I watched an interesting video of a TED talk and the neuroscientist said that we make our own emotions. This sits well with the James-Lang theory.
Emotions aren’t inbuilt, but the physiological states that makes us feel these sensation are often hard wired but backed up by our previous experiences.
So might this explain why counter conditioning works with fearful horses? We need to look at why they are fearful and remove the fear stimulus and/or change that stimulus to something appetitive. Sometimes it takes only one exposure to a fear provoking event for the problem to arise. An example might be a horse who experiences the adrenaline surge when a pigeon flies out of a hedge as we ride round the arena. The physiological response of flight or fight becomes associated with the hedge, very often, not just the pigeon. So the horse might spook more at that particular spot every time we ride past.
Think how you feel when driving your car and someone pulls out in front of you and you have to take evasive action. We can be rational about this and most people are not too scared to continue driving, but it might make us more vigilant in future at that particular junction.
This is where we can use counter conditioning. We change the physiological response of the adrenaline surge to one of anticipation of an appetitive event e.g food. We can rewired the horses neural circuits to make the hedge a good thing and the physiological response will change.
With humans we can use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to change how people perceive the feelings that physiological responses cause. So butterflies in the stomach can give us a feeling of anxiety or it can prepare us for a challenge in a good way.
So the James-Lnag theory is:-
Event – Arousal – Interpretation – Emotion
It therefore depends on our and our horses previous experiences as to how we/they interpret events.
Fascinating stuff and I need to read more around this subject, but these are my thoughts at this moment in time. As always my interpretations not a full analysis of the scientific facts. However you might like to watch the video and read more – just follow these links.
The James-Lange Theory of Emotion
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.
Language Signs and Calming Signals in Horses
The 5 Domains of Welfare
Research into how horses may hide stress
It may well be that – at this moment in time – it is not possible to use only positive reinforcement in equine training.
If people wish to compete in mainstream equestrian events then they will need to use -R unless they retrain or train from scratch everything with +R. There may well be a time when the horse world catches up with other animal trainers in the use of +R.
It isn’t something that many positive reinforcement trainers talk about and talking about -R on some Facebooks groups gets you banned. However we must know how -R works and how it can affect the horse.
If we work on the LIMA principles of using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive stimuli to train behaviour and apply behaviour modification programs then I think we are doing well.
Negative is just a mathematical notation – so subtracting something to reinforce a behaviour. Of course if we remove something the horse likes and wants that can be construed as negative punishment if the behaviour decreases, as it may well do if the horse can’t get what he wants.
So to be reinforcing the stimuli removed must be something the horse wishes to avoid, so an aversive stimuli. The removal of the stimuli is felt as a relief to the horse and can be very light leg and rein and weight aids. So the leg is conditioned to mean forward and is reinforced by the removal of the aid.
Negative reinforcement does trigger different neurotransmitters and hormones than those triggered in positive reinforcement. Using Jaak Panksepps 7 emotional systems, that all mammals share, we can see which system is at work in any quadrant.
So with +R we see the SEEKING system in action in a positive way – horse learn to solve problems, they are empowered to share in their learning. The PLAY system is important too as horses learn through PLAY just as other mammals do e.g human children.
So what system is -R using?
If we use another behavioural model – Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model – we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepp would be the FEAR system, this does not have to be all out flight but aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid the stimulus.
Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus and also by putting the behaviour on a command – so the horse can avoid any escalation. So in any training session the horse can be in the RED zone but we need to get him back in the GREEN zone. Horse stuck in the RED zone can become hypervigilant – if the HPA axis is triggered then cortisol is released and this takes a long time to dissipate, so a little bit of adrenaline keeps them motivated but too much and it tips into distress rather than eustress.
Positive reinforcement works on the DRIVE or SEEKING system, but we can also get horse stuck in this mode too – so they get frustrated if reinforcement isn’t forthcoming or we are slow with reinforcement.
Whatever we use whether +R or -R we need to understand what is happening and how we can use them for the good of the horse.
Difference between a cue and a command?
A cue is used in +R training to tell the horse reinforcement is coming. In -R we use the word command as the horse rarely has a choice – so often it is a “to it or else” scenario, the horse performs the behaviour to avoid any escalation of an aversive stimulus.
Paul Gilbert http://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-3-emotion-regulation-systems/
Jaak Panksepp http://mybrainnotes.com/fear-rage-panic.html
HPA axis https://www.integrativepro.com/Resources/Integrative-Blog/2016/The-HPA-Axis