Friday, 28 December 2012

Equine Behaviour term of the week: Primary and Secondary Reinforcers

Reinforcing a behaviour is something a trainer does to make the response more likely to happen again.  When a builder reinforces a bridge or structure, he’s making it stronger. And that’s what I want to do each time  gets the right answer.

A primary reinforcer is giving the horse something he naturally likes with each correct response, such as release from pressure, or a treat. A secondary reinforce is a payoff a horse learns to like.  A clicker, a voice command or a pat.  To get these straight, I ask my students “What would a wild Mustang naturally find rewarding?”

Being aware of what motivates a horse has been a useful tool to help me get my points across to my equine partners more efficiently.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Do some horses learn quicker than others?

Smart. Clever. Dull. Clueless. We all have stories of horses that connect the dots and others that …don’t. So, really, are some horses sharper than others?

As a trainer, I’ll swear to the value of having a well-defined, systematic approach to training. I’ve also learned (sometimes the hard way) that the cookie cutter has to be adapted somewhat for individual horses.

Here’s what the research indicates as factors affecting equine learning ability.

Emotional state. When a horse is fearful, excited or angry it’s tough to learn anything. A crowded riding ring fosters fear of oncoming horses or anger at the invasion of personal space. And bringing a fresh horse into the mix doesn’t make for a classroom environment

Genetics: Some horses are bred for athletic ability, flashy conformation or brilliant movement – not learning ability.

Sex: Despite the unfortunate tendency to paint all manner of behaviour issues with the “She’s such a mare!” brush, there is truth that hormones can be a source of distraction or discomfort.

Age: Although older horses have ingrained habits (neural pathways) which can take many repetitions to alter, they’ve also learned to generalize: transfer learned skills to other situations. In other words they have “learned to learn”.

While the average attention span of a horse is around 11 seconds, it’s lower for younger horses.

Environment: Distraction lowers learning ability. Have your lessons well ingrained before heading to the horse show. Don’t ask your 12 yr old son to sit on a bench and do math homework at the amusement park!

Physical condition. High starch diets, limited turnout, limited social interaction. Studies show these all decrease learning ability.

Motivation. The desire to gain something or avoid something inspires horses to learn. Food or pain /entrapment avoidance can override the motivation of simple pressure and release. Some horses require higher amounts of pressure while others are more sensitive.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Error Free Horse Training

You likely have a list of a few things you’d like to delete from your horse’s repertoire. From rooting the reins out of your hands to biting at the lead shank to slipping a trot step into a flying change.

“In almost all training, situations, the most effective way to “delete” behaviours is to prevent them from being expressed.” Dr Andrew Mclean, internationally respected equine researcher, author.

We’re always training – there’s no neutral. I encourage my students to be mindful of each moment they spend riding, catching those little resistances and using them as a training opportunity, rather than letting them slide by under the radar. Try to interrupt the behaviour as it starts, each time, until it’s finally erased. If not, it will undoubtedly show up later under a pressure situation like a horse show.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Equestrian “luck”

Horse psychology insights: for a winning edge in the show ring and in life!

"The meeting of preparation with opportunity generates the offspring we call luck."
— Anthony Robbins

As a rider, how do you prepare for your success? There are few sports with more variables than riding. We have a 1000 lb., partner that doesn’t speak or think human. We have judges with preferences. Weather conditions vary. Competition environments vary. And even the patterns, courses and test required vary.

In the words of Regina Brett “Over – prepare” then go with the flow.

Here’s some tips I find helpful…

1. Read more. Insights from horsemen of varied disciplines. Reputable web sites reporting the latest research in equine health and training. The more I study the facts, the more loosely I hold to the very traditions that might be holding me back.

2. Practice the tough stuff. I gravitate toward doing things that come easily and avoid the things I’m not particularly good at. Trotting around an oval in an indoor arena will not yield the same dividends as asking my horse the tougher questions - specific lines, tighter turns. Transitions and lateral movements at specific points. Thinking about, testing, trying and reviewing the concepts I’ve read about.

3. Analyse, watch, feel and study my horse. Reflect on the details of my riding. We’re always training, never neutral.

4. Studying those I respect and doing my best emulate the qualities I admire.

5. Saying no to many good things in favour of the best things. T.V, Facebook, aimless socializing, shopping, magazines – too much mental candy makes for mediocrity.

