Archives for posts with tag: rewards

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How not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So the bathwater is scummy, soapy, dirty, we don’t want it any more. The baby is gorgeous and full of potential, we definitely want to keep and nurture that. How easy is it to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

For me, as a horse trainer, the bathwater is all the practices that I see that are detrimental to the horse’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

The baby is the stuff that is beneficial, or simply neutral in terms of the horse’s wellbeing. The baby might even be the things that matter to the humans wellbeing, as long as those are also compatible with the horse’s overall wellbeing.

Let me explain that more clearly. If you’ve read the other posts on my blog you probably already have a bit of an idea about my ethos. If you haven’t, here’s a little resume.

Having studied psychology, I am aware of the emotional impact that the different approaches to training can and do have on the horse.

I can see that in circumstances where the quantity or intensity of use of aversive stimuli to create responses heavily outweighs the appetitive experiences that the horse may have, we end up with a less than happy horse, one whose wellbeing has been impacted upon in a detrimental way.

For example, creating obedience to the aids by using fear or pain or the threat of it, such as bit, whips, spurs, strong leg aids or an assistant on the ground with a lunge whip or schooling whip. Or introducing new experiences in a way that is overly stressful, for example by using flooding.

In my job, consulting on horse behaviour and training, I often am called upon to pick up the pieces with horses that have had their emotional balance tipped too far into fight/ flight on a routine basis. My role is to help that horse find emotional equilibrium, to promote their psychological wellbeing, to balance that with their physical wellbeing and the needs of their owners.

Sometimes this task is more straightforward than others. The needs, desires and attitudes of the owner always have a huge impact on what we do and how we do it. Protecting the best interests of the horse can be a challenge, helping the owners to understand their role in that an even greater one.

When I am working with individual clients, I always aim to be as supportive as I am able through this process. I help them to identify the baby, and the bathwater, with clarity, so that they only discard what isn’t required, or is detrimental.

But it is the perception of the horseworld as a whole that has prompted me to write this post. I have realised that, unwittingly, I have not been clear enough about how we can get rid of the bathwater yet still keep the baby. All this talk about liberty work, training with appetitives, tackless (not tactless!) riding…. I’ve realised that, rather than inspiring people, it can serve to exclude the very ones I hope to inspire.

On a personal level, I do not believe it is necessary, or even appropriate, to eliminate all aversive stimuli from the horse’s life and retain only appetitive stimuli. Certainly not if we intend to be in the same space with them, or connected via ropes and reins. My language has always been ‘minimise aversives’ and ‘maximise appetitives’.

However, while I have a very clear picture in my head of how this looks, having trained this way for many years, I appreciate that it may be hard to visualise if you haven’t experienced it.

The thing is, I believe we can still do all the ‘normal’ things we do with horses: dressage, jumping, cross country etc and still throw out the bathwater. The events themselves aren’t the bathwater, it’s the way they are trained (and in some cases scored and judged) and the attitudes we hold that need to be poured down the sink.

There is so much of value in traditional horsemanship, and in the ideals of correctly preparing a horse in terms of physical fitness and physical balance. This stuff, and more, is not the bathwater, this is the baby, and we don’t need to throw it away.

The key is in developing the emotional balance of the horse. When I work with a naive horse, one that is at the start of their training, and has had limited dealings with humans, I find it relatively easy to build their confidence. I also find that it can be quite acceptable, not to say safe, to use aversive stimuli in a mild, structured way, without damaging the emotional equilibrium of the horse. These horses don’t have ‘baggage’ relating to pressure or equipment.

On the other side of the coin, a horse that has already experienced a large number of aversive stimuli and who has been exposed to new stimuli and situations in a frightening way, has already developed issues with pressure and with certain equipment by the time I get to them. In these cases, in order to redress the balance, I have to work with very minimal aversives and use appetitives in order to build up confidence and relaxation.

In terms of our bathwater analogy, I guess in the second case, the baby needs a lot more scrubbing, a lot more soap, and the bathwater has more scum by the time we are done. There is more to throw out.

I’ve always been hesitant about how I discuss the use of aversives in training, because I have believed that in many cases people take any kind of suggestion that some aversive stimuli might be acceptable as a carte blanche to beat up and frighten horses. So in my efforts to avoid that, I think that perhaps I’ve given the impression that I sway too far in the other direction. It’s hard to get a point like this across clearly in writing. After all, I find that few people truly recognise a happy horse. In the horseworld we have become so immune to signs of tension, pain suffering in horses that what is viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ is described as happy. So how do I get people to look for emotional balance in their horse when they think they already have it? Too much focus on equipment or the way it is used just isn’t the answer. We need to learn to become better at reading and feeling for our horses. We need to better know how to recognise the signs of tension, discomfort, pain or suffering that can creep in when training upsets emotional equilibrium.

