When it comes to working with horses, our very humanness can get us in trouble.
Take our use of language: Do you consider “negative” to be bad and “positive” to be good?
When working with horses, the opposite is often true.
I’m talking about negative and positive reinforcement, two avenues of learning that stem from operant conditioning, an umbrella theory popularized by B. F. Skinner. The American researcher was preceded by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, and others. To learn more about operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and the origins thereof, watch this short, helpful video.
Briefly, negative reinforcement is applying a negative stimulus until the subject acts or moves in the requested manner. Then, the stimulus is removed. “Pressure and release” is an example of negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is rewarding a subject when it acts or moves in the requested manner. Clicker training and training with treats are examples of positive reinforcement. Watch this interpretation of it on the Big Bang Theory here.
Why is negative reinforcement appropriate and positive reinforcement less so?
Watch horses with horses. Watch almost any prey animal with any predator. In both instances, negative reinforcement is what you see.
Horses understand negative reinforcement and they understand the related idea of increased pressure, which Ray Hunt described as: “Be as soft as possible and as firm as necessary.”
Example: You’re a new horse in a herd. You approach the alpha mare. She pins her ears. You don’t move away. She pins her ears, purses her muzzle, and turns her head to you. You still don’t move. She spins and double barrels you. You move away and the alpha mare takes away the pressure.
The beauty of negative reinforcement is that the stimulus gets smaller and smaller as the horse learns what is being asked. The alpha mare will likely not need to double barrel the new horse again. A good ear pinning will yield a sufficient response. The new horse understands what comes after an ear pinning and will act to avoid that event.
“When it comes to negative reinforcement, there’s escape and avoidance,” said clinician Warwick Schiller. “Horses use mostly avoidance, but most people see only escape.”
Tiny shifts in leg, seat, and hand position can all be quickly and accurately interpreted by the horse as pressures. When the horse quietly and willingly reacts, it feels release.
“Negative” is not bad or cruel or mean here. It’s natural.
Here’s another red flag on being human: We tend to think in linear terms. Schools of thoughts and training models are all linear concepts. You do A and your result will be B.
But horse work is more like weather. It’s not linear or necessarily predictable. It relies on the ability to be in the moment, to adjust to different conditions and different horses, and to be able to think outside any scholarly box.
Read about Learning Theory liabilities.
WiseAssWallace will have something to say about these ideas soon.
When I brought skinny Peeko home from a Utah shelter, I knew only a few bits about her past:
— she was about a year old
— as a stray, she had broken her right elbow and it had healed badly.
Two years later, I know more:
— her bum leg is not an issue
— she’s a heckuva cow dog and a great ride-along dog
— she’s got the pedigree to prove it.
Wisdom Panel, a DNA testing division of Mars Veterinary, helped me determine just what genetic background lay behind this perky, athletic dog and her sad start in life.
Here’s what happens when you order a Wisdom Panel kit:
— you activate your online account (takes about 60 seconds).
— you swab the inside of your dog’s cheek with the sticks, let them dry, send them back to Wisdom Panel (takes about five minutes)
— in a short while (five days to two weeks), you get results!
In Peeko’s case, Wisdom Panel helped me confirm just why she was so instinctively good around cows and why she had that hard-to-define, mixed breed look.
Peeko is a blend of Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, and Australian Cattle Dog and has lesser genetic input from several other herding and companion breeds. The fun and revealing DNA discovery: her 13 percent American Staffordshire Terrier. It explains her facial structure (short and smiley) and her sometimes aggressive, sometimes territorial temperament.
While perusing her Wisdom Panel results, I learned about another important feature: the Multi Drug Resistance 1 test.
Many dogs with herding lineage (border collies, Aussies) have a genetic mutation that limits their ability to process certain common veterinary drugs (like the tranquilizer Acepromazin and the wormer Ivermectin). Dogs testing positive for MDR1 may seizure, lapse into a coma, and die when exposed to these drugs. Even eating manure of horses just wormed with Ivermectin has been shown to seriously harm these dogs, according to this site.
Thankfully, Wisdom Panel results told me, Peeko does not have the MDR1 mutation.
But what about the new puppy, Monty? He of border collie x unknown, and free-to-a-good-home lineage?
Cheeks swabbed and package sent. Stay tuned.
Do you have a dog with possible MRD1 sensitivity? Curious about your rescue mutt’s breeding? Enter to win a free Wisdom Panel screening by clicking here.
Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.
Read more about Amy here.
