Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Spending quality time with your horse

Got a message from a past student a couple of days ago with a very well put observation. 

Over last summer she had done a lovely piece of training with her horse to help him with his worries about trailer loading - very slow and observant, really listening to him and taking things at his pace. 

He had been a bit 'off' coming out of winter, and she was keeping an eye on him, looking for something to perk him up. For various reasons, as the trailer was out, she decided to try loading him. He did brilliantly, and the next day was full of enthusiasm when she arrived. Her comment was 'it's amazing how spending some quality time with him made him so happy'. 

When I first got involved with horses, I think I'd have considered quality time with them as going out on a long hack, or maybe grooming - but more from the perspective of what I enjoyed, unless the horse was really clearly unhappy about the activity! A trailer loading training session definitely wouldn't have been on the list. 

I've seen this often, how working at the horse's pace through a fear issue can transform a relationship, and also this training becomes something they really enjoy. The phrase 'quality time' was so accurate; when we can slow down and really pay attention to them and help them feel better about their worries in life, it can mean so much to them. And we can then bring this pace and attitude to other areas of our work with them, and build on a solid foundation. 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Some thoughts on negative and positive reinforcement

Most of us, if we learn about learning theory, quickly become familiar with the following:

Negative reinforcement : the removal of something aversive from the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to occur in the future. 

Positive reinforcement: the addition of something rewarding into the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to occur in the future.

Negative punishment: the removal of something appealing from the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future

Positive punishment: the addition of something aversive into the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future.

Looks quite straightforward...

Then, we categorise the training and learning we see. We give our horse a polo when he touches a cone, and say we are training with positive reinforcement. We form biases about what kind of training is good and what is bad. Taken to an extreme, we form opinions about whether people are good or bad based on the kind of training they do, but that's a subject for another day! 

So - a couple of thoughts on positive and negative reinforcement. 

Is it positive or negative reinforcement? 

Let's say my horse Paddy has an itchy leg - he finds a tree stump, lifts his leg and rubs against it, removing the itch. We would generally describe this as negative reinforcement - the irritating itch has been removed by Paddy's behaviour - rubbing the tree stump. 

Now, let's say Paddy has an itchy leg and lifts his leg while I am grooming him. I reach down and scratch his leg for him. Is this positive reinforcement - I am adding a pleasant scratch, or negative reinforcement - removing the itch as in the previous case. Does Paddy learn any differently in the two cases above? 

Since it is the horse who is learning, it only really matters how his brain processes these two events - my opinion is unimportant in his learning process! But I'd be more likely to call the latter case positive reinforcement, because I added a good consequence. 

So already we see a grey area in how we classify the learning. 

Can  learning through negative reinforcement be a 'nice' experience? 
The example above, where Paddy finds the handy tree stump surely confirms that negative reinforcement can be an enjoyable method of learning - the relief of scratching the itch. 

To take an example involving a human rather than a bit of wood - let's say Paddy comes hobbling in from the field. He has a big stone trapped in his foot which I removed when he lifts his foot for me. We'd usually describe this as negative reinforcement - I've removed something aversive, and this was probably a very good experience for Paddy. 

How do we decide on our preferred training methods? 
If we think in terms of positive and negative reinforcement, and decide that positive reinforcement is good, kind, ethical, call it what you will, and negative reinforcement is to be avoided where possible - the above examples don't make sense! 

Not only is negative reinforcement a good experience for Paddy in theses cases, it's also sometimes not even clear if learning has occurred through negative or positive reinforcement - that just depends how we view it. 

When we are considering the effectiveness of training, then understanding the mechanics of learning is important. 

When we are considering the ethics of training, a major factor is how it feels to the learner, rather than how it affects their behaviour. Using a model that describes how their behaviour is affected to describe how they may feel is, I think, not enough. 

What really matters, I think, is how the horse feels about interaction we have with him. 

To take an extreme example, if we apply a painful stimulus to our horse then release it when he behaves as we wish, we are using negative reinforcement, but it is the active application of a painful stimulus that we should be concerned about, not the learning mechanism. Whether the aversive stimulus is applied before or after a behaviour, or entirely at random, for myself, I'd like to minimise these stimuli. I'd also like to increase the things he finds nice, whenever they happen! 

In summary - be nice to your horse :-) 






Saturday, 2 December 2017

Some thoughts on the loss of a horse

A few wee thoughts on how the loss of Benson has affected my other horses. Benson came to me in 2002, Paddy and Tigger arrived in 2003. Flynn has known Benson since 2002, and Elvis since about 2008 - so a long time for all.
Benson died of heart failure 12 days ago, as peacefully as can be.
Initially, all horses looked exhausted. Paddy and Tigger particularly were standing dozing, knees kept buckling but neither wanted to lie down. About 2 - 3 hours after he died huge bout of eating hay. I would guess that they hadn't ate or slept the night before, I can't say how ill he seemed but I think they knew.
I left Benson's body in the field shelter for a few hours after he died, interestingly they didn't come in much while I was in the shelter but once I disappeared to pick up poo in the field they all went in. Shortly after they had gone in, Flynn herded the rest of them out and spent some time alone with Benson.
It's the first time I've had a chance to do this, and I'm glad I did. After he left, there was no calling, no searching for him; they knew he was gone which I think is probably better.
Things are getting back to something like normal now, but they still don't spend time in the shelter where he died, they all use the other one. I was slow to notice this and change haynets around so they aren't having to eat somewhere they don't want to be.
Also, they are sticking much closer to each other. Usually one will go out an graze alone quite happily while the others stay in, or one will stay in alone. Just now they prefer to be in a close group, and graze as in the photo - close together, where they'd normally spread out.