6. Take a break. Pushing ourselves causes stress. Adrenaline levels rise to the challenge. A regular amount stretches and challenges us - good for us as long as it’s balanced by rest. Living in a constant state of alarm increases cortisol levels. The result? Equestrian burnout.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Blaming My Horse

When I assume my horse “should know better” the truth is at that moment, I’ve really just run out of creativity, patience and my knowledge of equitation science.

Equitation Science is using the system of how horses learn and think, in order to teach our horses stuff and solve training issues. It’s not art. It’s not telepathy. It’s not “having a way with horses” or a simply having good “feel”.

From Top Equitation and Hunter judge Anna Jane White-Mullin:

After hearing lots of excuses that began with the words, “my horse,” it occurred to me that the rider’s language said it all—I am a victim of my horse. The way it is supposed to work is that the rider is the brains and the horse is the brawn. When problems arise, we are supposed to “outthink” the horse—i.e., to get the advantage by quick or clever thinking. To allow the horse to run out at a fence repeatedly is to allow the animal to outthink you.

The language of success begins with the word, “I.” ”I” am having trouble getting my horse over the fence. ”I” am unable to keep my horse from spooking. The word, “I,” is the language of responsibility. It is an acknowledgement that the rider is responsible for the quality of the horse’s performance. If you take responsibility, then you’ll do everything you can to improve the horse’s performance; but if you abdicate responsibility, you’ll be a victim of your horse’s whims till the end.

When I hit a snag, do I take a deep breath and assess the communication gap with my horse? The deep breath takes the emotional aspect out of the picture. And the assessment: Does he understand a clear system of pressure and release? Have I delivered the system accurately?

It’s humbling to remember that when I’m pointing at someone else, there are 3 fingers pointing back at me.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:24

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Rhythm of the Course

The common denominator shared by hunter courses and competitive trail courses is that each have a prescribed distance between obstacles which determines the rhythm in which the course should be ridden. Courses based on a 12 ft stride for hunters and a 6 ft lope for the western trail competitor each call for an easy quiet ride. Unless….the rider gets ahead of the rhythm.

I judged a trail competitor recently who came into the multi pole lopeover obstacle at a forward 7 foot lope. As the horse began to hit some poles he got nervous. Although the logical response would seem to be to shorten the stride and slow the rhythm down to fit in the designated space, the logical response for a prey animal is to speed up and get the ordeal over with as quickly as possible! The more that horse hit poles, the higher his adrenaline level rose and faster his feet went. When horses are in flight response they don’t think logically. As a matter of fact, neither do we riders.

The pair loped over two extra poles that weren’t included in the course before regrouping at the trot for the next obstacle.

This made me think of how the obstacles in daily life come at a prescribed rhythm, but when we fret about what lies ahead we get ahead of ourselves and make it worse. When I rehearse a problem, I actually experience it more than once – I live it over and over. I multiply the stress by worrying about what might happen. And I might even create problems that were never meant to be included in my day at all by forcing a solution rather than “sleeping on it” in hopes of a solution when my adrenaline level lowers.

Jesus Christ had plenty to worry about – with the gift of foreknowledge He knew the death plans against Him would succeed. Yet He told His followers “Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”. When I consider God as the course designer I remind myself that He sees the beginning and the end and has allowed the obstacles to come up in my life at just the right rhythm.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Equine Behaviour Term of the Week: Flight response

Flight response: A horse’s instinct as a prey animal, to flee from perceived danger.

Dr Andrew Mclean says “A structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala, sorts out stimuli as to whether they are fearful or not. Fearful stimuli receive special recognition by the brain in terms of remembering - unlike other information, once learned fearful responses are not forgotten. You can layer new responses on top, so they become less easily retrieved, but forever after, fearful responses need careful training to keep the lid on them.”

A horse doesn’t get a 2nd chance in nature to make a judgment error – when a threat is perceived he flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there. Thus, while most skills are learned by trial and error, it only takes one trial for him to learn something through fear.

“The flight response is extremely variable. It's like a dimmer switch on a light - it can be fully on or partly on. The flight response shows up in various behavioral ways too. For example, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying, tension, running, hurrying, jogging, rushing,” says Mclean.

Mild to maximum expressions, flight is self-generating -the faster a horse’s legs, go, the more afraid he becomes. That’s why, when afraid, a horse will run right into a fence!