By Amy Skinner
Usually after a clinic, I feel energized, encouraged and excited. The energy from a group of people making changes, learning, and discovering gives me a feeling of hope that carries me forward despite the junk that prevails in the horse industry. I’m honored to be part of people helping each other, helping their horses and helping themselves.
Sometimes after a clinic, though, I feel drained. Some moments demand my all. The moment asks me to reach deep inside and give everything I have physically and emotionally. It can be very personal and I may need to give a lot of myself to prove a point or help someone on their journey.
I have cried with people, listening to stories that have nothing to do with horses. But they really they do. This journey toward working with the horse in lightness is really about changing our lives.
I’ve had to pull up things inside myself that weren’t pretty or enjoyable in order to relate to students’ struggles. We revisit challenges in order to become better people. Being a better person means being a better horse person.
From time to time, I meet someone who doesn’t understand the value in this journey. I don’t want people learning “my” method or becoming Amy Skinner “followers.” I’m interested in presenting things in a way that makes sense to the horse. What I’m offering in a lesson or a clinic doesn’t come from me. It comes from the horse and from my human interpretation. It’s an understanding of the horse and what it needs.
My mare was once ridden in a “B.O.B” (Big Ol’ Bit). She gaped at the mouth to avoid it. She was put in a flash noseband to keep her mouth shut. After she couldn’t avoid the bit by opening her mouth, she began tossing her head up. She was then equipped with a nice, short martingale to keep her head down.
All this gear created a racing, forehand-heavy, pissed-off horse with the most overdeveloped under-neck I’ve ever seen. She was ready to kill the world, upset, frustrated, scared, and dangerous. She’d been shut down, disregarded as an intelligent being with a high sense of self-preservation.
In comes “horsemanship to the rescue.” I presented a snaffle bit. Does she run through that bit? You bet.
Most importantly, what needed fixing was her idea of how to operate in relation to the equipment and the rider working it. I had to teach her that I wasn’t going to argue with her. I would wait patiently until she made correct choices.
Yes, it took years. She may never feel as nice or light as a horse started in a way that it could understand. But it was worth it. She’s an incredible horse.
I was recently asked, “what’s wrong with covering up the symptoms?”
Bigger bits don’t solve the root problem. They mask the symptoms and only for a while.
- Restrictive gear treats the horse as a “thing” instead of a creature with thoughts and feelings and needs.
- It often puts the horse in physical pain with lasting consequences. My mare has limited range of motion in her back, fetlocks, and neck and has fused hocks.
- The horse is prevented from developing to its full potential. It cannot work in balance in its body, develop correctly as an athlete, or develop a healthy relationship with the rider.
These reasons may be enough for you. But the biggest reason for steering clear of restrictive gear is safety:
A horse trained to push through pressure and pain responses is an unsafe horse. One who responds regularly out of fear cannot be reliable; fear becomes its only focus. The rest of the world becomes drowned out.
The only truly safe horse is one who is mentally relaxed and taught to connect with the rider or handler because it feels safe. If you’re working toward creating a partner who doesn’t operate routinely in fear, the possibilities go beyond a light, enjoyable ride. You can create a partner, and the things the horse is willing to give back can be truly humbling and incredible.
How to build self-confidence in a horse?
It’s a concept to be discussed at next month’s Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, led by Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters.
Here’s what a horse challenge (jumping a log, crossing a creek, loading into a strange trailer, learning the feel of spurs) might look like on the neurological level:
Sensations or neural inputs travel up to the thalamus, a part of the brain that’s like a telephone switchboard, routing nerve messages. If you’ve presented the experience in a positive manner, the horse’s reaction will be one of curiosity but not fear. It will likely proceed with your request. The neural message will head from the thalamus to the motor strip, a section of the horse’s brain dedicated to movement.
However, if the sensation is accompanied by pain or fear, the route from the thalamus will lead to the hypothalamic pituitary, adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central response system to psychological or physical stress.
“You never want responses to be routed to that pathway,” said Peters. The more consistently you can run sensations through the thalamus and toward where they need to go (usually the motor strip), rather than towards a stress-related response, the better off you’ll be.”
When the horse is able to predict this positive outcome, despite the novelty of each experience, it becomes more confident.
Confidence is not to be confused with trust and joining up. As in, “He’ll go anywhere with me. That’s how much he trusts me.”
