Poisoned cue, or poisoned you?

I’ve been inspired recently to finally write about something that often happens when we first start to train our horses with positive reinforcement.

It happened to me. It will be happening or have happened to you as you switch from aversive training to training your animals with positive reinforcement.

It will be happening to those people who are sometimes using aversives and sometimes using appetitives (food or scratches) as reinforcers with their horses.

It will be happening to those who are using aversives to get behaviour and then clicking and treating (or just treating their horses) for it.

It will also be happening to people who think they have never intentionally made themselves aversive to, or used aversives with their horses, but who have horses who have been owned by other people who have done so.

You will recognise it when you see the difference between how your horse reacts when you are with him, compared to how he reacts when, say, you have a family member or friend who rarely sees your horse come and visit, or a positive reinforcement instructor come and teach you how to train your horse.

What you will notice is that your horse may react differently to someone she rarely sees, or has never met, or who they have only known as someone who comes bearing treats.

It’s the story of how I watched my horse fall in love with a lovely equine behaviour and training specialist Dr Helen Spence – right in front of my eyes – and what it brought home to me.

It’s pretty sad and at the same time enlightening and empowering if you choose to let it be. I hope you do because my intention is not to make you miserable or guilty or regretful but to actually inspire you to make some really significant changes to how you behave around your horses sooner rather than later.

It’s the story of how easily we can become a source of conflict for our horses and how that can affect their emotions and behaviour.

Whenever I go to teach someone I am aware of it, and I am tuned in to the behaviours that horses will show when they are anxious about the person at the same time as wanting to stay around to get the food. And that is because I see it an awful lot.

The reason I mention it is because a friend has recently become more aware of the phenomenon known as the poisoned cue and has been particularly emotionally affected by seeing how an animal “looks” when they are experiencing this kind of training.

The term, coined by Karen Pryor in 2002 refers to a cue for a behaviour that is associated with both negative and positive reinforcement at the same time.

To poison a cue all it would really require is for a person to give a cue, enforce the cue (make the animal perform the cued behaviour) with some kind of aversive stimulus, and then remove the aversive and click and give the animal a treat.

If the animal were to then perform the behaviour on cue, the trainer would click and treat. If when the cue were used the animal did not perform the behaviour, an aversive stimulus would be applied to compel the animal to perform the cued behaviour, and the trainer would then click and treat.

What happens in this situation is that it produces a different kind of emotional response to that seen when either negative reinforcement alone, or positive reinforcement alone are used.

Animals typically show reluctance, and visible signs of anxiety or distress and very often the animal can appear to freeze or show hesitation in responding.

The advice of those in the know about this phenomenon is that when we realise that we have poisoned a cue, the best thing to do is to completely change that cue. Retrain the behaviour from scratch, using only positive reinforcement (and one of a choice of free shaping, luring or target training), and introduce a new cue altogether. If that is an audible cue it needs to sound totally different, and if it is a visual cue it needs to look completely different.

That means that we need to move differently if our movement is any part of the cue, and we need to make a totally different sound if we are using a vocal cue.

And that’s all very well. But there is a limit to how different we can make those cues and even to how practical it is to do so.

If we are training our horse to lead, for instance, we can’t do that without walking ourselves. And for many horses, the movement the human makes walking is a conditioned predictor of the lead rope pulling on the halter on their head, for any horse with a traditional or natural horsemanship training background.

So the cue may be extremely difficult to change – even if we use a different vocal cue (if we ever did use a vocal cue in the first place) because our movement is an unavoidable part of the cue.

But the killer thing to realise – and it kills you inside when you do – is that so is our very presence there, while all this is happening – at our hands – with the animal.

Everything in the environment can become associated with and therefore part of the cue. And in fact our very presence is a cue in and of itself. When we are with our animals, we are the universal stimulus that predicts both positive AND negative reinforcement – appetitives and aversives – if that’s what we are doing.

It’s important to remember that there are only two forms of reinforcement. If we come from a background where we haven’t been using appetitive training (using food or scratches as reinforcement for behaviour that has not been produced using any kind of aversive stimulus) there really is only one other kind of reinforcement we can have been using if we’ve been intentionally trying to train behaviours and get those on cue.

And that’s negative reinforcement. Behaviour that is trained through negative reinforcement is produced by the application of some kind of aversive stimulus. It’s the cessation of or reduction in the strength of the aversive that reinforces the desired behaviour.

The only other alternatives to getting an animal to do (or not do) what we want, are sedation, manipulation and restraint.

In the end, even if we completely alter how we train our horses – overnight, all-in, removing all use of aversives (all and any kind of pressure, coercion, force, threats or corrections) from our training approach, we simply cannot expect to instantly change how we have come to be perceived.

Not overnight, not in a week, maybe not for years, and perhaps in some cases with severely human-traumatised horses, never.

In the same way that if we started to wear completely different clothes around people, I am not at all sure that even if we wear different clothes, a different hat, change the way we walk or try to use a different tone of voice that any horse is going to be fooled by that.

For one thing it would be immensely difficult to sustain and for another there are way too many things about ourselves that we do or that we “are” that differentiate us from other humans or other animals.

The first time we often see this poisoned cue “effect” is when we first start to train our horse with positive reinforcement.

We can see it either when we are training a default behaviour – stand still and face forward (differential reinforcement for behaviour incompatible with foraging on us) or doing some basic target training, or even during some initial desensitisation and counter conditioning to something – including to ourselves as humans or ourselves as an individual.

What we can see is the horse showing sign of anxiety. They come close because that’s where the food is, but then what we see is them fidgeting or face-pulling or ears back or the turning the head away as an appeasement signal / calming signal. This is happening because the horse feels threatened, but they are staying put because they want the food.

It’s a perfect example of a behaviour performed in a conflict situation where the horse wants one thing – the food – but wants to avoid the other – being chased away or in any way treated aversively – as is their reasonable expectation when their whole life experience has been of mostly aversive handling from people.

What they most often show though is a mix of frustration about the food and anxiety about the situation and the person.

So the nipping, the nose pushing, the behaviour of walking across us when we try to walk with them or away from them, the ears back, the tightness around the face, tail swishing, pawing, fidgeting, distractability, lack of focus, geldings dropping their willy, yawning, licking and chewing or even turning to scratch themselves a lot are so often borne out of that toxic mix of anxiety about us as a species or as individuals tangled up with frustration about not being able to get the food out of us, or to even be able to think straight about how to.

Very often this behaviour is attributed – incorrectly – to clicker training. It’s believed that it’s the clicker training with food that causes horses to nip, push, barge, bite, charge, drop their penis or snap at us.

It’s not. It’s the fact that the horse is in a conflicted emotional state. And that conflict is caused not by the food alone, but by the combination of food and the aversive expectations the animal has because of what we – or others – have done before.

What this means is that when we are training we need to be thinking really hard about how to mitigate and reduce that, as well as recognising (and not beating ourselves up about the fact that) it’s inevitable to some extent because we are aversive predictors when we first start out.

It’s why we so often advocate protected contact – training from behind a barrier. It means that as we learn to change our own behaviour in response to undesirable behaviour from our horses, we are less likely to react reflexively and defensively if a horse goes to nip or push us – because to do that would be a perfect way to confirm their pessimistic perception.

The other reason for protected contact is so that we can have some distance between us and the horse. If the horse is anxious with us close but stays close to us for the food, then it’s very difficult to even begin to help them be calmer. But if we stand a little way away from them – something that the barrier would allow us to do without them following – that makes it impossible for them to perform some of the behaviours we would not want to see, and would find hard to ignore, and it can help them to feel less anxious about what we might do.

The final thing I could add on this is that it’s the big reason why we advocate short sessions of training early on.

These two things – training in protected contact and short sessions – are things that it seems so hard to convince people to do. It’s as if people feel that they aren’t good trainers if they have to be behind a barrier or if they can only train for 1 minute. They aren’t. The best training I’ve seen has been behind a barrier and for 20 seconds at a time.

And the reason for this is that, like any other aversive to which we are trying to desensitise and counter condition the horse, we want to make those exposures really short, and sweet and over fast.

Low strength, short duration exposures to mildly feared stimuli would be the recipe for desensitisation and counter conditioning.

If we are trying to counter condition the horse to us as a species or individual then training that is measured in seconds and not minutes is the key.

As is training in which the horse feels she can leave if she wants to.

And training in which the food value isn’t so high that the horse over-faces himself because he wants the food.

And training in which the horse feels protected from us and in which we protect ourselves and our horses from our own reflexes or patterns of correction or chastisement or defensiveness.

I’d been a poisoned cue for years with my horse when he met Helen Spence.

