it hears the sound, you know that the sound has become a secondary reinforcer.

To be able to reward a horse immediately for standing quietly while tied alone, you need a secondary reinforcer. Lets say youre using "good boy!" So, you tie the horse and walk off, and if it stands quietly, you say "good boy!", return and give it a treat. Ideally, it will stand quietly for at least a short time, so you can avoid the pawing altogether by rewarding the horse soon after you've left it, for standing quietly for a short period of time. Then, you just gradually increase the length of time it must stand quietly before getting rewarded. However, if it starts pawing immediately after you leave, you simply wait for a pause in the pawing, then say "good boy!" and reward it. The timing of the "good boy!" is critical. It must be clear to the horse that the reward is for standing still, NOT for pawing. Once the horse learns it will be rewarded for standing quietly, it will look forward to the reward, which will help decrease its loneliness, boredom, and frustration. At that point, the pawing should cease to be a problem.

Punishment tells an animal what NOT to do, which is exclusively negative and leaves the animal in a vacuum, wondering what it SHOULD do. Asking "how do I stop a behavior?" is equally negative, and it leads naturally to thinking about punishment. Rather than thinking about what you DON'T want, think about what you DO want, then reward the horse for doing what you want it to do. Thinking positively is always better than thinking negatively.

In other words, the answer to the question "how do I stop a problem behavior?" is to ask two better questions: "what is rewarding this behavior?" (so you can remove the reward) and "what behavior should I reward instead of rewarding this behavior?" You and your horse will both be happier if you focus on rewards instead of punishments. Try it!


Happy Holidays 2014

Posted by vwkoch, in about horses 15 December 2014 · 131 views

Happy Holidays

At Christmas, for the last several years, my horse has tailored a popular Christmas carol to make her seasonal opinion known, and as always, I have opted to share it with others, because I believe most horses think pretty much the way mine does (that is, food is all-important):

I'm dreaming of a tasty Christmas ---
Treats coming in a steady flow.
Give me cookies, candy;
Mint chocolate's dandy;
And I love carrots, don't you know.

I'm dreaming of a tasty Christmas,
With every treat I've ever seen.
May my hay be fit for a queen,
And may all my Christmases be green.

As always, my horse will definitely get some extra treats to celebrate the holiday, so it should be a good one for both of us. May you and your horses also celebrate the day with wonderful gifts for the people and good food for the horses. Happy holidays and a wonderful 2015 to all!


The Gentleness Of Horses

Posted by vwkoch, in about horses 14 November 2014 · 156 views

I was musing the other day on the Connecticut judge who found that horses are a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious. (See http://westernfarmpr...ts-connecticut.) I was musing on it because my horse was standing quietly while being petted by two very young children in a park. She didnt know the children, and they didnt know horses. One was patting her hock, and the other was being held up by his father to pat her nose. I was allowing the children to pet my horse, in their total ignorance of any danger, because my horse knows children and I have total trust in her forbearance.

Animals, like people, have different personalities. Some people are vicious, and a few animals are, too. To say that an entire species of animal is vicious, though, is really a mind-boggling assertion when you think about it. For example, I wouldnt even say that TIGERS are a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious. Tigers are powerful predators, and it is therefore inherently DANGEROUS to be around them, but it is also possible, and not uncommon, for a person to have a friendly relationship with a tiger. In other words, most tigers are not vicious, so it seems inaccurate to say that tigers are a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious.

Like tigers, horses are inherently dangerous, but for different reasons. Horses are mostly dangerous because they are large and flighty and can easily injure people by accident. However, that type of danger does not make them vicious. They do bite and kick, so they can also injure people on purpose, but most people who get bitten by horses are bitten by accident while improperly feeding a horse. People are much less likely to be attacked by a horse than by another person, so to say that HORSES are a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious is so wrong as to be outlandish.

The judge clearly didnt know horses and made his finding in ignorance, but in my opinion, ignorance is no excuse in this case. A judicial precedent is serious business, and this judges finding could have ended every horse business in Connecticut due to suddenly unaffordable insurance rates. Also, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a SPECIES naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious (emphasis added), and the judge should have recognized that fact. I suspect that the wording he used comes from some poorly written law, but if so, he should have noted that, although a species (like tigers) may be inherently dangerous, no SPECIES is naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious and therefore such decisions must be based on an INDIVIDUALS behavior.

At any rate, while watching my horse quietly endure the oblivious caresses of two very young children, I found myself pondering on the extent to which she was demonstrating the natural viciousness of her species. Perhaps, like Monte Pythons rabbit, there is a species of vicious horses living in caves somewhere. The horses I know, however, are of a truly gentle species. Im lucky to KNOW them.


An Equine Behavior/welfare Research Fund

Posted by vwkoch, in about horses 27 January 2014 · 1,880 views

If such a thing existed, would you donate to an equine behavior/welfare research fund?  I'm just curious.  Funds for equine research are hard to come by --- especially funds for behavior/welfare research.  I'm thinking of setting up such a fund in my will, but doing so means I won't be around to see the results.  I would hope, though, that once such a fund existed, other people would donate to it, so that research in the field could be advanced.  I thought it would be interesting to get comments from horse-related groups.
 
