Blog

Competitions

Just wondering why people compete their horses. I am not competitive but many people like to pop out and do the odd competition for fun. There are also those who earn a living from competing and breeding competition horses.
Is it to show off our horses, to show our skill, to show we are better than someone else? Or is it just a bit of fun and gives us a goal to work towards, so we have an idea of how far we have progressed?
I can understand that riding across country might be exciting and even jumping for some – gives them an adrenaline kick.
Do we consider what the horse likes doing or (as is so often the case) hates the least?
Can we ever know whether a horse is running and jumping due to pleasurable stress (eustress) or just running due to not having a choice and experiencing anxiety (distress) and not enjoying the experience. We all need a bit of adrenaline to motivate but too much is bad for us and bad for our horses. Put me on a roller coast and i would be terrified but someone else may enjoy the thrill. We are all different and I suspect so are the horses.
However I see many people saying their horses love to run and jump but the body language and facial expressions of the horses tell a different story.
Horses have a unique ability to put up and shut up and accept what we do with and to them. Do we take advantage of this to the detriment of the horse?

Research methods matter.

A recent study in to the benefits of bitless versus bitted bridles has caused a lot of controversy.
Why?
Mainly due to the methodology of the study, it seems to be the result of people filling in questionnaires about their horses behaviour before and after switching to a bitless bridle.

This is the article – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eve.12916

Anecdotal experiences are often useful in sociological research but are they useful in this type of research?

The replies to the questionnaires were implying a correlation between bits and the behavioural problems – it is not proof that the bit was the cause.
Other factors are that we don’t know how the horses transitioned to going bitless, were they ridden differently, did the training method change e.g from using negative reinforcement to using positive reinforcement?
Did some horses have some other underlying problems unrelated to being ridden in a bitted bridle that changed coincidentally at the same time they were transitioned to bitless?

It says 53 had fear of the bit – so the rest did not, was there a difference in the fearful horses reactions to bitless to that of the fear free horses?

There is research about the damage caused by harsh bit use so I am not suggesting bits are needed or that they don’t cause some problems with incorrect use, but neither am I suggesting that bitless bridles are the answers to behavioural problems.

Also problematic is the use of only one type of bitless bridle. I know from personal experience that my pony didn’t like this particular bridle type – but that is not saying it is detrimental to all horses as my cob loved his.

Another thought is that correlation is not the same as causation.

http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/a3121120.nsf/home/statistical+language+-+correlation+and+causation

5 reasons why anecdotes are totally worthless

https://www.livescience.com/21456-empirical-evidence-a-definition.html

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10888705.2015.1004407

Trainability

“horses have a unique ability to just accept their situation.” This is a quote from Bob Bailey. This being the reason they are so trainable. However we have a duty of care towards them to make sure we never abuse this trainability. I saw a video recently of a very shut down horse being described as an introvert – this apparently was why the horse was so quiet. To me the horse just looked depressed and was putting up with the things done to her. Please ditch the labels and learn to look at the whole horse, posture, facial expressions etc not just whether they are quiet and accepting. Many horses put up with what we do due to being punished for incorrect behaviour – they then become too worried about doing the wrong behaviour so they do nothing. Correction is a word often used as a euphemism for punishment.

This article has good images of depressed/shut down horses compared to alert and resting posture.

https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2012/09/10/researchers-probe-nature-of-horse-depression/

Reflections

Take a few minutes to think about how you train and keep your horse.
Does your horse obey to gain something appetitive or to avoid something aversive?

Do you abide by the LIMA principles?
Do you know what the humane hierarchy looks like?
Do you understand the 5 Domains of animal welfare?
How can you tell whether your horse is “happy”?

I don’t have all the answers but they are worth thinking about next time you are with your horse. Negative reinforcement is what most people use but it must be understood and used appropriately until you learn how to train without aversive stimuli. There are other components of how we all learn and they are worth exploring. Of course punishment is a last resort and only to be used if we are in a dangerous situation with an insufficiently trained horse.
Not every one will want to change and if you consider your horse happy with what you ask then you may not even understand the reason to change or even to learn more.
The more tools we have in our tool box the better trainers we will be.
There may be some cognitive dissonance too as we learn new ways of doing things, we try to rationalise why we do what we do.