When working with a horse, we do not want a horse that relies on our leadership in a toddler-ish, hand-holding manner. Teaching a horse to stick with us like that, says Black, can perpetuate a needy dependency. Women, especially, are prone to nurturing a warm and fuzzy relationship in which the horse does indeed stick with us, he said. But when things get dicey (a horn blares, a ceiling falls, a door slams), the horse will look to the rider as an island of safety and it will want to be ON that island (when the rider is on the ground).
“I see it all the time. Students have developed a “trusting” relationship, but then are run over by their horses. It’s dangerous,” said Black.
“The self confidence I am talking about is when they are very sure of their decision making and their ability to judge and handle difficult situations. This comes from giving them experience in difficult situations, giving them choices, and helping them learn the avenues to success. If they run into more discomfort with the wrong choices, then they learn to make the right decisions without us nurturing them to the right answer.”
Here, she writes about the need to understand horses’ sensitivity to touch:
People who come to my barn are probably befuddled by my posted sign: “Please do not feed or touch the horses.” While many are familiar with the request, it can seem a bit harsh.
Let me explain:
Some people are extroverted. Some are introverted. Some people like to hug, while to others the thought of being touched by a stranger makes their skin crawl. Anyone requiring a larger “bubble” knows the discomfort of being forcibly snuggled by a well-meaning person without feel for the the recipient’s body language.
People emit feels just the way horses do. They can be: inviting, closed off, accepting, listening, or not. Many people seem to talk without noticing whether the other party is engaged or listening, but a person who is feeling and truly engaging reads the other person’s body language and adjusts accordingly.
When a person approaches a horse just to pet it, they often disregard the horse’s appearance, its telling signs, and its general needs. Many times people go to right up to the horses face and crowd it, or immediately go for its lips and muzzle. This is the equivalent of hugging a person who you’ve just met. It can also encourage a horse to crowd, or lip, or nip in response.
My Morgan gelding, Geronimo, has a tendency to be pushy and nippy. He often approaches or follows people, crowding them a bit. A well-meaning person may think he wants to be petted. In a short time, they’d find themselves next to a pushy monster with a bay muzzle and lips exploring their skin in a way they probably hadn’t hoped for. Being petted in this way doesn’t make him happier or feel loved, it makes him frustrated and pushy. He is much happier when he receives space and is asked in turn to also give space. When I do pet him, it’s in a way that provides reassurance and helps to calm him.
My fiery chestnut mare, Dee, usually prefers not to be petted. She is not affectionate except in some occasions with some people. To be respectful of her, I pet her when it’s appropriate and usually in a very slow and still way. Sometimes for her a touch on the forehead or neck is just enough.
Every horse’s needs are different and each moment may require a different type of touch.
As a kid I grew up riding jumpers, and a “pet” for them when they responded correctly was a type of smack on the neck. Sometimes people pet their horses in brisk or hurried ways. But a pet should be reassuring and peaceful in order for it to be beneficial and meaningful.
Horses rely on feel to survive, which is why I prefer people don’t pet my horses. Each touch should mean something. If I’m riding my horse and I notice its attention is off somewhere but I need it back on me for a left turn, for example, I could initiate that left turn by a touch on the left side of its neck. Over-petting or rude petting dulls this essential form of communication, making stronger aids necessary.
Most people know to ask before petting a strange dog. The same should go for people and horses – if it isn’t yours, ask, and even if you are given the go ahead, pay attention to the horse and pet in a way that doesn’t encourage rudeness but does encourage peace and relaxation.
It’s not that petting is bad. It’s not that treats are bad. Talking isn’t bad. Affection isn’t bad. But if our words and touch are to be meaningful, then silence and quiet have to be a factor in our conversation as well.
Here, Skinner writes about the Cons of Cross Ties:
I recently sold a horse and delivered him to his new barn. I relayed the basic information of the four-year old gelding to his new owner: walk, trot, canter, trailers, clips so-so, etc. Basic four-year old stuff. I watched him get settled in, said my goodbyes, and was heading back to the truck, when she said, “oh by the way, I forgot to ask, and this is probably a dumb question – he cross ties right?”
“Um…so how do I tie him?”
She stared at me blankly for a second, and I explained I rarely tie my horses for tacking up and routine handling. I prefer to teach my horses to stand on their own accord as much as possible, though I do tie on some occasions and believe horses should know how to tie safely. But cross tying as an option is something that doesn’t even cross my mind.
What bothers me about cross tying is that it doesn’t make horse sense. When simply tied, if the horse is educated to release himself off of pressure, he can learn to stand safely without pulling back and getting himself into trouble. He has enough space usually to figure out how to untrack his hindquarters and step forward.