Mental health (welfare) is a difficult issue in animals, but much is possible with behavioral studies. For example, such studies can allow animals to tell us which of two environments (or enrichments) they prefer --- and how much more they prefer it. "Rebound" studies can indicate how much exercise horses WANT, while physiological studies could show how much they NEED. The Equine Research Foundation is currently doing studies of equine perception and cognition that I would consider worthy of funding. (See http://www.equineresearch.org/horse-research.html.) I would also consider more biologically based studies of perception and cognition to be worthy of consideration.  What is important is that such studies should be well-designed, objective, and hypothesis-driven.
 
Several researchers have been conducting studies on how training techniques affect horses.  Examples of subjects include “Variations in the timing of reinforcement as a training technique for foals”, “The use of blended positive and negative reinforcement in shaping the halt response of horses”, “Rein contact between horse and handler during specific equitation movements”, “Effects on behaviour and rein tension on horses ridden with or without martingales and rein inserts”, and “The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses.”  The purpose of these studies is to identify which training techniques are best or worst from a welfare standpoint.
 
Other studies approach behavior and welfare from a physiological standpoint.  Examples include “Study of the behaviour, digestive efficiency and gut transit times of crib-biting horses”; “Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to head lowering”; “The ethological and physiological characteristics of cribbing and weaving horses”; and “The Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Virginiamycin in the Diets of Horses with stereotypies.”  A lot of the physiological type work revolves around identifying possible causes of stereotypies, like cribbing, so that we can try to prevent and treat them successfully.
 
In addition to training techniques and stereotypies, popular topics for behavioral research include laterality (“handedness”), preferred (by the horse) transportation methods, geophagia (why horses eat dirt), diet effects, stress effects, drug effects, genetic effects, conformation effects, effects of changes in stalls (flooring, windows, mirrors, and so on), etc.  Then, of course, there are the studies of wild horse behavior, which can guide us as to the needs and preferences of both wild and domestic horses.  Equine behavior covers a very large field, but as far as I know, there is no large fund set up specifically to support research in this area.
 
I’m afraid this post is rather boring, because it’s mostly made up of lists of things, but I hope people find the thought behind it to be of interest.  My intent in listing all the subjects I mentioned was to show the types of research that could be subsidized through an equine behavior/welfare research fund.  If you’ve managed to read this far, and found any of the subjects to be worthwhile, I hope you would consider donating to help fund such research.  Of course, right now, there’s no place I know of to make such a donation, but if people are interested, then I hope that, someday, people might have such an opportunity.
 
So, what do you think?  Would you donate if you could?  Does anyone know of such a fund already existing?  Does anyone have any ideas on how such a fund should be set up or advertised?  All comments are welcome.  Let me know how you feel.  I’m waiting to hear.


Happy Holidays

Posted by vwkoch, in about horses 13 December 2013 · 2,180 views

As she does every Christmas, my horse has tailored a popular Christmas carol to give the horse’s point of view, and she wants me to share it with everyone as an educational experience:
 

Dashing through the snow
With a one horse open sleigh,
Hope to hear a whoa

So I can stop for hay.
Bells on harness ring,
Making me uptight.
I wish that all they'd do is sing
Their sleighing song tonight.

Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way ---
I believe it’s too much work
To pull this heavy sleigh --- Hey!
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way ---
I’m convinced it’s too much work
To pull this heavy sleigh!

 
I have promised her that I will not ask her to pull any sleighs for Christmas, but she will definitely get some extra treats to celebrate the holiday.  May you and your horses also celebrate the day with little work, great gifts, and good food.  A wonderful 2014 to all!



Prestige Vs. Dominance

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 05 August 2013 · 3,598 views

People are commonly told that they need to be dominant to their horses, but such advice is not in line with scientific studies on dominance behavior.  Although dominance hierarchies certainly exist among horses, there is no need for people to try to assume a place in such hierarchies.  Horses will naturally defer to people because we, as a species, are more confident than horses are and thus more likely to be leaders in the horse-human relationship.  Consider the Budweiser ad run during the 2013 Super Bowl:

 
In the ad, a man sees a “runaway” Clydesdale and moves to stand in its path with his arms outspread (a natural human reaction to make yourself look bigger).  Does anybody really think a man could stop a draft horse that didn’t want to stop?  However, we frequently take such chances in the expectation of being successful (and we frequently ARE successful).  Does anybody think a Clydesdale would put itself at risk trying to stop a charging elephant?  Not likely!  In fact, a Clydesdale might very well run in terror from a sparrow that flew up unexpectedly in its path.  That difference in confidence is what makes most horses defer to most people.
 
The term “dominance” originally described the outcome of a conflict between two individuals.  It was not a personality trait, although the word has come to be used as an adjective describing social status.  In 2001, two scientists (Henrich and Gil-White) suggested there were two routes to attaining social status in human societies: dominance, based on intimidation, and prestige, based on the possession of skills or expertise.  In 2007, two other scientists (Tracy and Robins) suggested there were two distinct forms of pride: hubristic (marked by arrogance and conceit) and authentic (fueled by feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and success).  In 2010, three of these scientists (Cheng, Tracy, and Henrich) suggested that hubristic and authentic pride were parts of two suites of psychological adaptations (or personality traits) underpinning the status-obtaining strategies of dominance and prestige.  They described their studies as showing that “hubristic pride is associated with dominance, whereas authentic pride is associated with prestige. Moreover, the two facets of pride are part of a larger suite of distinctive psychological traits uniquely associated with dominance or prestige. Specifically, dominance is positively associated with traits such as narcissism, aggression, and disagreeableness, whereas prestige is positively associated with traits such as genuine self-esteem, agreeableness, conscientiousness, achievement, advice-giving, and prosociality.”
 