So…it makes you think about the idea of letting a horse “get it out of his system” on a lunge line or chase him in a round pen until he focusses on the handler. If practice makes perfect, what does practicing a fearful situation do?

On a human level, what about rehearsing our fears and fretting over problems? More thoughts on this next post!

photo credit: <a href="">milos milosevic</a> via <a href="">photo pin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Stressed out: Humans & Horses Part 2

Can riders transfer stress to their horses? A study presented at the International Equitation Science Symposium several years ago confirms it…

53 pairs of horses and riders were tested (each of the 26 horses at least twice with a different rider). Riders were also asked to rate different aspects of their riding skills on a scale from 1-10, for instance their nervousness and harmony (quality of communication) between themselves and the horse. The riders were asked to ride a course that included the following situations: 
1) Riding walk as a control situation. 

2) The rider was made nervous by telling him/her falsely to expect the horse to be startled by a water-jet. 

3) Both rider and horse were surprised by an experimenter unexpectedly opening and closing an umbrella.

The heart rate of the horses was each of these situations.

The results showed that heart rate of horses tended to be higher when only the rider or when both rider and horse were nervous compared to the control situation. The horse’s heart rate during all experimental situations were lower when the riders rated the horse’s responsiveness as good and when the riders had more experience.

These findings indicate that more trained riders and those more in harmony with the horse are at lower risk of inducing nervousness in the horse that can potentially lead to dangerous fear reactions in the horse. The conclusion of this study is that there is a transmission of nervousness from the rider to the horse but that this risk is smaller if the rider is trained and in harmony with the horse.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Stressed out: Humans and Horses: Part 1

We were cautioned as an audience at a recent Cavalla performance to refrain from flash photography for the safety of the horses and riders…I was skeptical.

I reasoned the stressful part for the horses would be what’s going on inside the ring. Performing in close proximity to other horses while more gallop about in random directions. Humans and equipment dangling above eye level, yet trained not to take his focus off the trainer with the whip. Much to make a prey animal feel vulnerable.

Stage fright for people and horses stems from different roots. Researchers studied the effects audiences have on humans and equine stress levels.

Mareike Becker-Birck, PhD and colleagues employed eight geldings--classical dressage horses from the French National Equestrian School in Saumur--and their seven male riders during a dress rehearsal and during a public performance in front of hundreds of spectators.

The team measured each horse's and human's salivary cortisol ("stress hormone") levels, heart rates, and heart rate variability (which appears to be a more specific stress indicator than heart rate alone).

For both horses and humans, cortisol levels and heart rates rose during both the rehearsal and the actual performance, compared to shortly before each activity. The humans' heart rates increased much more during the show performance than during the rehearsal. The horses' heart rates, however, remained essentially the same for both the performance and the rehearsal. The other cardiac variables supported the heart rate results, indicating that the riders were more stressed during the public performance compared to training than were the horses.

In a recent blog I mused that for horse people, more competition goes on outside the ring than inside. Fear of criticism, failure and gossip can steal our confidence and upset our stomachs. Some claim horses “sense” or even “smell” our fear. Next week we’ll have a look at what the science says…

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ready for the Show Ring?

As a judge and competitor, I’ve seen a lot of bad horse show experiences. From horses who begin to anticipate in the class to those who refuse to go in the gate. There are riders falling off and others just falling apart emotionally.

If training a horse is like climbing a staircase, many mishaps occur because riders try to skip a step, or even jump to the next landing.

This past weekend at a horse show, a rider I was coaching wisely decided that she and her horse would scratch a class she’d entered.

Here are some hints to determine if you enter the class or to remain in the warm up ring.

1. Don’t start a debate you can’t win.

Though there are no guarantees, whatever you ask of your horse, prepare to follow through until you succeed. As a trainer, my aim is to never have to step back down the training staircase, so I ask in little steps.

In the show ring, it may be impossible to finish what you started and make sure your horse does what you've asked without disturbing the other competitors or disrupting the class procedure. Much training can be undone when a horse figures out an escape route because the rider can't deliver on what she's asked. So the horse show, rather than furthering your horse’s education, takes it back a step.

2. “Over prepare, then go with the flow”

If it’s not happening outside the ring, it’s not likely to happen inside.