Each horse must be treated as an individual, the training must be tailored to suit each case.

It’s not about the bit, the whip, the tack, the hands, the seat…. It’s about how they are used with each individual horse. It’s about how the horse feels. It’s about finding emotional balance.

There are plenty of examples of ‘liberty’ riding out there in which the horses have been trained purely with aversive stimuli. There are also some examples of horses fully conventionally tacked that have been trained mainly with appetitive stimuli….. It’s not the equipment that tells the tale, it’s the mental wellbeing of the horse.

Perhaps it’s time I stopped riding Rosie tackless and showed people that she can be just as happy saddled, bridled, bitted, plaited, and competing…..

Perhaps then people will begin to see through the bathwater and focus on the baby.

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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Choice is the best starting point......Photo by Joanne Gray

By Dr Helen Spence

What do you think is the best way to teach a horse to load?

Motivation
There are two types of stimuli that motivate movement in horses. One is the motivation to move towards something. For example, to search out fresh grazing or water, to move to a comfortable resting place, to approach a friend for a mutual grooming session.

The other is the motivation to move away from something, for example the flight response triggered by a threatening noise, or lifting the head high to avoid bridling, or even just quietly walking away to avoid being caught.

Things that we are motivated to move towards make us feel good. Things that we are motivated to avoid tend to have the opposite effect.

Ethology
From an ethological perspective, horseswill naturally be safest from attack by predators when they are in open spaces, with their herd, so that they can easily take evasive action if a threat or potential threat is spotted. They will not naturally seek out small, dark, confined spaces and they will certainly not naturally feel safe or comfortable in these kinds of spaces. This is something that is only learned through experience.

So when working with a naive horse, it is safest to assume that their instinctive, natural reaction to a trailer will be one of avoidance.

Competing motivations
That means that trainers are faced with a choice. Do they take advantage of the motivation to move towards something, or the motivation to move away? Breeders that teach the young foal that it is safe to load on a trailer by following mum or a friend that has already had positive loading and travelling experiences are making use of the motivation to move towards something.

Those that use a bucket of feed to reassure and encourage the young horse are also making use of that motivation to go towards something. At the same time they are associating the process of loading with a pleasurable experience, eating.

On the other hand, any use of pressure at all, whether it is pressure on a rope or driving pressure from a whip, stick, barrier or body language, is making use of the motivation to move away.

In both cases, we have competing motivations- the natural motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with, in the first scenario, the motivation to approach the positive stimulus (the attachment figure or the food). Whereas in the second scenario, the motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with the motivation to avoid the pressure.

Approach-Avoidance conflict
The first scenario can create an approach avoidance conflict. All we have to do here in order to resolve the conflict (or stress) is make the appetitive stimulus (the nice thing that the horse wants to approach) more powerful than the aversive stimulus (the trailer). More on that later.

Avoidance-avoidance conflict
The second scenario creates an avoidance avoidance conflict. In essence, the horse is caught between arock and a hard place. In order to motivate the horse to enter the trailer, they have to want to avoid the pressure more than they want to avoid the trailer. Since both are aversive stimuli,  i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant and that create a degree of sympathetic arousal (the fight or flight response), either way, whatever the horse chooses, they are in for a stressful time, and the training experience will not be a pleasurable one.

In order for the horse to choose to enter the trailer, the pressure must be significantly more aversive (unpleasant/ frightening) than the trailer. This approach does not change how the horse feels about the trailer, it simply teaches them that they must load onto it no matter what.

The main advantage of this approach (from the trainer’s perspective) is that, because there is no need to change the emotional state of the horse, the goal of loading the horse can be achieved very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and in most cases within an hour or two. This makes it very appealing to both trainers and owners.

Trainers using this approach will often school the horse to the pressure away from the trailer. During this process the horse learns that if they don’t yield to light pressure, the pressure will be escalated (I.e. made more aversive). This produces a horse that will yield to very light pressure, because the light pressure is, in essence, a threat of more to come. The trainer can then use this seemingly light pressure to teach the horse to load, despite the aversiveness of the trailer. If the horse chooses to load, it always means that the pressure (or threat of pressure) is more aversive than entering the trailer itself.

