Learning Theory, revision

I sometimes tie myself in knots trying to pick apart operant and classical conditioning. But it transpires this isn’t only a newbie question, it’s actually something behaviourists ponder over a lot. So that put my mind at ease a touch, haha. 

I thought I would do a post revising what I’ve learned. Or some of it, at least. This will be a wall of text… And of course, in a case it’s not already clear(!), I’m just learning all this stuff. For proper advice seek out a science-based equine behaviourist. 

 

 

A, B, C. 

Antecedent – Behaviour – Consequence 

Antecedent is a big, odd, word. But I guess we can just think of it as a “prompt” or “cue”, either environmental or man-made. 

The Behaviour is what follows. The Consequence determines whether the behaviour is likely to happen, in that particular circumstance, again. 

An environmental example… It rains at an angle (antecedent/prompt). Horse puts itself at a tall hedge (behaviour). Horse avoids the worst of the weather (consequence). The horse has found relief and is likely to do so again in the future, all things being equal. This would be an environmental type of negative reinforcement (-R), more on that later. If the horse doesn’t get relief from the rain, it has no reason to choose standing at the hedge in the future. 

Riding example… Rider puts their leg on lightly (cue). Horse moves forward (behaviour). Rider removes pressure (consequence). This would be a man-made type of -R. If the horse doesn’t get relief from the pressure, it has no reason to be “off the leg” in future. 

Antecedent Arrangements are ways of altering the environment or prompt or cue so as to swerve the behaviour happening at all. Horse kicks stable door when waiting for food at mealtimes. If the horse isn’t in his stable when food is being prepared, he won’t be there to kick it in frustration. Swerve. 

 

APPETITIVE/AVERSIVE 

Appetitive = desirable/pleasant. Aversive = undesirable/unpleasant. 

Food is appetitive to all horses. Pain is aversive to all horses. But circumstance means a lot. A worried animal might stop accepting food. A dog that wants you to throw his ball might no longer seem to care about treats. Pain is unpleasant, but self-harm can be somehow addictive and releasing to traumatised individuals. Overall, food, touch, freedom, and choice are appetitive whilst pain, discomfort, fear, and lack of choice are aversive. 

But experiences are appetitive or aversive to the individual learner. We each decide what matters to us. 

Blackberries and thistleheads are appetitive to my horse Skye, but they mean nothing to my friend’s pony Basil. My friend’s cob Monty intensely loves scratches, but Skye mostly only tolerates human touch at this stage and is sometimes uncertain of it. Some horses don’t mind a pat, but for others its a worryingly violent thing. 

We might judge ourselves as being nice or nasty, but it isn’t up to us. What does the learner think of it? 

Is the appetitive we have chosen appropriate? We can’t use scratches as a positive reinforcement unless a scratch is something the animal would actively seek out or “work for”. 

Is the aversive we are using affective and ethical? Is it as light as possible and does the animal understand how to behave to get it to stop? Eg: does if truly understand how to respond to rider aids? 

If we’re thinking about external motivation, appetitives and aversives are going to motivate the learner for very different reasons. 

 

APPETITIVE REINFORCERS 

Primary reinforcers are things which hold intrinsic value to the individual. Food, care, and play are the most obvious examples. Food, in particular, is hugely powerful as a reinforcer for horses because so much of their life is devoted to it. Grazing, browsing. 

Secondary reinforcers are things which come to hold appetitive value due to their association with primary reinforcers, through Classical Conditioning. 

 

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING

The pairing of a neutral stimulus with a meaningful one. Pavlov’s dogs! It can also be called Respondent Conditioning. 

In clicker training, the most obvious example is that the click (which at first meant nothing) is now a predictor of food. 

But as Shawna Karresch at Connection Training says in nearly all her videos, “the classical conditioning never stops.” You, the handler, may have begun neutral (assuming the horse doesn’t already find people aversive due to prior experience). If you are frequently paired with something pleasant/appetitive, you will take on some of that meaning. If you are frequently paired with something unpleasant/aversive, you will take on some of that meaning. How would we rather our animals, friends, and family members think of us? As a predictor of pleasant or unpleasant feelings? 

 

COUNTER CONDITIONING 

The pairing of an aversive stimulus with an appetitive one, in teeny-tiny steps, to change the associations the animal has about it. Eg: horse is afraid of clippers. You find the point at which clippers are tolerated (maybe its on the other side of the yard, just in sight, smelling of oil, but not turned on), and provide something appetitive (generally food) at the same time. The next day you repeat, maybe bringing the clippers a tiny step closer. Maybe you have to break down the various scary aspects of the clippers (the smell, the sound, the feeling of vibration) over many many many sessions. You are stretching the comfort zone very very slowly. So slowly, the animal doesn’t even perceive it happening. Soon clippers = good things. They’ve been counter-conditioned. 

 

SYSTEMATIC DESENSITISATION 

Essentially as above, except without the starting point of something already aversive that needs its meaning changed. Letting the learner slowly discover, at their own pace, that new things are fine. During desensitisation they don’t need to”earn” their food like during clicker training. And they aren’t presented directly with the scary thing if it takes them over threshold (ie: if they show any signs of alarm). 

 

FLOODING 

Flooding is deeply problematic. A flag on a stick is the classic one. You chase or worry the animal with the flag (in an enclosed space or on the end of a lead) until it stops bothering to shy away from the flag. At that point, you take the flag (the pressure) away. Or some people don’t, they just carry on rubbing it all over the body. In the latter example, in particular, the animal has learned that it cannot avoid or escape the aversive thing. Flight hasn’t worked, telling you how it feels hasn’t worked, so it stops doing anything at all. The animal is now “quiet”. This is called Learned Helplessness and it looks like a safe horse. But suppressing fear isn’t the same thing as getting over fear. Suppressed behaviours/feelings reoccur at times of stress. Not safe. 

 

OPERANT CONDITIONING 

Classical Conditioning is about learning that X = Y. Operant Conditioning is about learning that your actions have a consequence. That you can “operate” within the environment. 

Operant Conditioning is concerned with consequences that have a feedback/influence on behaviour. Because sometimes, I guess, our behaviour has no real consequence at all and so we don’t learn anything from the experience. I’m ignoring habits and stereotypies, in this post, which are self-reinforcing, as I don’t know enough about it yet. 

Consequences can be good or bad. 

The Operant Conditioning Quadrant is made up of scenarios that can be either Reinforced or Punished. 

Reinforced behaviours are those which persist or grow. 

Punished behaviours are those which cease as a result of the punishment. Behaviours can also cease as a result of having no real consequence (this is called Extinction), which is the more effective way of getting rid of “bad” behaviours. 

Reinforcers and Punishers are either added or removed to the situation. 

In operant conditioning, Positive just means added and Negative just means removed. Positive does not mean “good” and negative does not mean “bad”. 

 

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: The addition of an appetitive (something desirable) which makes the behaviour more likely to happen again.  NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT: The removal of an aversive (something undesirable) which makes the behaviour more likely to happen again. 
POSITIVE PUNISHMENT: The addition of an aversive (something undesirable) which makes the behaviour less likely to happen again.  NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT: The removal of an appetitive (something desirable) which makes the behaviour less likely to happen again.  

 

If the behaviour increases, it is being reinforced. If the behaviour decreases it is either being effectively punished or having no consequence which makes it worth continuing with (Extinction). 

In more detail… 

 

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (+R) 

  • The addition of an appetitive (something desirable) which makes the behaviour more likely to happen again. 
  • Extrinsic motivation to works towards gaining something. 
  • Activates the SEEKING and CARE systems of the brain. These, along with PLAY, are the most useful systems to activate for effective learning and safe behaviour. 
  • Releases dopamine. 
  • As the “game” is understood, dopamine spikes shift from the receipt of the appetitive (normally food) to the moment where a task is cued. Ie: the learner enjoys figuring stuff out and gains confidence from knowing s/he can have an impact on their environment. 
  • Desired behaviour increases and is reliable. 
  • Horse offers more effort/ideas. 
  • A reward isn’t automatically a reinforcer. It is only technically a reinforcer if the target behaviour increases or sustains as desired. 

 

  • Environmental example: horse walks over a sapling. Discovers it’s the right height to have a nice scratch of the inner thigh. Horse seeks out low trees and branches in the future, to enjoy a scratch. 
  • Training example: super-early clicker training to teach manners around food. Handler stands at horse’s shoulder. Horse nudges and muzzles handler (the smell of food!). Handler ignores and stays safe. Horse gets bored, sighs, and swings its head away from handler. Handler clicks and treats. Horse quickly learns that when the handler says “stand” (prompt/cue), standing with eyes front (behaviour), will get a click and a treat (consequence). The “mugging” fades through a process of Extinction, as it serves no purpose. The behaviour of standing quietly in the presence of food increases. Due to Classical Conditioning, the horse perhaps now considers the following things appetitive: humans, particular humans, certain clothes/tools/tack (and this is one way of teaching animals when clicker is available and when it isn’t… it’s called Sign Tracking), certain smells, human voices, human laughter/giggling, human touch, the places where it happens (eg: arenas), maybe the time of day if you have a routine, and a dozen other things I can’t think of right now. 
  • Where it goes wrong: we can create conditions where the animal is reinforced even if we think it isn’t. If a behaviour persists or grows, something is reinforcing it (excepting things affected by health, pain, etc.). Eg: the animal is bored and wants attention or something to do. We tell it off for the behaviour. The animal repeats the behaviour more and more. Our “punishment” is, in this instance, actually a reinforcer. In a clicker context, poor timing or poor choices can result in us reinforcing problematic behaviours. For example, one might want to be careful to balance calm behaviours with energetic ones, if working with a pony that has to function with many handlers, children, etc. It wouldn’t be fair to teach an animal like that to always give 100% energy as in a different context this would be deemed dangerous and would be punished. So +R goes wrong when people are either unaware of the reinforcement the animal is getting, or when they don’t care to improve their timing/knowledge. But overall, the odd ill-timed click isn’t going to be a problem. 

 

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT (-R) 

  • The removal of an aversive (something undesirable) which makes the behaviour more likely to happen again. 
  • Extrinsic motivation to work towards avoiding something. 
  • Possibly activates the SEEKING system if done as very light pressure/release on an animal with no prior unhappy associations? [This is now me thinking aloud, not something I’ve yet learned or figured out through study.] 
  • The animal works for release of pressure. Relief does not equal reward. A reward is technically something added, not something taken away. 
  • Behaviour increases and is reliable. 
  • Horse offers as much effort/thought as is needed. 