It’s normal! Sometimes we behave in ways the horse finds aversive, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we bring food. Sometimes when we bring food we also drive the horse away from it and cause the horse to fear us when there is food around.

Sometimes I was asking for behaviour with aversives and clicking and treating for it.

Sometimes I was using target training alone or free shaping or luring.

At other times I was using negative reinforcement and punishment.

But when I saw the response of my horse to Helen, everything changed for me.

He’d never met her before and when he did the experience with her was appetitive from start to finish (apart from one part when he went totally over threshold due to some other nearby horses running around) and in which she and I were in the training area with him. I am sure he did not associate that with us.

But what I saw was his expression when he was with Helen. He was all “You seem really nice. What are we going to be doing?”

With me I could see he was always thinking “Not sure about you. You’ve been pretty horrible to me in the past. How do I know you’ve really changed? But yeah, I’ll touch your hand for some food if I must.”

And to make it worse I had to “Parelli” him back on the trailer to go home after that clinic. I promised I’d never take him to another away from home clinic and I made some other promises to him then as well. Not that it mattered to him what I said. We can promise and praise and apologise with words all we like – but it’s only ever our behaviour that counts.

Watching Archie with Helen was like watching a good friend with a new partner who adores her – and her him, after seeing how different she looks to all the times you’ve seen her when she has taken back (for the umpteenth time to your bewilderment) a husband or partner who has been abusive or unfaithful or selfish. It’s difficult to see how there will ever really be trust in the relationship. The wife is always guarded or expecting the worst nightmare to repeat itself. Expecting to be betrayed or hurt or to be overlooked or taken for granted.

And I felt like it might be for that abusive partner who knows what he has done, and has made all his pathetic excuses for it, but is now watching his wife with her new lover.

It was when all my knowledge of poisoned cues came together. I knew all about poisoned cues but I hadn’t really been looking hard enough at myself as part of the cue.

It was when I saw my horse with someone with whom he had only good associations – probably for the first time in his life – that I saw the way in which we become poisoned ourselves as individuals – or by association – as a species.

Because the way he looked at and behaved around me was very different to the way he looked at Helen.

And I stood there trying hard not to cry, being angry at myself for all the claptrap I’d fallen for in the past and being mad as hell at the people who were perpetuating it. And feeling like I needed to rescue from it all the horses of my friends still doing it. It was a typical grieving process.

We positive training converts and apostles don’t bang on about avoiding aversives with horses for the sake of it.

We don’t do it because we think people who use aversives are all evil or nasty. I firmly believe that the only reason most people are using aversives with horses is because they don’t know what else to do or because they are themselves in deep emotional conflict that is resolved by their apparent cognitive dissonance.

They love their horse but they are also afraid of their horse. Or they love their horse but they care too much about what other people think of them.

Or they love their horse but what they want the horse to do is just 1 percent more important than how the horse feels about it.

And that will be true of all other aspects of their life. The relationship we have with the horse is where everything about our belief systems, our attitudes, our neuroses, our fears and our desires is laid bare.

We don’t bang on about aversives because we want to shame people out of being aversive with horses. It’s because we’ve experienced the shame of the realisation of how the horse is looking at us.

We do it because many of us have been through that grief and felt intense shame ourselves deep down inside. And because the only way out of that feeling is through it. As fast as possible.

The best way to make peace with yourself is honesty. If I could save anyone from the experience of seeing their adored horse fall head over heels with someone else then I would. It’s a killer. It breaks your heart.

But it is also intensely empowering if you choose to let it be so.

I saw my horse fall in love with Helen and it made me determined to BE his Helen Spence.

I saw that look and I said to myself “I want THAT!”

We’re a work in progress, but I think we’re doing OK. Actually no, I will correct myself. We’re doing really great.

References:

The Effects of Combining Positive and Negative Reinforcement during Training – Nicole A. Murrey https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/26ba/1a8d8ee2c088af43f80e10b7e0f65748cd01.pdf

How the choice of reinforcement effects the perceptions horses have of humans. Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Henry, S. et al. Animal Cognition (2010)

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-010-0326-9

Do you use clicker training? Or do you want to be a positive reinforcer?

Years ago when I first started using clicker training it was with the mindset that I wanted to “fix” my horse.

He had had a horrible existence in his early life as evidenced by some of his dramatic escape behaviour when ridden and on the ground. He would buck sky high at the drop of a hat.

It was a learned behaviour he had likely acquired in some fairly major one-time-learning event and it was his behaviour of choice in any situation in which he was either being put under pressure to do something he did not want to do, or prevented from doing something he felt was very necessary or preferable to what the rider wanted.

I had one lesson years and years ago and very early on our relationship in which in an effort to get more impulsion from my “lazy” horse, my instructor had me “tap” him with a schooling whip, in the usual position behind my lower leg.

He bucked each time I applied the whip, and then started to buck before I could apply it, so my Advanced Instructor informed me of the need to keep whipping him until he stopped bucking and went forwards instead.

The solution for lack of forwards was hitting and the solution for stopping was “pull its bloody back teeth out”.

That was the beginning of the end of my respect for the methods of those in the mainstream equestrian establishment.

I enlisted the help of numerous more experienced friends to ride Archie in an effort to find a solution. We used to have parties at home on his gotcha day (which is incidentally Halloween and for a good long while it did seem that we had the horse from hell) and I would ask all my friends to form a circle. I would ask those who had ridden him to take a step forward into the centre.

And then I would ask those who had been bucked off or who had otherwise fallen off to take a step back to rejoin the circle. There was only one person standing in the centre and that was my lovely and loyal friend Anne P who gave us an incredible amount of patient and good humoured help over the years. I think without her help we would have had more disasters than we did. She was the only one who managed to ride him in a way that entitled her to the great honour of being allowed to stay in the saddle.

During that time I dabbled with clicker training for a while but no one I read or asked seem to have any clue about how to keep him from bucking.

I used clicker training as what I called an accelerator for a long time – I’d use some aversive stimulus (pressure) to try to get some behaviour and then click for it, but it never really produced any great increase in performance, enthusiasm or attitude. And it didn’t stop the bucking.

I progressed to following many of the different strains of so called natural horsemanship and I finally began to understand some of what my BHS instructor had been trying to convey.

I got really good at using punishment (corrections) to deter unwanted behaviour and intercepting or avoiding doing things that might get us into a bucking situation.

And at the same time I kept using clicker training alongside the punishment and negative reinforcement as a “tool” to try to get more of what I wanted.

What I realised after many many years of intense study of and major expenditure on learning about so many different methods (all of which boiled down to the same thing) was that what really matters is not what tools you use, but how your horse perceives you overall.

I was “using” clicker training and I was “using” natural horsemanship and I was “using” various bits of equipment and tools and techniques and principles because in the end it came down to the fact that I had the “user” mindset and that I was so frustrated because I couldn’t use my horse the way I wanted.

I was using my horse as a vehicle for my entertainment and enjoyment. And the only reason I was putting effort into all that learning was because I was missing out on what I wanted and had dreamed of when I brought him home to live with us in 2001.

For as long as what the horse wants to do is even 1 percent less important than what we want then we tend to see training methods as tools.

This is what I call the horse operator mindset. Those who have had that horse operator mindset like myself, want to learn ways to better operate the horse as a vehicle or a piece of equipment.

We want to manoeuvre his body around either with us on the ground or on his back, we want him to comply with our requests to go from a to b without any resistance. We want him to show no reaction to any of what we consider to be irrelevant stimuli, because his inattention to our commands detracts from what we want or it makes us nervous or afraid or frustrated.

We want him to listen to us and do what we ask immediately without hesitation or question. We look at horses who behave like that for their riders and we say “Oh isn’t he a good horse” when the reality is that he is often a disenchanted and helpless automaton. We applaud and reward the skills used to produce a compliant ridden horse with gold medals at the Olympics. That level of control of the horse is regarded as the pinnacle of achievement.

Those of us in the horse operator mindset say we want a relationship with the horse but the reality is that we only appreciate him when he is doing what we want and we are very ready to correct him when he steps out of line.

That is not a partnership or a friendship. I can’t even think of a word for it but a horse in that situation is really little more than a slave.

If we want that kind of relationship with a ridden being, we would all be much better off and happier with a motorbike (although I’ve been bucked off one of those as well – but that is another story).

alison-and-bracken-for-website

What we need to ask ourselves really is whether we see clicker training as a tool or whether we want to be positive reinforcers to our horse.

When we aim to be positive reinforcers for our horses then we go beyond operant conditioning as a tool to get more of what we want and we begin to see that we are a conditioned stimulus to our horse.

What that means is that horses learn and make decisions about how they perceive us whenever we are present, based on how we move, what we do or say, how we react or respond to them as fellow beings, the choices we make about our own actions and behaviour and the things to which we expose our horses. These all have meaning to the horse and they associate all of that with, and form their opinion of us and what we represent, accordingly.