The downside of training with aversive stimuli
When working with aversive stimuli, there is no change in how the horse feels about the trailer during the training process, because both the trailer and the pressure are aversive stimuli that work on the flight response. So a horse being trained this way will remain in a state of sympathetic arousal throughout the process. The only way the emotions will change is with repetition of loading and travelling after the training, during which the horse,  provided nothing else unpleasant happens (such as a return to escalated pressure, or bad driving, or an unpleasant experience at the other end)  will ‘habituate’ to the process, in other words get used to it.

Ethical concerns
However, from an ethical perspective, is it acceptable to create an avoidance-avoidance conflict? This can only be assessed on a case by case basis, andwill depend on just how aversive the horse finds the trailer loading experience, and how aversive they find the pressure.

The thing is, aversive stimuli are every bit as effective at teaching loading as appetitive stimuli. In fact, they may appear more effective, given than they get a quicker result. In some cases food might not appear to work at all, but that is always because the trainer hasn’t broken the process down into small enough steps.

The question should not be whether the approach works or not – both approaches are highly effective in terms of achieving the end goal. The question is whether or not it is ‘right’ to use an approach that does not alleviate stress, and, most likely, creates more stress.

It is rarely all about the trailer
No matter which way the horse is taught to load, it is absolutely essential that after the training they have regular and consistently good travelling experiences so that they can habituate to the whole process, in other words, learn that it is a safe and comfortable thing to do.

In the case of horses that have developed a loading problem as a result of bad experiences, it is essential that the trainer is aware of the root cause of the problem and that this is what is addressed. This could for example be a seperation anxiety related issue, or a balance problem, it could be a traffic phobia, or related to what it is they are travelling to, or even a bad driving issue. There could be an underlying physical problem, such as  lameness or back pain, which is why a vet check is
essential before training commences.

Recognising signs of stress
I find that horse people are not alwaysas good as they should be at recognising when a horse is stressed. It is easy to see when they are stressed to the point of attempting to escape or fighting, and most can see that. However, that’s really too late. By that stage the horse is way over threshold. Before the horse ever reaches that point they have been whispering signs of discomfort, beginning with the tiniest of signs, a slight increase in tension around the base of the ears, the eyes, the muzzle, the tiniest elevation of posture, the tiniest freeze (which is simply a ‘quietness’), a slight tucking up or shallowness of breath. You have to really look carefully to see these things. Things that we don’t consider pressure can be perceived as pressure by the horse, and that’s what matters here.

The professional viewpoint
I have a psychology degree, and a PhD, I have lectured on horse behaviour and rehabilitation training to postgraduate level and have been in practice for over a decade offering advice on behaviour and training issues to horse owners of all levels from amateur through to professional. In my view, the only way to truly ethically work with a loading problem is at liberty (or at the very least on a completely slack rope) without any use of pressure, whether in the form of drive or via a rope. Rather than using aversive stimuli, I focus on appetitive stimuli, so that, instead of the horse remaining in a state of sympathetic arousal (fight or flight),  I can bring them to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).

The advantage of using food
When you use food, you simply cannot take the horse too far over threshold, because a stressed horse will not eat. Nor will a target trained horse target. So it is a simple guage of emotional state for those that struggle with reading the finer detail of body language.

And there is one other wonderful gift that comes when you use food to teach a horse to load/ to rehabilitate a loading problem. You teach them to associate the previously aversive stimulus (the trailer) with something appetitive (the food). With time and repetitions, you literally rewire the brain,  and change the emotional response of the horse when they see the trailer. The trailer becomes associated with a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) instead of a sympathetic state (fight or flight). And with enough time,  the trailer and the loading process start to make them feel good.

I saw this beautifully illustrated the other day with one of my clients. Her horse has had a long standing loading issue which has taken a large number of sessions to date to address. The horse now loads easily at liberty. Something else had slightly stressed the horse, but, as she entered the yard where the trailer was, she visibly relaxed and was eager to approach and load. The counter conditioning has been so successful for her that the trailer has become a place that she likes to be. Not because it means she is safe from pressure that happens outside it, but because she actively enjoys the whole loading process. She has yet to have worked far enough through the rehab programme to be happy with travelling, but she is well on her way towards that. With careful steps appropriate to her emotional state and progress, she will eventually be as confident about travelling as she has now become about every other aspect of the Loading
process.

Sometimes the handler has a loading problem
Something else that I’ve also found over the years is that people that own horses that have loading issues often feel quite stressed themselves when it comes to loading. The beauty of working with food and/ or targets is that you can stand back and teach the horse to ‘self load’, but without pressure. The focus on what the horse is getting right helps the owner to feel more positive and confident, and of course a calm horse is, generally speaking, a safe horse. I have helped a number of owners transform not just how their horse feels about loading, but how they feel about the whole process. That’s what I call job satisfaction!