 

  • Environmental example: horse A is at a pile of hay. Horse B resource guards food and comes towards horse A pulling a face with a threatening posture. Horse B responds to the aversive pressure (body language) by leaving the pile of hay to find another one. Horse A has found relief from the situation. 
  • Training example: we put our leg on lightly and the horse moves forward. We instantly take our leg off, regardless of whether the horse is “forward enough” at this stage to signal that, “yes, moving away from the leg is the right answer!” This is why transitions are so much more valuable than just keeping going once moving. 
  • Where it goes wrong: if the aversive (normally some form of physical pressure) increases (escalates) further and further with no release the horse has no incentive to do the behaviour or to figure out what behaviour will work to make the pressure stop. If responding to one aversive conflicts with another, the horse has no good choice available to it. Eg: trying to get a horse forward off the leg when its prior experiences of forwardness are a yank in the gob or a fearful, punishing rider. 

 

POSITIVE PUNISHMENT (+P) 

  • The addition of an aversive (something undesirable) which makes the behaviour less likely to happen again. 
  • Horse motivated to escape or avoid the punishment happening again. 
  • Activates the FEAR and possibly RAGE systems in the brain.
  • Due to the learner being in a fearful or angry state of mind, lessons are over-learned and generalised in ways we can’t control.
  • The behaviour stops and doesn’t return, in that one particular context in which it was punished. 

 

  • Environmental example: horse touches electric fence and receives a shock/fright. Horse avoids electric fences in the future. Doesn’t always work, as everyone will know! 
  • Training example: you have an “aggressive” horse in cross-ties on the yard. Each time it puts its ears back you spray its face with water. Horse learns that to avoid the annoying spray it shouldn’t express its feelings with its ears. 
  • Where it goes wrong: risk of poor judgement, generalisation by animal, and an inability to learn whilst afraid/angry. In the above example, the horse doesn’t stop feeling angry, he’s just stopped showing it. Which is far more dangerous. He’s also learned that hoses/water around the face aren’t nice (unhelpful if you ever want to bathe your horse). And perhaps his *reason* for the aggression is something easily fixed or avoided in the first place. Another example: horse is being led in from the field. Gets a fright from behind, but the handler is unaware. Horse runs forward and into the handler (safety in numbers). Handler yanks on a chifney bit, growls and shouts, smacks horse around head with the lead or reins. Horse is now worried not only of the thing which scared her from behind, but also of the human that she thought she could trust. Due to Classical Conditioning, horse perhaps now considers the following things aversive: humans (possibly even a specific, colour, height, or gender), distinctive items of clothing that human wore, associated smells, chifney bits, possibly all bridles, possibly therefore any feeling of “contact” on the reins, being lead from the field, seeing a human coming to lead her from the field, various other things I can’t even think of… And of course, whatever it was that frightened her in the first place. Punishment has to be lightning fast if the horse is going to have any chance of knowing what exact behaviour is being punished. It has to be so fast that the handler won’t actually have time to assess whether it’s appropriate. It has to be scary/horrible enough that the horse won’t repeat the unwanted behaviour and end up in a cycle of continued punishment (as then punishment may just stop working entirely). But not so scary/horrible that it causes generalised fear or anger. It has to be done when the animal is in a thinking frame of mind (not when their FEAR, PANIC, LUST, or RAGE systems are engaged), else they won’t learn the right lesson. We should avoid punishing behaviours that we could have swerved or faded in the first place. We have to be 100% confident that the behaviour isn’t a fair communication on the part of the horse (eg: pain or fear). And the punishment has to work. It has to stop the unwanted behaviour, otherwise it’s just aggression. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through. 

 

NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT (-P) 

  • The removal of an appetitive (something desirable) which makes the behaviour less likely to happen again.
  • Horse learns that behaviour X results in the loss of Z. 
  • Can activate the RAGE system if not careful, leading to frustration in the learner. 
  • Behaviour stops and doesn’t return (if the punishment has worked). 
 
  • Environmental example: horse A wants to play with horse B. Horse A is too rambunctious and so horse B disengages. Horse A learns to be a bit less bolshy when playing with that particular horse. This is apparently how dogs teach their puppies about acceptable bite pressure and how foals learn about acceptable play and grooming. 
  • Training example: you’re saying hello to a horse at the fence and giving him a wither scratch. Everything is nice until the horse gets too keen and nibbles at your clothes. Horse only thinks he is grooming, but you don’t want him to learn to groom humans with his teeth… So you walk away and in doing so take your pleasant scratches with you. The horse learns that using his teeth makes the nice scratches go away, so he uses only his lips in the future. 
  • Where it goes wrong: taking away something desirable can be very frustrating for the animal, especially if it is something highly desirable like their favourite food. Clicker trainers can accidentally cause this frustration. If they haven’t set up the situation quite right or are expecting too much from the animal for that particular moment, they might have to use -P to stop unwanted behaviours. Better by far to swerve that problem entirely, if possible, as frustration comes from the RAGE system and does not make for good or safe learning. 

 

SALIENCE  

Salience is about what matters most to the individual. What is most pertinent in any given situation. Perhaps I teach a dog to sit and I say the word “sit” thinking that is my cue. But the dog, being so much more on body language than me, begins sitting at the shifting of my arm as I have also been lifting my clicker hand to create the behaviour. The movement is more salient than the voice, to that dog. 

Perhaps I teach a horse to lift it’s foreleg by tap-tap-tapping with a schooling whip, but the horse isn’t quite doing what I want (maybe I want the leg higher or straighter) so I keep tapping until they finally get the right answer (-R, though not very cleverly done perhaps). The horse is pulling faces and getting annoyed and starting to think I’m not very nice. Perhaps they do something “naughty” and I use the schooling whip to smack them as punishment (+P), then carry on tapping. When they finally “get it” I remove the tapping/pressure, click, and treat (+R). Is it the click/treat or the removal of the annoying tapping and reduction of threat that is most important to that horse? Which is most salient? 

Negativity Bias has it that the unpleasant part is going to be the most “important” to the horse. And we risk “poisoning” the click/treat/ourselves or even the cue by combining quadrants. 

 

TRUST ACCOUNTS AND RESILIENCE 

As put beautifully in that quote by Max Easey the other day, relationships are classically conditioned. 

This is often also referred to as the Trust Account between any two individuals. 

We should aim to make more appetitive deposits in the account than aversive withdrawals. Ie: we’re sweet more often than we’re critical… we’re generous more often than greedy… we praise more than we chastise… 

If we keep that in mind with our animals (and, let’s be honest, our friends!), if we treat them sweetly, then on the rare and unfortunate occasions that we might need to be aversive we will (hopefully) be forgiven for it. This ability to recover is Resilience. But it has to balance out from the animal’s perspective. We need to be paying in vastly more than we’re taking out.

And with an animal that already considers humans (or the things we do) aversive, we need to take affirmative action. We need to go consciously to the side of appetitive stimulation, to bring the balance back up. To get out of the huge overdraft we’ve inherited! 

 

SUMMARY 

My head is now done for the day. In terms of classical and operant conditioning, I think these are the most pertinent points. I’ve referenced the emotional brain systems without going into detail on them as they’re already mentioned in other posts. 

Useful revision session though. Things are starting to click (ha) and slowly become second-nature now. And writing it all down let’s me see where the gaps in knowledge are. I do love learning. If only one could get paid for studying! 

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Turning points

Although my evening went to hell (don’t ask), yesterday was a glorious sort of day. 

First day back volunteering after the Christmas break. Lots of kids around for a clear-round jumping day, which was fun. They all did so well! Becoming lovely little riders. 

Whilst helping tack up and set out jumps, etc., I revised some muscles with the apprentices, which was fun. It’s so rewarding to feel useful. They asked for more info on operant conditioning and the emotional systems of the brain too, which was a joy for me as I love those topics. 

Lovely Buster gave me a gift today too as he was just very friendly and keen to get fusses. He’s a kind horse. 

In the afternoon, as the kids were going home, we managed to fit in a tiny clicker session with Diego. What a star. Because he has mixed feelings about the arena, we tend to have some good sessions and some not-so-good sessions. He can get conflicted and worry that something unpleasant is going to happen. But it seems like he’s starting to really accept and believe that it can just be pleasant. I think this is so useful for animals that have bad experiences in their history. Skye definitely illustrates it, the merit of asking for next-to-nothing so as to build resilience and trust, so that when you do ask for something it’s more willingly and confidently done. In hindsight, I should have asked for even less in the beginning with Skye. Lessons for future animals/interactions. 

“There is a strong correlation between the size of an animal’s trust account and its ability to bounce back after an aversive experience. This ability to recover is called resilience by behavioural psychologists. Building up big trust accounts results in resilient learners.” – Susan Friedman 

So Diego. He was thrilled to come in for clicker (big whinny at the gate, don’t horses just melt your heart), very relaxed and polite on the yard (thank goodness), and keen to explore and engage in the arena. 

The jumps were still up and this was very interesting to him. I’d thought we’d maybe just do 5mins of crunches, but he wanted to go and have a good old look at everything instead. So we let him do that, and when asking him to re-engage with me he would look around, think, and then trot over. 

Such a small thing, but this was huge. In a clicker context he normally won’t choose to trot. Gets annoyed about it, as though you’re going to push for more. He has given us trot before, but normally with a smidge of attitude about it. We don’t want that. Remember the RAGE system and long-established neural pathways? No point accidentally firing up a pathway which says “trotting for a human = anger”. That’s not exactly safe. So for this horse to give us multiple recalls at trot, in a good relaxed posture, with ears pricked and back gently lifted, that was huge. I was really pleased for him. 

We did do a few crunches, but he was feeling more active than that. Offered his hip a few times, which is funny. Hip targeting seems to be his favourite thing, but we’ve only done it once if I remember correctly. I’ll perhaps have to put it on cue so that he doesn’t just keep offering it. 

Oh, and we also walked slowly and deliberately over some of the raised poles, with far more willingness than he’s given me before. He would pause, look at me, consider his options, and follow over the pole. Previously he would always swerve if given the choice, treat or no! But he went for it with a calm and merry attitude. Though his shoulders still lack muscle (so weird), he does seem a touch more uphill as previously noted. Think from the hacking he’s getting with his other humans. People underestimate the benefits of just striding out at walk. For humans too! Limited risk of concussion, can be done in a lovely long posture, and gently works the scalenus and longus colli (deep muscles at the base of the neck, which need that reaching horizontal neck to be exercised, but which are some of the only muscles we have for stabilising the neck and allowing them to support their trunk in such a way that they don’t ruin their forelegs). Gives them stuff to look at too, stuff to be interested in. And he is a very nosey horse. I wonder if that’s the same when he’s hacking. 

He had a couple of playful moments which could have tipped into annoyance, but so it is. We managed him well enough on this occasion to swerve the tipping point. It’s a habit from the past. He wants to engage, wants something to do, but is conflicted about people. I don’t want him annoyed as I’d like to keep all my fingers and thumbs (silly human bodies, too feeble to withstand horse bites). And as with all animals, frustration in training is largely a consequence of handler skill/practice and training/environmental choices. Using clicker over Christmas to reduce frustration in my mum’s dogs was very good practice for Diego. Remembering that I’m clicking for emotion, not just behaviour. And so sometimes good foundational training looks like not much of anything, from the outside. Standing around chilling. Or searching out moments of genuine relaxation to mark, rather than stressing an animal, taking the pressure off, and describing a drop in stress or attempts at appeasement (licking, chewing, head lowering, etc.) as “submission” or relaxation (a common mistake in Natural Horsemanship, but Traditional too sometimes). 