With a cross tie set up, the horse has pressure on both sides of his face, nowhere to go forward without pressure, and nowhere to go backward without pressure. Depending on the cross ties and their length, sometimes just standing there in the center maintains a steady pressure on the horse’s face (those clips are usually pretty heavy).
Horses understand and learn by seeking relief, either from pressure, pain, or some type of stress – and the cross ties don’t provide a horse with a clear path toward this relief. There isn’t a place where they can stand calmly with slack in the rope generally, and the potential for injury and panic is high.
If startled, upset, frustrated or antsy, the horse naturally wants to move. Imagine that something behind the horse startles or spooks him.
- His instinct is to go forward, but in cross ties he is met with pressure from both sides of his face.
- The only option for him to relieve this pressure is to go up, and depending on the footing (which in many barns is concrete).
- His potential for slipping or flipping backwards is quite high. I’ve seen too many horses flip themselves over in cross ties to ever consider this a safe option in my book again.
If something startles him from in front of him, backwards into the cross ties can be just as dangerous. Even a horse who has become habituated to the cross ties and can stand there quietly learns to lean into this pressure, making him heavier on the lead rope, heavy on the bridle, and heavy in his mind. He’s been dulled through repetitive lack of relief from pressure.
If your interest in cross ties is to keep your horse still and to prevent him from moving away from something he isn’t interested in, like a saddle, a vaccine, or a trim, there are more meaningful ways to educate a horse to stand relaxed. Cross ties make a horse feel trapped, and if he really isn’t interested in standing still he will find a way to move anyway.
If your goal is a relationship based on trust and communication, trapping your horse and forcing him to stand still is not a great way to achieve it. If I had to round up my students and force them to stay and listen in a lesson, it would probably reflect a bit about me and the way in which I present information to them. I hope they come because they’re interested and stay because it helps them, not because they feel they have to. If a horse can be taught in a way he can understand, he’ll often stand there on his own accord. Horses are generous that way.
In horsemanship, we seek lightness, and if your interest is working off a feel, cross ties can only muddy this goal. In dressage, jumping, and many western disciplines, we seek “forward, straight, and balanced.” The cross ties take out the forward, by teaching the horse to lean into pressure and discourage a horse’s forward movement.
Everything is closely tied together when working with horses, from the way he catches to the way he handles on the ground to how he rides. If a balanced, quiet ride is what you seek, then it starts here, on the ground, in all the tiny little details. If you can take the time to teach your horse to stand relaxed, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your horse’s demeanor in general.
Next month, Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black will give students a treat with this year’s only Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar.
It promises to be a life-changing learning experience, if past seminars can serve as precedent. Why? Because you’ll come away looking at your behavior or your horse’s behavior in a new, informed light. The education will have immediate, beneficial impact on your horse-rider connection.
Here’s a tease of what students will learn:
Check out seminar details here.
In this era of quick fixes and sound bites, Randy Rieman stands tall as a clinician of ideas, reflections, and with a dedication to the long view. Rieman believes that riders need to invest in learning and the long journey of improvement and horse-rider knowledge. Although he has specific fixes for riding problems and pointed direction for certain issues, he places them in the padded nest of wisdom.
Some tidbits from his well-attended clinic in Mancos, Colorado:
- If you’re looking for a method instead of an understanding, you’re going to miss the understanding.
- Certain riders can have their horses no more collected with a spade bit than halter. Consider those Indians with leather thong full gallop, aiming for the last rib of a buffalo. If they can get that done, then we can get things done with a snaffle.
- Consider a learned behavior like a skin callus.
- Bill Dorrance was working with a young rider who was frustrated by the lack of progress with his horse. He asked Bill, “How long is this going to take?” Bill answered, “ I don’t know about you, but I got from now on.” I don’t have a schedule. I get my ego out of it.
- Use the appropriate amount of pressure for the current moment. It changes all the time.
- Bill Dorrance said most people are going beyond where the feel is. I got to thinking about that – it’s correct practically and philosophically speaking.
- A horse with a busy mind? Take him somewhere before their mind takes you somewhere.
- Have you ever noticed that two horses ridden by the same owner feel the same?
- You can impact a horse more if you get her attention when her leg is coming off the ground.
And finally, when one rider questioned herself and her abilities, Rieman recited (perfectly, with beautiful cadence, while horseback) part of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, Citizenship in a Republic, 1910:
“…It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”