Horses have opinions and form perceptions of us that are based on all of those things about how we behave.

We can’t use clicker training one minute and then be correcting the horse for unwanted behaviour the next, or using some kind of aversive control in one context and then giving the horse a treat or scratch in another and expect to have ourselves be positively regarded by our animals.

If we really want it to be about the relationship, then we go beyond using tools or techniques or methods and we ask ourselves how we can go about enabling the horse to express his opinions and to make genuine choices and how we can stop associating ourselves with unpleasantness, coercion, force, pressure, correction or compulsion.

Being a positive reinforcer is much more about an entire way of being – a lifestyle – and not about the choice of tool or method of reinforcement, of which there are only two.

If you’re not putting all your effort into avoiding the use of aversive stimuli to deter or to produce and reinforce behaviour, then you might be using clicker training as a tool but you aren’t yet in the positive reinforcement mindset.

For me, for my team and for the people we like to help with their horses this is about making dramatic and profound changes to the co-existence and relationships of people and horses and about challenging the attitudes that people have towards horses and ponies.

It’s not about using clicker training as a tool or an accelerator or as a means to an end or to get the horse to behave himself or to do some kind of entertaining trick or to improve his “performance” as a vehicle.

It’s about forming relationships with animals that involve busting a gut to associate ourselves with good things.

We don’t “use” clicker training. Our aim is to be perceived by our animals as positive reinforcers.

Adopt that mindset, and this will change everything about the relationship you will have with your pony, donkey, mule or horse.

In fact it is the only thing that will change the attitude and behaviour of your animals.

Because in the end the only attitude and behaviour you can really change is your own.

How do positive reinforcement trainers get their horses to behave?

What many people find baffling about force-free, rewards-based training (positive reinforcement) is how it is possible to get the horse to do something in the first place, so that we can reward it.

This is because, until we come across this very different way of training, we have all historically only ever been shown how to use some kind of pressure (aversive stimulation) to get behaviour. Which means that while we like the idea of using a new way of training that is more genuinely rewarding for the horse, we can get a bit stuck for ideas for how to get the horse to do something we can reward!

When it comes to their behaviour, we ideally want 3 key things from our chosen way of keeping and training our horses and ponies:

  • We want to be able to produce repeatable desirable behaviours
  • In doing so, we want to avoid causing the horse to choose to perform undesirable behaviours
  • We want to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviours

In order to produce repeatable desirable behaviours using positive reinforcement, we need to be able to do 3 things. We need to have a way to create the behaviour in the horse in the first place, then we need to reinforce that behaviour so that the horse will want to repeat it, and finally we need to pair it with a cue that can act as a unique prompt for that behaviour, so that the horse knows exactly what behaviour to perform to obtain reinforcement when that cue is given.

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement makes behaviour more likely to be repeated. There are only two types of reinforcement. One is where the horse gains something he values and that provides him with a pleasurable outcome. The other is where the behaviour results in escape from something that is unpleasant, or that the horse expects to be unpleasant.

Successfully escaping or avoiding an actual or anticipated aversive (unpleasant) stimulus provides the horse or pony, donkey or mule with relief that it’s over or has been avoided. These types of reinforcement of behaviour are going on all the time, with or without our involvement, and even if we don’t realise what they are or know what they are called.

The foal that struggles to his feet when he is born, who eventually wobbles his way on his unsteady legs towards his mother for his first drink, gains life-giving milk and colostrum. His first experience of the world is of positive reinforcement – the gain of something appetitive and life giving.

The horse that turns his back to the wind and lowers his head in a hailstorm firstly escapes the painful feeling of hailstones on his face and then avoids further stinging pain by adjusting his position relative to the wind direction. His behaviour of turning away from the hail is negatively reinforced initially by his escape, and then he maintains or repeats that behaviour to avoid the pain from the hailstones. These are 2 forms of learning known as escape and avoidance learning, and these are what everyone relies on when using aversives to train horses.

The behaviour of the horse that pulls away from his handler when being led from the stable to the field is reinforced when he gets to the field full of grass and to his friends – more so if he ran out of hay hours ago, does not get much turn-out, is very anxious about being separated from his friends and experiences aversive handling when being led.

Whether we consider his behaviour to have positively reinforced (we imagine his behaviour results from him gaining food and friends and freedom), or negatively reinforced (we think he experiences temporary relief from the unpleasant psychological and physical feelings of being starved and hungry and separated and confined and restrained), we can definitely know that this behaviour of pulling away from someone leading him is reinforced, if it keeps happening – even though we cannot know for sure what it is that he finds most reinforcing.

We know that behaviour that results in reinforcement will be repeated, so if we want to train a desirable behaviour, we need to have a way to form that behaviour first and a way to provide a reinforcing consequence for the horse so that the horse wants to do it again in the same circumstances. Only then can we get it on cue.

The key difference between positive reinforcement training and every other kind, is that as trainers we try to use ways of forming behaviour that do not involve creating aversive situations for the horse to escape or avoid.

How do we get behaviour so we can reinforce it?

Whether we choose to deploy negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement strategies, there are only 6 different ways we can form behaviour – or indeed that behaviour comes about, whether it is behaviour we want or don’t want – in any animal.

In combination with an immediately reinforcing consequence (a motivation to do it again), these are the only ways we have to either cause the horse or pony to want to do the behaviour, or to explain to them what we want them to do.

The first and universally used way of training horses in ground and ridden work in traditional, classical, straightness training, academic training (such as that promoted by the Equitation Science advocates), western riding, and in all flavours of natural horsemanship, is aversive stimulation. An aversive (unpleasant) stimulus is applied to cause the horse to perform a behaviour that it will perform to escape or avoid that stimulus. Provided that when the desired behaviour happens, it is immediately reinforced by cessation or reduction in strength of the aversive, then the horse will consider that behaviour to have worked for her and will repeat it in the future.

The second way is through physical manipulation, also called moulding (or sometimes sculpting), and this is also used routinely with horses. This involves physically moving the entire animal or part of the animal into a position by direct contact with their body. This could involve taking hold of a body part (the head or a limb for instance) and pushing or pulling on the animal’s body directly to cause all or part of him to move into a position or place. This is also achieved by attaching restraint or manipulation devices to his body – such as halters and ropes, around the head, body or legs.

Most horse owners use manipulation routinely every day – for leading and feet handling. With horses we should always assume that this way of making them move or preventing their movement will be aversive to them initially, and that they will be either frightened or very likely to resist that pushing or pulling to begin with. They can of course learn through negative reinforcement (they are released only if they remain relaxed or when they cease to struggle) to comply, but their compliance should never be assumed to imply consent, confidence, acceptance or willingness – since it is accomplished entirely through coercive means.

Alternatively, by introducing them to being handled gradually, slowly and gently, without any restraint or additional aversives being used, they can learn through positive reinforcement to like it and to cooperate enthusiastically even if their movement is restricted. Horses do what works for them. If we are, for instance, teaching them to have their feet handled, and their struggling results in escape because we cannot hold onto their foot, that struggling will be repeated. Every farrier knows that! So it’s better to go slowly, building the time they can consent to their feet being held and handled, gradually, checking that the horse is totally relaxed before we start, and checking for relaxation at all times when training for all physical handling, than to risk creating a problem that can be difficult to overcome.

Other less generally useful ways to form specific behaviours but that fit with a force-free philosophy include using a food lure. A common every day application of this is for carrot stretches. Sometimes a horse that has not been trained to lead yet can be enticed with food to go somewhere, pending proper training. Often though, people try to use food to entice horses to go somewhere they do not want to go and then trap them, and doing this can make a horse forever suspicious of people offering them food. But even if we don’t do that, a horse following food is focussed on the food, not especially on his own behaviour, so, other than for carrot stretches, it’s preferable to only use food to lure a horse as a temporary measure. Getting a horse trained properly to lead and load and giving him no reason to feel coerced or tricked and trapped into doing things – as soon as possible – is preferable to using a food lure.

Social or observational learning (learning by watching what happens to others and then doing what they do) happens with all social species including horses and can work to our advantage. Horses will see that if their mother is relaxed in certain situations that these need not be feared. Sometimes it is useful to use another horse as a lead to show an uncertain horse that he need not fear crossing water or over something on the ground, and we could reward the horse with some food or a scratch for doing that. But if the nervous horse is simply following another to avoid being left behind he may not always learn confidence in himself or to like being in that situation, even if we think we are rewarding that behaviour. We might just be using the confident horse as a lure for our nervous horse and not teaching him anything at all.

Ways that are unique to positive reinforcement

When we switch to using more positive reinforcement, two additional important options for getting behaviour to happen become available to us that are not available with a negative reinforcement approach.