“You can’t fix anything by squashing natural behaviour. You simply have to teach them what to do instead, and motivate them to want to do it.” – Ian Dunbar 

Overall, his emotional balance was very good. Very promising. It can be intimidating, working with a big bolshy animal that will tip into anger easily. But if we just keep highlighting (clicking) the moments of happy emotions he’ll get there. 

The afternoon sunshine was especially beautiful. What a day. Diego was redder than usual, like burnished copper, and Skye’s winter coat seemed to be made of silk velvet. The light was extraordinary, a gift after such a grey morning. 

I was dropped off to see Skye afterwards. Likewise, first visit since the Christmas break. What a sweetheart she is. It was funny timing, as some of the qualities that we’d suddenly found crystallising in Diego were doing the same in Skye. 

Same underlying problem, different reasons/manifestations: horse thinks human beings are awful. 

“Once a neural pathway has been mapped it can’t be erased. You can only build a new one and help the learner choose it over and over and over until that pathway becomes the habit. It sounds kind of simple but in practice it’s not so easy.” – spellboundhorses.com 

So for both of them it’s about teaching them something new (humans are nice) and repeating that lesson very frequently. And today, both of them gave me calm, happy, confident emotions. 

I found Skye with her current herd favourites, Verity and Spot. It’s a funny dynamic though, Spot seems a tiny bit of a bully with her and she didn’t want to step past him to come to me. So I moved him off and she came out into a clearer area to work. 

As with Diego, I pretty much let her decide want we did. I’d brought the tea-towel (she still loves it, so funny), so we targeted that a bit. It was a windy day (we’re having all the storms), but that didn’t especially bother her. The friendly tea-towel remains friendly, even when flapping in her face. 

I asked for a tiny bit of cheek-targeting, which she understood but swerved, so I let it be for the day. 

It felt right, so I just walked off instead and saw if she’d come with me. With no target as encouragement and no lead or other tool to insist on it. And she did! 

Again, such a tiny thing, but for this horse it’s huge. She has stepped towards me before, to begin a clicker session, but this is the first time she’s done sustained walks with me, away from the herd, entirely confidently. For the horse that has separation anxiety, that’s a big deal. 

“The horse that is happy is a giver. Unless you can tell stories about what your horse is doing for you, there is not much in the way of happiness to report.” – Charles de Kunffy. 

We walked away from the herd, back towards them, around again, etc. etc. I found her “borders” (the point at which she wasn’t sure about leaving the horses and instead stood solid and looked off at houses in the distance), so we played around within them just encouraging that choice to follow. 

And that’s what I was clicking for, the choice. For sure you could lure a horse to come with you using a bucket of feed or carrots or whatever. But that’s too much like bribery/distraction, it’s not going to have long-term effects like the communication of clicker will. Because with clicker we’re finding, marking, and encouraging/reinforcing emotions and thoughts and choices. If carrots alone were enough she’d have been a lap-dog of an animal the first week I had her. 

“If you are giving your dog [or horse or bird or whatever] a treat and you are not seeing changes in his behaviour, then you are not using positive reinforcement! you are merely giving your dog a treat. Positive reinforcement is a scientific term with a very specific definition.” – the Glasgow Dog Trainer, 2017. 

I’ve just remembered what she was like on the first day I had her. Walking around on her toes with her head in the air, leaping into my space if frightened. She must have been so distressed. 

So I clicked each time she would step, turn, pivot, or enthusiastically move towards or with me. This will need to be balanced out with tasks that involve not coming towards the human, obviously, for safety’s sake. But for yesterday’s session it felt like exactly what she needed, to have her confident choice to participate be appreciated and rewarded. 

“Relationships are classically conditioned. Our relationships with all other animals are based on what we choose to associate ourselves with. We become predictors of those things. Associate yourself with aversives and you become a predictor of aversive stimulation. The horse will behave to avoid the aversive stimulation. That can include staying with you and running to you to avoid being chased away. That is the basis for join up and catching “games” that involve applying aversives if the horse leaves or moves away or does not move towards. Be a predictor of appetitive stimulation (food, scratching, being given the chance to do something you want or like to do) and the horse is drawn to you for what he has to gain. Few relationships exist in only one paradigm. But we can choose to have relationships based primarily on associating ourselves with appetitive, or primarily with aversive, stimulation. We have all the choices. Our animals have very few, other than what we make for them.” – Max Easey, HorseCharming. 

Think of that… What am I a “predictor” of for all the loved ones (animal and human) in my life? 

At one point we were near an old cross-country rail. Just about low enough to step over so I wondered if she would follow me. Answer, sort of. But it was the best “no thanks human” I’ve ever experienced with her. I’ll explain. 

She walked up to it happy enough, but it had a big puddle which put her off at a certain point. And she’s not fit at the moment too, so it’s fair enough that she didn’t go over, it would have been quite a leg lift. And she was at liberty in a clicker session, the whole point is that they have some autonomy. She came up to it without even a flicker of worry. 

The first time I ever led her past a jump on the way to a field (it was a tin barrel), she shied and reared to get away from it. I had no intention of putting her over it, but she saw it and was afraid. That’s neural pathways for you. That’s long-standing history. Humans make you do things that are scary or dangerous or unpleasant. We already know she once knocked herself out cold trying to jump a five-bar gate when in a panic. She has feelings about these things. Likewise when I was doing walk poles in her first yard, she had feelings. Stepping near/over anything was scary at first. Then it wasn’t so bad. Then raised poles were for sometimes avoiding (and they were challenging for her, with that dropped wither between those poor front legs). Then they weren’t so scary, but she’d still rather not. 

But yesterday, she walked up to this jump like it was no big deal. She seemed to know that I wouldn’t force the issue, so going close to it was fine. I tried to coax her over it for a good few minutes (just with voice and gestures, and even her tea-towel target, haha), but to no avail. But this is why it was such a telling moment. Even though I kept asking, she didn’t get at all worried. Didn’t consider it a pressured situation at all, neither physically nor psychologically. Just chilled out, watched me curiously, and fixed her eyes on mine as if to say, “I’d rather not tho hooman.” So we didn’t. Continued with the walking instead (it would look somewhat like “join up” to some people, but obviously it’s achieved in a very different way). 

It’s still a long road to go. But for sure, the less I ask the more I get. She’s not for forcing. 

“The end goal of training should be animal welfare. The primary goal of training is something that directly benefits the individual animal such as physical exercise, mental stimulation, and cooperative behaviour. We put the animal’s needs first. Choice is a huge reinforcer for animals. If you use force then choice is pretty much off the table.” – Ken Ramirez, 2016. 

If you’re wondering why all the quotes, it’s because I’m making note of my favourites so that I can clean out a bunch of screenshots from my phone! 

Autonomy and Posture

Over Christmas I got to have a very short (sadly) conversation with a friend of mine who is an osteo surgeon with personal experience of skeletal/alignment problems (genetic), about the parameters of healthy posture, gait analysis, compensatory movement, and pain. 

We briefly got onto “what are perfect biomechanics anyway”, what is functional, how does individual conformation/development/age affect things, and what happens if someone “fixes” one area without considering another. Apparently a very common one is to surgically straighten out knees, only to discover that the bent knees were actually compensating for short hip flexors and now, with the perfect knees, the person can barely walk. 

Another one she shared was growing children whose toes turn in, then out, knees knocking inwards then straightening up, so on and so forth. It’s a natural process as we grow into our adult form/balance, but people aren’t very aware of this. So they take their kid to the GP who refers them to a specialist who has to say, “this is normal, there’s nothing wrong with your kid.” 

I shared a couple of the challenges of horseworld. One, that we ride them before their bones have finished growing and that the base of the neck is the last thing to fuse. Two, that we often try to mechanically put them into a “good” posture which compromises weak areas like the base of the neck and the hocks. She was confused about how we would do this. “Ropes and pulleys, sometimes with fluffy bits of sheepskin for comfort.” 

Her response? “That makes zero sense.” 

I wished we’d had more time to talk on the topic as I’d have loved her thoughts in more detail. Who is really qualified to micro-manage how another living creature uses its own body? The more information out there about healthy biomechanics and so on, the more impossible it seems to work a horse in a healthy way.

But it isn’t impossible. If we pay attention to one or two main ideas and leave everything else alone, I belief the average horse and average rider can get along fine. We just need to come back to that focus again and again. One, encourage the horse to reach its neck far away from its body (horizontally, to make use of the nuchal ligament), which means not being afraid of the bit/contact. Horse is now on-the-forehand, but the spine is protected, not hollow, so this is okay as a starting point. Two, encourage the horse to move forward with energy, to engage the abdominals and lift through the withers. That’s the posture for healthy riding, and it’s simple really. We’re trying to “straighten out” the thoracic-cervical junction of the spine and lift weight off the forefeet and that’s all. Everything else will follow. 

I saw a lovely post about this from a +R person in which she described visualising a line between C5 and the centre of the LSJ. This line will be a slight downwards slope, more or less, and all we’re trying to do is get it a bit more uphill. I thought this a wonderful way to visualise and explain the posture the ridden horse needs, but a friend pointed out that it would be confusing for anyone who didn’t know where C5 and the LSJ were. For her, she just describes a long elegant frame. For others, it’s about the eye being somewhere between the hip and stifle, nose in front of the vertical, moving forward with energy. For others again, it’s all about the withers coming up. These ideas are all describing the same good posture, just by looking at different things. 

The point is, there are lots of details we could focus on (where the inside hind foot lands, for example) and miss the big picture. The spine straightening out, that’s the big picture. 

Anyway, thought I’d scribble on some screen-shots from the second day that we attempted crunches with Diego. It’s a fun exercise. 

An unmarked version. If you reference the background it might be easier to see how his posture/back has changed in this moment. He’s engaging his muscles from a stroke with my fingertips, imagine that. I saw something recently about a study on pressure changes which found that horse’s sides have greater sensitivity to pressure changes than human fingertips. We really all need to be far quieter than we think we do. 

Diego’s markings are quite useful. I’ve anchored the pink lines with the middle of his back. You can see how in the lower image his back has raised slightly. If you look at how much white is visible at his glutes you can see how it is less in the second pic as the pelvis is now comparatively lower than the middle of the back. He’s also dropped his head into a nice horizontal posture, to help with the “crunch”, which is great. 

It’s hard to be accurate marking up video stills in this way, but I think you can get the idea. The gap between the bottom pink line and the back has lessened in the second snap (a moment where he is “crunching” and lifting his posture a touch), whilst the angles have closed a tiny amount (which corresponds to good tension on the spinous processes, courtesy of the nuchal and supraspinous ligaments, protecting the back). 

