“…All animals, including humans learn the same, it is just the results can differ slightly because of species and individual past experience, as well as personality’ Mummy explained as she reached for Vera’s notepad and pen. ‘Conditioning is what we call it when an animal learns to respond a certain way, after being regularly exposed to a specific stimulus or situation; this happens naturally and is how we work out stuff like which food is safe and yummy and which food will make us sick…
‘… [an] example [of second order conditioning] is how the horses all come to the fence when I go to the feed barn, they know that food is on the way. These chains of events can grow and grow when the horse notices a pattern and can become a problem as they might react badly to something we consider silly or even dangerous as they remember that thing normally leads to something they don’t like.’
Mummy drew four boxes with two R’s in and two P’s in and explained that;
‘Positive Punishment (+P) is not nice punishment like it sounds, it means you add something unpleasant after the horse does something you don’t want, in the belief that the horse will connect the two events and remember not to do it anymore’
‘That does not sound very nice!’ said Vera
‘It isn’t and it also takes quite lot of repeated punishment for the horse to understand which can damage the relationship and trust between horse and human, but it used to be the normal way of training and is still unfortunately how some trainers and riders aim to get results’ said Mummy ‘Think of how many times you heard people say “get on and give him a good kick and smack with the whip, he is being disrespectful”, when really the horse might be in pain or trying to tell you something is wrong. You might not remember because you were so small but people said this to me a lot about Spartacus, but I did not listen, I retired him because I knew he was an honest horse, and now look at him, stiff as a board if he doesn’t have his pain medication. Horses speak a lot, but you have to be ready to listen and work together; it is a privilege they let us ride them not our right!’ proclaimed Mummy with tears in her eyes ‘and it is one reason many horses develop problems and get sold or abandoned; because they become dangerous’.
‘So is –P when you take the punishment away?’ asked Vera
‘Good effort, but no, it is actually when you take something nice away after an unwanted behaviour, like when some parents take away their child’s toys for doing something naughty; that wouldn’t work with a horse so you take away a resource that the horse needs, like water, food or the ability to play or interact with others, which is very dangerous for their health as they could get stomach ulcers from not eating regularly and also stress like this can lead to steriotypies (also known as stable vices, are an un-natural behaviour the horse starts doing because it can’t do what it wants/needs or is bored or stressed)’. Explained Mummy
Mummy continued to say how Negative Reinforcement (-R) is a big part of what many people call ‘Natural Horsemanship’ and is arguably the movement that helped many people start to re-think how horses were trained.
‘It is when you apply unpleasant pressure or an aversive stimulus until the horse does what you want and then you immediately release or remove that aversive, for example: if you pull the lead rope to ask your horse to walk forward and stop pulling when he starts moving, or if you put your hand on his side and start to push him, asking for him to move over. Negative Reinforcement, if used wisely is fine, but it is not without its problems and some very sensitive horses can become more frightened and dangerous or depressed. An event is recalled differently by everyone involved; think about when you are riding, you squeeze or kick your legs and the horse starts walking, you experience Positive Reinforcement because he did what you asked, but your horse experienced negative reinforcement because you stopped kicking when he walked forward’ she said.
‘So what can you do?’ asked Vera
‘Well, it is best to try and start with Positive Reinforcement (+R), then both you and the horse have happy experiences being together, improving your bond and it makes the horse smarter as you encourage them to think and solve problems by offering you different behaviour in hope of a reward’ said Mummy.
Mummy explained how +R (also known as clicker training or bridge training) is very popular in dog training and training wild animals both in zoos, to be able to give them health checks or medicine without stress, and by many modern animal trainers who train animals to perform in films. The click is used to mark the exact behaviour the animal did that you wanted because it is difficult to deliver the reward quickly enough that the animal doesn’t confuse the reward for something else. She also pointed out the risk of training too many things and over controlling the horses behaviour, like training a horse that has been greeting you with a grumpy, ears back face, to put their ears forward…
‘Training little communication behaviours like this can make it difficult to read how the horse is truly feeling… like wearing a mask, so as with all methods of training it should be used carefully with an emphasis on freedom of choice and mutual cooperation and benefit’ said Mummy ‘training prey animals like horses is very different to training predators like dogs because dogs naturally have to think of ways to catch their food, whereas grass and plants do not try and run way from the horse.’
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