The first involves creatively contriving situations in the environment of the horse, in which the behaviour is most likely to happen on its own, and then marking and rewarding it.

So we set up the ideal situation, wait for the behaviour to happen, and then make sure that the behaviour results in something that is immediately reinforcing for the horse.

In positive reinforcement training this is called “free shaping” (where successive steps in the direction of the finished behaviour are reinforced) or “capturing” (where the complete behaviour happens and can be opportunistically reinforced). If we are clever in our set-up, the behaviour we want is going to be the one the horse is most likely to choose to perform.

We must observe closely the behaviour of the horse, and then reinforce by marking and rewarding, usually with food – any behaviour that is a step in the direction of the finished product. If the horse wants to do a behaviour anyway, we don’t even need to mark and reinforce it, but unless we do, we won’t be able to get it it to where it can be made repeatable – on cue – and therefore something we could reproduce in the future.

The marker signal I refer to is called a bridging stimulus or bridge, because it bridges the short time lapse between when the horse performs the specific behaviour we want, and receives the food or scratch.

The second and most commonly used technique, and one that can only be used with positive reinforcement, is target training.

Target training – how we take advantage of natural horse behaviour

Target training takes advantage of the natural behaviour of horses to investigate novel objects. We can carefully present a target prop to a horse or put a target prop on the ground near to the horse and by bridging and rewarding his voluntary approach to investigate it by looking at, sniffing or touching it with his nose (or feet if we are using something we want him to put his feet onto) we can teach the horse that his behaviour of touching this object will be positively reinforced.

missay-on-target-cone

This is all done with no pressure being put on the horse to approach the target, as none is needed. This is actually one of the most natural ways of creating behaviour – allowing a horse to perform what is a perfectly natural investigative behaviour when presented with novel objects.

Targeting can be used to form every behaviour for which aversive stimulation is normally used. It can be used for groundwork whether in hand or at liberty, and for ridden work, with or without anything on the head of the horse. We can use stationary targets such as cones or mats or dressage arena letters, and we can use a stick with a target on the end of it for teaching movements.

Once the horse learns that he will be positively reinforced for touching a specific body part to or being near the target, or for following a moving target (all of which takes seconds for most horses to learn), or for stepping on a target, we can use this to influence the movement of all or part of the horse. Having formed the behaviour using a target we can then substitute an alternative cue (visual, voice, touch) so as to reproduce the behaviour, and discontinue the use of the target. The target is just a way to show the horse where to be and what to do, and once that behaviour is on a cue the target prop can be faded out of the picture and is no longer needed to get the behaviour to happen, because the cue now achieves that purpose.

Done well, and built up into more complex behaviours over time, it is a very easy way to influence the movement and posture of a horse without the tension or anxiety that arises when the horse is vigilantly looking out for aversives, such as in a situation in which the people he is with are the source of routine aversive stimuli – so much so that for the horse, people come to have significant threat potential.

Targeting can be used to teach all ground work and ridden movements – catching, haltering, leading over any surface or into a trailer, for teaching halt and standing still, backing up, moving the front end away, disengaging or moving the hindquarters over, circling, straightness on circles, stepping under behind, crossing over in front, lunging, long lining, moving in a forward-down stretched posture, for shoulder in, haunches in, side-pass, rein cues for turns to left and right, shifting the weight back, lateral and vertical flexion, walk, trot, canter, jumping, back and leg and abdominal muscle engagement.

Name something that you want the horse to do by way of moving his body (or keeping it still) and it can be trained with imagination and with bridge and target training.

For the most part, what we want to do with horses either involves them being really good at standing still and relaxing or it involves influencing their movement in all directions at all paces, in time and space.

To have that biomechanically healthy movement we need the horse to have the right kind of balanced, relaxed energy and enthusiasm.

If you have yet to learn how to incorporate target training into your way of training your horse, don’t miss out on some fabulous ways to make both every day handling and biomechanically healthy movement easy and enjoyable for your horse, without pressure.

 

How long will it take…?

When I go to help people with their horses, a common question I am asked is about how long it will take to fix a problem behaviour.

So by problem behaviour, I mean a behaviour that the horse or pony chooses to perform in one or more situations and that is dangerous for any people involved, dangerous for the horse him or herself (short or long term), which puts other animals in danger, has the potential to result in damage to someone’s property, is inconvenient or annoying to the owner or to anyone else coming into contact with the horse.

The issue we always have to deal with, with any problem behaviour, is that it almost always has a long and strong history of being reinforced.

We know that behaviour that the horse keeps repeating or that is happening more often is being reinforced by something. The horse or pony is getting something out of performing the behaviour.

The question is, how is the unwanted behaviour reinforced? What is the horse getting out of performing this behaviour?

Behaviour can only be reinforced two ways. It can result in the horse getting away from something it perceives as unpleasant, painful, stressful, annoying or frightening, or from something that has come to be a reliable predictor of an experience that is.

Or behaviour can be reinforced because it results in the horse getting to something it likes, such as grass.

Behaviours that have a long history of “working” for the horse to BOTH get away from something or someone that the horse associates with unpleasantness, AND to something that the horse wants – food or friends or freedom – are very difficult to alter because they have been doubly reinforced both by escape and by attaining a desired thing.

There is probably no more sure fire way to guarantee that a behaviour will be repeated than to cause the horse to feel the need to flee a situation it strongly fears and then ensure it gets to grass at the end of it.

So, if we want to alter the behaviour of our horse or pony or donkey or mule then we need to do 3 key things:

1) Identify the things that are triggering the behaviour and then take action to reduce or eliminate those triggers.

That action might involve a mix of medical attention and treatment, management changes (feeding, housing, turn out, social contact, enrichment) and the processes of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning.

2) Identify the behaviour we DO want the animal to perform instead. Then put a LOT of effort into training and positively reinforcing the behaviour we want so that the horse is more likely to choose to do that.

3) Prevent positive reinforcement of the unwanted behaviour if possible.

I intentionally do not say that we should prevent negative reinforcement of unwanted behaviour.

The reason for this is that if the behaviour is triggered by actual or anticipated pain or fear (such as fear of being forced, trapped, confined, isolated, or having no access to food), then preventing escape from that situation (escape being something that would lead to negative reinforcement of the undesired behaviour) can produce other undesirable outcomes.

It can lead to the horse becoming more frantic or determined, and increasing their effort to escape such that the behaviour becomes even more dangerous. Prolonged failure to escape or to obtain any relief can then eventually lead to learned helplessness, apathy, and depression.

In other cases, where responses are suppressed, this can lead to stereotypical or displaced or redirected behaviours due to frustration or chronic stress.

While a horse may give up trying to escape with the stimulus or situation at one strength their response may then become stronger when the horse sees a window of opportunity to escape or perceives the situation to become unbearable.

Preventing negative reinforcement, when the behaviour is happening in fear or pain is flooding, and flooding rarely, if ever, works.

The question is, if we have a horse that performs a dangerous or inconvenient or annoying behaviour in its efforts to seek reinforcement, then we will need to be willing to spend time and effort to alter how that horse feels about the situations that trigger this behaviour.

This will almost always involve making significant changes.

When people ask me how long it will take for a horse to stop performing an unwanted behaviour, I always end up asking lots of questions.

My questions include things like this:

  • For how long has the horse been doing this?
  • How many times do you think the horse has done this and been reinforced for it?
  • Do we know all the situations in which the horse shows this behaviour?
  • Have we considered all the things that might be triggering it?
  • Are we sure we know what is reinforcing the behaviour?
  • How easy is it going to be to prevent this behaviour being positively reinforced?
  • How many people will we need to convince to change their behaviour towards the horse?
  • What changes can we make to the way the horse is kept and managed?
  • Do we know what we want the horse to do instead?
  • How many hours a day are available to spend training the horse to perform the alternative, desirable behaviour?
  • How many days each week is it going to be possible to practice that?
  • Is it possible to stop doing the things that trigger the behaviour, while we go through a programme of changing how the horse feels about the triggers and while we train the new behaviour? So that it doesn’t keep getting reinforced?
  • How easy will those who manage and handle or ride the horse find it to stop performing their old patterns of behaviour?
  • How much self-awareness and emotional self-control do those people have?
  • What could be the barriers to them being able to persist and follow a programme of change consistently?

The extent to which a horse can change his or her behaviour depends on how the horse is kept and cared for and on the extent to which we, as the people involved with the horse, are able or willing to change what we are doing.

Horses will only change how they feel about situations and only change how they behave in those situations if we are willing to make changes to how we care for and keep them and train them. Which means that the behaviour that has to change is ours, together with that of anyone else involved in taking care of or managing or handling or riding the horse.