The temptation of the quick fix
Please don’t be tempted to choose the quick fix offered by pressure based loading methods simply because it gets the problem fixed quicker. How the horse feels about loading and travelling has not changed, and at the end of the day, from an ethical perspective, that’s what really matters.

Are appetitives always slower?
sing the type of training that I advocate isn’t necessarily always a long slow process, in some cases issues are resolved within just a couple of sessions. But the number of training sessions required, and the speed with which the training steps are worked through, will be directly in proportion to the level of aversion that the trailer creates for the horse. Therefore, more severe problems will (and should) take more sessions and more repetitions to shift the emotional state of the horse to one of relaxation, acceptance and even eagerness. The end product will be a horse that is truly ‘happy’ with the loading and travelling process, rather than one that has simply learned to ‘behave’ or ‘comply’ regardless of the level of stress they might be feeling.

Think Carefully!
So please, the next time someone suggests that you use pressure, even mild pressure, to deal with your loading problem, think carefully about what you’ve read today, and consider instead contacting myself (or another trainer that uses the same methods and understands the importance of history and who recommends a vet check prior to rehabilitation training) and learning how to do it positively!

Understanding loading course
In the New Year I’ll be running a short series of evening classes on how to methodically work through loading issues using these principles, so if you have a problem and you’d like to better understand what’s going on, watch this space! Or email me info@helenspencehorsesense.co.uk to register your interest.

Finally, this is what loading can (and should) look like:

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

Let’s get operating

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning and it’s relevance to horse training. More specifically, about negative and positive reinforcement. Lots of discussion on how much of traditional horse training, European and American, and natural horsemanship is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement, and how those that use the ‘clicker’ focus on positive reinforcement. Lots of kneejerk reaction to the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. Lots of confusion, because the end effect on behaviour is the same- reinforcement, or strengthening. Lots of articles written explaining what these terms mean, both in theory and in practice. Lots of division between trainers and justification for why they prefer one or the other as their focus in training.

A mechanistic approach

But for me, there is a big danger in focusing too much on operant conditioning. Yes, we most certainly need to understand it in order to train. BUT, focus too much on it, and training can become mechanical, treating the animal (or person) like a machine that is being programmed to follow instructions.

Why does that matter, you may ask? For many reasons (not least safety) we want our animals to be able to follow instructions. So do I…. But I don’t want to treat them like a machine. Like humans, there is growing scientific evidence that animals are sentient beings, that experience emotions just like ours.

We may not ever know what it is like ‘to be’ a horse, or a dog, or a fish, but the physiological evidence supports the idea that they can experience fear, joy, form attachments and grieve over losses. They share many of the same cognitive processes as we do. In fact, much of our understanding of human behaviour is based on animal studies. We are all animals!

A little detour through history

For a number of years now, I have been teaching my students and clients the importance of understanding classical (also known as Pavlovian, associative or respondent) conditioning. You may have heard the term ‘Pavlov’s dogs’ bandied about.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose studies involved the collection of saliva from dogs. Like all good scientists, he was an observant man. He was aware that saliva production is a reflex action, not under conscious control. The reflex is triggered by the presentation of food. So in order to collect the saliva, the dogs were given food. Pavlov began to notice that the dogs started salivating BEFORE the food was produced, when the lab assistants appeared.

How could this be? It couldn’t just be because the dogs ‘knew’ that food was coming- salivation is a reflex, not under conscious control, that should only occur in response to one stimulus- food. Yet a new stimulus, lab assistants, was provoking the reflex response.

Pavlov had discovered that it is possible, through ‘association’ to pair  the stimuli, so that a new, previously neutral, stimuli could lead to the response.

But what does that matter to us?!

Salivation isn’t the only reflex we have. There are all kinds, relating to self preservation and survival, including observable external reflexes such as the eye blink (to protect the eye from injury), choking, the knee jerk, and more interestingly for us, internal reflexes such as endocrine responses, such as would happen in response to rewarding or aversive experiences.

So this means that emotions are subject to the same possibilities as salivation. Emotional responses can become associated with stimuli that wouldn’t normally elicit them.

Time for some examples

Let’s imagine two horses, Misty and Thunder, and their owners, Bob and Jean. Bob and Jean are new to horses, have never seen horse training and have no preconceived ideas. They are each given a whistle, a bucket of carrots, and a lunge whip.

Bob takes Misty off into the paddock. He has this idea that he’d like to make Misty move, so he blows the whistle, but nothing happens. He blows it again, and decides this time to try cracking the lunge whip straight after. After just a few repetitions, Misty is cantering away from him as soon as he blows the whistle, and he doesn’t need to crack the lungewhip.