Dominance in people, then, is associated with aggression, intimidation, disagreeableness, arrogance, conceit, and narcissism --- not exactly traits to which we should aspire.  Trying to be dominant to your horse will make you think in terms of force.  A major problem with “dominance” is that people try to achieve it by using punishment when the horse is not being sufficiently “subordinate.”  Dominance is seen as something achieved by being the best at aggression --- by convincing the horse that you’re stronger than it is and can beat it in a fight.  If you are dominant to your horse, it will learn to respect the punishment you can dish out, but it will not respect you as a leader.  If it sees you as dangerous, it may obey you out of fear, but it will not trust you.
 
Subordinate horses respond to dominant horses by moving away from them, to avoid their aggression.  This type of behavior is NOT what we want from our horses, but it is what we will see if we actually become dominant to them.  Dominance trainers talk about leadership and respect, but true leadership and respect are a product of deference on the part of the horse, not dominance on the part of the trainer.  Trainer dominance behavior is intended to create a subordinate horse, and such subordination is achieved by threatening to use force.  In contrast, true leadership behavior by a trainer creates deference in the horse, by earning its trust and true respect (not just respect for the trainer’s ability to punish).  If your relationship with your horse is based on cooperation and deference, then problem behaviors are seen as miscommunication on your part, rather than as insubordination on the part of the horse.  Rather than focusing on punishing your horse, you focus on improving your communication regarding what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you.
 
Interacting appropriately with a horse does not require “domination” or threatening behavior on our part.  It requires us to provide clear signals to the horse, to be reliable, and to provide a safe environment, so that the horse learns to trust us and to be willing to take clues about appropriate behavior from us.  If the horse trusts our leadership, it will give us true respect, deference, cooperation, and compliance with our commands.
 
Most social interactions among horses are affiliative, not dominance-based.  Horses choose other horses to be their friends, and they SHARE space, grooming, food, etc., rather than fighting over these things.  When one horse moves, its friends FOLLOW it, rather than moving away from it.  Affiliation, not dominance, is what results in leadership, and true leadership, not dominance, is the relationship that we want to achieve with our horses.
 
Among affiliated horses, a horse will usually get what it wants if it wants something more than the other horses do.  Its friends recognize its greater desire, and they defer to it, thus avoiding the conflict and potential injury of dominance aggression.  The human desire for obedience from our horses is usually strong enough that our horses will defer to that desire, without the need for us to use force with them.  Our goal should be for our horses to be cooperative with us, not subordinate to us.
 
The best examples I have of dominance and deference in horses have to do with feeding and watering a small herd of horses I maintained many years ago.  The core of the herd was a stallion and two mares.  One mare was barren, and the other had a foal every year.  Each foal would be sold before the next foal appeared, so there were never more than four horses in the herd.
 
These horses obtained their water from a garbage can that was only big enough for one horse to drink at a time.  In the summer, the can would be empty when I returned home, and the first thing I would do is refill it.  Then, I would feed the horses, each of which had its own feed container.  Feeding and watering time was a great opportunity to observe interactions between the horses.
 
When I arrived home, the horses would all gallop down to the feeding and watering area.  Access to the water in the garbage can was a classical test of dominance --- an animal’s comparative ability to control access to limited resources (the water, which only one horse could access at a time).  Usually, the pregnant, lactating mare would arrive first and would begin drinking from the garbage can.  The other mare would arrive next and would patiently wait her turn, because she was subordinate.  When the stallion arrived, the pregnant mare would move away without him having to threaten her, because they both already knew he was dominant.  The most interesting interaction, however, had to do with the foals.
 
When the foals were old enough to depend primarily on water to provide their daily liquid intake, they were often the first to arrive at the garbage can.  Both mares would patiently wait their turns for water --- not because the foals were dominant to them but because they deferred to the foals’ desire for water and youthful ignorance of the very concept of dominance.  The most interesting interaction, though, was between the foals and the stallion.
 
The stallion would arrive with the expectation that all the other horses would automatically move away to give him access to the water, because he was at the top of the dominance hierarchy.  However, the foals didn’t move away because they didn’t recognize the EXISTENCE of a dominance hierarchy.  Sometimes, the stallion would even grasp their necks, in a classical display of dominance behavior, but the foals would still ignore him, because they didn’t understand his signal of dominance.  Like the mares, the stallion would then patiently wait his turn, deferring to the foals’ ignorance of dominance hierarchies.  Interactions in this small herd were governed primarily by deference and cooperation, not by aggression and dominance (although dominance DID exist).
 
When I fed the horses, the pregnant mare would finish first and displace the subordinate mare from the last of her feed.  Then, she would sidle up to the stallion, displaying all the signs of subordination, but nevertheless plainly wanting to access his feed.  A mere flick of his ear would be enough to make her back off, but invariably, she would return for another try.  Eventually, he would let her approach and share the last of his feed.  Clearly, he was the dominant horse of the pair, but equally clearly, he was willing to defer to her desire to obtain a portion of his feed.  Again, the interactions in the herd were governed primarily by deference and cooperation, not by aggression and force.
 