When training a replacement behaviour and changing the things that trigger the behaviour of the horse, it can be a slow process and setbacks or hiccups must be expected.

Eventually with time and persistence the scales can tip, but it is also perilously easy to undo a lot of our own good work if we lose patience or we get frustrated, or we give up too easily and revert to old habits and patterns if we lose faith.

Trust andveritas_filia_temporis_by_oscargrafias-d7zrhfx confidence can take years to earn and can be broken in seconds.

There are no quick fixes.

In the end while the management changes and methods of training that I will recommend WILL work and are proven scientifically to be effective, the only way that management adjustments and changes to our way of training will really work is if we apply the changes.

The only training that works is training that we actually do, repeatedly, and correctly.

 


 

The amazing image I have used here is called Veritas filia temporis by the artist oscargrafias.

 

Can we reward a horse for performing a behaviour under pressure?

A question I am sometimes asked is whether it’s acceptable to use an aversive stimulus (pressure) to produce behaviour from a horse and to both remove the aversive AND mark and reward the desired response with food or a scratch. And to call that positive reinforcement training.

The way I want to answer this is to help you to think less about the reinforcement method (and there are only two – negative and positive) and more about how the behaviour was produced.

Because with every behaviour there is emotion – how the horse feels.

And there are two types of learning always in play and that go hand in hand.

One is classical conditioning – which is how horses (all of us in fact!) form perceptions  or associations with things – how we all come to feel about things – our conditioned (learned) emotional responses to stimuli and events. Classical conditioning is all about feelings and about how we respond because of how we feel.

And the other is how they learn as a result of the consequence of their behaviour – and how they feel about that consequence. So how the animal perceives the consequence of his or her behaviour will determine whether that behaviour is repeated in future. That is operant conditioning. Learning by experiencing consequences for behaviour.

And when we are wanting to train behaviour there are always two types of changes in the environment that involve stimuli affecting the horse – one comes before the behaviour and causes it to happen – as an activator or trigger of the behaviour, and the other comes after the behaviour as its consequences. And this consequence determines whether the horse will repeat the behaviour.

But in each case – the stimulus that comes before – the antecedent as it is known in behaviour science – and the one that comes afterwards – the consequence, evoke emotional responses.

So the question is can we really reward a horse for performing a behaviour under pressure, even if we use food as well as relief as a consequence?

So let’s start with making sure we understand how reinforcement works.

When we use positive reinforcement, it is important to remember that the reinforcer always comes after a behaviour has been performed.

Likewise negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement involves adding (hence positive or the plus + sign) something that causes the horse to want to repeat the behaviour that the reinforcement follows.

Negative reinforcement involves removing (hence negative or the minus – sign) something that caused the behaviour, immediately we get the behaviour or a try towards it.

Both are reinforcement and will strengthen the behaviour they immediately follow, but one is aversive reinforcement (an aversive that has been used to produce the response is removed) and the other is appetitive reinforcement (an appetitive is added, as an immediate consequence of the response).

If we use pressure, or existing pressure-trained aids or cues (those that would be followed by an escalation if ignored – meaning either that the aversive used to produce the behaviour persists until the animal acts to escape it, or the aversive is increased in strength or another type of aversive is added), then if we remove the aversive when the horse does something we want, that is negative reinforcement – pressure, followed by relief.

If we also give food after the behaviour has happened or we intentionally bridge (using a marker signal that the horse has learned predicts that food is coming) as we remove the aversive, and give the horse a treat, that is not what I would call positive reinforcement for the horse, because the behaviour was produced under aversive stimulation.

I would describe that as an attempt at counter-conditioning. The horse performed the behaviour under conditions in which they were either afraid or in some discomfort or annoyed. If they were not in any discomfort or annoyance or fear they would ignore the stimulus used to produce the behaviour and there would be nothing to reinforce.

As a bare minimum, even if we think we are using shaping to produce a response using aversives, for negative reinforcement to work, the stimulus applied to the horse has to be unpleasant enough for the horse to want to act to escape it.

All we can hope to do if we give the horse food after he has performed a behaviour to escape or avoid an aversive stimulus is to change how he feels about the stimulus he just experienced. And that is classical conditioning. Not positive reinforcement.

And the trouble with that is that people are SO likely to escalate if the horse ignores that light aversive (because being able to make the horse do what we want is positively reinforcing for the human) that we can be trying to counter-condition for ever because we keep re-associating the cue with aversive onset.

If you want to train using positive reinforcement then the best way to do it is to learn about how to produce behaviour without the use of aversives, pressure, discomfort – call it what you will – any stimulus that the animal values when it stops.

Positive reinforcement goes hand in hand with target training, where we make use of the natural investigative behaviour of horses to approach novel objects. We classically condition a marker signal to mean that food or a scratch is coming, and then we use that marker signal to reinforce the horse for approaching the novel object that we plan to use as the target.

Looking at, approaching or touching that object will result in the trainer giving the marker signal and then offering the horse some food or a lip curling scratch.

Within seconds you have a way to now cause the horse to move, to stand still and to alter his posture without ever using any aversive (pressure) or learned aversive (aid or cue learned by association with aversive onset) to produce that movement.

You can even train a horse to target other body parts to a target prop or to your own body – to your hand or leg for instance. I’ve taught my horse to target his belly to my leg when I am standing on a mounting block or rock or gate so that I can get on. He knows to position himself until his belly comes into contact with my leg, so that he is lined up to make it easy for me to just either swing a leg over or put my foot in the stirrup.

Together with good use of other objects such as mats or poles or pens to form posture or movement, we can use target training with positive reinforcement without ever associating the behaviour or ourselves or the environment in which we are training the horse with aversives.

Now wouldn’t that be good for the relationship!

Pressure….and RELIEF

A little while ago I read an article from a Natural Horsemanship instructor in which she wrote a description of how this method of horse training works.

She said:

“Essentially, Natural Horsemanship methods work on understanding the principles of pressure and release and how to carefully time the application of pressure and the release (or reward) to enable the most efficient learning with the least amount of confusion to the horse.”

This apparently simple description has some omissions and a common flaw. Like many people who want you to follow their way of training horses, the description given of aversive stimulation with negative reinforcement (which is the correct way to describe pressure and release) is that the removal or reduction of the aversive (the release part) is a reward to the horse. It emphatically is not and we have the work of many neuroscientists to show that now without any shadow of doubt.

Natural horsemanship methods universally involve three uses of aversives. They don’t have a monopoly on these though of course – many other traditional and classical and straightness training methods, and techniques promoted by followers of Equitation Science, do the exact same things.

The first is aversive stimulation to produce desired behaviour, with negative reinforcement of the correct response. An aversive (“pressure”) is applied to produce some approximation (a “try”) of desired behaviour and any behaviour by the horse that is in the right direction of the desired behaviour is reinforced by the removal or reduction (the release) in the salience (the strength as perceived by the horse) of the aversive.

This is experienced in the brain of the animal as relief.

The process for this is that the animal experiences the onset of something unpleasant applied by the trainer – something that motivates the horse to take action to escape. As soon as he acts in the way the trainer wants, the horse will experience the removal or reduction in strength of that “something” unpleasant. The feeling that goes with successful escape or avoidance is relief.

The animal then, after a few repetitions, becomes vigilant, hoping to notice any warning sign that the trainer might be about to apply the aversive again, so that this time he can act to avoid it. This warning – whatever the trainer does before applying the aversive – becomes the command to the horse that tells him that he can avoid the actual aversive by acting when he see or feels the warning. It’s sometimes referred to as horses learning “what happens before what happens happens” and the process by which the warning command is learned is a form of classical conditioning called fear conditioning. The horse learns to fear the signal that precedes the aversive onset and acts as if it were the “real thing”.

The second way in which an aversive (pressure) is applied in these aversive forms of horse training, is in an attempt to discourage unwanted behaviour. The trainer tries to ensure that the onset of an aversive stimulus is experienced by the horse as an immediate consequence of any unwanted behaviour. That kind of treatment would be described as positive punishment, if the tendency of the horse to perform the behaviour in that situation decreases.

I was with someone recently who had, like many, been encouraged to hold out her arm to “block” a horse that was going to bite while she was saddling, so that the “horse will run into your arm”. That would be considered positive punishment if the tendency of the horse to bite in that context reduced or stopped, having experienced an aversive (pain) from coming into contact with the long bones of a person’s arm as an immediate consequence of him attempting or threatening to bite.

What this technique didn’t do was to address the reason why the horse felt the need to bite in the first place and of course while the horse might suppress his desire to bite, when the threat of that arm being held out to block him exists, it can result in a whole lot of other avoidance behaviour or displaced behaviour or redirected aggression instead. Or the horse might just shut down – go into a state of learned helplessness, once he learns that nothing he does results in escape or avoidance of aversives.

