‘Fred, the Almighty Sniffing Pony’
Many claim the whip is just an extension of the arm for communication.. Well, in a fair relationship, the communication should be going both ways, right?
“The thing is an aversive is an aversive – it works by dint of being something the horse will work to avoid by it’s definition. It may be used very lightly and so only be very, very mildly annoying. It may be used harshly enough to be torture. It may also be used with very precise skill so that it’s clear or so clumsily as to be meaningless, confusing and terrifying. Either way it’s an aversive. It also requires the aversive to *at least* be annoying enough the horse is willing to work to avoid it in some way, which is well past the point they’re first aware of the stimulus. (How many of us have seen horses aware of each leg of a tiny fly on it’s skin or seem to ‘work off a thought’ or ‘work off intent’ after all?) It also is not something WE as humans get to dictate how it is experienced – that is defined solely by the learner and moreover by the learner in the moment.
If you want to use a whip (or crop, carrot stick, any traditional ‘pressure and release’ implement) in a way that is horse friendly and also promotes great LIGHTNESS and enthusiasm from the start simply teach the concept as an anti-target wand with clicker. Many dog and other species trainers are familiar with target training – where the animal learns to go to, touch or otherwise engage with a target by moving closer to get marked and reinforced… this is just the opposite, instead of moving closer, the aim of the game is to move away or off it. That way it’s simply a cue, taught to be a ‘go/move away from it’ opportunity signal and there is no threat as there is no aversive, however mild, with it. ‘Pressure’ never escalates and certainly never punishes or harms as if the cue doesn’t result in a good response you have to actually look at WHY and fix your training error – did the horse not understand, are they not capable, were you not clear, was the concept not well broken down enough in some way, do you have issues with your distance/duration/distractions/latency etc? It is and remains simply an opportunity to engage in a game that’s fun and rewarding.” – thanks to Amanda, topcommenter on this post on Facebook.
‘All that glitters is not gold.’
One of the best examples of how tackless does not necessarily mean liberty. Even before I started doing positive reinforcement training, I always thought this just looked wrong. These aren’t horses ‘just being horses’. These are horses knowing the consequences for not cooperating.
The word ‘natural’ is just as misused as the word ‘liberty’.
‘No Brain Idiot’
There are more than four types of horses. There no science to back up these horse personalities. If you really want to understand how your horse thinks and learns, read up on basic psychology and learning theory. ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ is a good book to get a basic understanding about operant conditioning (B. F. Skinner). If you really want to science it up, read ‘Affective Neuroscience’ by Jaak Panksepp.
Again, Liberty is being terribly misused. The horse is conditioned to stay away from the sticks. Sticks are just as controlling as ropes and reins, if you work hard enough to get your horse responsive to the aids. Even if you’ve faded out your sticks/bridle/ropes, your horse will still be conditioned to believe you can pull them back out at any time.
You Can’t Reinforce Fear
Fear is an emotion, not a behaviour. It is subject to classical conditioning (the way we form associations between different things) rather than operant conditioning (how we learn by the consequences of our behaviour). To be operantly conditioned a behaviour has to be something the animal chooses to do voluntarily rather than involuntarily. For example, a person, a dog, a horse cannot choose not to be afraid. That feeling is an involuntary and automatic response to a feared thing or situation. Everyone who has ever feared anything knows that we cannot control how we feel in that moment. Anyone who has ever been a nervous rider can relate to that. A classically conditioned response is controlled by the things that come before it – the things that trigger that feeling (known as the antecedents). An operant response is reinforced or weakened by what comes after it – its consequences.
As trainers we can choose to control or act on the environment in order to reduce the fear the animal is experiencing. For example we can use words/actions/gestures that in the past have been associated with safety/calm/pleasure. We can use them in an emergency situation to calm and reassure as best we can, and we can use them in a longer term plan as counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning that involves following a very very low strength version of the feared thing with something very desirable – like following the far off sound of clippers being turned on, with a handful of carrot to a horse that is afraid of the clippers.
If you are worried that it is possible to positively reinforce fear, ask yourself this. When your horse is fearful or worried and heads to you for comfort, does you comforting them with a stroke or food make them more afraid? Does not comforting them make them less afraid? If comforting them reinforces fear, they will become more afraid as a result of our soothing them than they would if we didn’t do anything at all. Practically, we can see how that works – and if it doesn’t, and our horse becomes more afraid, we might need to look at how they view us, rather than worry about whether comforting them is strengthening their fear response.
A typical example where we’re told not to comfort our horses is spooking or shying. People who do not understand how any of this works might tell you “Don’t pat or stroke them on the neck and go there, there, it will make them more likely to spook”. It won’t.
Ditch From Hell
I came across this “funny” viral video on my newsfeed a couple of times, showing a horse making a theatrical jump over a ditch after being kicked in the sides while the reins kept him from looking at the thing that was scaring him.
“Tactfully ridden” .. “Trust issue” .. “Lol”
Trust must be one of the most misused words in the equestrian world. The word you’re probably looking for is ‘force’ or ‘intimidation’.
Check out the Fairhorsemanship article about dealing with fear, anxiety and phobias in horses here.