It would have been perfectly possible for me to place feed in a feeder and then prevent any of the horses from accessing it --- not because I was “dominant” but because the horses deferred to me.  I was the food provider, so they recognized that I determined when and how the food was provided.  Because I was the provider, not a competitor for the resource, the horses understood that aggression was unnecessary and inappropriate.  Indeed, aggression would have been counterproductive, because I would not have provided the feed until the aggressive behavior ceased.  I was respected, as the source of desirable things, and I was trusted to provide those things if the horses behaved appropriately --- and to provide clear signals as to what appropriate behavior was.  I had ultimate control over the resources not because I used force but because the horses deferred to my leadership and cooperated with my desires.
 
To return to the articles by Henrich, Gil-White, Tracy, Robins, and Cheng, the two routes to attaining social status in human societies are dominance and prestige.  Dominance is associated with hubristic pride (marked by arrogance and conceit), narcissism, aggression, intimidation, and disagreeableness, and prestige is associated with authentic pride (fueled by feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and success), genuine self-esteem based on the possession of skills or expertise, agreeableness, conscientiousness, achievement, advice-giving, and prosociality.  Dominance does not earn true respect, but prestige is synonymous with respect.
 
If we possess the skills, expertise, and conscientiousness to provide clear signals to our horses, to be reliable, and to provide a safe environment, so that our horses learn to trust our leadership enough to take clues about appropriate behavior from us, then we will earn true prestige and respect from our horses.  We can then experience genuine self-esteem and the associated feelings of accomplishment, confidence, success, and achievement.  Our horses will see us as agreeable friends and leaders, rather than intimidating dictators, and they will willingly defer to and cooperate with us.  We should not be trying to achieve status through dominance.  Our goal should be to achieve status through prestige.  Dominance earns fear, not respect.  Prestige earns trust, respect, deference, and cooperation, and it is the status of a true leader.  True leadership, not dominance, should be the relationship that we strive to achieve with our horses.



Genes

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 22 April 2013 · 4,418 views

Last summer, some scientists published a paper about a “gait-keeper” gene in horses (see http://blogs.discove...n-unusual-ways/).  A mutation in this gene appears to be responsible for the “extra” gaits in “gaited” horses (rack, foxtrot, running walk, etc.).  The unmutated gene is evidently responsible for coordinating the movements of the limbs.  Horses with the mutated gene have to learn to coordinate their legs, rather than having it come naturally.  Because moving is learned in these horses, they move in different ways from the usual walk, trot, and canter.

I found this news very interesting because I believe my current pet horse has this mutation.  She has always been very uncoordinated, which I put down to the fact that she spent her first three years in a 12x12 pen.  However, the fact that she’s remained uncoordinated, even after all the work I’ve put into her, made me wonder why she hasn’t improved more than she has.  Now, I think I know.  If a horse with the mutated gene has to learn how to coordinate its legs, it isn’t going to learn much in a 12x12 pen, so her learning didn’t really start until I bought her as a three-year-old.

I think she probably only has one mutated gene, rather than two, because she does do the walk, trot, and canter, rather than “gaiting.”  However, her trot can be very arrhythmic and uncoordinated.  Early on, I recognized that, if I wanted to teach her to “gait”, I could --- but all I wanted was a coordinated trot.  To this day, however, she loses her coordination very easily.  If we’re going downhill, or on uneven ground, or if something distracts her, her trot immediately becomes arrhythmic.  I can usually get her to be rhythmic again by posting or rhythmically bumping the bit or doing something else to give her a rhythm to match, but it’s still amazingly easy for her to lose that rhythm.  She’s pretty consistent on a surface where she can hear the rhythm of her trot, but if we get into grass or something else where she can’t hear the rhythm, she tends to lose it.  At least now, I have a theory as to why!

My first work with her was on the ground in a round pen.  She learned “walk”, “trot”, and “whoa”, and then we progressed to cantering.  To my surprise (and horror), when I told her to whoa, she stopped --- and did about a triple somersault.  As best I could tell, she didn’t realize that she needed to stop with her back legs under her, so she just stopped, and her momentum created a spectacular fall.  Luckily, she emerged unhurt, and the episode turned into an effective learning experience.  She now stops with her hind end WELL underneath her.

However, the falling problem continues to this day.  Tori falls relatively frequently, and she does so in an entirely unpredictable way.  Most horses fall because they have tripped, so the rider has some warning of what is happening --- albeit a brief one.  However, Tori just falls.  She doesn’t trip --- she just goes from upright to on the ground with absolutely no warning.  The first time it happened while I was riding her, we were cantering, and my only warning was that the up part of the up-and-down head bob didn’t come.  By the time I realized her head was still going down when it should have been coming up, she was in the midst of another spectacular somersault.  At the time, I thought maybe she’d stepped on a rock and picked up her foot without realizing that having NO front feet on the ground would cause her to fall.  Now, I wonder if she just lost her coordination and didn’t get her foot down when she should have.

Most of her falls have been while cantering, but she once managed to fall essentially from a standstill.  We were working in a dressage ring and had stopped at the letter E.  When I asked her to continue at a walk, she promptly fell onto her side.  As she lay there in full lateral recumbency, with me still in the saddle (with one leg underneath her), all I could do was wonder how a horse can manage to fall down from a standstill.  Again, I think now that she just lost coordination and when she stepped forward, she didn’t get her foot down when she should have.