This is because this blocking tactic does not address the underlying issue – it doesn’t address the reasons why the horse was motivated to bite in the first place.

Similarly “bumping” a horse with the rein or half halting, or hitting (or threatening to hit) the horse on the side of the neck or head with a stick, or using the rein attached to the bit to make the horse go back on the rail or on track if he comes off track when riding in an arena would be considered positive punishment, if the behaviour of coming off the rail or off track (on a circle for instance) reduced in frequency.

If, when he stays on the rail we leave the horse alone, he of course experiences no aversive consequence (other than that experienced from the effort of trotting around the rail, should he have sore feet or legs or be unfit or have an ill fitting saddle or bumpy rider) but neither does he experience a reward. If he comes away from the rail, and we make it “uncomfortable” or threaten to do so, he experiences the onset – the addition – of an aversive as an immediate consequence, and that can act to discourage the unwanted behaviour. This is positive punishment.

So, these aversives-based methods use a mix of consequences.

They use aversive stimulation to motivate the horse to perform a desired escape or avoidance behaviour, with negative reinforcement (stimulus removal or reduction) to make that behaviour more likely to be repeated. And they use the immediate onset of some kind of aversive stimulus – attempted positive punishment – to try to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviour. I use the word “attempted” intentionally because often the behaviour is just suppressed only when the potential for that aversive to come on exists, and actually, because the motivation to do it remains, the behaviour is rarely actually eliminated.

The other way in which aversives are applied, is in an effort to get a horse to accept stimuli or situations it finds aversive and to cease responding to them. We want the horse to accept and ultimately ignore irrelevant things. That could be traffic, other animals, noises, general commotion, tack, rugs, yard tools or equipment and so on.

Sometimes the horse is exposed, at liberty, unrestrained and in an open area where he is free to choose to leave, to a potentially aversive stimulus – a novel object or potentially frightening situation at very low strength, and then perhaps the stimulus is removed – or the horse is removed from the situation – when the horse relaxes. The stimulus strength is increased very slowly and gradually, all the time making sure the horse relaxes completely before proceeding. If that’s done well it can be an excellent way to get horses used to new things without them experiencing fear or feeling trapped, or giving up trying to leave because their escape attempts are futile. The horse gets to choose to leave if it’s too much for him. Ideally, if it’s done well he will never choose to move away, never to return.

More commonly however, the horse is restrained on a halter and lead rope or in a bridle and confined in a small pen or in a stable or trapped up against a wall and subjected to an aversive event or stimulus until he ceases to try to escape, whereupon either the strength of that stimulus is reduced or the stimulus is moved away or the horse is let out. This is called flooding, with negative reinforcement, the horse being removed from the aversive stimulus or situation – (or vice versa) to reinforce a reduced response.

Sometimes called approach and retreat, other times called overshadowing, this is in almost all cases flooding with negative reinforcement. With a horse physically restrained or believing himself to be so, we should always assume that the horse will experience this as flooding. Flooding is routinely used in an effort to have horses habituate (have them learn to tolerate and cease to try to escape) to being weaned or removed from the herd, to being stabled, tied, travelled, saddled, being exposed to tarpaulins or balls or flapping flags or coats or clippers or water or veterinary procedures.

It is not very often that you will see a horse being exposed to aversives for habituation purposes in a wide open space where they could leave should they find the situation too much.

I’ve recently been asked to help someone who has a horse that is fearful of being stabled – it could be fear of separation from the herd or fear of being confined or the horse could have had some past experience of aversive treatment in the stable or over the door. In this case it’s probably a mix.

It could even be likened to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as the horse was force-weaned from his mother and that involved locking him in a stable for days on end.

Despite being stabled daily for some years, the horse is still stressed in the stable and tries to get out of the stable whenever the door is opened, whether someone is in the way or not. The horse will follow a person into the stable and he will go into the stable if pressure is applied to send him in there, but he immediately tries to come out.

I always take history of the horse including medical, management and training history. When asked about what she has already tried, the person involved has tried natural horsemanship for quite some time. The approach recommended was to have the horse on a halter and lead rope in the stable and to use a stick to block the path of the horse and to make the horse back up when it tried to leave the stable by hitting him between the front legs on the chest. This was described to the person who owns the horse as pressure-release and that when the horse backed up she should “reward” the horse by ceasing to hit the horse on the chest.

Bear in mind that the horse is afraid to be in the stable and that he is going to experience the addition of an aversive (being hit on the chest) when he tries to escape the stable. When he backs up away from the door that aversive (pressure) will be removed to reinforce his behaviour of backing up. Having followed this advice for a while, now, when the person opens the door to go in with the horse, the horse shoots to the back of the stable and shakes or turns his hind end on her and threatens to kick. She decided she doesn’t want the horse to do either of these things.

For a horse that fears being in the stable and isolated from friends, we have to ask the obvious question, which is this:

In what way will experiencing relief from pressure to back up away from the stable door ever be experienced as a “reward” for that horse, when the reason the horse is doing this is because he is stressed about being isolated in the stable?

Indeed for any horse, whether he is just minding his own business standing quietly in the stable looking out of the door, or whether he wants to come forward to escape what he perceives to be an aversive situation, how could we have ever believed that not being hit on the chest anymore with a stick because you just backed up would be experienced psychologically as a reward?

A person with an education in Psychology and who is up to date with the latest information we have from the science of Affective Neuroscience would be able to explain that the removal of an aversive stimulus (the release of pressure) is not ever experienced psychologically or neurologically as a reward. At best it is relief. Other neuroscientists would describe any use of aversives as punishment regardless of whether such a stimulus were being used to produce or stop behaviour. In any event removal of one type of aversive may be no relief at all, if the horse is still in a situation he finds frightening or uncomfortable or painful anyway.

People who repeat this information – that escape or avoidance of aversives is a reward – do not always intend to mislead you. They are just repeating what they’ve been told by someone else who perhaps has no qualifications in horse behaviour or psychology or neuroscience and who probably hasn’t read about the emotional aspects of learning. The emotions the horse experiences when you stop hitting her with a stick or loosen the rein are not experienced in any way at all like the emotions experienced when she is given a carrot. Not even remotely.

Please share this so that we can educate the novice student of the horse that the escape or avoidance of something unpleasant is never experienced as a reward.

It’s called pressure…. and RELIEF.

The Emperor’s new clothes

I have recently been reading a number of articles, responses to questions on Facebook or comments made in relation to the use of aversive stimuli with negative reinforcement (pressure and relief) for controlling the behaviour of horses or for training repeatable responses with horses.

It reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.

In the story, by Hans Christian Andersen, the vain Emperor hires two rogues who promise to make him an amazing new outfit from a fabric that is invisible to anyone who is stupid. The garments do not of course exist and the Emperor himself, his ministers, and the townsfolk, pretend to be able to see and admire his new suit, for fear of being considered stupid.

Then a child in the crowd through which the Emperor is parading in his new clothes, shouts out the truth, that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all. The Emperor embarrassed, suspecting that the assertion is true and that he has been duped, continues the procession in his birthday suit.

These questions and answers I have seen going around about the use of aversives in training, reminded me of this story because everyone seems to be going along with the tale of the miraculous properties of the fabric used for the Emperor’s new clothes and no-one wants anyone else to think they are stupid, even though they can see for themselves that it can’t be true.

Negative reinforcement is said to have happened when the future frequency of a behaviour is strengthened (happens more frequently) because that behaviour results in the removal, escape or avoidance of an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus.

In English, this means that if something we don’t like happens to us, and the action we take to escape it is successful, we will repeat that behaviour next time. Not only that, but we will start to notice what happens before the bad thing happens, and start to take action sooner, to avoid the bad thing.

In order for that behaviour to be more likely to be repeated, the stimulus (the unpleasant thing) needs to be sufficiently unpleasant to prompt some behaviour that is a step in the direction of the required response, and the stimulus must be removed or reduced in strength the instant that a correct response occurs.

Pressure and relief is a way to deploy the phenomenon that is negative reinforcement, to train repeatable behaviours. In a nutshell, the handler or rider must apply an aversive stimulus (one that the horse either innately dislikes or has learned to dislike by association) until a desired response (desired by the person, not the horse) is performed, and then provide the horse with relief from the unpleasant stimulus by removing it, reducing it, or ensuring that the horse escapes or avoids it by performing that correct response.

It is possible to teach commands for behaviours by introducing the command for the behaviour immediately before applying the aversive. With repetition, the horse learns that the command is a signal that warns that an aversive will follow, and the horse will begin to respond to the command to avoid the aversive. The command given can be anything the horse can perceive – a visual body language gesture, an audible verbal command word or sound, a shift in the weight on his back, or a touch from the leg, or movement of the rein by the rider. Even the rider or handler taking in or letting out a breath. These can all be conditioned to predict aversive onset.

