"Horses don't give each others treats!"
Article by Fairhorsemanship
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Not only does natural horsemanship focuses on outdated (eg.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.
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.
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)
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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There are so many reasons to wait, and so little reasons not to. Get over yourself and put your horse first.
Sure, I know some people just cannot afford to keep two horses. But this excuse is used way too much, and often for the wrong, selfish reasons:
Horses Owe Us Nothing
“A horse that isn’t ridden is wasted”
“A horse doesn’t do something it doesn’t like/want to do”
“A horse needs to earn his keep”
These statements are just so… I… I don’t even… Let’s just say they deserve more than one cartoon.
“I think the horse “earned his keep” when we took away their freedom from them. They owe us nothing.” I could not have said it better, Emelie Boss! Thank you 🙂
IF you want to treat your horse as an “employee”, then you should at least “pay” them with something they can directly associate with your presence. In stead of telling them you pay the bills, or jokingly ask whether your horse would like to live on the streets in stead.
Magical Internet Advice
The internet didn’t go to vet school.
Now, before you start yelling at me: I am sure you were quite happy with the twitch in that emergency you had with your horse once. It might be necessary as an ABSOLUTE last resort. I’m just pretty sure most people don’t know that you’re supposed to look for alternatives before you head for that last resort. Let’s be honest, people seem to just twitch for anything the horse might resist, without even thinking they might be able to train. Clipping, mane pulling (yes, just substitute one pain for another), shoeing, mane plaiting…
When it comes to twitching horses, it seems little is known, a lot of assumed and common sense is ignored altogether. The most probable theory is that the pressure on one of the most sensitive parts of the horse causes the horse to release endorphins.
Endorphins get released in numerous situations. Exercise, sex, eating spicey food, eating comfort food, eating ginseng, love, having a laugh, sunbathing, smiling, sudden rushes of adrenaline and -oh!- severe pain. Now, unless you feed curry to your horse right before using a twitch, I’d say pain is what causes the release of endorphins. Not right away, mind you! It takes several moments for the numbness to kick in. Think of stubbing your pinky toe. It has to hurt before the painkillers start working. “The twitch is believed to work through the mediation of beta-endorphins, but there is little doubt that it works because it involves pain (webster 1994). The heart rate of horses when twitched undergoes a transient increase (Morris, 1988) before returning to baseline values. ”
We asked a pain expert what she thought. Here is what she said:
“My thoughts are that subjecting an animal to targeted acute pain will promote the release of a bunch of chemicals/ neurotransmitters. This would be very distracting as it is so aversive, and the animal would protectively immobilise itself in order to avoid more intense pain/ damage (a bit like an animal in a trap). Theoretically these pain chemicals could spread through the body & affect the “pain gate” & would help reduce pain in other areas of the body.”
Most studies seemed to measure the stress the horse was experiencing by looking for stress indicators on the outside , but a study with donkeys and another study with several stallions and geldings (horses) revealed cortisol levels were increasing (more than endorphins!). The animal is in a state of behavioural suppression.
Head shyness and fleeing reactions to seeing a twitch a second time also indicate a negative association with the tool. Stereotypies also release endorphins, so should we just keep horses locked up in solitary, barren environment? It helps reduce suffering but there must be suffering to start with. Animals (and humans) develop tolerance to opiods including morphine, so need increasingly high doses to have an effect. And horses with stereotypies tend to release endorphins by performing the behaviours.. and twitches are less effective with them. So we can tentatively conclude that horses develop tolerance to their own endogenous opiods, needing more in order to get the same effect… so over time, a twitch will become less effective if used regularly. It is also often advised to not use twitches for longer than 12-15 minutes since, in many cases, the effectiveness of the twitch tends to wane after this period, possibly because of neurotransmitter depletion at the level of synapses in the opioid pathways. In addition, there are reports of horses suddenly striking with their forelegs during twitching.
Sources on twitching
-The effectiveness of the twitch in donkeys
– Responses of cortisol and prolactin to sexual excitement and stress in stallions and geldings.
– Preliminary studies on the use of plasma β-endorphin in horses as an indicator of stress and pain
– Equitation Science – Paul McGreevy,Andrew McLean *
– The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare
– The Horse: With a Treatise on Draught (1831)
* Fed up Fred does not support, promote or endorse Equitation Science training techniques
Sources on pain