Friday, May 26, 2017, 07:19 | No Comments »

This is an interesting statement from the Equitation Science group. Debunking the need to use dominance as a form of leadership with horses.
If we use positive reinforcement the horse has a true choice, he is not coerced or subdued but is a true partner.

Sunday, May 21, 2017, 12:00 | No Comments »

Approach-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of approach–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a goal is both desirable and undesirable—called also approach-avoidance; compare approach-approach conflict, avoidance-avoidance conflict

This is can occur when the appetitive stimuli is greater than the aversive stimulus e.g trailer loading when the horse is afraid of the trailer but we use a target and +R to get the horse in the trailer. The horse may still not be unafraid of the trailer. So we do need to use desensitisation and counter conditioning first before any attempt to load and travel a fearful horse.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of avoidance–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a choice must be made between two undesirable alternatives—compare approach-approach conflict, approach-avoidance conflict

This is where we use an aversive stimulus to get a horse to do something he doesn’t want do to. So trailer loading when we use aversive stimulus to coerce a horse in to a trailer. The horse is still afraid of the trailer but is more afraid of the external aversive stimulus. Pressure applied to a halter, tapping with a whip, using lunge lines or the rhythmic pressure often used in natural horsemanship.

If we don’t alter the horse feelings about the trailer he may still be afraid of travelling. If he travels enough times and has good experiences the horse may well habituate to travelling but the initial process is stressful.

The use of desensitisation with counter conditioning changes the emotional responses around the lorry/trailer. The following is an excellent article written by Dr Helen Spence.


Saturday, April 22, 2017, 10:40 | No Comments »

When I asked a question on a natural horsemanship website about learning theory, this was the response.


They got the definition of negative reinforcement correct - it is the removal of an aversive stimulus (something the horse wants to avoid). Training with negative reinforcement uses an aversive stimulus to form the behaviour, that stimulus is then removed when the animal performs the behaviour. So use pressure to form the behaviour and release of that pressure to reinforce the behaviour.

So all natural horsemanship students and instructors ought know how to use this correctly and indeed most do use negative reinforcement very well.

The answer to the use of positive reinforcement is a little vague. 
"The positive reinforcement (food, scratches, gentle rub, rest, grazing, treat, etc.) should be presented consistently and should occur frequently."

What it doesn't address is how to train behaviours using positive reinforcement. This I think is where many get confused - as they form a behaviour using an aversive stimulus and then give a cookie or a scratch and think that is positive reinforcement.

There are several ways to train a behaviour:

Baiting and Luring
Scan and Capture

  • Mimicry

  • Targeting

  • Manipulation (moulding or sculpting)
Aversive stimuli

So we don"t just wait for the behaviour to occur naturally, as some seem to think, we can be active trainers and also use no aversive stimuli.

Negative reinforcement can be mildly aversive but it does have to be something the horse would rather avoid for it to be effective. 
Hence the term avoidance learning.

Every horse and every person is different - what is mildly aversive for one horse may be too much for another, just as what is exciting for one person might be terrifying for another.
So if we put too much pressure on a horse and he or she rears, bucks or does any other "FEAR" based behaviour we have gone too far.

Stimuli can be aversive, appetitive or neutral.
This is one reason I try not to use aversive stimuli to form behaviours, plus the emotions are very different when we use positive reinforcement. It triggers the CARE, PLAY and SEEKING systems. Negative reinforcement triggers the FEAR, RAGE and PANIC systems in many instances. So chasing, driving, flag waving to get the horse to move will trigger a FEAR response. FEAR can be seen as anxiety and RAGE can be seen as frustration. (Based on Jaak Panksepps Emotional Systems).

Positive reinforcement used incorrectly can also cause RAGE (frustration) if the horse begins to feel entitled to the reinforcement and it isn't given on time or we are slow in getting a behaviour on a variable schedule of reinforcement.

We can also use shaping.
 Shaping is a conditioning paradigm used primarily in the experimental analysis of behaviour. The method used is differential reinforcement of successive approximations of a behaviour.

So shaping is not a method of getting a behaviour but a method of reinforcing small approximations of the required behaviour. It can use either positive or negative reinforcement.
 Positive reinforcement would entail either a target to get behaviour - bridge and reinforce; capturing any slight movement towards the desired behaviour - bridge and reinforce.
 Negative reinforcement - release of pressure for the slightest try.

It is up to each person to decide for themselves what they want to do with their animals, my personal choice is to use reward based training and may not be for everyone to follow at this moment in time.

Friday, April 21, 2017, 15:46 | No Comments »

Negative reinforcement = removing an aversive stimulus (first the stimulus has to be applied to form the behaviour then removed as a reinforcement).

Positive reinforcement = adding an appetitive after the behaviour has been performed (the behaviour can be formed using target training, capturing the movement or using mild tactile touch, a bridging signal is used to mark the exact time of the wanted behaviour.)

This explains what happens in some natural horsemanship programs - it may seem like magic or a deep connection with the handler but it is the laws of learning being applied - even if the handler is unaware of them.