It must be noted however that any command given, comes to be learned by the horse to be a reliable predictor that an aversive will follow if s/he does not respond to the command, and that learned and previously neutral command comes to be aversive (producing the same emotional response) in its own right, by association with what follows.

A typical example of this might be the use of verbal commands in lunging, where the horse is given the command “Walk on” or “and….Trot” just before the application of the lunge whip behind the horse, which, when applied at a sufficiently aversive level, will produce the desired response.

Another example might be pointing and turning our body in the direction we want the horse to go, before applying an aversive both through steady pressure on the halter through the rope or lunge line, and aversive pressure with a stick and string or lunge whip or flag behind the drive line of the horse to cause it to seek relief away from each of those pressures by going out on a circle.

Alternatively a seat aid for halt – experienced by the horse as an alteration in the weight, balance or feel of the rider on his back – is given immediately prior to the application of an aversive through the reins connected to the bit in the mouth of the horse. This seat aid – which initially means nothing to the horse since s/he has had to be first desensitised to the movement of a rider on top – comes to predict an unpleasant sensation in his mouth, and the horse will, if correctly trained, learn to halt from the seat aid to (hopefully) avoid the unpleasant sensation in his mouth from the bit. If the seat aid does not work, then of course the rider will apply the aversive pressure to the mouth of the horse through the reins to make the horse stop.

Many equine behaviourists and trainers insist that having horses learn how to respond to pressure from handlers and riders is essential for the safety of both.

I used to agree with that, but the more I look at how people handle horses, I no longer do.

For one thing, horses already know how to “respond” to stimuli they do not like – they often tend to pull against or lean into pressure so as to avoid being pulled off balance.

The other is that I rarely see people handling horses who understand how to take pressure off when the horse does respond. So I don’t see negative reinforcement of desired behaviour happening for the most part in any event. Even if we trained our horses to respond to light pressure, unless these “other people” handling them are equally well trained to apply pressure lightly and wait for the horse to respond, the horse is going to be hurried and pulled and pushed and prodded into position anyway.

The best we can do is to train the horse to respond to commonly used verbal or visual body language or touch cues, and desensitise the horse to all the things that might detract from his willingness to respond to those.

However, there is another issue I want to address and it is the fact that I keep seeing people repeating what they hear said by others, that it is possible to teach horses behaviours in small steps, using pressure-relief (an aversive stimulus being used to prompt a desired behaviour) without escalating the aversive stimulus. They go along with that idea, perhaps because they don’t feel brave enough to question an authority figure, much the same as did the townsfolk watching the Emperor parade naked.

Escalation would involve either increasing the strength of the aversive or adding another type of aversive to increase the overall aversive experience of the horse, provoking the horse to want to take action to escape that situation.

Even the act of keeping an aversive stimulus “on” at one apparent level of strength results in escalation in the sense that the stimulus can become increasingly aversive to the horse. Imagine for instance being repeatedly tapped on the back of your leg with a whip. Even through each application of the whip may on its own be exactly the same in terms of the physical amount of effort used by the person holding the whip, over time the sensation would become increasingly intolerable.

The same can apply to any form of steady constant pressure. As an example, imagine holding a 2 kilo bag of sugar in your hand, with your arm stretched out in front of you for a few seconds. Not so bad. Now do it for a whole minute. Now do that for 10 minutes. Over that time, even though the bag of sugar weighs the same amount, it will begin to feel heavier and heavier to you as you hold out your arm, and more and more unpleasant to do so, due to the muscle fatigue you will be experiencing, resisting the forces of gravity.

So even though an aversive might not appear to us to be being escalated – the person is for example only pulling on the head of the horse with the same amount of pressure as was originally applied – the muscle fatigue involved in resisting that force is such that a stimulus maintained at that same level with no more pressure apparently being added can eventually become sufficiently aversive to a horse that he will act to make it stop. That pressure gets “heavier” or stronger or more intense, on its own.

Part of the reason for suggesting that we can use aversives without escalating, is, I am sure, that most equine behaviourists, and many very dedicated and self-educated and experienced consultants in equine management, behaviour and training generally tend to discourage the use of particular techniques for escalating pressure to either suppress or increase behavioural responses, such as are deployed in some natural horsemanship methods in particular.

Natural horsemanship methods are often criticised for promoting outdated ideas about dominance between animals, flooding (forced, restrained exposure to high strength and enduring frightening stimuli or events – the “throw them in at the deep end and leave them there until they swim” approach), aversive punishment (corrections) and the use of escalating pressure, which involves increasing strengths of aversive stimuli, sometimes escalated quite quickly to high strengths that can cause considerable fear or aggression or both in horses. Natural horsemanship has no monopoly on those things, just a convenient label. A trip to a weekend local horse show would be enough to see all of those things happening, although arguably with less skill in the giving of relief.

However, the question that I have debated with myself and with other qualified and experienced psychologists, equine behaviourists, riding teachers and trainers was the extent to which it is ever possible to use aversives to form and reinforce behaviour or to suppress it, without escalating.

I say that because I am seeing equine behaviourists and horse trainers of all persuasions suggest to those less knowledgeable about learning theory, that it is possible to form and reinforce complete behaviours from horses using very light pressure and relief, or very mild aversives, without ever escalating.

That means using some form of very mild aversive to get a response and removing that aversive when the horse responds without ever increasing the strength of the aversive.

It seems to me that while they might know something about negative reinforcement – you can produce a level of response with an aversive and get it again if you repeat it, they have forgotten about the other form of very simple learning that is always going on, and that is habituation.

If I take the use of light leg “aids” as an example, then if we were to be able to only use light aversive stimulation (pressure) to cause a horse to go forwards, then we would be able to just squeeze the horse lightly with our legs on his sides, or touch him with our heels, and the horse would walk forwards.

But this simply makes no sense. Folks who tell us this would have us believe that if we have a horse who has never been ridden, has been desensitised to things pressing around his middle (such as a girth or cinch), then touching the horse with something else in more or less the same area is going to produce a response.

It won’t. If it does, it probably means the horse has not been desensitised to the girth or the rider’s legs hanging down by his sides at all and is still reacting fearfully or with annoyance to having things in contact with his sides. Because the thing we must do before ever riding a horse is to ensure that he is not in any way reacting to the tightness of the girth or cinch around his middle and that he accepts touch all over – meaning that when touched with the hands, with the rider’s legs or with any item we might want to wear or carry, he does not react at all. That is an essential prerequisite to safe riding.

If he is reacting, then further desensitisation must take place such that the horse completely ignores the feel of the tightness of the girth or the feel of a rider’s legs touching his sides before we ever attempt to ride. If we don’t, the horse will try to get away from that sensation by moving, or by bucking or kicking out or biting or tail swishing at the source of the annoyance or discomfort, much as he would if he had a fly on him. Much the same way as horses do when ridden with spurs.

What actually has to happen for a horse to learn to respond to a very “light” aid or signal in a pressure-relief model is that this light leg touch or squeeze from the rider needs to be applied first and then it needs to be followed quite soon afterwards by some higher strength aversive stimulus in order to get a response.

The touch from the leg then, after some repetitions, comes to be the warning signal that another aversive stimulus is coming – whatever the rider chooses to use that is sufficiently unpleasant to cause the horse to walk forwards to get away. Through repetitions of this, the leg aid or touch or squeeze will come to be learned to be associated with that more significant aversive that follows and the horse will act sooner to avoid that. And it is also essential that, if we are trying to teach the horse to walk on for instance, that it is only when steps of walk forwards happen that the aversive is removed.

Various methods are recommended for applying an aversive to cause a response, but the rider has to make a response happen pretty soon after that “light” touch or verbal signal or whatever is used, or the horse will remain (or become) habituated to that light aid, much as he should to the rider’s legs just hanging there in contact with his sides. And when he habituates, he will ignore it.

In some systems the use of a whip tap to the horse behind the rider’s leg, on the boot of the rider or on the shoulder or rump of the horse might be recommended either to cause annoyance or a little stinging pain or to startle the horse into a flight response forwards.

In others, the rider might be advised to slap themselves or the horse on the body with a rope or with a special rope device (called by the fun sounding name “whip-whop”) to cause the horse to startle and move off. Some natural horsemen like to use a coiled up lariat and slap themselves with it on the leg and then the horse on the rump, which startles the horse into going forwards.

Some systems might advocate a little kick with the heels be used to follow the squeeze. Others seem to favour clucks and smooches given verbally by the rider or instructor, followed by some leg slapping or rope shaking, or some kind of general commotion from behind on top of the horse perhaps also with verbal chastisement to move. “GET ON!” seems to be a favourite local to me.