Nothing I can do to make it better really, but there are things I can do to not make it worse. I wouldn't, for example, take one out for a ride alone, or separate them off for any other reason. And I can see where they prefer to be and provide food and water there.
These changes are easier to notice when a horse has died, maybe because you're expecting change and feeling the loss yourself. But they will also happen when a field mate leaves; we think a lot about how to introduce new horses, but not so much about the impact there may be when one leaves.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A thought on orphan foals

So, this is just more random musing...

The young of some species are coprophagic, meaning they eat faeces. There are various theories about why they do this. Foals eat their mothers faeces. So do baby rats!

I came across this paper today - 'The Maternal Pheromone and Brain Development in the Preweanling Rat'
TM Lee et al. Physiol Behav 33 (3), 385-390.  
The abstract says 'Preweanling rats selectively approach and consume pheromone-containing maternal feces. This selectivity suggests that the consumption of maternal feces might be important for the growing pup. Previous research suggested that such feces might promote brain development. A series of experiments was carried out in which pups were denied access to maternal feces. These pups were clearly inferior to control pups in brain growth and neurobehavioral maturation, as well as in the quantity of brain myelin.'
Interesting - often hand reared foals have behaviour problems, and we tend to put this down to the absence of other horses to teach them social skills, stress, our inadequacies in training them and so on. But I wonder if the simple lack of the building blocks necessary for normal brain growth and behavioural development plays a significant role?



Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The side effects of how we train horses...

People often evaluate training simply in terms of 'does it work'? Sounds reasonable.
If they mean 'does it change the specific behaviour we are focussing on, in the way that we want' then it is definitely not enough.
Every interaction we have with a horse may change lots of things other than the specific behaviour - for example they also learn about the individual trainer, may generalise this learning to all people, may come to feel more relaxed or more worried in certain environments, with certain equipment and so on - all as a result of one simple piece of training.
Just rereading a paper, 'Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus)', Carol Sankey et al. To quote from the abstract:
'In this study, we tested the hypothesis that the use of positive or negative reinforcement in horse training may have consequences on the animals’ perception of humans, as a positive, negative or neutral element (in their environment). Two groups of ponies were trained to walk backwards in response to a vocal order using either positive or negative reinforcement. Heart rate monitors and behavioural observations were used to assess the animals’ perception of humans on the short (just after training) and long (5 months later) terms. The results showed that the type of reinforcement had a major effect on the subsequent animals’ perception of familiar and unfamiliar humans. Negative reinforcement was rapidly associated with an increased emotional state, as revealed by heart rate measurements and behavioural observations (head movements and ears laid back position). Its use led the ponies to seek less contact with humans. On the contrary, ponies trained with positive reinforcement showed an increased interest in humans and sought contact after training. This is especially remarkable as it was reached in a maximum of 5 sessions of 1 to 3 min (i.e. 5 to 15 min) and had lasting effects (visible after 5 months). Even learning was positively influenced by positive reinforcement. Overall, horses seem capable of associating humans to particular experiences and display extended long-term memory abilities.'
Common sense, you might say - if we do nice things with our horse they want to be with us more, if we train them by doing things they find unpleasant, they want to be with us less.
This is only a little part of the picture of 'good' training - for example simply throwing large amounts of food at your horse for every good thing he does is probably not the answer either! But it is an important element that is often overlooked, by scientists and trainers alike, so it's great to see some research in this area.


Friday, 30 September 2016

More horse watching - social behaviour

Came across this video I took a couple of years ago. Tigger meeting Duke, the stallion who lives at his yard, for the first time. Tigger's posturing is obviously attention grabbing. You can look up any good book on horse behaviour and find descriptions of this kind of sequence of behaviour. But what I find interesting is the more subtle interactions.

For example, at the start of the video, the older, wiser Paddy (grey) is not particularly interested in Duke, it is clear that his communication is with Tigger (the touch behind the elbow, then sniffing). He moves a little way from Tigger then waits until Tigger joins him. When Tigger then turns back to Duke, Paddy considers going with him but doesn't. There's very little written about these kinds of interactions.

I would say it looks very much as if Paddy recognises that Tigger's interactions with Duke aren't very wise, and is suggesting that Tigger should move away/calm down. It's a shame that the moments which bond horses, or demonstrate an existing bond, are not given more attention.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

What's in a whinny?

I love just watching horses - and there's always something new to ponder. So today - the whinny.

The whinny is generally described as a way for horses to maintain or regain contact with each other and also as a friendly greeting. It's an effective way to attract another horse's attention over a distance, and emotions can certainly be transmitted through frequency of whinnying and different types of whinny.

I think the whinny can convey more than simple communications like 'I'm here and excited' or 'where are you, I'm scared'.

Getting video of a really interesting example isn't easy - but here's a fairly basic one. Paddy is often observed 'managing' the social life of the horses in his field - herding 'his' mares away from the other horses, and breaking up interactions between certain horses.

In this case, Paddy is some distance away from one of his field mates who is talking to a pony over the fence. Paddy hears a squeal, whinnies in response and continues to watch until the interaction is over. I have seen more extreme examples where a play fight is turning a bit serious, and a distant whinny from Paddy breaks it up immediately. This whinny could simply be attracting the other horse's attention and thus interrupting their behaviour. But I do think there is more being communicated than that.