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/

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.

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