It’s all very subtle, but he had a good few moments/postures during this session. Most of the time we got more of a small weight-shift backwards than a visible filling out of the back, but that’s good too at this stage. 

In this image I’ve anchored the vertical pink line to the tree in the background. I’ve anchored the following pink lines to other “landmarks”. In this instance, he wasn’t reaching with his neck/head so much, but he did engage his torso muscles so that’s okay. 

So the first pink line shows how his forelegs have straightened up as his weight shifts slightly backwards to his hind legs. It’s something like the beginnings of a squat, I suppose. The second pink line just highlights how much of a shift it is. 

The third pink line, I anchored to his point-of-buttock in the pre-crunch snapshot (top), so that I could again see just how much of a weight shift it really was. If you also look at the white object in the background (above the middle of his back) you can see how he has slightly “filled out” (lifted) his back whilst also shifting backwards. 

Now Diego is pretty good for being lifted enough through his withers. He can hollow under saddle in trot (common enough), but the hacking has definitely helped his thoracic sling muscles as he seems generally slightly more uphill than he was and he took to this task with confidence. 

I’m really looking forward to starting this posture work with Skye, when the moment feels right. 

Management versus Training

Reading between the lines, I recently found it fascinating to find that most of the behaviourists/trainers I follow online seem to often be dealing with issues of management more than actual training. 

Clients seem to think they have a problem with mounting or tying up or whatever, but upon discussion and assessment they actually have a problem with turn-out or separation anxiety or something else that happens during the animal’s day when you aren’t even thinking about them. 

I’ve been wondering lately about tipping points for “happiness” in each individual. Human and beast. I read something about welfare no longer being just a shallow compliance with the Five Freedoms (food, shelter, health, social interactions, the ability to act out normal species’ behaviour), but how we really need to consider what the individual thinks of it

It would be too easy for us to say, “they’re fed, watered, etc., they’ve nothing to complain about” but we would never deem that enough for human happiness. 

I was talking with a friend today about the value of autonomy, feeling like you have an effect on your environment, feeling like you’re pursuing something. The SEEKING system (google Panksepp for more). All mammals have it. The driving need to search things out. Food, shelter… but beyond that play and fun, and beyond that knowledge and learning and novelty. Or feeling like your work matters. 

If I’m not physically (mucking a stable) or mentally (studying a topic) or artistically (creating something at the edge of my abilities) seeking something out I get rather depressed, for want of a better word. Panksepp had even posited that depression might be a sort of shutting down of the SEEKING system, which is interesting. 

I noted in our conversation that over this Christmas period I somewhat switched off my usual avenues for SEEKING as they weren’t open to me. Generally, when I visit home, having to do this becomes a big source of stress. Frustration. I feel stir-crazy and if I can’t do something about it I eventually shut down and give up searching things out. But this year, there were so many small shopping trips and visits and so on that my need to SEEK seemed to be taken care of. But how productive is shopping, truly? 

So that need to be interested, engaged, exploring… it can manifest itself in ways that may be desirable (studying) or undesirable (shopping), depending upon how you judge it. An animal that is bored to tears (but not yet shut down) may become a handful or “naughty” in other aspects of its life. Tackling the “naughtiness” directly doesn’t address the cause. How often do we see this on TV shows. Dog doesn’t get walked enough. Dog is now a handful and has begun being destructive or aggressive or something. It gets told off or locked in a different room. The behaviour gets worse as time passes. This has become a behavioural issue, but what it really is, at its heart, is a management issue. Dogs are not meant to be endlessly, quietly, sat in their bed. 

And so I think that a lot of the traditional wisdom we’ve received has come from times and places where the management was very different. My friend in Spain, all the dogs there live mostly outdoors. They roam as they please and they’ve next-to-no behavioural issues. They’re not dangerous, they’re not anti-social or disruptive, they’re not anxious or depressed. The management (or lack thereof) let’s them be dogs. Growling or shouting at one of them for something “bad”, in this context, might work and make some sense. They’ve a natural enough life to tolerate our lazier approaches to “training”. They aren’t owned so much as they’ve just aligned themselves with their chosen humans. Look at cats! We don’t seem to have the same sorts of problems with cats because we mostly leave them to manage their own day-to-day lives. 

But for a dog who lives mostly indoors, who can’t choose to roam, who can’t scavenge scraps or chase birds, who maybe rarely meets other dogs, who perhaps was born in a dirty puppy farm and never really learned to socialise, who can’t be let loose to sniff around and explore because of busy roads… this dog already has many potential stressors to its life, many potential reasons for it to slip into unwanted behaviours. This dog needs help/training to let it navigate domesticated life. But mostly, it needs better management. 

And it’s the same for horses. If an animal is boxed for 23 hours of the day and then explodes in the arena, whose fault is that? 

I think what can get lost in some conversations though is that they’re all individuals. Some animals tolerate stables, some do not, for example. Some want rambunctious play-pals, some want a quiet life of mutual grooming. It’s not up to us to impose our preferences or beliefs onto them. 

Overall, we’d want to ideally keep every animal in a way that satisfied their ethological needs as a species, and then also their preferences as an individual. But practically speaking (and maybe I’m aiming too low with this), we can’t get it all perfect. I get the impression that many of the behaviourists I follow may often have to focus on finding the one thing that will give the biggest improvement to that particular animal’s quality of life (and thus its behaviour). Something in the management that can be easily changed to have a big impact. And increasingly I think, for most species and for most individuals, this is to do with the SEEKING system. Having opportunities to explore or learn. 

Individuals will have their own particular preferences, but I think we all know the general points. Taking dogs for more walks… giving horses more interesting land to graze/browse (and more time to do it)… and giving Hampshires more opportunities to study and experiment! 

Pretty simple eh. 

Clicking with the dogs

FRIDAY 29th December 2017  

Whilst home for Christmas, I’ve had a few chances to click with the dogs and see what I can learn. Very interesting.

Challenge One: there’s two of them. 

Reggie (6 year old, brindle, StaffieX) is very clever and very needy (for want of a better word). High energy, always keen to engage, quick to offer the behaviours he’s been taught (not clicker, just casual/intuitive +R like most people do with dogs), and easily over-excited. Anxious in the sense that he gets jealous of attention given to the other dog, the new cat, and even other people. 

Poppy (2 year old, white with patches, FrenchieXStaffie) had a rough start in life (malnourished, unsocialised, terrified). She is obsessed with my mum and gradually getting better with other people, but she always needs a lot of time to habituate to your presence. You’ve to be quiet and slow, calm and peaceful, and eventually she’ll consider you a friend. But even then, you’ll not be as “safe” as her mama. Providing food helps, but she’s a got lot of trauma to deal with, and until this visit I’d not done any sustained clicker with her. As noted in a different blog post, I think there’s something about the “rules” of clicker, the clarity of using a bridge/marker signal, which really makes it far more useful than food alone. Especially with worried animals. 

They play together beautifully, but her shyness and his anxiety means that when you try to engage with both of them at the same time it can be a bit untidy. So I wondered what it would be like doing clicker with them. I’ve done tiny bits before, but I know more now. 

Firstly, I thought it would be easy to focus on Reg alone even with Poppy in the same room. But she’s gotten brave enough with me now that she wanted to be involved. So I began by trying to teach him nose targeting, but in the end went for something much simpler but also harder… teaching Reggie to sit patiently on one side of me whilst I fussed Poppy on the other. Click for him sitting and waiting whilst she calmly accepts strokes. One click for two beasties, two behaviours. It was funny seeing the moment each of them realised what the click anticipated. Their little faces. We’d started with Reggie offering all his energy and existing tricks (and getting too overwhelmed to understand what I was asking), and Poppy sometimes coming to sit, sometimes hiding under the table… And ended up with him showing the beginnings of patience and her showing more acceptance of touch. 

Reg’s default is to push in if anyone is getting attention. Which makes encouraging Poppy quite tricky. But this worked nicely. I could continue working on counter-conditioning human touch for her, and work on patience and confidence for him. “Yes Reggie, you will get attention, but it will come under certain circumstances and there are ‘polite’ ways of asking for it.” 

He did really well with this (he’s a very quick learner, when excitement/anxiety isn’t in the way), and she got braver too. They both of them very quickly remembered what the click meant and it was a really good reminder that we’re not just reinforcing behaviour, we’re reinforcing emotional states. In fact the emotion matters far more than the behaviour. And that stillness matters as much as action. Reggie reminds me of friend’s pony Monty in that he can get het up thinking that he needs to do things to get attention. High-fives and such. Good for them to know that quietness is also rewarded. The last time I saw Monty’s “stand” it was so funny how he had an almost comedic level of still posing, almost like musical statues. 

So we’ve done this a few times, and also had sessions where I reinforced them both for sitting. They’ve both got a sit hand-cue now, both working on patience/waiting, and I also did some non-clicker stuff with Reggie about not jumping up. 

If you’re standing he will get excited and jump up you for attention. So I cued “sit”, scratched his back and told him he was good (his favourite things), then stood up straight. He’d begin to jump so I’d wait for him to chill, cue “sit” again, and reward with scratches. After about four or five cycles he was going straight to sit whenever I straightened up, no jumping. He’s so sharp. Unsure why the anxiety, he gets plenty of attention. Perhaps because of the gap between our last dog (Piggy) and Poppy? Maybe he had a short spell with reduced company? I can’t remember how the timing went. Perhaps just because he doesn’t get quite enough exercise? Anyway. 

Then today I had opportunity to do a little bit with them separately. So I got a sheepskin out as a mat to try teaching Reggie to quietly sit or stand on the mat, so as to get a bit of distance and relaxation. He has begun to get it, but still can get so over-excited that he stops learning and reverts to old tricks. 

Then he was in my brother’s part of the house which left me alone with Poppy. She was hiding in the bedroom as my mum had popped out to town. I lured her through to the front room with the offer of a biscuit, then cued sit. She was like, “yep, no problem”, sat, and got her click/treat. I threw the treat towards the sheepskin and after a couple of sits she was on the mat and returning to it when cued. But she seemed to understand it much faster than Reggie, seemed to quietly think about it all. Her preference to keep a bit of physical distance meant that she wasn’t over-excited at the prospect of coming over to me. And her slowly increasing confidence meant that she was quick to learn what got the click. It was just a question of there being no distractions or stressors in the environment. Learning to choose good moments to “train” is definitely important. 

 

SATURDAY 

The next thing was to repeat and establish all this as a default. Reggie still got over-excited if there were distractions or disruptions, so going to the sheepskin was a bit hit-and-miss. But I think he has begun understanding what I mean as a few times he would be sat expectantly in front of me and when I cued “on your mat” he would shuffle his bum backwards so that he was on the edge of the rug. Funny sausage. 