Meanwhile, Jean has taken Thunder off to a different paddock. She blows the whistle, with the idea that she’d like Thunder to move. Nothing happens. So she blows the whistle and picks up the bucket of carrots. After just a few repetitions, Thunder  is cantering towards her as soon as she blows the whistle, before she can lift the carrots.

After a day or two, Bob finds he is having problems catching Misty, yet Thunder gallops to the gate as soon as he sees Jean coming.

In this example, the whistle is the neutral stimulus that initially means nothing to the horses. By ‘associating’ the whistle with either a stimulus that provokes the flight response (fear/ avoidance reflex) OR with a stimulus that provokes salivation and the positive affect (emotions) that accompany eating, the whistle has taken on the properties of those stimuli. So the whistle has the power to make one horse feel good while the other feels fearful.

The whistle in Jean and Thunder’s case, has been associated with an APPETITIVE stimulus. In Bob and Misty’s case it has been associated with an AVERSIVE stimulus. And by default,  the sight of Bob makes Misty feel fearful and avoidant, while the opposite is true for Jean and Thunder.

Operant Conditioning,  Appetitives and Aversives

In Operant conditioning, appetitives (let’s call them the ‘Goodies’) and aversives (let’s call them the ‘Baddies’) are used to reinforce or punish behaviour. Reinforcement is the increase in frequency or intensity of a response. Punishment is the decrease in frequency or intensity of a response. The four quadrants of operant conditioning are normally taught with the emphasis on whether or not it is positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment.

My argument is that we are better to teach with the emphasis on whether or not it involves AVERSIVES (baddies) or APPETITIVES (goodies), because, both from a scientific perspective and from my years of observations of horses in training situations, this is what REALLY matters to the horse.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in an increase in the frequency or intensity of a response. From the perspective of behaviour, the end result is the same.

HOWEVER, positive reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘goody’ (an appetitive stimulus).

While negative reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘baddy’ (an aversive stimulus).

From an emotional perspective these are two very different experiences (as anyone who has ever played the training game at one of my clinics or talks will know!). Since the evidence suggests that horses have similar emotional responses to aversives and appetitives to us humans, then  we would do well to think carefully about this.

Let’s bring classical conditioning back into the equation

So we now know that horses have an emotional response to both appetitives and aversives. We also know that, through classical conditioning, these responses can become associated with all kinds of innocent stimuli!

For example, in a training paradigm that is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement IN OTHER WORDS AVERSIVES, it isn’t just the tools (e.g. the lunge whip, the reins, the schooling whip, the spurs, the legs) that are aversive. By association, saddle and bridle or even the presence of the trainer themselves has the potential to become a conditioned stimuli, i.e. one that, by association, provokes the same response.

So the trainer may, in essence, make the horse feel uncomfortable just by their presence.

Many trainers are lucky to avoid this, because they also are the source of appetitive experiences for their horses, such as feed, water, scratches, treats, turnout with friends.

Here’s the crux of the matter: your relationship with your horse is, in good part, determined by the balance of appetitives and aversives that you use with them on a daily basis. Like a set of scales, tip the balance too far one way, and the nature of the relationship can change from a happy one to an unhappy one. This is all because of classical conditioning.

It may seem like a rather simplistic way to view it, and I appreciate that there are other processes involved. But we cannot afford to dismiss this.

Why does it matter if my horse associates me with aversives more than appetitives?

It matters because, by their nature, aversives create avoidance. If you are too heavily associated with them, then your horse will want to avoid you. Horses avoid mainly by flight, but, if flight isn’t an option, fight can appear. Eventually, you may run the risk of learned helplessness and a ‘shut down’ horse. This is not the groundings of a safe, secure relationship.

In training,  we talk about ‘reinforcement history’. Reinforcement hostory refers to the weighting of goodies and baddies, I.e. aversives or appetitives associated with a stimulus or situation. Well, another word for reinforcement history could be ‘relationship’.

Whether you own the horse or not, whether you intend to keep them for life or sell them tomorrow, you have a responsibility, especially those of you working with youngsters.

You are creating that horse’s relationship with the human race as a whole. You can make it or break it. I always say my job, initially, when working with youngsters, is to help them fall in love with me. But my goal, is to help them fall in love with the human race.

A trusting, happy, gentle horse generally receives kinder treatment than one that is avoidant or defensive.

New evidence also suggests that the levels of fear, grief and distress experienced in childhood can have permanent damaging effects on the brain….. now that’s a whole other blog post!!