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Shit’s unnatural, yo!

"Horses don't give each others treats!"

Article by Fairhorsemanship

One of the arguments I often hear against the use of positive reinforcement in horse training is that it is unnatural “Horses don’t give each other treats!” I hear. Until the recent growth in popularity of “natural horsemanship” this argument wasn’t very popular because after all, nothing equestrians do to horses is natural. Horses may not exactly be giving each other peppermint sweets but they don’t ride on each other back either. The entire argument can very much be dismissed straightaway simply by listing the extensive catalogue of unnatural behaviours, management and training procedures used by equestrians. However for this article I want to do something a little bit different, by pointing out in what ways a training using food rewards can be far more natural than any other, more mainstream, self proclaimed natural ones.

 
1. Most horse to horse interactions are affiliatives.

Humane, science-based horse training and natural horsemanship both claim to derive their training strategies from observations of natural behaviour of free-roaming horses. Yet the first believe in the use of positive reinforcement and the other doesn’t. How is this possible?

High-profile practitioners of natural horsemanship have based their training on two things: personal observations of agonistic behaviours in horses (and rushed deductions.) and misinterpretation or cherry picking of scientific data such as Schelderupp-Ebbe ‘pecking order’ or Konrad Lorenz’s book on aggression both of which were contradicted later on when animals were studied in their natural environment rather than in captivity.

Not only does natural horsemanship focuses on outdated (eg. pecking order) or misinterpreted (eg. dominance) concepts but in it’s mislead focus it lost most of the picture: While antagonistic interactions do exist between horses, they aren’t the norm. Therefore a training based on the use of aversives (negative reinforcement and positive punishments) does not reflect how horses naturally interact between each others. Yes horses may pins their ears at each other, kick and bite but those behaviours are nowhere as prevalent as resting and grassing together, nursing, playing, grooming etc.

 
 
So of course adopting training and management techniques, which promote affiliative interactions, is far more natural than a programme, which instructs horse owners to mimic antagonistic behaviours such as chasing.

2. Leadership

Leardership is another poorly understood concept in animal behaviour. Initially it was thoughts that a single individual (known as the lead mare) decided of the group movements but newer studies found that this isn’t the case. Instead any herd members can initiate group movement. In female horses, movement is simply initiated by departure. The lead horse doesn’t threaten, chase others or force them to follow and horses with the most “friends” are also more likely to be followed than the more dominant horses. Therefore procedures such as ‘join-up’ which tell horse owners to first chase their animal to get them to follow them aren’t derived from natural behaviour but purely from human misinterpretation.

3. Drive

Horses will move away from threats such as another horse, a puma, a whip or it’s rider legs. But moving AWAY from something does not make up most of his time budget. What does however is moving TOWARD something, seeking appetitive resources such as water, shelter, food or companionship. Horses naturally spend 16 to 18hours of their day seeking and consuming food. Going to a target (seeking) and getting a food reward (consuming) isn’t something completely unnatural for a horse. (see picture)

 
4. Horses learn through positive reinforcement just as much as through negative reinforcement.

How we train horses is not a human invention. The ropes and pens may be but the laws of learning are the same in the wild as they are in the barn. They are part of nature, just like gravity, believing in them or not don’t stop them from affecting you. Horses are born with the capacity to learn through several processes one of which is known as operant conditioning and along with classical conditioning is one of the most used learning processes in the equestrian world.

  • At the barn: The rider pulls on the reins (aversive stimuli), the horse stops, the rider let go of the tension on the rein. The horse is learning through negative reinforcement.
  • In the wild: A horses pins his ears (aversive stimuli), the other horse moves away, the horse stops threatening him. The horse is learning through negative reinforcement.
  • At the barn: A horse approaches a human and is given a carrot (appetitive stimuli). The horse is learning through positive reinforcement.
  • In the wild: A horse approaches another horse and they engage into a mutual grooming session (appetitive stimuli). The horse is learning through positive reinforcement.

Both types of reinforcement are natural but of course something being natural doesn’t necessary make it ethical. And when there is no need to apply aversive stimulus to obtain a desired behaviour (because positive reinforcement works just as well) one must beg the question… why?

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Myths about “trick training”

There are quite some misconceptions about clicker training, trick training and positive reinforcement training. Let’s divide the trick myths into 4 parts:

1. “He is just doing it for the treats.”
If that is true, we would have to look at the horse like it is a rat in a box. In that case, an aversively trained horse (‘Natural’ Horsemanship or traditional methods) is only doing it because of the threats. 

2. “Positive Reinforcement = Bribing.”
If that is true, then Negative Reinforcement = Blackmail. Bribing, however, doesn’t begin to describe what positive reinforcement really is and does. Bribing often comes before the behaviour, and a reward (the reinforcer in this case) comes after the behaviour.

3. “Working with treats is just for tricks.”
ALL behaviours are ‘tricks’ to the horse. If you can negatively reinforce it, you can also positively reinforce it. Positive reinforcement based methods are just a lot younger compared to negative reinforcement based methods so we have less to show for in the eyes of skeptical people (right now!).

4. “If it has been trained with treats, it’s not ‘REAL’ (a trick)”
R- based methods are much older and it is relatively more easy to micromanage with R- (right now), but just because you can micromanage it (a little more, a little less) with pressure-release doesn’t make it more real, natural or artsy.

trickmyth 1 just doing it for the treats

Most people seem to think that trick training, clicker training and positive reinforcement are exactly the same, so let me give you a short and sweet explanation about these and other related terms.