I have always felt that her lack of coordination is a product of her spending the first three years of her life in that 12x12 pen, but I’ve also wondered why she hasn’t improved more than she has after all the work I’ve done with her.  It made sense that having her movement limited during her formative years would affect her later ability to coordinate, but it also seemed that remedial work should have restored more of that ability than it actually did.  Why didn’t a horse’s natural ability to coordinate kick in to a greater extent once she DID get to move around naturally?

Knowing about the gait-keeper gene helps explain her continuing problems.  If, unlike other horses, she had to learn to coordinate her legs, rather than having such coordination come naturally, and if she was unable to learn to coordinate until she was a three-year-old, it’s not as surprising that the delayed learning has had a significant effect.  There was no natural coordination ability to fall back on, so it’s all been learning for her, and learning is limited in its ability to remedy a natural lack of coordination, especially when such learning occurs later in life.

I could be entirely wrong, of course, in my belief that my horse has a gait-keeper gene mutation that explains her lack of coordination, but if she does, it certainly explains a lot of things I’ve wondered about since I first got her.  It’s nice to have such an explanation when I get frustrated because something as simple as a few steps off the trail causes her feet to go haywire and completely lose any rhythm at all in her trot.  It’s probably frustrating for her, too!

If nothing else, it’s been fun to speculate about whether such a mutation accounts for my horse’s problems.  It’s always nice when something comes along that seems to make all the pieces of a puzzle neatly fall together all of a sudden.  At the very least, the information about the gait-keeper gene is interesting, whether or not it actually applies to my horse.  What a cool discovery!


Mutual Gentleness

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 08 April 2013 · 5,006 views

One of the goals of horse training is to make a horse gentle with humans.  In fact, being gentle is so important that training is sometimes called “gentling.”  However, we often seem to overlook the fact that gentleness should be mutual.  People should be gentle with their horses, too.

It is common nowadays for trainers to tell people they must earn the respect of their horses by being dominant.  A major problem with “dominance” is that people try to achieve it by using punishment when the horse is not being sufficiently “subordinate.”  Being dominant is seen as being dominating.

Thinking about trying to be dominant makes people think in terms of force.  If you think in terms of force, you think in terms of punishment.  It is surprisingly difficult to use punishment properly, and improperly used punishment simply creates fear, not respect (other than respect for your ability to punish).  If you want true respect from your horse, there is a better way to achieve it.  Rather than trying to be dominant, or forcing their horses to be subordinate, people should be trying to EARN respect so that their horses will show them deference.

What is the difference between deference and subordination?  Subordination is achieved by threatening to use force, and deference is achieved by earning trust and true respect (not just respect for your ability to punish).  Deference is when a horse is willing to yield to your wishes because it likes you and respects your judgment, as opposed to fearing your punishment.  Deference involves getting the horse to want to cooperate with you, rather than forcing it to do what you want.

Earning a horse’s true respect requires you to prove yourself to be reliable by providing your horse with clear signals and a safe environment, so that it learns to trust you.  If your horse cannot understand what you are asking of it, it cannot be expected to respond appropriately.  If it fears being punished arbitrarily or being put into situations in which it does not feel protected, it will not develop the trust in you which is needed for it to be willing to defer to your leadership.  If you think in terms of dominance, you will also think in terms of using force to obtain obedience, and using force is counterproductive to developing trust.

If your relationship with your horse is based on cooperation and deference, then problem behaviors are seen as miscommunications rather than as insubordination.  Instead of focusing on punishing your horse, you will focus on improving your communication regarding what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you. You will work to identify problem behaviors as early in the inappropriate sequence as possible, humanely interrupt them, provide an acceptable alternative option, and reward the horse for choosing that option.  You will try to avoid inadvertently rewarding problem behaviors, and if you make such a mistake, you will work to identify and remove the inadvertent reward, rather than confusing the horse by creating a situation where the same behavior is both punished and rewarded.

Problem behaviors occur because they are rewarding to the horse, and the best way to correct them is to identify those rewards and remove them.  For example, some horses get pushy when they are hand fed treats.  If the horse gets the treat faster when it is pushy, it is being inadvertently rewarded for being pushy (a miscommunication on the part of the person, not insubordination on the part of the horse).  If it is allowed to grab the treat and THEN it gets punished, it is being rewarded (by getting the treat) and punished at the same time, which will REALLY confuse it --- teaching it only to grab the treat and then dodge to try to escape the punishment (even WORSE miscommunication by the person).  However, if it fails to get the treat at all whenever it is pushy, getting rewarded only if it waits patiently, then it will learn to be patient.

Punishment is almost always problematic because it is misused more often than not.  Appropriate punishment requires an unpleasant consequence sufficiently timely and powerful that the undesirable behavior is immediately stopped and the probability of the behavior recurring in the future is decreased.  However, that goal is more difficult to achieve than most people believe.  If anything occurs between the bad behavior and the punishment, the horse will associate the punishment with what occurred just before it was punished.  For example, if your horse nips you and a chair falls over before you hit your horse, the horse will think it’s being punished because the chair fell over, not because it nipped you.  How hard you have to hit your horse to stop it from nipping depends on how motivated it is to nip, and the level of its motivation is often difficult to determine.  Too gentle a hit is ineffective at stopping bad behavior (although it will still decrease your horse’s trust in you), and too hard a hit is abusive.  Another problem with punishment is that it does not tell the horse what behavior it should perform instead of nipping.  As noted above, it is better to interrupt a problem behavior early in its sequence, provide an acceptable alternative option, and reward the horse for choosing that option.

