I am reminded of the quote by Stephen Hawkings who sadly died today. He was of course talking about the universe in its entirety when he said these words but they apply equally to all of the sciences including the science of behaviour :. The one who can imagine what the horse might want, who can anticipate what certain situations might lead to, and who prepares in advance. Science has shown us that we, the humans, with the relatively enormous neo-cortex, are the ones who have the ability to plan. The stars of behaviours science are those who are helping horses be calm, confident, cooperative and consenting.
Without force, fear, frustration or feet-moving. In fact when I am training a wary horse or pony I usually give a little cheer when they start to investigate the bum bag. But this judgmental language is much more likely to lead to the person feeling justified in using aversive corrections or reacting defensively to a horse who shows natural foraging behaviour or who feels a need to protect her food from other horses or people.
Horses forage for food. They will move bits of hay or other plants aside with their muzzle in order to try to get to the bits they want. Also, if you watch babies suckling I always think sheep are the best example of this they have to nudge the udders to get the milk to flow.
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When horses nudge us this is often the same behaviour happening in a different context, and it is completely normal. Sometimes, once they have seen us move our arm and hand to the food bag or pocket, they will then try to nudge our arm or hand to get it to move to get out the food. This just shows how fast horses are to learn by observing what happens before what happens happens.
They are simply very good at detecting food, and excellent observational learners. Until we train them how to get additional or different food to what they already have never train a horse without some other forage available if you want them calm and unconflicted they are doing what mother nature genetically predisposes them to do to stay alive.
Please share this to help people to understand more about the true nature of horses just doing what Mother Nature made them to do. In the end if what we want to achieve is a horse who does not try to take food from our pockets or bag, then it comes down to a few basic things. Horse-appropriate horse-keeping access to friends, forage and freedom , good health, and of course correct use of food to train them to do what we DO want. One very common question I see from people who are learning about positive reinforcement is this.
Why am I still having to use food? There is one situation in which you can very often discontinue the use of food in training and that is when food is being used for perception modification. An example would be following the bark of a single small dog in the distance with a handful of pony nuts for a pony who is worried about dogs that jump and run and bark around him while ensuring the dog could not come any closer. Pretty soon the horse would come to associate the dog bark with food coming. We do use counter-conditioning regularly, together with systematic desensitisation which is more or less what I have described above , and sometimes we use it on its own.
Perception modification changes behaviour by changing how the animal responds emotionally to stimuli. An animal who is no longer fearful will not try to run away.
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However, if we are using positive reinforcement, which involves adding an appetitive stimulus as a consequence of a behaviour in an effort to strengthen it, then like negative reinforcement, the behaviour must continue to be reinforced to be maintained. A behaviour that no longer produces reinforcement will begin to weaken. Imagine you were working for someone who paid you either in cash or board and lodgings and food to work for them. The same is true with behaviours elicited using aversive stimuli also sometimes called pressure — anything the animal finds psychologically or physically unpleasant.
For example, if when using an aversively trained cue sometimes called an aid for a behaviour, we failed to enforce the cue with an actual aversive stimulus for non-response, we would expect the behaviour produced by that cue to weaken because it would no longer associated with an aversive. And if we failed to remove the aversive or we continued to use the conditioned stimulus the aversively trained cue when the animal did the correct behaviour then we would also expect responsiveness to weaken or the animal to try a different behaviour due to lack of reinforcement.
Responses to actual aversives things the animal automatically finds unpleasant are called escape behaviours. Responses to conditioned aversives commands or aids that the animal has learned are predictors of aversive onset are avoidance behaviours. The behaviour is performed to avoid aversive onset. The animal responds to the aid in fear of it escalating to an actual aversive. Both of these are forms of reinforcement. Escape and avoidance behaviours are all negatively reinforced — either by making an aversive stop or avoiding it being applied.