The key is to learn about equine body language and the signs of appeasement and calming behaviours. Once seen they can’t be unseen and pop up all the time – watch videos and analyse the horses reactions. Know the signs of a distressed horse, learn what eye wrinkles mean and tight lips and chins. We all need a little adrenaline rush to get us going but too much and a horse way over his/her emotional threshold is not a good sign. Nor is it healthy for the horse, horses are very good at disguising how they feel.

Reference
LIMA principles
https://m.iaabc.org/about/position-statements/lima/

Language Signs and Calming Signals in Horses
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Language-Signs-Calming-Signals-Horses/dp/1138070157

The 5 Domains of Welfare
http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/7/8/60/htm

https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/01/the-five-domains-model-aims-to-help.html

Research into how horses may hide stress
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322797438_Poker_Face_Discrepancies_in_behaviour_and_affective_states_in_horses_during_stressful_handling_procedures

Know your animal.

I am doing a course with Karolina Westlund Friman on animal training, a generic course for all animal trainers.  https://illis.se/en/

In one module we learned how important it is to know the species you work with. This brought me to revisit a blog I did a while ago about Fixed Action Patterns and share one by Mary Hunter on how this can be used in training.

From my Positive Horsemanship blog – first published in 2014.

Kondrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for their work in developing an interpretive framework that crystallised the data they collected on animal behaviour in the field (ethology) and in the laboratory (neuroethology).
They observed what animals do and how and where the individual animals spent their time. They recognised that the behaviour of animals seemed to be constructed of elementary motor and sensory units. (Reference Animal Physiology – Eckert 4th edition 1997).

Motors units were called Fixed Actions Patterns – now called Modal Action Patterns as they aren’t as fixed as first thought.

The six properties of fixed/modal action patterns:
1. they are complex motor acts, each consisting of a specific temporal sequence of components – they are not simple reflexes.

2. they are typically elicited by specific key stimuli rather than general stimuli.

3. fixed action patterns are normally elicited by an environmental stimulus: but if the experimenter removes the stimulus after the behaviour has begun, the behaviour will usually continue to completion. This all or none property distinguishes them from simple reflexes.

4. the stimulus threshold for fixed action patterns varies with the state of the animal, and the variation can be quite large.

5. when they are presented with the appropriate stimulus, all members of the species (perhaps that are the same age, sex or both) will perform a given fixed action pattern nearly identical.

6. fixed action patterns are typically performed in a recognisable form even by animals that have had no prior experience with the key stimulus. That is these patterns are inherited genetically, although in many species the patterns can change with experience.

The last property has provoked the debate about nature versus nurture and recently epigenetic studies.

Useful blog about using this knowledge in training.
http://stalecheerios.com/other-species/modal-action-patterns-influence-behavior/

The 5 Domains and Behaviour

If you have a “problem” horse then analyse the problem.
Is the horse fearful or not understanding what you are asking, is the horse insufficiently trained for what YOU want to do?
Is the horse in pain – that is the first thing to eliminate.
Does the horse have the freedom to express normal behaviours in the company of other equines?

Look at the 5 Domains

1. Good nutrition
2. Environment
3 Good health
4. Appropriate behaviour
5. Positive mental experiences

All of these need to be species appropriate.|

 

If once all avenues have been considered the horse is still behaving abnormally and all vet checks have been done, then contact a qualified equine behaviourist. By this I mean one who is registered with either the IAABC or other recognised body – not an instructor or coach, or self-styled behaviourist. Be very wary of any who NEED to use pressure halters to “cure” unwanted behaviour.

Why a behaviourist?

A behaviourist will look at the whole horse, management and horse-human interactions.
Most behaviourists will not train your horse but write a behaviour modification program and suggest management changes.
Some trainers are good at spotting behavioural problems but may not have the knowledge to know how to help. They may be able to overshadow the FEAR response with training – often all that happens is the horse stops fighting and becomes resigned to his/her fate. However the danger is that of spontaneous recovery of the undesirable behaviour, if there is a certain trigger in the environment.
Horses are exceptional in their ability to shut up and put up with what we do to them. It is often the ones who don’t give in that are labelled dangerous but are they?
If we give them time and use classical conditioning and positive reinforcement in a structure behaviour modification program then they can often learn to trust humans again.

These links have more information and some useful graphics.

https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/01/the-five-domains-model-aims-to-help.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5575572/

Choice

Choice

noun: choice; plural noun: choices
an act of choosing between two or more possibilities.”the choice between good and evil”

Or in the horse world the choice between doing what is asked to avoid an aversive stimulus or doing what is asked to gain something appetitive or to not engage with us at all. All too often it is only the choice between a rock and a hard place, so do as I say or there will be aversive consequences.