We added Poppy’s harness to the situation. I would cue Reg to sit or go to his mat whilst fussing Poppy. My arm would be going through her harness (which she’s very scared of having put on, she doesn’t like being handled) to reach her. She accepted this quite well, but had moments of preferring to pull away from the scary harness. The harness was better tolerated when the actual treat was being delivered! Which I did from within the harness too. Sometimes when practicing “sit” I’d lay the harness on the floor and deliver the treat by setting it on the harness. So I suppose we’re counter-conditioning mostly. 

We also visited Freddie on this day. He’s looking older again, sweet thing. I mean, who knows, but it may be within the next few years that he finally goes. Some carrots and some strokes. Though older and more doddery, his native pony blood shines through with a thick coat still very efficiently running the water off its surface. Dry and warm at the skin. His little ginger friend remains plump and grumpy, but very cute. 

Oh, and we went to Pets At Home. I’m never sure how I feel about pets being sold at these places, but I always go to see the rabbits if I’m there. I was surprised (though I suppose I shouldn’t have been) at how inexpensive it is to buy something like a rabbit. A little living creature, yours if you have £40. That’s not all of it, of course, on the money side. And this isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with that. But if you have cash you can have pets, regardless of your suitability otherwise. And if you’re fertile you can make actual human beings, with no requirement that you be a decent human being first. 

Homeless people with dogs has been a news topic recently. On one facebook page I saw comment after comment about how homeless or poor people shouldn’t have pets. They can’t afford to, it’s unethical. Thankfully, on another page, I saw comment after comment about how dogs don’t care about how many plastic toys they have, they care about food and social connection. Your homeless man is with his dog 23 or 24 hours a day, making sure it’s fed before him, and experiencing the love from that animal (having it even as a reason to stay alive!)… that’s a “happier” situation for a dog than being stuck alone indoors whilst its humans work and then being shouted at for having done its mess on the carpet. 

 

NYE 

First session of the day recapped our two main lessons. Reggie waiting patiently to my right (practicing stationing on the sheepskin, “on your mat”) and Poppy being brave to my left (sitting and receiving treats from my hand “wearing” her harness). 

Overall, they’re doing really well. Progress is slow, but that’s me. I’m so in horse-mode that adjusting my choices/timing for dogs is, well, an adjustment. Working with two at once, when they’ve such different needs, is also challenging. But we’re getting somewhere. And I’m pleased to have begun establishing a way in which Poppy can get the learning experiences she needs without anxious Reg pushing in. And he can get the attention he desperately wants, by being quiet and calm rather than by leaping onto your lap or licking you to death. Who knows if any of this will persist, but it’s good practice for me. 

As of this very moment, I’m on the sofa with Reg’s head on my leg and Poppy’s head on his back. It’s very cute. Kevin (the stray cat that has moved in) is on the arm of the sofa to my right. Ah, I love being surrounded by animals. 

I think I will try to do that NAC animal behaviour course this year. It’s not too expensive, so perhaps I can hustle with my corsetry and save the money to do it. 

 

LATER

Poppy is scared of men and sometimes growls warningly at John. So I’ve had him give her little treats every so often to essentially counter-condition himself. But this afternoon I also had him do a little clicker session with her. Just cueing “sit”, but she did really well. Kept looking over her shoulder to check where mum was and disengaged frequently, but also then came back frequently to carry on. So that was good. In that context he wasn’t as scary. Baby steps. 

John said, “why bother? It’ll be once and then I’ll not see her again for months.” 

Well yes, frequency matters. But no-one is in an ideal situation where they can modify every single thing to the animal’s benefit. And if what we need are numerous pleasant/educational interactions (a high reinforcement history) then *any* opportunity for a good experience is worth taking. They all add up. If ten times we said, “why bother?” that’s ten useful learning opportunities that we’re missing out on. And since the best lessons are often the smallest, 5mins here and there are absolutely worth taking. 

So anyway, I was pleased. 

 

NYD

Morning session with the dogs was good. But then they seemed het up in the afternoon. 

Overall very pleased though. By the end of the holiday, Reggie was going to his mat whenever he wanted to get your attention (to throw his ball), so he seems to have begun learning that there are “polite” (urg, human words) ways of getting attention. He was also generally less frantic, more quiet about sitting with you on the sofa, less desperate. 

I think when his neediness began to emerge it was perhaps the case that my mum would tell him off (he has no problem shoving smaller or older dogs out of the way), but then it’s become something of a pattern. He’s desperate for attention/love, notices the signs that some might be available (or is being given to someone else), gets over-excited, pushes in rudely (and he’s a heavy dog with stupidly small feet, it hurts when he throws himself onto you, cute and well-meaning though he is), gets told off or pushed off (it’s still attention and he loves touch), but sometimes also manages to get a fuss in the end (mission accomplished). Whether we mean to or not we’re always “training” in that they’re always learning… Which, as an aside, makes it funny that people sometimes criticise training with food. If you ever feed your animal, you are already “training with food” as the animal is learning that it comes under certain conditions, etc. So you might as well do it with some deliberateness. 

Poppy meanwhile, had begun to accept the harness being near her, even putting her head halfway under it in order to get her treats. On the last couple of days I would sometimes ask her to come under the harness to touch my hand holding a treat (luring), then clicking for that touch (and delivering the treat there), in a bid to separate out which part of the process she was “earning” rewards for. My mum, “can you stay a month?” Very gratifying. She must see some merit to the whole thing. I’ve said that if she feels like it when they get their daily treat (they like pears and apples and carrots, so funny) she could cut it up into small pieces and give it to Reggie for sitting quietly on one side of her, whilst giving Poppy her treats placed on (or near to) her harness. I don’t know if she’ll bother, but it’s there as an option. 

The drive home was fine. But I fell asleep and woke up to concrete all around as we came into Birmingham. That was depressing. It’s a lovely city, but if it weren’t for volunteering and horses and the boat and John, I would quickly slip into depression here. I’ve missed the stables and my own Skye, but coming back highlighted once again that what I’d love is a more rural life. Animals everywhere. John and I might once again look into re-homing a greyhound. 

The evening was nice, hot chocolate and chickpea curry with friends on the boat. Which was just what I needed. I think I’d have morosely dwelt on all the concrete if I hadn’t had that merry distraction. 

 

2nd January 2018 

A friend visited again and we had a lovely long chat all afternoon. It’s nice when you’re both “on form”, chatting about human nature, what we think it means to live well, how wonderful animals are and how odd some of the things we do with them can be. 

Topics included management versus training (more on that in another post), always asking animals for only small progress (to build confidence and create opportunities for praise), families (Christmas, haha), and how excellent it is to have happy animal friends around. We think she’s finally “learned cat”! CatFeatures seemed to approve of her responses and fusses, though he was most irked at being shuffled off her lap when all he wanted to do was lick his own backside. Rude humans, haha! 

It all feels like a good start to 2018. I’ve come into this year as skint as I ended the last, but that’s fine. The growing daylight and restful break at home has me feeling proactive and capable. Long may it last! 

Winter solstice

Diego, Donkey, and Skye… 

It is the winter solstice! What a wonderful day. Increasing daylight from here on out. Lovely to see most of my horsey peeps and hand out a couple of gifts before heading off home for Christmas tomorrow. 

I did a couple of drawings again this year. Basil, Diego, and Monty, for some of the girls where I volunteer. Will also use these images in the next colouring/activity book (and maybe also do a colouring book or calendar which is specifically just horses from Summerfield?), but lots to do on that project still.  

Very grey today. Not cold, positively balmy at 10 degrees, but very grey. All humans and horses at a slight low ebb, it seemed. Except delightful Skye. 

I was volunteering today (really hoping to get back to a normal schedule in the new year, I’ve been really missing it), so I got to do a little bit of clicker with Diego. Conflicted today. Paused when called from the field for far longer than usual, then decided to amble over. It was only when another pony decided to come too that he went into “nope! My time!” mode, bucking, squealing, and galloping his way over. All the resource guarding. Polite stop at the gate and very good coming to the yard, but then cross again later about having anyone approach him at his net. This comes and goes. 

Diego, second ever session with core stability poses (crunches). If you look at the line of his back (referencing either the background or the borders of the image), you can see how in the second video still he has put himself into a stronger posture and engaged his abdominals. He’s such a fast learner. I need to be a better teacher to keep up with him. But mostly, it’s about keeping his emotions in check.

In the arena, a bit frustrated. Obliging but over-keen, little of the thoughtful relaxation we’ve had in the past few sessions. But a few very good moments when given something to focus on, including trying crunches again. 

He has understood the first step so very quickly that I perhaps need to be slower to click next time. Encourage a bit more effort. Most of his crunches are very very subtle at the moment, but he’s got the slight weight-shift backwards down well and by his side you can see/sense his abdominals and hip flexors engaging. Watching a bit of video back, I could see his transverse abdominals swell up beneath his fluffy winter coat, on some of his biggest efforts. 

With the crunches I am currently standing by his haunches and in being there I can see his ribcage expand and lift too. It’s all very slight, but he really puts the effort in. His back lifts and flattens very occasionally at this stage too. Which is helped by the fact that he hasn’t fallen into the trap of flinging his head up-and-back to get the weight shift, he tends to reach his neck out horizontally, so we don’t get many accidentally inverted crunches. Instead we get some nice moments of decent posture. 

Hopefully we can continue with that in the new year, but I also really can’t wait to try it with Skye. I want to get her happier first still, have more sessions like recently where she’s in a thinking frame of mind. 

But possibly one of the best things about these core stability exercises (crunches)? You can do them pretty much anywhere! Something useful to do for your horse’s body and mind, which doesn’t need an arena, doesn’t need much space, doesn’t require any particular tack (or any tack at all), and doesn’t rely upon good weather and dry footing. Imagine that. Imagine an animal stuck on box rest or something. Posture is everything for the ridden horse, always good to have more options for helping them carry themselves well. 

The cheek-to-hand targeting was the first instance of Skye understanding clicker beyond object-targeting. Of realising that her own movements/actions can illicit a click. It was conflicting for her, but oh what a step forward in comprehension. And I think understanding like that will help when it comes to trying to encourage a stability pose/crunch. 

 

PREDICTABILITY

To loop back, I also tried a tiny bit of clicker with the donkey today. He’s a very timid soul and even though he has been here a year and no-one has been unpleasant to him he’s still quite scared. He’s had many tiny bits of haylege from me over the past year, when I’ve needed to catch him, but it hasn’t meant much. I’m still not trustworthy, in his eyes. So we thought it was worth seeing what he made of clicker. 

Very positive, so far! Did it over his stable door. This is called “protected contact”. Sometimes it’s to keep the human safe, but it’s more valuable quality (as far as I can tell) is to let the animal feel like it can back away and choose whether to participate or not. You can’t push the issue. 