CLICKER TRAINING

An animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior with the use of a bridge (often a significant word like “Yes!” or a click with a clicker). The marker is called a bridging stimulus (bridge for short) because it bridges the time lag between when the behaviour occurs and it is possible to deliver a primary desirable reinforcer such as food.  Once a bridge is established, it is a very useful communicative tool to tell the animal when they’re doing the right thing.

TRICK TRAINING

Trick training is simply using clicker training to teach tricks to horses. It is seen as a discipline most people practice for fun, alongside their normal training. The term is also commonly used to describe a lesser form of training (“That isn’t [real]/[art], it’s just a trick..”)

TRICKS

Most  people consider tricks to be behaviors that have no practical purpose other than for entertainment. They tend to be things done for the amusement of people rather than for the benefit of the horse – although there can be beneficial side effects of teaching tricks when done well (they make rescue horses more appealing to adopters for example). They CAN in fact be fun to horses. This depends on how it was taught, how it is being reinforced, if and how much stress (physical, emotional or mental) it puts on the horse, etcetera.

Tricks are often seen as a lesser form of taught behaviours because they often don’t serve a practical purpose and don’t always seem to have a “dimmer switch” (asking a little more, a little less.), although this can be done through microshaping.

To a horse, all behaviours are the same. A horse can feel better or worse about certain behaviours asked because of the way they were taught for example, but the horse doesn’t categorize behaviours into husbandry, tricks, and gymnastic work like we do. Not saying horses aren’t smart! They can recognize the tiniest signs because they have consistently predicted the same thing in the past. This is why a horse might run off when he sees you coming with a bitted bridle, but happily comes up to you when you are carrying a brightly colored halter you use for trick training. They can recognize, associate and prefer things, but they don’t actively realize what are tricks, and what is work.

MIXED TRAINING

Using one or more types of aversive stimulus (aversive for short and often called pressure in ‘Natural’ Horsemanship terms or conventional aids in traditional, classical, western and all other forms of horse training) to cause the horse to perform a behaviour to escape or avoid the aversive, and then either marking the moment the horse performs the desired behaviour and giving a food treat, or just giving a food treat after the behaviour has been performed.

This however causes a lot of conflict and stress for the horse as well, often expressed through pinned ears, dropping or even erecting, swishing the tail, a tight face and hard eyes, and very excited movements. Another misleading term for ‘mixed training’ is ‘balanced training’, meaning the trainer has found a balance between the two reinforcing quadrants. Balance is a relative and often misused word; I could also state that I am balanced because I decided to punch 2 people in the face every day in stead of 4. Of course, punching no one is possible but there are people out there punching 4 or even more people every day! It’s all about finding balance. (People who talk like these like to call everyone else extremists)

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT

This is a scientific term, not a method. If a behaviour is maintained or strengthened because it results in escape or avoidance of a stimulus, the behaviour is said to have been negatively reinforced – the negative word meaning subtraction or removal as in mathematics.  It is also true that behaviour is reinforced if it results in reduction in aversive strength even if the aversive is not totally turned off. The relief the horse then feels is reinforcing, but is not considered a reward. Negative reinforcement is applied worldwide in the form of pressure-release techniques and is the underlying principle for all ‘Natural’ Horsemanship and Traditional training methods.

Emotional Quadrants

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

This is also a scientific term, and not a method. If a behaviours increases in frequency or strength as a result of the addition of a stimulus as an immediate consequence, it is said to have been positively reinforced.

NEUTRAL REINFORCEMENT

Made up and misleading term for mixed training. Some trainers claim that using an aversive stimulus (or a conditioned one) to produce behaviour and then marking and adding an appetitive stimulus such as food can result in a balanced “neutral” reinforcement. This is incorrect and not backed up by science. Horses either worked (more) to avoid or gain something. It is also worth adding that a person can become a conditioned aversive to a horse because the person has the potential to act in a way that the horse finds aversive, either because they or another person has done so in the past or because they have associated themselves with other tools they have used to make their own body language gestures or vocal signals aversive to the horse. And that this threat potential of the person can persist even when they are no longer holding such a tool.

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT MINDED TRAINING

This type of training is actually more of a lifestyle because it includes so much more than a training technique. It consists of methods, a mindset, and a lot of ethical and science based principles. Positive reinforcement trainers with this mindset, strive to put the feelings of the horse first over their own ego, pleasure and pride and you will tend to see them using positive reinforcement to train behaviours that are functional and empowering for the horse.

When it comes to priorities, this mindset leads people to focus on altering the environment in which the horse lives to influence his wellbeing and behaviour and on training behaviours that are useful for the stress-free management and longevity of the horse.

If you want to read more about +R misconceptions, here is another interesting article.

 

 

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Sticktraining and ‘Natural’ Philosophies

‘Fred, the Almighty Sniffing Pony’

Almighty Sniffing Pony

‘Hoof Extension’

Extension of My Hoof

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.’

Flying Douchebag

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.

‘Join Up’

Join Up

The word ‘natural’ is just as misused as the word ‘liberty’.

‘No Brain Idiot’

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.

‘Stickriding’

Stickriding

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.