Horses often ask for our input, by offering a behavior and then waiting to see how we respond.  We should not be responding with force to their questions.  Instead, we should be responding by directing the horse’s behavior into acceptable channels.  For example, my horse is very “mouthy.”  When she is tied near something chewable (like a bridle), she is likely to try to chew it, but she will usually just nose it first to see how I react.  Rather than punishing her if she is nosing something I don’t want her to chew, I will provide her with something that I don’t mind her nibbling, usually something indestructible, like a metal chain.  Getting to nibble on the chain is rewarding to her, so she is willing to defer to my wishes that she NOT chew the bridle.  Because I know she likes to nibble, I will often provide her with a chain when I tie her, so that she is not tempted to chew on something else.  As a result, she has learned that it is not acceptable to chew on leather, but it is (usually) acceptable to nibble on metal, and I can trust her to “behave” if I tie her next to somebody’s bridle.  If you pay enough attention to recognize when your horse asks questions, you can then give it appropriate answers, and its behavior will improve without any need for coercion.

Trying to be dominant to your horse will only make you think in terms of force and punishment, and using force is counterproductive to developing the trust which is needed for your horse to be willing to defer to your leadership and cooperate with your desires.  If your relationship with your horse is based on cooperation and deference, rather than dominance, then problem behaviors are seen as miscommunications rather than as insubordination, and you will focus on improving your communication regarding what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you, rather than on using punishment and force.  It is important that horses be gentle with people, but it is equally important that people be gentle with horses.  We should not forget that gentleness should be mutual!


Giving Up

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 25 March 2013 · 2,699 views

Scientific terms have a way of moving into general terminology, and when they do, they’re usually misused, from a scientific standpoint.  The latest scientific term I’ve seen misused in this way is “learned helplessness.”  Some of the people opposed to the current fad for people being “dominant” to horses (another misuse of a scientific term) claim that dominance training methods result in learned helplessness in horses.

“Learned helplessness” is a term coined to describe the reaction of lab animals who were subjected to inescapable shocks.  These animals eventually gave up trying to escape, to the point that when escape became possible, they ignored that possibility and continued to endure the shocks.  “Learned helplessness” describes the state of an animal in absolute despair, and in my opinion, falsely accusing a trainer of inflicting such psychological damage on a horse is insulting and does nothing but reveal the ignorance of the accuser.

However, there are some types of training methods that do cause a sort of limited learned helplessness.  For example, the technique of involuntarily “laying down” a horse does often cause the horse to give up for awhile, and in my opinion, this technique constitutes psychological abuse, although I doubt that the people who use it realize what they’re doing to the horse.  I am sure that they just see it as the ultimate expression of human dominance; that is, forcing submission on the horse.  To me, it is a good example of all that is bad in dominance training methods, but I think claiming that all dominance training methods result in learned helplessness just makes the term “learned helplessness” essentially meaningless.

Another temporary kind of learned helplessness can occur when a horse gets itself into an inescapable situation.  For example, when a horse gets cast in a stall, it will eventually stop struggling, if its struggles don’t manage to free it.  When people manage to move it enough for it to get up, sometimes it will briefly refuse to try, believing that such an attempt is hopeless.  Eventually, though, it WILL get up (if it is sufficiently uninjured), which is the difference between true learned helplessness and the temporary kind of despair that we DO see in horses from time to time.

So, giving up is not always bad for a horse.  For one thing, it serves as a coping mechanism.  If a horse is in an inescapable situation, giving up allows it to maintain at least some sanity.  For another, it may prevent injury, such as for a horse that is cast or that is tangled in barbed wire fencing.  From a human standpoint, it is easier for us to help a horse if it is not thrashing around dangerously.  However, I would rather try to teach a horse to react calmly to situations it perceives as dangerous than try to teach it “learned helplessness.”

I think my own horse has learned to react to bad situations with a type of learned helplessness.  Before I bought her, she was kept in a 12x12 pen, wearing a halter and dragging a lead rope (because her owner couldn’t catch her otherwise).  I think she must have gotten cast in the pen or into some impossible situation with the lead rope and learned to give up in such situations.  She’s a very flighty horse, and when I got her, she would sit back and try to break loose at the slightest provocation.  Twice, she ended up hanging upside down from the lead rope, at which point she stopped fighting and waited calmly for me to release her.  In both cases, I was glad that she had learned to give up so quickly.

Recently, though, we had another “learned helplessness” episode that had bad aspects as well as good ones.  We were coming back from a trail ride, and she slipped and fell on a patch of ice.  I was thrown next to her, as she unsuccessfully struggled to get back up, and was worried about the safety of both of us.  However, when I told her “whoa!”, she quit struggling, and slowly lay over on her side.  I was happy that she gave up her struggles because it gave me a chance to get up safely and it put her in a position from which she could get up, too.  However, when I asked her to get up, she simply lay there and gave me her “I can’t” look.  No matter what I did (short of hitting her), she refused to try to get up off the ground.