An example is liberty work.

Definition of liberty:-

1 :  the quality or state of being free:
a :  the power to do as one pleases
b :  freedom from physical restraint
c :  freedom from arbitrary or despotic control
d :  the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges
e :  the power of choice
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/liberty

So how much freedom of choice do our horses have when we have them constrained by a halter and rope.
Are they really free or are they tied to us by arbitrary or despotic control e.g do they stay as the consequences of leaving are unpleasant – so if we train online first the horse may learn that he has no choice but to stay or he will be “corrected” – a euphemism for punishment.
What do you do if your horse decides he doesn’t want to do what you wish him to do? That is the key, do you just think of a better way to phrase the question or do you “correct “ and insist he comes back?
Of course they may stay as the reward is worth staying for, however with positive reinforcement they often stay as they enjoy what they are doing – that in itself becomes rewarding.
If my horse decides to leave he is free to do so. I then have to think “why” has he left. Is what we are doing not enjoyable or is the reinforcement not salient enough or can he not do the behaviour due to some physical reason or does he not understand?
If a horse is trained with aversive stimuli he soon learns how to avoid or escape those stimuli. This can result in conditioned suppression or even learned helplessness or hypervigilance.

Hyper-vigilance – the animal learns to become super-vigilant and watches the trainer’s every nuance so that he can respond – again, this is still a form of trying to get the trainer to stop or reduce the amount of negative reinforcement but because the animal appears so active, (‘on-his-toes’, you might say) this is unfortunately so often interpreted as keenness for training.

Conditioned suppression – horses learn to suppress normal behaviour when the conditioned aversive is present. It is measured by comparing the rates of behaviour with and without the presence of the conditioned aversive (i.e., using a suppression ratio).

Learned helplessness – this can occur when a horse is subjected to aversive stimuli but is unable to escape through being in a round pen or online. Learned helplessness may happen when a horse perceives he has no control over anything and what ever he does results in an aversive event – punishment or negative reinforcement so he gives up try to escape from the aversive stimuli.

Learned helplessness can be gradual – e.g riding school horses may learn that what ever they do doesn’t stop the kicking and pulling so give up trying to escape the aversive stimuli and appear quiet and suitable for the novice rider.
Other horses in the same situation may develop avoidance behaviours such as bucking, kicking, rearing.

Flooding and Learned Helplessness in horse training- what it is and how to recognise it.

Ditch the Dominance

This article is interesting and adds to the debate about dominance based training or even those based on leadership concepts.

Don’t Be So Dominant During Training – The Horse

“The “alpha” concept of showing dominance when training a horse doesn’t coincide with what equitation science research is revealing, scientists say.”
thehorse.com

This is the original research – http://www.j-evs.com/article/S0737-0806(17)30005-9/fulltext

Quote – Highlights

“It is unlikely that horse–horse social status translates to analogues of human–horse interactions.
The concept of leadership as advocated in many training manuals proves to be unreliable in the horse.
Horses’ responses to training are more likely a result of reinforcement rather than a result of humans attaining high social status and a leadership role.
Knowledge of horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes than the application of dominance and leadership concepts.”

So it can be seen that we need a good understanding of equine ethology and learning theory as it relates to training horses.

Horsemanship

Horsemanship

The art and skill of a horseman, the ability to ride a horse. These are some of the definitions of the word horsemanship.

So anyone who rides or trains, (we all train horses whether we know it or not, as they learn something from every interaction with humans), is a horseman and practices horsemanship.

We live in an age of rapid communication via social media, emails and the internet. People often want rapid results with their horses but that is not always good for the horses mental and physical well-being.

People can start a young horse in 2 0r 3 weeks, but that does that make it fair and ethical?

I think it is time to stop differentiating between genres of horsemanship. For centuries horses have been trained via the use of pressure and often force. It is a testament to the nature of the horse that they allow us weak humans to train them.

All the horse wants is food, water, safety, equine friends, to be allowed to be a horse in a natural environment. These are things the horse seeks for himself – they are primary reinforcers.

We now have a code for animal welfare – the 5 freedoms which we can apply to horse management and training.

Whips, sticks, spurs and any other man made artefacts are artificial aids.

If we use the natural aids of legs, hands and weight is it better?

