The traditional and the clicker…….

Have been discussing “pairing positive (R+) (specifically clicker training) and negative reinforcement (R-)” in horse training – should you or shouldn’t you?  Well, as ever, “it depends”; it can be recipe for disaster or it can make training a pleasurable experience for the horse.  (For any interested none-horsey types, horses are traditionally trained using negative reinforcement methods: application of pressure followed by its removal when the desired behaviour is performed.)  What can make pairing R- and R+ a disaster? is it the horse’s life and environment when s/he isn’t being ridden – are their horse needs met? what is the ratio of R+ and R- in a training session, and what is the horse’s training history? The more R-, and if badly applied in the past, the harder it will be for the R+ to have any effect. Also, it is very easy to inadvertently train anxiety using the clicker, resulting in a tense, worried horse throughout the training session. This is the worst that can happen when pairing the two. It happens when the horse is frustrated/confused/anxious but the trainer doesn’t recognise this and merrily clicks and treats when they see the behaviour they’re looking for, without taking into account the emotional state of the horse. Hence with clicker training (CT) as in traditional methods, calmness must come first. No matter what we’re doing with our horses, feel, awareness and listening to the horse are crucial. It’s perfectly possible, of course, to produce a (seemingly?) calm, responsive, highly schooled horse by just using R- (the last x centuries of equestrian history refer!), by breaking the movements down into segments the horse finds easy to learn, focusing on calmness, great timing of pressure release for doing the right thing, staying within the horse’s coping zone and asking for just the right amount more, building biomechanical capability….. these are all things as riders we’ve learnt to do unconsciously over the years, and it’s difficult and somewhat navel-gazing to try and deconstruct it now. Easier to pick the behaviour apart with a mouse or a pigeon in a laboratory! Setting the horse up to succeed is common to both approaches. Personally I think it’s difficult enough to apply traditional R- riding techniques effectively with the appropriate amount of feel, without possibly causing much confusion for horse and trainer by adding another layer of reinforcer when training the same behaviour/movement. So in my riding I aim for “minimal R- but with some improvement in the way the horse is going.” I use school movements to help develop engagement and self carriage. Positive and negative reinforcers activate the brain in different ways, so you’ve got all that going on too when using both methods. However, ultimately it must come down to the individual rider and what you know about your horse (and what your horse knows about you!). Horses all cope differently with the pressure of learning, according to all sorts of factors like innate predisposition, early life, personality, daily regime, rider ability: with some horse/trainer combos a lot of CT can be used alongside R- with nice, calm results; others use CT with R- to “catch” an uplift in energy to encourage exuberance. When I’m working on a behaviour consultation (which is done to address a specific behavioural problem, not general training/schooling advice) I don’t recommend mixing CT and R- to train the same behaviour, but I will sometimes recommend adding some R+ (without the clicker) to the training session, not necessarily in order to effect learning but to add something pleasant to the event for the horse. Also I’ll sometimes suggest that a R- riding session is broken up with some discrete clicker sessions; for this there must be a clear marker for the start and end of the clicker session, so as to manage expectations and avoid frustration!  For practical tips I would offer: listen to your horse; look out for signs of tension and avoid the clicker at these times – backstep to smaller “asks” from a place of calm; add something pleasant to every schooling session; don’t feel obliged to combine R- and R+; but if you do want to combine both, gen up on what they actually are and how to use them. So – should you combine CT and traditional R- protocols?  Well, it will always depend; and it will always be a very big ask to map the science of behaviour onto the art of horsemanship!

What do we think of our horses?…..

I’m starting a literature review today for some research. It will be in the area of how horse owners perceive/experience their horses, or their relationships with their horses. Do you have any thoughts on this? Have you sometimes mulled over why one person on your yard constantly talks to their horse in “baby talk”, yet another barely seems to give their horse the time of day…. why do some horse people say their horse is “taking the micky” out of them…… what do they mean when they describe their horse as “dominant”?…….. Drop me any thoughts you have…….

Worth the cost?….

Sadly today’s Grand National steeplechase resulted in the deaths of two poor thoroughbreds, one of them the high profile winner of last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, Synchronized.  People are speaking about a “strange atmosphere” at Aintree racecourse, because of what was seen as a very close and exciting finish set against the tragic deaths, which left TV commentator Clare Balding visibly moved.  Previously, presenters tried to divert attention from this unacceptable side of horse racing, but today the horses’ deaths have dominated the news reports.  Perhaps the scales are falling from the eyes of many people involved in the racing industry – today will make a lot of people think about this welfare issue for the first time, and it will be the tipping point for others. Place this event with the online petition to ban equestrian sports, and Animal Aid’s Racehorse Deathwatch, and these horses’ tragic deaths may contribute to a further small shift in the perceived norm, in terms of how we understand and respond to our various uses of horses.

Why do our horses get behaviour problems?

We place many demands on our horses that are at odds with how they have developed over millions of years of evolution:

  • we expect them to stand for long hours in isolation in stables, when their natural need is to move around in groups in the open;
  • we ask them to enter dark, enclosed horseboxes which prohibit their ability to flee from danger, and into which a horse cannot see because of the way its eye adjusts to changes in light;
  • we expect them to ride out alone, when their primary evolutionary need is for the safety provided by a settled group and a pair bond;
  • we wean them at an average of four months old, when foals in the wild will stay in the same herd as their mother, often for life and certainly until they are adults, learning all the while their identity as a horse and the social etiquette of the herd. 

We believe that domestication has influenced the way horses respond to our demands, but horses have been domesticated for only the blink of an eye in comparison to the way evolution has developed their responses.  Horses need to develop successful coping strategies to adapt to our demands, and it is these coping strategies themselves, or the horse’s failure to cope, that sometimes cause behavioural, and also physical, problems.

Many owners and riders experience behavioural problems with their horses, for example:

  • Napping
  • Rearing
  • Bolting
  • Difficult for vet/farrier to handle
  • Shying
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Rug tearing
  • Difficult to tack up
  • Leading problems
  • Difficult to tie up
  • Difficult to catch
  • Refusing to load
  • Box walking
  • Weaving
  • Crib biting
  • Wind sucking

Horses on box rest find it particularly difficult to cope with their restricted environment and can develop behavioural problems as a result.

Behaviour therapy can help resolve these problems.

Behavioural problems stem from innate responses such as anxiety, fear and pain.  They develop because the horse is faced with an environment for which it unprepared in terms of evolution, natural behaviours and psychology, and they can worsen because they are reinforced by the way the horse learns, eventually becoming automatic responses (“he always refuses to load!”) which have become “hard-wired” in the horse’s brain.  Behavioural problems will be worse if the horse’s environment prevents them carrying out their repertoire of natural behaviours.

Physical issues too can have a behavioural connection: where a horse fails to adapt to their environment and the demands placed on them, they suffer physical as well as mental stress: this has a negative effect on body systems including the immune response, the inflammatory process (making inflammation more likely for example in skin conditions such as sweet itch), blood pressure and blood sugar.  Chemical activity in the brain is affected by stress and this in turn has a negative effect on horses’ behaviour.

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