I stood sideways on at one side of the door and clicked/treated whenever he showed curiosity towards me. A look, pricked ears (his ears! Oh my goodness, I love long ears…), a step forward… later on he even nickered a little bit. Treating involved scattering stuff on the stable floor as he won’t often take anything from my hand (except sometimes a tuft of hay, if it extends far enough that he doesn’t need to be near my actual hand). But he picked clicker up so quickly, I was amazed. The cute face and pricked ears came thick and fast and whilst at first he flinched away from any movement I made by the end he was nearer the door and not bothered by my hand going into my pocket and reaching over the door to scatter a treat. The flinching had gone. 

Dozens of prior interactions where he got food when I was around. But no progress in confidence. One clicker session and he’s stopped showing continuous calming signals (the averted gaze is his go-to). Definitely worth pursuing to see if it can help further. But what’s the difference? 

 

WHY BRIDGE/MARK/CLICK? 

I think it’s to do with the establishing of a system. Clicker is clear. Marking something precisely and repeatedly sets up an understanding between you. “Oh, every time I prick my ears and look at her, there’s this noise then a treat follows! She has to move and reach over my door, but then she backs away again so it’s okay. And then if I prick my ears again, the same thing!” 

The animal trains you, somewhat. They learn that their actions have an influence on you. That you can be trusted to listen to them. For animals who may have become concerned about humans for whatever reason (“what are they going to do to me?”) it must be quite a turnaround to suddenly feel like you have some say in what happens. Because you are following a set of principles about how to interact in this particular +R context, you become exceptionally predictable. 

Predictable = reliable = trustworthy. 

And for sure, we can become trustworthy without clicker. But what I think is nice about it is the clarity. For some beasties that is just so so useful. 

Tangent about the donkey done. Back to Skye. 

 

PLAY

This pic wasn’t from today, but it gives the idea!

A friend from volunteering came over, having not seen her in a bit. Commented that the horse was very happy with me now, which is kind. I think she’s getting there. I’m slowly starting to be a friend, not just a slightly-more-tolerable human than others. 

The more she relaxes, the more she shows her fears and shyness. Which is really interesting and really heartening. 

When we arrived today she was a bit cautious because I’d brought another person. This is a person she’s interacted with quite a lot. But this is what I mean in that she’s starting to show her concerns, not just mask them by daydreaming or switching off. If I stepped towards my friend whilst targeting, the horse would hesitate in coming with me. If I stepped away from my friend, she found coming with me to target much easier. Eventually she had a sniff of my friend’s hand. She’s kind of becoming a horse again, using her language, bothering to communicate. 

Today, we played with the tea towel a bit more. And it was the first time that the term “played” really seemed appropriate. Skye’s very curious about the towel, it’s so strange. We targeted it a bit like normal, then I waved it a bit (she would nod her head to follow it), rubbed her shoulder with it, rubbed her face with it during targeting, then finished by draping it across her whole face (covering her eyes, imagine that) and taking it off giggling, “peekaboo!” 

Silly hoomin. 

Fancy that though. She did not flinch once. After the first peekaboo her big dark eyes blinked at me like, “whaaat?” After the second she turned away a bit puzzled saying, “twice was enough of that thank you, I need to think about it.” 

What a contrast to how she used to be. What a gift she is. I feel actually very fortunate, challenging though it is, to be doing bits of clicker with animals that are so sensitive and emotional. Others I’ve tried can be far more forgiving, it seems. I feel like Skye is going to require that I study and practice and reflect and get good. She is going to teach me such a lot about their psychology. She’s a gift. 

Appetitive/aversive humans?

Appetitives and aversives. 

Things they seek out and things they avoid. 

Looking back on the tea-towel video, I’m so pleased. You can see her choosing to participate and engaging her brain. A couple of moments of uncertainty followed by active willingness, showing her to be shy but keen. And this felt like perhaps the first day that she connected with me a little bit. 

We’ve had other days where she lit up or chose involvement or visibly relaxed. But this felt a little step further along. I can see now that she needs her comfort zone stretching very gently indeed. What had previously looked like a comfort zone was perhaps just a list of things she could tolerate obligingly enough, and with a narrow margin for error. But that’s not the same thing as comfort and confidence. 

It feels as though she wants support. But hasn’t found humans (in general) especially supportive. 

She reminded me a bit of mum’s dog Poppy yesterday. Just slowly coming out of her shell, but needing the space to decide for herself. In a way, Poppy was much easier. She arrived to mum as a traumatised puppy, malnourished and unsocialised. She latched onto mum as the only safe person and Reggie (the other dog) as her only animal friend. She was straightforward in that she never hid her trauma, it was painfully plain to see. And so no-one in that household forced the issue, not in the way that people can expect horses to be available at our beck and call. 

The first three months with Skye, by comparison, well… she was already an older animal, had experienced much and was adept at protecting herself. We settled her from flighty to nervous-but-quiet very quickly, but it wasn’t that she trusted or liked me it was just that I wasn’t as upsetting as prior experiences had been. Like horses do, she stoically carried on, but continued to keep much of her character quietly hidden. 

Now that she’s began to show more of herself she does remind me of Poppy, yes. A shy, sensitive soul, but keen for friendship and harmony. 

I think for Skye, humans were generally aversive for much of her life. She wouldn’t choose people over anything else, given the choice. Now we’re starting to become appetitive. Worth seeking out. 

This was tested today, however, as I thought I’d see if she would understand targeting her cheek to my flat hand. It’s a husbandry move, essentially. Easy to examine a weeping eye or bleeding forehead if you can ask the horse to quietly place it’s cheek in your hand and wait there a moment. So that’s the eventual goal, if goal there must be. 

Averted gaze and swishing tail. She understood the task but was conflicted about it. My hand isn’t moving towards her in this moment, just waiting. I think I could do better by dropping my eyes away from her, take the pressure off.

This was one of the softer instances of her bringing her cheek into my hand. Mostly she would bring it into my hand quite quickly, as though to get it done with.

As noted before, many times, Skye has a different opinion of targets to humans. Targets (once she understood them) were neutral enough to become quickly appetitive. Humans have a history, which is harder to overcome. If I don’t have a target with me her involvement is less confident, even though there are still clicks and carrots involved. Target = confident, good, reinforcement history. Humans = uuuuhhhhh… 

So without the target today she was less sure. But she did understand the task after a mere couple of clicks. That’s a huge step, for her to have finally realised that clicks can be got without the presence of a target. That she can do something else to make the click happen. She’s never picked up anything that quickly before. 

From a different angle. At first very concerned. Averting the gaze as a calming signal (“please don’t hurt me!”). I’m actually pleased though. She didn’t used to bother giving many calming signals. She would just go off into a daydream instead. It’s a step forward that she feels that people might be worth communicating with.

We had a few softer touches from this angle. I think keeping her neck straight was less stressful for her.

Aaannnd a more relaxed face, getting her bit of carrot. She tried really hard bless her. I possibly asked too much, but such is how we learn. My ability to return more swiftly to relaxation will improve as I practice more.

It wasn’t the most relaxed lesson though. I need to think of ways of helping her be comfortable. Perhaps something akin to the empowerment training that I think the people at Horse Charming do. Basically set it up so that she cues me to ask for the cheek. Whether by touching a specific target or a closed fist, I’m not sure. But so that she can decide when she’s ready to try, rather than me push for something when it’s not quite appropriate. 

The power of associations, pleasant and unpleasant. Throw a target past her head and she keenly follows it. Not afraid. Hold a hand up near her head and she’s a bit upset by it.

Which does remind me of Poppy again. Earlier this year, Poppy had decided that I (the younger, blonder, doppelgänger of her only trusted human) might not be so bad after all. But she couldn’t quite decide. She was conflicted, for sure. 

Dogs, I think, are often easier simply because of how much time we spend with them. Just lounging around, letting them habituate without trying to do stuff all the time. 

So after a couple of days Poppy began sidling over to me on the sofa (having started out hiding on the other side of my mum). She would sort of present her side or neck for me to touch, but never leaning or relaxing into it, never taking her eyes off my face. So much suspicion. I’d stroke for just a moment then take my hand away and look elsewhere. She’d pause, then sidle closer again or pop her little foot on my hand (her request to my mum to fuss her), so I’d give her another stroke. She still does it like that now (I don’t see her often), but has also begun trusting that people in general are nice, which is lovely to see. But her fear was always very obvious, always right on the surface. Skye kept some of her fears hidden, and the more relaxed she becomes the more comfortable she seems in sharing her emotions and opinions. 

At any rate, I’ll puzzle over some ideas during the Christmas break and see what the horse has made of it all when I get back. Latent learning is my friend here. 

I also need to be more mindful of defaulting to a relaxed stand in between attempts at cheek-targeting (or whatever it is we’re doing). And of positioning myself such that she can target her cheek to my hand without it also meaning swinging her head around towards the treats, as that was something we accidentally did today and it added to her sense of overwhelm I think. But I tried my best and whenever she seemed to be on the edge of getting het up I would avert my gaze (like she was) or move away and let her decide whether to come with. She always did, which I took as a sign to keep going. 

We finished on some nice, quiet, eyes-front standing. Though she’d done brilliantly to understand the targeting and was working hard to manage her conflicting emotions, I didn’t want to push it any further. When in doubt go back to a stand, nice and easy. 

A towel fluttering past her head within the known-and-safe context of a targeting game? Fine and lovely. But the same human hand quietly raised up without a target involved? Worrying. Bless her heart.

Anyway, overall notes from today: 

  • horse afraid of a raised hand (that’s a sad thing)… 
  • horse very quick to understand the task (touch the human’s hand with her cheek) and it’s the first time she’s picked something up so quickly (hurray!)…
  • but quite conflicted about actually doing it… 
  • horse often seemed to think about cheek-targeting and then bring her head around in slightly the wrong place as if to say, “I know what you’re after, but it’s a bit much, can’t I just touch you with my nose instead?” 
  • given these conflicted emotions, human needs to not click for the tense head-swinging, borderline-accidental cheek touches, as human is reinforcing unpleasant emotions… 
  • human needs to give more moments/space for relaxation… 
  • human needs to think of more ways of giving the horse confidence, or think of easier tasks than cheek-targeting (things that may be less alarming to her), to continue building bravery. 

Really pleased though. She’s showing me more of herself and working through her fears. And the speed with which she understood an entirely new task today! That was impressive. Well done big pony. 

 

Tea-towels and timing

Lovely day.  

Popped down to see Skye in the newly opened field. Our livery has a lot of space, it’s lush, and after the snow thawed they opened up a different field to give the others time to recover. 

This one is even wilder than the ones I’d already seen, I couldn’t be happier. Young trees and low brambles everywhere, it’s a horsey paradise. Skye seemed the most relaxed I’ve yet seen her, I think she loves it. 

The livery owner told me about moving day. She was leading a couple of the ponies that everyone tends to stick to and although it all got a bit higgledy-piggeldy, it worked. Skye got worried and separated at one point and galloped to catch up, sliding to a stop right in front of the livery owner. Bless her heart, she’s quick to worry but quick to relax again. Her worried moments are always legitimate, if you see what I mean. 