An example of escape behaviour would be the horse coming to a halt when the rein pressure is applied to the bit. For that behaviour to be reinforced, the bit pressure must immediately be removed for a correct response. The horse expects rein pressure for non-response and so acts when he perceives those other cues, to avoid the rein pressure.
What this means is that when we handle or ride our horses correctly in this case I mean using negative reinforcement correctly in traditional riding or using classical or natural horsemanship methods, every movement the horse makes is negatively reinforced either by aversive escape or aversive avoidance.
When we handle or ride our horses using positive reinforcement our aim is to produce the behaviour without anything that causes the horse to seek to escape or avoid of something aversive. Instead we elicit the behaviour without using anything that is an actual aversive or a threat of an aversive, and we reinforce the behaviour by usually, for precision purposes marking it and then adding something appetitive as a reinforcer.
But, just like negative reinforcement, we still have to reinforce that behaviour to maintain it. There has to be something in it for the horse to make the effort to perform the behaviour in preference to doing his own thing. There is of course reinforcement in searching for forage and playing with friends if you are in a playful mood.
But a horse trained using either aversives or appetitives would never choose to perform a dressage test, jump around a cross country course or walk, trot and canter on an endurance ride for 25 miles right past a plentiful supply of food under his feet, without very frequent reinforcement — negative or positive. Yes, it is possible for horses to find it reinforcing to go out for walks, in company with others, on foraging expeditions with quite intermittent additional reinforcement from us because they find that activity enriching and they do so in an expectation of finding reinforcement in the hedges or verges.
Because there are only two kinds.
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I am much more comfortable using food on an ongoing basis than I ever was or will be using aversives. We have recently launched a new Facebook group called Horse Charming for people who want to learn more about training with positive reinforcement.
As part of the process for applying to join the group we asked people to explain what they understand by positive reinforcement. We get a variety of responses that range from precise psychology definitions to the view that it involves being kind, firm but fair, or that it somehow involves using energy. I decided to jot down some principles that we would hope would help people to better understand what training with positive reinforcement involves, and what it does not. While there are people who do routinely employ these techniques in an effort to get animals to do what they want, or to please other people, in our opinion these do not meet the description of training with positive reinforcement.
What we care most about is how the animal feels during training. We care much less about what he does in terms of any performance of behaviour. Here are the principles that we regard as being consistent with a description of positive reinforcement:. An aversive prompt or event is something the horse finds painful, uncomfortable, unpleasant, frustrating, irritating or annoying in and of itself. It could also include having an object thrown or waved or swung towards him, such as a clod of earth, a stick, a flag or a string or rope.
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If the horse appears to act to make something stop or go away, seeks to move away, seeks to move something away from himself, and repeats a behaviour that made that prompt stop or go away, it was probably aversive to the horse. Behaviour that happens spontaneously is rarely accidental when we are proactively training. An example of this would be laying a line of poles on the track where the horse lives so that he has to walk or trot over them to get around the track to the hay.
Horse owners regularly use food lures to produce behaviour. Eagerness to be caught is often produced by an owner giving a treat to the horse once haltered. Enthusiasm and confidence in a stable area might be produced by the horse finding that there are other horses there and some feed in the stable. All of these are forms of luring. Target training involves teaching a horse to touch a specific object called a target with their nose or with any other body part.
Target training can be used to produce any of the movements or postures that would be traditionally produced with aversives.
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Target training is achieved using the natural tendency of animals to explore novel objects, together with positive reinforcement. Because this can often be disliked by horses at first we prefer to deal with that issue first using systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning before going on to mark and reinforce the horse for consenting to being handled physically. Food is singularly the most commonly used and most powerful form of positive reinforcer for as long as the animal has an appetite for that kind of food.
Never assume that the horse will find being scratched on a particular body part appetitive. It is necessary to seek the consent of the horse to be scratched and to test whether and where they enjoy it. Not all horses will find scratching reinforcing, and their interest in being scratched will change seasonally.