“Contrary to NH trainers argumentation, it seems that during the “natural” training, the horse does not follow the human because it feels safe and accepts the human as a herd leader, but because the human removes aversive stimuli in response to animal’s gestures that reflect higher submissiveness to the trainer or the relaxation (e.g. lowering of the head – Rietmann et al 2004). The affiliation signals that shorten the distance may be wrongly interpreted by the human [Goodwin 1999], and recent research have shown that horse’s response to humans is context-specific and may be based on negative reinforcements rather than on the social strategy [Kruger 2007, Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2008, McGreevy at al. 2009].”

“Many papers show unambiguously that positive reinforcement is the most effective training tool [e.g. Lieberman 1993, Sankey et al. 2010, Waran 2003], although application of such stimuli only in horses are impractical [McGreevy 2007]. The positive impact of rewarding has been widely discussed and reported in scientific literature; yet, this kind of reinforcement is still unwillingly applied in equine practice based on the conviction of its negative effect on equine behaviour which undoubtedly reveals the partial ignorance of documented scientific research. It has been shown that in the process of young horse training rewarding evoked positive responses of horses to humans, which persisted during subsequent months [Sankey et al.2010]. Additionally, enhanced interest in training and improved memorisation ability were observed.
The use of positive reinforcements motivates horses to confront challenges and undertake learning, and ensures perception of training as positive interactions [Sankey et al. 2010]. This is related to activation of neurophysiological processes associated with the dopaminergic system [Jay 2003].
Moreover, expecting a reward itself produces the same effect, which is not the case when aversive stimuli are employed [Schulz et al 1997]”


Monday, April 17, 2017, 06:40 | No Comments »

The Cookbook Approach to Horse Training

There are many who would really like to know all the answers, to be able to work through a book to train the perfect equine. There are many who try to provide this service, they produce glossy ads and videos showing how you can have a rapport with your horse. Some even give you a step by step program to obtain the perfect partnership.

What is wrong with the Cookbook approach?

Well for a start each horse is different, as is each owner/rider. No horse has ever read the book so has no idea what people want him to do, he is just busy being a horse.
Any book or program can only provide a framework - the trainer needs enough knowledge to know how to adapt and improvise.

If we have a cookbook what happens if you don’t have all the ingredients for a recipe? It probably all goes wrong unless you have enough knowledge to be able to adapt a recipe or make one up from scratch.

The same can happen in horse training if all you do is watch a few videos or read a few books without a true understanding of the subject.

What knowledge does an owner need to be able to be the trainer of their horse?

They need to know how horses learn - so an understanding of operant and classical conditioning.
Some physiology and an understanding of biomechanics will help to keep the horse healthy and sound.
An understanding of equine body language and emotions is also needed.
Certain programs can teach you the basics of horse care - the BHS Horse Owners Certificate looks at the care of the horse physical needs.

Studying the learning theory and emotional side of things may be a bit more tricky. There are however excellent behaviourists around who can help and several good online resources.

However pick a course or person who is not attached to an organisation that uses only pressure/release types of training. This may have a place in training but it should not be the only way to motivate a horse. Avoid those who use escalating pressure to teach behaviours to horses. Horses are very good at learning to avoid the pressure but it can be detrimental to their emotional state.

Some organisation teach equine psychology but have an emphasis on their own brand of training, so they justify the use of aversive stimuli and ignore positive reinforcement. Some never mention that what they use is negative reinforcement so many are under the illusion of it being positive reinforcement.

We do have to be careful as any training done badly will cause problems - this goes for both negative reinforcement programs and clicker training programs. There is much more to reward based training than a clicker and some food.
To learn safely and effectively try to find someone who can come out to you or who can do some video lessons and give good feedback.

All the time I learned to ride and train via both the BHS and natural horsemanship it was never explained that I was using negative reinforcement. Natural horsemanship did teach how to apply the aversive stimulus (pressure) and that is was the release of that aversive that reinforced the behaviour. However it was never called aversive or negative reinforcement.

Most people aren’t stupid and can understand the basics of learning theory if they are given the facts. Only then can they decide what motivation to use. The horse can be motivated by learning to avoid the application of pressure (-R) or he can learn to seek something he wants (+R).

Chasing, driving, applying more pressure can lead to a horse who suppresses his natural flight response. It can even lead to complete learned helplessness. This can be seen in traditional and natural horsemanship training, the dead to the leg riding school horses, the totally bombproof horses, natural horsemanship trained ones who don’t do anything unless told (because they fear the correction).

We need a balance - a safe horse but one with character, one who feels safe to express an opinion - even when it isn’t one we agree with. How many people mount horses who don’t willing stand at the mounting block - I know I have in the past got on my horse and before I was fully onboard she would walk off.
We can of course teach this with negative reinforcement - making the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing easy. However do we really have a willing horse if he only performs a behaviour to avoid the consequences of not doing so?

We can equally cause conflict if using +R if the horse is still afraid but wants the food. This is why we need to learn more than the basics, learn about different rates and types of reinforcement, learn to fade out targets and clickers for established behaviours. Learn what conflict looks like and how to recognise fear and frustration and how to avoid triggering flight responses. Learn what to do if things don’t go to plan, learn to read all the very subtle signs our horses give us.

What ever we can teach using negative reinforcement can equally be taught using positive reinforcement - the difference is how the horse feels about the process. We do need knowledge and imagination and lots of patience.

Dominance, leadership, respect are often spoken about but have little place in our relationships with horses.
Trust, partnership and providing all our horses needs is far better in my opinion.


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