She also had a good old nose at the building site next door. Dreaded new-builds which will, one day, cover the land we currently use for the horses. I wish I’d seen her though. Apparently she just went towards the fence and watched a big digger at work. Not scared or frozen or dancing around, just looking curiously. 

I took a tea-towel down today. The latest edition of, “what on earth is the hoomin up to now?” Wasn’t sure if it would be one new thing too far (having moved fields and having had a couple of the herd separated from them), but she was golden. 

We could easily get “stuck” on targeting. But I don’t mind that for winter, all I want to do is let her relax, build her confidence, and build the pleasant associations she has with humans in general and me in particular. So I’m trying to vary the targeting, in gentle but useful ways. 

Today, this was by swapping from a string object to the tea-towel. Oh dear, something loose and flappy! But the horse was not concerned by it at all. 

It seems such a small thing, but previously this would have been very alarming for her. She used to mini-shy if you put a bag down too quickly, took your coat off, and certainly if you lifted something up near her face (nevermind dangling or shaking or throwing it near her). Constant fearful flinches. She’s very sensitive. And I don’t think it would have been enough to always be “careful” around her, I think she needs to develop genuine self-confidence. A feeling that new objects and new experiences are positive things to be enjoyed, not potential trials to be survived. Which is why it’s so nice to hear of her curiously looking at the building site. 

John took some video again today, which is very useful. Aside for the fact that my damn phone is unreliable where sound is concerned. I don’t know how this has happened. It will pick up sound with the front-facing camera, but not the regular one. Except sometimes. And I can record audio alone. Meh. So I can’t assess my clicks or chatter, except when I can see my thumb or mouth moving. 

Still lovely and useful to have the bits of video though. Interesting moments today included… 

 

  • how planted her feet were. This is interesting because they weren’t planted in general. But they mostly were whilst John was filming. 
  • that she gave a couple of calming signals. Though almost the calmest I’ve seen her, or perhaps because of it, she’s starting to be more communicative when feeling a touch conflicted or uncertain. It used to be freeze (switch off) or flight, now she’s starting to bother communicating in more subtle ways and I need to improve my attentiveness to keep up with her. It’s wonderful though, as it means I can be more careful about taking pressure off and letting her truly choose to interact. Build that confidence. Again, this may have been influenced today by John filming. I often find that a person holding up a camera creates a sort of pressure in the way that it can for human subjects too. Not because the animal has any idea what a photograph is, but because the person wielding the camera/phone inevitably stands to face the subject in a very direct manner. Quite a bold pose. Curious and confident beasties shove their noses into whatever you’re holding up (my Fred forever had his nose in dad’s huge old video recorder, the kind that had to sit in your shoulder and took cassette tapes). Shy ones will shrink away and you fail to get the ears-pricked snap that you wanted. Anyway, whenever I moved away from her and towards John, she would display her calming signals. Averting her gaze/neck is her go-to, I see her do this with the bolshier ponies all the time. She sometimes does the quizzical lateral ears or the “oh, I really must have an itchy leg, let me just disengage from this situation for a moment” too. In one particular instance today, I walked towards John and she averted her gaze very obviously, with her head swung away but ears on me. I say her name, and she drops her head to the ground as though the grass is suddenly more interesting than a moment before. Then I think I chat some more or maybe she just thinks about it, and she suddenly feels safe enough to reach and step towards me, targeting the towel with a soft and happy face, tail doing a gentle swish (which in this context almost seemed like shaking off the tension, but who can say), then we carry on merrily targeting a few more times. This is actually really heartening. Skye loves her targets, but for her to choose to come because of soft verbal encouragement rather than just for the target/click is a lovely step forward. Human voices are starting to mean something nice. 
  • overall, during filming, when she *did* move her feet it was backwards. Away from the cameraman was fine. Towards, less so.
  • when we weren’t filming, she was even more relaxed. The session began with her very much choosing participation, as I’d been distracted by Verity and not gone all the way over to Skye. 
  • she still doesn’t realise that I don’t mind if she lips/grabs certain things. But that’s okay. 
  • she was more accepting of touch today, I felt. Like human voices, a human touch is starting to be an okay thing. And didn’t batt an eyelid when I rubbed the towel on her shoulder in-between a bit of targeting. 
  • the clicker was often right in front of her face and she wasn’t concerned at all. The sound was never much of a problem, but it has surprised her a couple of times when too close, so this is good. I’d like for her to get comfortable with handlers standing anywhere and the click coming from any angle. 
  • oh, and I did throw the towel onto the ground once to see if she’d go for it like she does with the target. Nope! Which I think is because she would have had to step closer to John to touch it. She followed it with her gaze/head, but didn’t want to step after it. Most important thing though, not at all worried, absolutely fearless. Floating flapping towels? No problem. 

 

This evening, John and I played the clicker game again for silly fun. Rock and roll Monday night on the boat! We took it in turns shaping a behaviour from each other with just the clicker. A +R version of hotter/colder, except that you can’t mark the “cold” moments. John kept choosing quite complex behaviours for me to perform, which was interesting. But the most fun thing was this… 

He was more of a Skye, and I was more of a Monty! 

He would get demotivated and stuck very easily. I had to try to be quite precise about what I clicked as if we took a wrong turn he would “lose heart” before I could effectively backtrack. But he also volunteered less variety, so it was hard to progress very far. 

By contrast, I was volunteering stuff too quickly for him, as “trainer”, to respond to. He sometimes couldn’t decide what idea to click to best get to his goal behaviour and so would end up clicking nothing. I would keep trying with bigger and faster movements, until giving up and using words/laughter to find out what was going on. 

So where he was a sensitive soul who could become disheartened easily, I was a bolshy character who could become over-keen and frustrated easily. Skye and Monty! So funny. 

We ended up discussing why shaping is so challenging versus targeting, luring, or moulding. It was a good exercise. 

Moulding for sure makes the most sense for most riding and such. I think this might be what really sweet and subtle riders are doing. Moulding energy/behaviour based on what the horse has consented to give them, and not pushing for more than is offered on a given day. When you push for more and think, “well the horse just has to do it” you get into that problematic zone of “is it -R or has it gone to +P for no reason that the horse can understand?” But with someone like Skye, you have to be very careful in trying to mould her body/movement as her automatic response (whether learned or innate or both) is to brace against you. Which does remind me of John actually. Huh, isn’t that funny. A bit of relaxation, a bit of, “may I?” is going to do that horse the world of good. But she’s not used to being asked. And she’s learned that she has reason to fear being forced. 

We haven’t seen this expression for months now. So pleased for her.

 

A friend the other day said she has, “a kind eye.” I quite agree. She’s a very gentle soul, and her expression has softened so much even in just this last month. When I look at photos from the first month or two, her eyes were often either shrunken in with worry or widely huge with fear. Her muzzle often pressed tightly closed. I remember in the first week even thinking her somewhat ugly, poor soul, for having such small shrunken eyes in that big old head. But it was only a worried face. 99% of the time she could still be kept calm and she nearly always behaved impeccably. But her expressions told the truth. She was tolerating human things, but not happy. I dislike the word “empowered”, but how else to describe the process this horse is going through? 

Needs met

Moment to moment, your needs can be met beautifully, even if it could all be about to come crashing down. Moment to moment, we’re generally safe and well. I’ve had a valued friend here this week, and we’ve talked about these sorts of things a little bit. Individual sensory needs, what turns a preference into a “need”, intensive interaction (something I’ve never heard of before – a type of therapy which I think is about mirroring the person until they understand that their actions have consequences on the behaviours of others – but I’m now very curious about the thinking behind it), animals/non-verbals communicating their preferences/delights/annoyances, and so on and so on. 

Intellectual needs, met. Social need for connection, met. Some good eating this week too. 

 

THE PROFESSIONAL 

I let the friend have a go at some clicker with Skye, which was funny. The only other time Skye has really met her the horse very much categorised the human as “A Professional.” Misunderstood and challenging horses must come up against Professionals quite a lot. Attempts to quickly fix them. This friend isn’t like that, but Skye was still very unsure. 

This week though the horse stopped grazing to watch us as we approached across the field and my friend laughed saying, “oh no, the professional is back!” But I got out my target and Horse paused then toodled over to meet us. Did a tiny bit to get started, chatted, then handed clicker, target, and carrot slices over to my friend. It was interesting because Skye was more food-oriented and eager than usual (and had also decided that things were only really okay if she could keep us both in front of her) to a point where we could have pushed her over threshold if not careful and to the extent that a few times (even when I’d taken the target back) she didn’t want to walk after it when we’d thrown it. It seemed as though she were the tiniest bit conflicted. “Hoomin, is this clicker or is this Professional time?! Can Professionals be nice too?!!” 

 

CLICK-CLICK versus CLICK CLICK

The clicker I have makes a sort of double-click. Down/up with the action of your thumb. It was fun to discover that my friend clicks somewhat tentatively. This changes the sound, the presence of a gap turning what is normally a double-click into two fuzzy but separate clicks, which doesn’t mark the moment quite as clearly. It’s not a problem as such, just an insight. Just another way in which when we focus on noticing different things (marking great moments deliberately) and using different mechanics, it’s an adjustment. In the evening, I had her clicker train my boyfriend in how to put on a snood as he was making a real meal of the process! That was very entertaining. I need to do more of those sorts of exercises, improve my understanding of shaping, improve my timing. It was pretty hilarious. 

So anyway, Skye was very obliging though borderline irritated which was actually useful to see. She’s coming out of her shell, remembering how to be an ordinary horse. 

Friend observed that she’s much more confident now, which was gratifying. Baby steps, go slow to go fast. 14 years she’s spent getting to this stage, it’s not going to be a quick fix. 

 

TRUST AND CONFIDENCE 

I was delighted this week to also see how other friends are getting on with their ponies. Answer: beautifully. 

The one who six months ago was so inverted he looked lame (an anxious soul) has relaxed and discovered that he can trust the hands at the other end of the rein. They’re not going to pull or hurt him. As a result his paces have gotten bigger, his strides and frame longer, and (joy to behold) he doesn’t protectively hollow his body through transitions anymore. 

The other has also relaxed ever further. He’s starting to slowly become more confident about giving more of himself in ridden work and though it takes time it’s a delight to see. Not least because his fun clicker sessions are also going so well. He doesn’t view them as “work”, just playtime with scratches and treats, and so he gives 100%. Almost too giving, at times, he’s hilarious and very bright. But my friend has, since the last time I saw him, done lots of work on relaxed standing and such so he’s settled into it a lot. 