My first thought was that she had been injured, but when I moved every single joint of each one of her legs, she showed no evidence of being in pain.  When I tried again to coax her up, she again refused even to try to move.  She had decided she couldn’t get up, and I was beginning to think we’d be stuck there forever.  Finally, I went around behind her to try pushing rather than pulling, and when she lost sight of me, she decided that she did need to try to get up (probably because she was worried about being abandoned).  As soon as she tried, of course, she was successful, and she did indeed prove to be uninjured.  The rest of the trip home was uneventful, but the episode was certainly an interesting experience for me (to say the least).  I’m glad that she was willing to relax on command, but it was NOT pleasant to see her lying there believing she was helpless.  I saw both the good and the bad of temporary “learned helplessness” in one fell swoop.

I might feel differently if she’d kept struggling and managed to hurt one or both of us, but in balance, I think I’d prefer that she didn’t suffer from learned helplessness.  I believe she trusts me enough to calm down in a bad situation regardless (although it might take a little longer), and I hate to think that my anxious horse is so ready to give up and just wait to die in a bad situation.  I have to admit that she doesn’t seem completely hopeless when I’m there to rescue her, but seeing an animal just give up is not a pleasant experience for me, even if it IS only a temporary occurrence.  Perhaps my sensitivity to such concerns is why I react so vehemently when someone throws around the term “learned helplessness” as if it isn’t as serious an issue as it is.

I wish people would quit using scientific (or any) terms unless they understand the definitions of those terms.  Misinterpretation can cause bad results when people try to apply concepts that they don’t really understand.  Misunderstanding of “dominance”, for example, can cause some people to abuse horses unintentionally.  When someone tries to impress you by using a scientific term, don’t be impressed until you’ve looked up the term to see if the person got it right.  When you look up the REAL definition, then YOU’LL be the impressive one!


Clicker Training

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 11 March 2013 · 1,700 views

Horse training has historically been performed using negative reinforcement, and I don’t expect that tradition to be changing any time soon.  I encourage people to use positive reinforcement whenever possible, but I haven’t really given many examples of how to do so.  Perhaps, it’s about time I got more specific.

Positive reinforcement training is also known as clicker training, because clickers are often used to give “secondary” reinforcement.  The idea is that reinforcement must be immediate and getting a treat to an animal takes time, so the clicker is used to signal that the treat is coming.  The instant that a desired behavior is performed, the trainer can click to signal the animal’s success, following the click up with the promised treat.

You don’t really HAVE to use a clicker for positive reinforcement training, but clickers are cheap and readily available at pet supply stores such as Petsmart.  You begin by just clicking and feeding, until the horse clearly expects a treat when it hears the click.  Then, the clicker has become a secondary reinforcer.

You don’t have to use commercial treats.  I use pieces of carrot.  You can also use handfuls of pellets.  I would steer clear of using grain, but cubed hay would also work --- anything the horse likes that’s easy for you to carry.  Hand feeding will not cause problems if you give the treat only if the horse takes it gently, but if you don’t want to hand feed, have a bucket available and throw the treat in there.  When the horse has learned that the click means food, you are ready to begin clicker training.

Some commercial trainers look down on clicker training because it is used to teach tricks. Many people think that training horses to do tricks is a waste of time, but if it is properly done, it actually enriches the horse’s life.  Once a horse learns how to learn (that is, learns to try different behaviors to see which ones get rewarded), it enjoys the challenge as much as it enjoys the treats.  The training becomes a game that is fun for both you and the horse.  It gives the horse mental stimulation, more control over its life, and lots of good treats.  It gives you the satisfaction of a good relationship and some tangible accomplishments you can show off to your friends.   Teaching tricks is easy, fun, and a win-win situation for both the horse and the trainer.  However, there ARE other uses for positive reinforcement training, for those who don’t want to bother with tricks.

Examples of things that can easily be taught to horses using clicker training include picking up the feet, taking the bit, moving in response to pressure, standing at the mounting block, trailer loading, etc.  These things can be taught with pure positive reinforcement or with a combination of the usual negative reinforcement methodology with positive reinforcement.  It’s pretty much common sense, and many people may be doing something close to it already.  The main difference may be just in following through with a timely reward to improve the horse’s response.

The easiest way to teach picking up feet is to use the usual negative reinforcement methodology to get the initial response.  I just tap on the leg, rather than pinching the tendon.  When the horse does what I want, the tapping stops (which is negative reinforcement).  However, you should also give positive reinforcement at the same time --- click and then treat.  The horse will pick up its foot much faster to get a treat than it does just to get away from the tapping.  Eventually, my horses pick up their feet as soon as I bend over next to their legs (or even pick up the next foot as soon as I put one down).  If you want to teach the command “foot”, you can use that approach as well.

This training goes REALLY quickly if the horse actually picks up its foot when you tap, but sometimes, it takes a few more steps.  If the horse makes ANY move toward doing what you want, you should reward it.  In other words, if all it does at first is shift its weight off that foot, reward it for that behavior.  When it is reliably shifting its weight on command, then hold off on the reward until it goes one step further.  That step might be actually lifting its foot, or it might just be tilting its foot or bending its knee a little.  Each extra little step is rewarded until it becomes reliable, then you demand a little more, until eventually the horse figures out what you want.  You can use negative reinforcement to force the horse to pick up its foot as the FIRST step, but I prefer to go positive as soon as possible --- as soon as the horse offers me ANY step on the way to picking up the foot.