Whatever the system of pressure-relief that you follow and whoever you copy, there is no system that will teach you to just sit there squeezing lightly with your legs if the horse doesn’t respond to the neutral or mildly aversive feel of the squeeze. Because all that will happen if you do, is that the horse will habituate to that level of pressure (be that physical pressing or psychological warning threat that an aversive will follow non-response) and stop responding to it at all.

Whichever particular application is used, it is necessary to apply a sufficiently strong aversive and to either continue to apply it, or to increase it until a response is produced, whereupon that stimulus should be removed.

Should a horse fail to respond to a light pressure or mild aversive then unless that aversive is either:

  1. maintained at that level until it becomes aversive enough that the horse acts escape it, or
  2. increased in strength in some way, or
  3. another, additional type of aversive added to provide additional motivation to act

…then the horse will almost certainly habituate to the mild aversive or light pressure being applied at that level and future responses will be fewer and / or weaker.

Trainers actually rely on this process of habituation – where animals learn to ignore stimuli – in the first place during the halter training and backing process when we desensitise the horse to things it would otherwise fear or resist – like the feeling of the weight and pressures of the head collar or bridle on its head, the saddle on its back or the tightness of the girth or cinch around the middle.

Unless and until the horse shows no response at all to the feeling of these things, it would not be safe to ride or lead at all.

And that’s the trouble with mild aversives. If you’ve been trying to use mild aversives with a horse either to cause it to move or to stop it from moving and this isn’t working, then it is because either the horse is distracted by or attracted to something more important than your very light pressure, or the horse has simply habituated to it and needs to be re-sensitised – sometimes called “reminded” – that non-response will result in escalation.

If the horse experiences repeated applications of very light pressures or very mild aversives without any escalation or added aversive stimulus to produce a response, the horse will habituate and ignore those stimuli. And that means that at some point when you use that same mild aversive it won’t produce anything at all by way of a response. And it is inevitable that this will happen at some point due to the many things that compete for the attention of the horse.

To add to that, we also know that responses to aversive stimuli tend, in any event, to be reduced over time to produce only the effort that is necessary to achieve escape or avoidance. Once the horse has learned that he only needs to go forwards a step or two to make the aversive from the rider stop, then that is going to be all he will do. Which is why riders (and some instructors do teach riders to do this, so I do not judge the rider for this practice) seem to end up continuing to “remind” the horse that he has to keep going.

One alternative, in a pressure-relief only paradigm, is strong escalation, and it is this that is disliked by those objecting to the natural horsemanship form of escalation. That kind of strong escalation means that when the horse breaks gait to a lower (or higher) gait, the aversive is applied quickly and fairly severely to a level where the horse will not break gait because he fears what will happen if he does. For horses breaking gait down, pressure is added quickly to reproduce the desired gait. For those breaking gait up, pressure is added quickly to reproduce the lower gait. Arguably this kind of practice effectively punishes any failure to maintain gait and the horse experiences relief and freedom from aversives only when he maintains the gait asked for. Some horses take to this quite quickly. They want an easy life. It’s easy to get them to move if they are wanting to move anyway from nervous energy or because they have been stabled for a long time. I am thinking competition dressage horses. It’s not so easy to persuade those horses to slow or stop. And the converse is true with so called “lazy” horses that actually often become slower and less responsive in this kind of system due to learned helplessness.

It is also worth mentioning that the inability to maintain gait without constant reminders or corrections in an otherwise fit horse, should be a warning sign of possible physical discomfort. Always eliminate pain as a cause of unwillingness to stop or unwillingness to go.

So, back to the use of mild aversives / light pressures.

Once a horse has learned that the light leg pressure will be removed if he walks on (and escalated to some degree if he doesn’t, until he does walk on) then what are we to do to produce a trot? Because the same light leg pressure used to produce the walk is only sufficient to produce the walk.

What about when we want a faster trot, or even canter? If we apply the same light leg pressure when in walk to get the trot and there is no response from the horse, then what are we to do? Because in reality, if we get no increase in the level of response, we are on the road to also having the horse habituate to and ignore that light leg aid for walk as well as for trot.

And by the laws of habituation, we know that frequent and repeated exposure to low strength stimuli results in a reduction in response, and eventually to no response at all. So we can’t keep using mild aversives because they will habituate and if we don’t want the horse to ignore our aid or command we need to make the behaviour happen to maintain the association between that command, the aversive used to produce the behaviour and the negative reinforcement (aversive removal) that follows a correct response.

With horses that have – through breeding or management – a greater desire to move, and whose breeding is such that they have a strong flight response, it tends to be quite easy to produce movement with very mild aversives. That is why we see so many of those breeds of horse such as thoroughbreds and warmbloods performing in dressage, compared to more “cold-blooded” native breeds and cobs.

Getting the so-called hotter blooded horses to move with aversives is not so difficult, because they have been bred for the flight response as well as for the long ground covering legs and light bodies. Getting them to stop tends to be more challenging and that tends to be more where we see aversives being escalated through the bit.

Cobs and many native breeds can be the opposite – they tend to be much easier to persuade to stand still or go slowly (unless they are afraid), they can be notoriously difficult to motivate to use any energy in schools and arenas and yet are the safest and most fun if all you want to do is have a pootle around the block on a hack. Getting them to put in any more effort than that without escalating aversives, if aversives is all you have, is very difficult and explains a lot why they don’t feature quite so frequently on the dressage scene.

So, what I really wanted to do was to make sure that no one is still feeling stupid, and I hope I’ve done my job. If you have been trying to use very mild pressure or a very mild aversive with a horse to produce a behaviour, and the horse’s response is getting no better or has died off altogether, it’s not because you are ignorant or doing it incorrectly. It is because this is what happens.

The fact is that it simply is not a realistic expectation to set that in a pressure-relief paradigm we can use very mild pressure or a learned visual or vocal or touch signal to forever produce the same or increased effort in behaviour and never escalate with an aversive to make the behaviour happen.

The use of mild pressure or a mild aversive with no response from the horse results only in one thing and that is habituation to the stimulus, such that there will, in very few repetitions of that, be no response at all.

So the question is, what DO we have to do then if mild aversives won’t work?

Well, if you wish to pursue training a horse in a pressure-relief model, then it is going to be essential to keep adding or increasing the strength of aversive until you do get a response. It’s unavoidable. How you choose to go about doing that is a personal choice and the extent to which you are willing to escalate is a moral decision. Sometimes people find themselves working harder and harder to get a response and the horse does less and less, because they are just not the kind of person who is willing to escalate to the extent that might be required to get a “snappier” response. They love their horse and they don’t want to have to do that and frighten or make him mad to get more from him.

Sometimes when I am teaching pressure-relief to people and horses – something I prefer to do usually only where there are physical imperatives for the horse to exercise, such as weight management and physiotherapy, or where the owner has yet to learn how to use pressure-relief correctly, I might try to find out what the person thinks is the least aversive thing that will produce a response from the horse and go from there.

I will try to use very mild aversives (the smallest increment necessary to get some movement) and mark and positively reinforce that for horses that are ready to be trained with positive reinforcement. That way, I can get the horse thinking that there is something more in it for him than the threat of more pressure if he doesn’t and we can often improve performance and effort hugely by just using the mild aversive a few times to form the behaviour initially and then get it on a non-aversive cue and build from there using successive approximations with positive reinforcement alone.

There is still an issue with that though from two perspectives. One is that if the behaviour breaks down then we have no other way to reproduce it other than using the original aversive used to form it.

The other – and I must stress that this is not because the training doesn’t work but because people find using aversives to get behaviour very reinforcing for themselves, and have usually practised that a lot – it is all too easy to slip back into old habits and escalate.

For that reason I prefer to use target training for many things for which aversives are commonly used. It just takes the temptation out of it, for everyone who escalates automatically without thinking because this is what they have been trained to do for so long!

What I will never do though is to mislead anyone who wishes or who is for the time being compelled (for example on vet’s orders to exercise a horse) to continue using pressure and relief, to expect that they will only ever need to use a teeny tiny mild aversive and never increase it if they are expecting to get either longer duration or more effort or indeed continued effort from the horse.

It’s an impossible dream.

If we only have aversives available to form and reinforce behaviour, we will always have to escalate for some behaviour at some point, to keep the association going between the command for the behaviour from the handler or rider, the actual aversive stimulus that will produce the response from the horse and the reinforcement produced by his effort to escape or avoid that.

Anyone who was wondering how it can possibly be that we can get more output from a horse in an aversive paradigm without increased input was right. The Emperor, sadly, is in fact naked.