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Ooh Girl, Shock Me Like an Electric Alpha

That's so silly! The Zippety Zapper doesn't even exist! It might as well though. Some people tend to buy anything that will be effective, especially with the promise of respect and obedience. And there are people out there who use electric shocks on dogs and horses. Lots of bizarre things are perfectly normal in the animal training world.

And then there's the idea that horses "respect" electric fences. Here's what I think about what respect means and looks like. 

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Ain’t No Mounting Block Enough

If your horse doesn't stand still for mounting, he is trying to avoid something unpleasant. This might be the riding itself, a saddle that doesn't fit well, not feeling well, or maybe the mounting (block) itself is scary for him. After making sure the horse isn't in pain and the saddle fits very well, it might be a good idea to retrace the steps of saddling and mounting your horse and see what's still troubling him. Break that down into little steps and take the time to make him comfortable with the process. This can be SO much fun and VERY easy using force free training methods.  They will be having the best time and will even start to anticipate by parking by the mounting block waiting for you to get on. If you want to learn more, you can join the independent group Empowered Equestrians on facebook, or one of the sister groups like EE - Getting Started.

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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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Don’t worry, I’ll click when he stops!

So what do positive reinforcement trainers (more commonly referred to as clicker trainers) do if your horse is about to run into traffic? Let them cause a huge accident because stopping them isn’t positive reinforcement?

The short answer to this is that in the moment, if an emergency situation arises and all else fails, of course we’re going to do whatever’s needed to keep everyone safe – even if that means something like pulling hard on the halter or waving a rope in front of the horse; things we never do in training or in the course of everyday life.

The long (and much better) answer is that we have many ways to reduce the chances of having to do those aversive things, even in an emergency; as shown in the cartoon.

dont worry

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A Horse’s Basic Needs: The 6 F’s

It is our duty to keep our horses happy and healthy. In order to achieve this, we need to meet the horses’ behavioral and physiological needs. These needs vary from things horses seek from their everyday environment to the experiences they have with humans. We have to consider the horse’s physical, mental and emotional well-being at all times, or the horse’s welfare will be compromised.

basic needs2.jpg

Forage
The horse’s digestive system is designed to eat small quantities of high fibre roughage almost continuously, night and day. For this reason, a horse should have different kinds of forage available to eat at all times. Browsing and eating (from plants growing overhead as well as on the ground) also provides a social and enriching activity for a big part of the day. In a natural setting, horses would spend up to 16 hours a day foraging.

Freedom
If it is up to the horses, they will spend most of their day moving and covering great distances foraging, exploring and searching for resources. The space we set up for them to live in should be big enough for the horse to be able to use all gaits.

Friends
Company of their own kind is vital for horses to develop social skills and attain a feeling of relatedness and safety. Their well-being depends on having direct physical contact for play and grooming. REM sleep is only possible when the horse can lie flat and many will only do this with a friend to keep a look out. They need to interact with friends (horses they know well and like!) on a daily basis. Ideally, the horse will live in an established and consistent herd made up of males and females of different ages.

SaFety
Every individual animal has an instinctive drive to survive. When they think they are in danger, they will feel stressed and will immediately search for a way to feel safe again, usually by putting some distance between themselves and anything feared. The space we set up for them needs to be big enough for them to move away from other feared animals, loud noises and commotion and free of pollution of air or water, and the fencing we use to keep them from dangers should be secure. When a horse is ill or wounded, we need to get them treated immediately. They also need to be kept safe from humans. We need to strive for ways to keep and train them that are free from force, coercion, fear and stress.

ComFort
Just like forage, a horse should have fresh and clean water available to them at all times. All horses appreciate some man-made or natural shelter to provide relief from the sun and heat and flies and protection from the wind and rain. Where flies are extreme and horses suffer from fly-borne infections or allergies, extra protection may be required to ensure their comfort.

Fun
The importance of play is often underestimated, not just in animals. A young horse kept alone or with old infirm horses will often be deprived of play and this can often lead to frustration, boredom, stress, and will negatively affect creativity, industriousness and speed of learning. It is vital to provide a horse with friends to play with and toys that will enrich their life and challenge their senses. Balls, branches, other species like goats or sheep, creative ways of providing forage and other feeds, smells, the list goes on. Variety is the spice of life for horses too. Horses habituate quickly to novel things – so be on the look-out for new and novel enrichment ideas.

Sources (I’ll keep adding as I find interesting stuff)

What Every Horse Needs, Period

Infographic by Fairhorsemanship

Infographic by Equine Behaviour (South Africa)