It depends how they are taught and how the horse perceives them.

I don’t intend to go in to the pros and cons of various methods as I think there is no need for following one particular genre of horsemanship. All animals learn by associations and consequences.

Horsemanship is both an art and a science. It is up to each practitioner to understand the science so they can practice the art.

If a trainer is happy to use negative reinforcement and then escalate when the horse doesn’t comply then it is an individual decision. No amount of anyone preaching that it is physically and psychological unethical will change peoples opinions. They have to come to the realisation for themselves.

My stance is that if people use negative reinforcement it must be the lightest amount of pressure and an instant release once the behaviour is performed. Plus a very specific command put in place so the horse learns he can avoid the pressure by performing the required behaviour. This is avoidance learning and the foundation of many horsemanship programs – unfortunately people often don’t learn correctly and escalate the pressure to force the horse to comply. Or they nag the horse with legs and whips but never release – often seen in traditional riding.

If the horse doesn’t understand what you have asked you have either not been clear or the horse physically cannot do the behaviour.

If we keep asking with escalating aversive stimuli then we may damage our relationship with the horse – we become part of that aversive stimulus. So often a horse stays when he could physically leave because leaving will be “corrected”. Watch videos and decide why horses perform so well at liberty – is it because the trainer gives them something they want or because there will be aversive consequences for the horse if he leaves.

Change is happening as more people use positive reinforcement, many only for ground work but an increasing number are teaching classical riding using nothing more than a click/bridge signal and an appetitive reinforcer.

Whatever trainers use to motivate the horse it must be applied correctly, the removal of an aversive stimulus or the use of a verbal bridge signal must be at the instant the horse performs the desired behaviour.

Not all pressure/touch is aversive so we can use the minimal touch to guide a horse and add an appetitive reinforcer, the horse decides which is the most salient.

What people need to learn is the correct use of reinforcement, whether negative or positive and the importance of being observant of the horses body language. Unfortunately not all practitioners are good at the timing, both negative and positive reinforcement need good timing, otherwise horses may be reinforced for the incorrect behaviour.

We do the best with the knowledge we have at this moment in time and my aim is to learn as much as possible about how horses learn and how different training affects their emotional state.

Defintiions

Aversive – Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behavior by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behavior modification. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/aversive)

Appetitive – 1. An instinctive physical desire, especially one for food or drink.
2. A strong wish or urge: an appetite for learning. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/appetitive)

Liberty and why I don’t use a whip.

Liberty and why I don’t use a whip.

I think the danger is that people misuse the whips, sticks or ropes and chase horses or threaten them. This is common in some forms of liberty training that use negative reinforcement.
Whips and ropes and even people can become conditioned aversive stimuli, so just the presence of the tool or person affects how the horse reacts.
I used to carry a dressage whip when riding my mare, I never touched her with it but she knew it was there (previous training had taught her how to avoid the whip by being obedient but it was a fear avoidance response). Do we really want to train using avoidance? Or do we want a partnership with the horse, horses can become excellent puzzle solvers once we give them a choice.

So for me (and it is a personal choice) I only use a stick as a target to form behaviours. Once on a cue we can fade out the target and use a variable schedule of reinforcement, and a variety of reinforcers – these may be scratches, food or even a favourite behaviour.

Horse and handlerhorse being postively reinfrced

Horses do like to play, as long as we can keep them under their emotional thresholds. Too much activation of the SEEKING system can also cause distress, just as activation of the FEAR (flight response) system can.
If we use aversive stimuli to train then horses can become very vigilant as they work out how to avoid the whip, stick or rope. This hyper-vigilance is exhausting and often we see very animated horses with liberty trainers and as soon as the trainer stops the horses seem to go to sleep, people then mistake this for a happy relaxed horse. We must be careful to watch the horses emotional state in all training.

Negative reinforcement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used sparingly and correctly. However we must be aware of how and why any reinforcement works and how it affects the horse.

Positive reinforcement stimulates the cognitive area of the brain, whereas negative reinforcement stimulates the flight/fight response especially in situations where the horse is driven away or chased with a whip.

So I start with the horse at liberty, rather than training with aversive stimuli until the horse learns he can’t leave. This is often what happens in many forms of liberty work, the horse is trained to stay because the consequences for leaving are something he wishes to avoid.
No pressure halters, ropes or round pens are needed when we really give the horse a choice using positive reinforcement