Once the horse reliably picks up its feet, you can begin clicking only after the second foot, then after the third, then after all four.  Most horses will maintain the behavior for just a treat at the end of the procedure.  You can even do away with the clicker, and just directly treat the horse, and most horses will still connect the treat with the behavior.  If the behavior degenerates, you just go back to the beginning to freshen it up again.

Because my horses are used to getting handheld treats, teaching them to take the bit is simply a matter of offering the bit and a treat at the same time.  Their reward is literally simultaneous with taking the bit.  They quickly begin reaching for the bit whenever they see it, and at that point, I begin giving them the treat after I’ve actually gotten them bridled.  Sometimes, I don’t even bother with the treat.  I think the horses associate the bit with being ridden, which means getting out and doing interesting things with me, so they actually look forward to being bridled.

For people who don’t want to handfeed treats, you can just use the usual negative reinforcement to get the horse to take the bit, then click, then offer a treat from a bucket.  Many horses will open their mouths eventually if you just keep pushing the bit against their teeth.  Most of the rest will open their mouths if you just slip your finger or thumb between their lips in the space between the front and back teeth.  It’s not necessary to try to force their mouths open, as I’ve seen so many people do.  The important part is to be patient and to remember to click as the bit is going in, not after you’ve already bridled the horse.  The reward is for taking the bit, and the result is a horse that opens its mouth for the bit as soon as it is presented, without you having to bang the bit on its teeth or use other such typical methods of bridling.

Teaching a horse to move in response to pressure is another combination of negative and positive reinforcement.  You apply enough unpleasant pressure to get the horse to move, then click and treat.  I usually apply pressure with a fingernail, and eventually, the horse will move.  The fingernail is not enough pressure to make the horse want to push back, but it’s uncomfortable enough that the horse will eventually move.  When it moves, it is rewarded by stopping the pressure (negative reinforcement) and a treat (positive reinforcement).  The treat causes it to learn the behavior faster (and better) than it would with just negative reinforcement.  Remember to reward ANY move toward doing what you want, even if the horse just leans away from you.  Once it reliably leans, then ask it for (and reward it for) just a little more response, until it moves over for you when you just place your hand on its side.  (My horses move over at just a hand motion.)

Many people have trouble getting their horses to cross one leg over another when asked to move sideways.  That problem usually arises when horses are FORCED to move sideways, so they are concentrating more on the force than on moving.  Horses that are taught to move voluntarily will usually cross their legs naturally, but if they don’t, you can actually teach them to do so by using the same stepwise approach discussed above.  Ask the horse to move sideways and reward any approximation of crossing its legs.  The first step might just be moving one leg slightly in front of the other.  When that step is reliably performed, ask for just a little bit more.  When the horse learns to cross its legs when you move it on the ground, it will easily transfer that knowledge to crossing its legs when you move it while riding.

To teach a horse to stand still at the mounting block, you just reward it for standing still at the mounting block.  One way to do so is to position it, give it a command (“stand”), and reward it after it has stood there a moment.  At first, “a moment” should be a very short time, so that the horse actually has a chance to get rewarded.  When it is standing for a short time, you just lengthen the time it must stand still to get the treat, until it is standing long enough for you to get on its back.  If it moves when it shouldn’t, you just reposition it and start the countdown over again.  If you’re having trouble getting it to stand still long enough to get a treat, you’re asking for too much and need to shorten the time before you give it a reward.

You give the last reward after you’ve actually gotten on and before you move off.  I handfeed that treat, too, but if you don’t want to handfeed, you can throw the treat on the ground.  You may have to teach the horse to look for the treat, if you do things that way, but they’ll learn THAT trick very quickly.  If your horse likes to have its withers scratched, you can also use scratching as a reward, so you can do away with the treat altogether.

Teaching trailer loading can also be done totally positively.  You simply bring the horse up to the trailer and reward it for each step toward getting inside.  However, a “step” may not be an actual step.  If the horse lowers its head to sniff the trailer floor, it’s thinking about getting in, and it should be rewarded.  Again, you want to reward ANY move toward doing what you want and just increase your demands little by little.  You can use treats as lures to encourage the horse to move forward.  Some people think luring is bad (and call it “bribing”), but in fact, it is just a way of communicating to the horse what you want it to do.  I have never understood why people think it’s bad to indicate to a horse what you want and then reward it for doing what you’re asking.

Some horses (like my current pet) may have trouble figuring out how to step up into a trailer.  Usually, they’ll figure it out if you are luring them with a good enough treat, but if not, you can put a foot in for them; reward them for keeping it there; and THEN use a lure.  The trick is to be patient and to reward each LITTLE step forward.  People who have trouble teaching loading are usually too impatient, or are failing to recognize and reward the LITTLE behaviors that show the horse is trying, or both.  If you can’t read a horse well enough to recognize and reward each LITTLE step forward, then the easiest way to teach loading is to leave the trailer in the pasture with food in it (but be sure the trailer is stable enough not to move when the horse tries to get into it).  Horses will eventually figure it out on their own.  The food is positive reinforcement for getting in the trailer even if you aren’t there giving it to them.

If the only training you ever do is with negative reinforcement training, then your horse will come to associate you with negatives.  I think we’d all prefer that our horses associate us with positives, so we should be using positive reinforcement whenever possible.  If you try it, you’ll find that your horses respond to commands both more quickly and more willingly.  Better responses and a better relationship are the human’s reward for using positive reinforcement.  It’s definitely a win-win proposition.  Why not try it?






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