But yeah, just so so bright and so keen. A really exciting thing (for geeky me), however, was that the friend had spontaneously “discovered” a couple of things that seem to be quite prevalent as industry-practice for clicker, but discovered them entirely by herself, just by experimenting. Ah, I love the process of learning… 

 

DISCOVERIES 

She was explaining to The Professional (whilst letting them have a go), that her horse has started attaching significance to “good boy!” which is why the clicker is so useful, as “good boy” is used too often and might get confusing if relied upon as the main signal (are we doing clicker, are treats available, should I be offering ideas, or is this ordinary work/praise…?). My ears pricked up and I was like, “yes! Exactly! You need a bridge/marker signal that can’t be confused for anything else and that sounds the same every single time.” She’d noticed how he was learning, how he was picking up on everything during the sessions. I think she’d also said something about how she had no idea how giving and clever he could be until trying clicker, which was ace to hear. 

The second thing was that when she’d finished she dumped the last treats (a tiny handful, but more than he’d get per click through a session) onto the floor. Again, my ears pricked and I said, “did you learn that from someone?!” No. “This is pretty common as a way of finishing a session! Makes it clear that you’ve finished and if you end on the best note they get a ‘jackpot’ reward of sorts to really hammer home the point.” She said it was just what she’d noticed made sense. Well done, bonnie lass. 

Observation, eh. Clicker is quite forgiving which, so long as you don’t sour it or confuse it for the horse, let’s it be learned very well by doing. Trying, ballsing it up, trying again. She did, haha, also describe her horse as quite forgiving too. Said that Skye was difficult by comparison as she needed better timing. It was interesting that she’d noticed that. 

The way I’d thought of it was that because Skye has so much less confidence in people (so many fewer reasons to consider interacting with you a worthwhile or pleasant thing) she needs to be asked smaller questions and reassured/rewarded faster. 

 

FAST OR SLOW? 

You click faster for Skye. You don’t hold out in a bid to get a bigger effort, not just yet. As that is my default setting, through learning first with Skye, I think it makes me less good at pushing skills along swiftly. I often find with Diego that he learns faster than I can think of ways to build/expand the behaviour as he is almost the opposite of her and has no problem volunteering ideas. Clicking fast and having a low criteria is great for confidence building, great for uncertain horses who need you to reward even their thoughts (nevermind their movements), great for establishing calm emotions, great for avoiding the accidental creation of frustration in horses who might get cross, great for really marking the exact thing they’re doing as they’re doing it… But less good, perhaps, once you’ve got a willing and confident animal that wants to progress, wants to learn new things, wants to play. I think my friend, by virtue of the main horse she’s exploring clicker with, is a bit slower to click. Which with Skye, at this stage, might be demotivating… but with her horse just increases engagement and effort. She’ll have a far easier time building duration behaviours than I will as her default clicking response will perhaps be slower. But of course, we’d ideally all want to be able to be quick or slow, as each moment and each individual required. And that’s true if ordinary aids too, you want to be quick to release, to really make the lesson clear. 

 

BODY LANGUAGE

In other news, I was reading through some of the abstracts from the recent ISES conference. One of them was funny timing. I’d been saying to someone about how the cat just knows when I’m about to get off the futon. Somehow. And he chooses that moment to come and sit on my lap, which is kind of inconvenient. I supposed I must give off something different in my energy or posture, something which said, “hoomin no longer reading/typing/busy, cuddles now possibly available…” Or maybe it’s a, “no, don’t go, stay here with me” thing. 

Well, according to one of the abstracts I read there is a term for this. Intention Movement. Your muscles prepare for movement at the mere thought of it. So subtly that humans, with our reliance on language, can’t necessarily articulate or value it as much as other beasts do. Body language, thus, isn’t just visible gestures, it’s the way in which your thoughts colour your postures and movements. 

 

“That the thought, or an idea, alone can stimulate muscle contraction has been called the ideo-motoric effect. In ethology, the minute muscle contractions are called intention movements. For instance, slightly before the bird takes off in flight it is possible to observe tension in its wing muscles. Observing an intention movement a few times will teach the recipient of the information what the sender will do within the next second. In this way intention movements may become ritualised and form the basis for body language.” 

 

I suppose this is no surprise. It’s riding a horse that is so tuned in you just think of what you want and it happens. I think this happens far more when riders aren’t consciously thinking about riding too. And is no doubt why the best advice from teachers is often thinks like “think forward”, “breathe”, and such. Horses, with their utter reliance on delicate body language, must think us very loud and stupid indeed. No wonder they get het up when we do. 

Anyway, I loved having more understanding of the cat’s apparently magical way of knowing exactly when I’d be about to move and putting a stop to it! 

 

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY of EQUITATION SCIENCE

The conference notes are brilliant throughout. There was one abstract on clicker training and though I’d wished for more I suppose clicker with horses is still quite new and so it hasn’t been tested as much as +R in other species (spoiler alert: all species basically react the same, positive reinforcement is highly motivating, it’s just mechanics and details and individuals that are different). 

This study was about the time delay between click and treat. Question: did it affect learner outcomes? Answer: yes. 

They tested with rewards that came immediately after a click, after ten seconds, and after twenty seconds. As a hobbyist doing clicker, ten seconds is huge, nevermind twenty. But I suppose it hadn’t been tested before, so definitely worth checking out. The bigger the delay, the less the animals progressed through the learning. The abstract didn’t give reasons as to why (that would be beyond the scope of the study, I guess, since scientists – unlike corsetmakers – like to prove things rather than intuit them), but one imagines it’s to do with the connection between click and treat not being firmly established enough with such big delays present. 

Another study tested the effect of Pessoa type training aids on engagement of the rectus abdominus. They found that the Pessoa had no effect on this area of muscle engagement in comparison with a horse working without any sort of training aid. What a surprise [mild sarcasm]. A different study showed how, by comparison, trot poles did increase muscular work in this area in 50% of the horses studied. That’s something interesting, as you’d still expect it to be more I think. Since work in the abs/core is going to rely on travelling in a healthy posture, what I’d most want to know is what the postures were like of the animals studied and if there was a correlation between posture and RA engagement. 

 

LIMBO 

I now expect to be in a lonely post-visit limbo this weekend. John has been around more due to snow days and sickness, but he’ll be back at work and I’ll be on my todd. Possibly just as well, I really need to do some life admin. Although I’ve no internet right now (am rinsing the wifi in Caffe Nero), which somewhat fettles that idea… Maybe I’ll just keep knitting instead. This week I picked up a scarf that I started perhaps two years ago. Maybe it’ll finally be done in another two! 

Negativity Bias

I’ve spent the afternoon learning about “negativity bias” via Dr. Rick Hansen and others. It was interesting to have something we all know (I think) articulated with neuro-scientific reasoning. 

The short version is that due to our evolutionary excellence at survival, we give far more value to negative experiences than positive ones. 

All animals do. It is an adaptation that keeps us safe, when dangers are mortal and short-lived. When we can quickly return to “rest and digest” after the stressful episode the damage done by stress is negligible. Homeostasis is regained. 

It is also an adaptation, however, that doesn’t quite serve us well in modern life and whilst we can consciously work on our mind-sets other animals can’t, which is something to consider. We can also change our environment to change our mindset/behaviour, whilst most domestic animals have no say in how they’re kept. 

As an aside, Robert Sapolsky is really interesting for his work on chronic stress and behaviour. He has one talk on this topic called something like, “why zebras don’t get ulcers” which I thought was a sadly funny title as I suppose he may not be aware of the prevalence of ulcers in domestic equines. 

Anyway, Hansen described negative experiences as putting our brain into “red zone” states, as opposed to “green zone” which would be about the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) or sometimes a play state (sympathetic nervous system but without any real fear of threat). To use +R language, red zone would be “over threshold.” 

We (all animals) over-learn through negative experiences. We give them too much significance. We are exceptionally good at saying, “once burned, twice shy!” If we spend too much time in that mindset (for example through the chronic low-level stresses of modern life), we begin to imagine that everything can and likely will “burn” us. And every negative experience makes us more likely to go to the red zone, so it becomes self-perpetuating. The more time spent in that survival mode, that feeling of threat, the less able we are to function calmly and rationally in day-to-day life. We establish beliefs based on extreme scenarios and threatening situations (a lack of safety, satisfaction, and connection, as relating to the three tiers of the brain), rather than based on the reality of things. We might appear in control, but actually be deeply unsettled. 

To put it personally, it’s the individual who loses their father (me) then wakes up almost twenty years later and has to pause and check that her partner (who is far fitter and healthier than herself!) is still breathing in his sleep. A fearful and unhelpful type of anxiety which comes and goes, courtesy of a brain which has been hard-wired through evolution to always be ready for bad things. 

But the really interesting part for me, is how flawed this system for learning is. 

We learn very swiftly and very profoundly through negative experience. But we don’t learn the right sodding stuff. Not with any reliability or assuredness. My father died of cancer. But I didn’t learn to take better care of my health. I learned to have a horror of loving people incase they leave. It isn’t all bad, I’ve learned many good lessons through consciously reflecting on it all, and the anxiety has lessened over time as a result. But that was the strongest, deepest, most emotional, and most lasting lesson learned, for sure. A lesson of fear. 

If even humans, with all our conscious thought and self-reflexivity, don’t learn the right lessons through negative experiences… if even we need at least five meaningful positive experiences to counteract one bad one… then the animals we cohabit with, what does it mean for them? 

I’d hazard it means that positive experiences/interactions need to far far far outweigh negative ones. Trainers call it a high reinforcement history. There’s a lot of clawing back to be done when an animal has had an unpleasant experience and the more they’ve had the longer it’s going to take to get back to relaxed and neutral. The more consistency it’s going to take. Example, Skye. We’re not going to know precisely what they’ve learned through the experience and if we’ve created the experience ourselves we likewise can’t control how it is perceived by the animal and whether the lesson we’re trying to teach is what they’ve actually filed away in the deepest, most reactive, parts of their brains. Fear, stress, and anxiety do not make for optimal learning states, after all. 

Hansen was connecting the neuroscience to notions of dharma and in doing so noted that what we need to attempt is to have thousands upon thousands of moments/experiences in which we consciously are aware of having our needs met. Of feeling safe, satisfied, and socially connected. This is how to counteract negativity bias. But since animals aren’t deliberately ruminating on their good fortune, how do we help them live mostly within this peaceful state (and thus be safe and reliable in their behaviour)? 

An exceptionally high frequency of positive experiences (as determined by the species ethology) with a commitment to, wherever possible, avoid negative experiences. Not just to be kind and fluffy, but because practically speaking a dog which has learned a default setting of fearfulness (like my mum’s Poppy, for example) through unpleasant experiences (human created in her instance, sadly) can be really difficult to manage. I watched a documentary on the challenges facing rescue shelters in the USA last night. There are a zillion problems to contend with and really it’s about culture change. Something they’ve seen grow over the past few years (since a certain aggressive “I am alpha!” TV dog trainer became popular) is the number of people giving up animals on account of behaviour problems that they’ve created/worsened through attempting to control their dogs with this kind of philosophy. They try to teach by dominating. And the animals learn, they learn very profoundly. They just don’t learn what the owners are actually trying to teach.