Make sure you’re able to perform the required gaits, maneuvers or jumps really well in the practice area before entering the class. It’s easy to be swayed by peer pressure, or the fact that you’ve already paid the entry or dressed in your show clothes. Ideally, you will have practiced at home a little tougher than is actually required, so that the course, pattern or test at the show seems simple in comparison.

3. At some point you have to get in the game!

Some folks play it so safe that they never take any risk. Zig Ziglar said “Worry is the misuse of imagination.”

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Monkey see, monkey do?

Did your mom ever say “Well if all your friends jumped of a bridge, would you?”

Can horses learn by observation? Again, Dr Camie Heleski, Michigan State University offered this explanation…

Observational learning is learning a behavior by watching others. There has been no published research that horses can learn either good behaviors or bad behaviors from watching other horses. In these experiments, some horses watched other horses being trained and some horses watched other horses engaging in stereotypies, such as cribbing, yet neither behavior appeared to be adopted.

Observational learning differs from social facilitation in that “social facilitation” mainly applies to a situation where all horses as a group engage in certain activities at the same time. For example, horses in a herd in a pasture will often go up to the front of the pasture for water at about the same time. Social facilitation may motivate an animal to learn an already instinctive behavior by observation, but it is more nearly like peer pressure or herd mentality.

So much for standing my horse at the in-gate, hoping he’ll memorize the course!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Training term of week: Discrimination

Discrimination is the ability to choose or differentiate between things. We make it hard for our horses to discriminate when we’re wishy-washy with our cues.

Dr Camie Heleski, Michigan State University, describes a study that illustrates this point…

In a study by Flannery, ponies were conditioned that one of two symbols on a feed box would gain them access to a treat (e.g., a star on the box versus a circle). The ponies did learn to discriminate between several pairs of symbols; however, if the symbols became too nearly alike, the ponies became very agitated. When the symbols were highly similar to one another, ponies become frustrated and began swaying back and forth between the choices…almost like weaving.

Learning happens quickly when we’re careful to be deliberate and distinct with our signals.

Friday, 13 April 2012

How Do We Know What We Know?

In the information age, Q and A columns , blogs, and on -line forums provide an buffet of answers to the questions horse owners have as they try to communicate with their 1000 lb., non-English speaking partners. The process of equine training and management can be puzzling. In in the horse world, where emotion and fact often collide, how do we know how horses really think, feel and learn?

If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages …Maybe take an animal degree. (Dr Doolittle)

In riding and showing horses, we’re always solving puzzles – how to solve a behaviour problem, figure out the source of a gait abnormality or how teach a skill and then refine it so it’s better than the competition! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not muck around with speculation. I want to sift through the anecdotes and get right to the facts. For the best solution, I seek to separate the truth from what someone thinks is true or what I hope might be true.

Which solution has the track record of success with multiple horses time after time? Is there research to back up the theory? Is it a lasting solution or a quick fix?

I approach training on the basis of behavioural science - how horses think and learn.

We’ll never know what it’s like to be a horse but there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to the way horses are wired – and it’s not like humans!

So how do we know what we know?

The evidence of research

One of the things I love about teaching equine behaviour is studying all the cool research that’s been conducted on behalf of horses. Studies on hundreds of horses confirm that horses learn things by operant conditioning – trial and error, pressure and release. We’ve learned what motivates them, scares them and what they actually see, hear and smell. Technology is available that actually shows the action of various bits inside the equine mouth, so we don’t have to speculate. Equipment is used to read the heart rate and stress hormone levels during various training and handling practices so we can confirm if a horse is under stress even if he may not appear so. Many of the findings verify what those of us who have trained many, many horses have concluded intuitively. But, based on what we now know through science, I’ve changed my approach in some areas over the years, turning my back on some stubborn traditions.

The evidence of the horse’s brain

Simply by comparing the anatomy of the human and equine brain, we see that horses have a relatively small area devoted to reasoning and higher thought processes such as analyzing and strategizing. Social grazing animals don’t need the same ability to speculate, (“What if?”), plan (“Next time I will…”), or analyze emotion (“I really overreacted…”).

A horse does however, have a large region devoted to coordination and learning –by- doing.

The evidence of survival as a prey animal

What motivates a grazing prey animal? Instinct to flee sounds and sights. The safety of the herd. The ability to roam and graze and procreate. A photographic memory to recall dangerous situations (without the human tendency to analyze these memories ). How much differently the horse and dog trainer must approach their teaching! Prey animals don’t need strategy or logic. They do need to follow the leader, escape entrapment and react quickly.

So it seems to me, the most efficient and humane way for me to solve my horse puzzles is to set my human reasoning and emotions aside, take an honest look at the facts and think like a horse!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

When things go wrong in the show ring…

Last weekend I had fun presenting a clinic of this title at the Can Am horse expo along with notable hunter judge, Barbara Mitchell and again with reining judge Gary Yaghdjian. We fed of each other’s energy as we highlighted various mistakes judges note on their cards and how to prevent them. I asked riders to look beyond the usual fixes, which focus on rider mechanics, to consider WHY things go wrong in the first place. Why do horses do what they do so predictably?

From the minor errors – a chip before a hunter fence or a slight overspin in reining, to major blunders – a refusal, or a spook (after which everything disintegrates), the source of the problem can often be found through the science of equine behaviour.

When the judge’s card says CC (cross canter), the post-class coach’s commentary usually includes “you should have used your outside leg.” But let’s dig deeper into what caused that horse’s hind end to slip off the track, resulting in a lost hind lead in the first place. Commonly seen at the in gate, the magnet of the barn and buddies is a powerful draw for the herd oriented horse. The rider may steer his head, but the remainder of the horse fishtails towards home.

If the judge records HH (high head), in the approach to the jump or a run down to a sliding stop, the source of the issue is an animal, claustrophobic by nature who feels trapped by a rider who, for the sake of balance or nerves, is hanging on the reins.

Anticipation shows up on the judge’s card in lots of ways. Horses are creatures of routine and learn by trial and error or operant conditioning. Now, while the research indicates that it takes an average of 5-7 repetitions to learn a skill, any routine learned by fear is learned in only one or two repetitions. Think about it – in the wild you don’t get multiple repetitions to learn to flee from a cougar! A horse soon loses his composure at the centre of the ring in a reining pattern because that’s where all the transitions, flying changes and spins start. And if they start with a nervous rider abruptly stepping on the gas pedal, he’ll scoot out of place faster than a teen driver burning rubber out of the Dairy Queen.

And the hunter who starts to jig in the hack class at the sound of the announcer’s microphone clicking to call for the canter? Startle him once or twice with a hasty outside leg and he’ll start to dread it like the boogie man.

When we’re working with an equine partner whose native language and world view differs from ours, we’re bound to have things turn not turn out exactly as we’d hoped in the show ring. Learning what makes him tick is a key to winning partnership!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Training Term of the Week

Shaping: gradually teaching a new behaviour through reinforcement until the target behaviour is achieved.

Have you ever played the “hot and cold” game? As the player gets closer to the prize, you yell “Hotter!”, telling him that he’s on the right track.

When I tell my horse that he’s on the right track, I reward the approximation of the behaviour. I call it rewarding the thought, or rewarding a try.

Sometimes the right try happens by accident, as if the horse is guessing. When teaching my horse to shorten his canter stride, I catch the moment he starts to shift his weight back in an attempt to collect himself. A turn on the haunches may begin with a transfer of weight onto his inside foot.

As with all training, timing is the key!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

When Evidence Bumps into Emotion

Why does that happen? How does it work? How do we know that’s true? I ask a lot of questions. There’s a wealth of information available. Reliable information-from researchers who have studied horse after horse and trainers who’ve had success after success, year after year.

Anecdotal evidence can get me into trouble – charismatic personalities can convince me with persuasive testimonies of their experiences. My emotions can get caught up in a great story.

The field of Equitation Science is about looking objectively into how horses learn and think. Dr. Andrew Mclean summarizes this idea as separating what is true from what I’d like to be true.

As I look at the evidence of how bits work, why cribbing begins or whether horses learn best by reward or negative reinforcement, it makes me think. Long held beliefs are now put to the test as I consider how saddle fit, turnout, nutrition, or the structure of the equine brain might affect a horse’s performance. Some of what I see might confirm what I’ve concluded in training hundreds of horses. But other facts may bump into the way I’ve always done things.

I think it’s human nature to manipulate facts somewhat to support our beliefs. In buffet style, we select the facts we prefer and ignore the ones that challenge us to change.

Horse training is not the only area in which feelings and facts can collide. Human nutrition. Child raising. And the larger issues of life, purpose and God.

I don’t want to build my life only on my emotion or the experience of the latest bestselling author…climbing up a ladder only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall!