Thursday, February 4, 2021

Tricks or Treats

 So many topics in the equestrian world spark fierce debate and I suppose that's just human nature all over.  Shoes or no shoes, blanket or no blanket, bridles or bitless are all topics of much heated debate in horsey chatrooms and there are avid and well referenced Karens on both sides of the keyboard as well established and successful professional horsemen.  The issue of whether it is good and appropriate to "treat" a horse is another one where you can see heated impassioned debate on both sides of the issue.   So, let's delve into the ins and outs and whys and why nots of hand feeding treats to your equine partner. 

First of all it is important to understand the strength of the nature of association in the brain with positive reinforcement.  It is universally understood that positive reinforcement is the strongest training tool that we currently understand in all facets of animal behavior.  The association between a behavior and a positive reward can form behavior links that are so strong they can be recreated years after the initial behavior modification is instilled.  I had the distinct pleasure of talking to a marine animal trainer when I visited Sea World a few years ago and when he learned I was a visiting veterinarian we spoke at length about how they train the animals to actively cooperate with difficult veterinary procedures like blood sample collection without the aid of any physical restraint.  As an equine veterinarian that has to deal with needle shy and sometimes dangerous patients I found this fascinating and it made me realize how barbaric our handling and training of our domestic animals is by comparison.  Yes leaping through a hoop and balancing a ball is cool but the real success in operant conditioning in my opinion is having a dolphin swim to you and present a fin for blood draw without a qualm.  

Positive reinforcement in operant conditioning is a behavior modification technique in which a pleasant stimulus is added to the environment in direct association with the desired behavior with the purpose of encouraging the frequency of the behavior.  This is the method of training universally used in training marine mammals, zoo animals and most circus performing animals as well.  While you hear the horror stories of negative reinforcement and barbaric techniques like shocks, whips, and prods being applied in those settings, they are actually much more common in our domestic training programs, specifically in all equestrian fields.  Indeed our entire training program that relies on the use of physical aids is negative reinforcement.  You apply an uncomfortable stimuli (even if it's very mild) and the horse responds and the stimuli is taken away.  That is negative reinforcement.  It is also a safe, effective and humane way of training but that is not the method of training that is traditionally most effective for long term behavior changes. 

Animals trained with positive reinforcement will often offer the behavior in an attempt to garner the reward that they are used to receiving.  An animal trained in negative reinforcement will seldom do the same as they have been taught that the status quo of being left alone is the ultimate reward.  

Because every single horseman is by default an amateur trainer it is imperative that we understand behavior modification and the ramifications of each type if we are going to make decisions and continue to train our animals to have the behaviors that we desire whatever their intended purpose or use in our lives from pleasant companion to elite athlete.  Timing and feel of the addition of stimuli or removal of stimuli are essential for creating the behaviors we desire.  You may have heard the horseman's refrain, horse's learn from the release of pressure not the pressure  itself.  That is an elemental pillar of behavior modification through negative reinforcement.  The timing of the reward in both positive and negative reinforcement is imperative for the association to be paired with the appropriate behavior and here in lies the rub.  

It is possible, through poor timing to create positive reinforcement associations for the WRONG BEHAVIOR and this is what gives food rewards such a bad name in horsemanship circles.  This is why you will hear people say that using food rewards creates dangerous horses that will bite you or that it teaches them disrespect for the person or that they will get to the point that they will only do something for the reward.  These are all examples of the horse training the human through poor timing of positive reinforcement.  The wrong behaviors are rewarded, which creates very strong behavior pathways that are challenging to rewire and often are rewired through the use of another form of operant conditioning which is punishment.  

Punishment in terms of behavior modification is the opposite of reinforcement and may also be termed positive or negative punishment.  Punishment is stimuli in response to a behavior that will decrease the frequency of that behavior.  An example of positive punishment in the equestrian world is "shanking" or jerking the lead rope in response to a horse walking forward uninvited.  I'm sure you can think of many instances of positive punishment that are very common in most equestrian circles.  Negative punishment is the removal of  a pleasant stimuli that is meant to decrease a behavior.  Leaving a horse tied until they are able to stand quietly would be an example.  You remove the pleasant stimuli of comfort of moving or of companionship until they cease the undesirable behavior of equine temper tantrum.  It's essentially the time out philosophy.   While there is debate among behaviorists as to the ultimate effectiveness of punishment in behavior modification there is little doubt that the biggest down side to punishment is the likeliness of side effects related to the punishment.  Again, we can see many examples in our equestrian world.  Horse bites (maybe because they've taught the human to give them a treat that way) owner reacts by whacking said horse, horse responds by flipping it's head and becoming "head shy" in response to sudden movements of the hand. Repeat 3 times and it's a well established behavior pattern.  

So, how can we as horsemen use the exceptionally potent training modality of positive reinforcement within the constructs of traditional horsemanship?  A few years back I had the opportunity to discuss this with renowned equine behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell of New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania.  Dr. McDonnell has long been one of my veterinary heroes as she specializes in reproductive behavior modification in horses.  I find her work absolutely fascinating and the studies she has performed on basic herd dynamics in feral ponies is well worth the read for any horseman.  After listening to Dr. McDonnell lecture for several hours on the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in horses I asked her how in the world can we use this in horses when our entire riding tradition is based on negative reinforcement and the application of aides?  It would require an entirely different method of riding.  The best we could come up with is a bit that would dispense something tasty when the right behavior was achieved.  Not at all practical when trying to teach a horse to chase down a steer!!  

While I don't see that we will ever be able to replace the use of negative reinforcement and training aids in our ridden horses I do believe that the piece that can be strongly cultivated through positive reinforcement is partnership.  In Cowboy Dressage we place partnership right at the top of our list of equestrian goals.  We want our horses to be with us, mind, heart, and soul and to desire our company as much as we desire theirs.  We also want our horses to be safe and easy to handle and man, if we can encourage their active participation in the training process as much as possible, I'm all for that as well!  Using well timed positive reinforcement we can encourage the horses to crave the training and interaction.  

We use positive reinforcement to create a training environment that the horses crave.  As a matter of fact, we often have trouble convincing them to leave when their training session is over.  The desire to be with you and to be engaged in the activity becomes stronger and stronger through the proper application of positive rewards.  This isn't bribery.  This isn't about being a human Pez dispenser every time the horse sticks his nose out.  It also isn't about riding around with a pocket full of treats to dispense when ever the horse does something amazing.  Unless you are able to give the horse a food reward the moment the appropriate maneuver is performed you are ultimately rewarding them for stopping work while you fish a treat out of your pocket. (Although I have used this exact method for a horse that was anxious and unable to stand still in the middle of the dressage court!) So, while we can and do use positive reinforcement to train things like picking up the feet or putting on the bridle, mostly we use it to encourage quiet togetherness.  We reward the horses just for hanging out with us and once they want to be with you, anything is possible, I believe.   

Now, remember what I cautioned early on, there is a good reason why many very great horsemen discourage hand feeding of treats.  Positive reinforcement can quickly and strongly influence the wrong behavior when used with poor timing.  Rewarding a horse even once for aggressively frisking your pockets and you just reinforced the mugging behavior.  Give a horse a treat because they are pawing and wont stand still and you want to distract them will quickly create a horse that is a chronic pawer.  Bribing a horse to stand still by dispensing treats when they try to walk off will create a horse that is likely to never stand still.  You absolutely must be 100% cognizant of the behavior you are trying to create and the environment you are trying to encourage if you are going to try to use positive reinforcement and that is why so many trainers tell their clients not to use it at all.  But, if you are aware of the ramifications of this powerful tool, I think it is a great thing to experiment with.  We readily encourage positive punishment in the equine world; "Whack him! Don't let him get away with that!!" which can also create unwanted behaviors as a side effect.  Maybe it's time we started accepting the power of positive reinforcement as well!  

Friday, January 29, 2021

A Pandemic of Peace: Lessons of 2020

 They say everyone has one book in them.  Maybe that is true, but how do you know if you have more than one?  I will freely admit that since completing the book Dressage The Cowboy Way, I have been very remiss in the creation of any piece of written word.  As I begin to start planning the next book project (projects, if I am honest) I realize that the writing muscle is just like any other muscle and goes soft when allowed to sit fallow for too long.  So, dear reader, if you can bear with me, I think it's time to get back to the ol' keyboard.  Welcome to the first blog of 2021.  

I suppose the other reason that I have had more trouble than usual writing about the topic of horsemanship is that it has always been my struggles that have dictated my horsemanship musings.  The written word is often how I delve into the mental process of understanding how the horse's mind works.  It's how I come to grip with my huge blunders, small accomplishments and big concepts understood (or misunderstood).  Since my horses have grown up a bit and I have been able to make slow but steady progress I have been less mired in the breakdown of horsemanship minutia in order to try to understand what goes on in those equine brains.  And let's face it, 2020 was unconventional.  It's pretty hard to say anything earth shattering on the greater topic of horsemanship when the entire globe is a dumpster fire of TP hording, murder hornets and plaque! 

So, we look to 2021 and back on the lessons of 2020 with a grateful heart just to be here and an open mind and appreciation for every minute that we get to spend in the saddle.  It is that grateful quiet heart that has been the greatest gift of this past year.  

When COVID hit early in 2020 and the world started to shut down, Idaho was slow to follow.  We watched what was happening in the rest of the world wondering how it would affect us here in N. Idaho.  Surely we would just stay in for a couple of weeks and then things would get back to normal.  I think we are all beginning to realize that normal will never be the same normal again.  The shut down occurred for us as we were packing and preparing to head to California for our annual horsemanship school.  We spend a week every spring with our second family down in Grass Valley, California.  Under the watchful eye of Eitan Beth-Halachmy we hone our skills, check our progress and chart our course for the work we will do with our horses for the rest of the year.  I can't understate how important that week of school is for us.   When we lost that benchmark followed closely by the loss of our live shows I think we all felt adrift.  All of the goals I had sketched out on my vision board for 2020 suddenly seemed trite, narcissistic and purposeless.  

I have always been a big goal setter.  I think having a road map for my progress is essential to success.  I've been setting lofty goals for myself for as long as I can remember then working diligently towards that goal until I can check that box and then as soon as it is checked set an other goal even loftier and more difficult to achieve.  It has served me well for goal reaching and box checking if not for smelling the roses and appreciating the moment.  When 2020 removed all of my goals and structure and left me with an open ended flight plan, I had to learn how to embrace the moment.  It may have been the biggest benefit of 2020.

As social distancing became the way of the world I took to the mountains and saw more back country than I have seen in my 16 years in this amazing county.  I found a renewed love for the high mountains that I had really missed since my riding time got carved into smaller pieces often happening while I was teaching someone.  Instead of spending every minute of my time in the arena attempting to tune my horse for the next show or to reach the next goal I remembered what it felt like to play and to hop on bareback and prance down to the lake at sunset or race around the arena just because.  I remembered that sometimes just sitting on your horse in the middle of the arena watching the clouds roll over head is the most beautiful piece of training you can do.  I was reminded of the joy of leisurely brushing my horse's tail in the sunshine instead of obsessing about keeping it clean and long and white for the next show.  

The virtual show format was also a gift.  Instead of the hours traveling, setting up, nervously getting your horse acclimated to the new venue then rushing about to get to your class only to wait around sweating by the in gate, we were able to ride right here at home.  While there are definitely very good things that come from traveling and showing our horse, the stress free environment of the virtual show allowed us to just ride and remove the stress that comes with showing. 

I didn't win any big awards in 2020.  I didn't check any big goals off my vision board.  I didn't set the Cowboy Dressage world on fire with any of my spectacular performances.  But the rewards that I did receive were enormous and priceless and irreplaceable.  Partnership, harmony, and an inner peace that is hard to obtain in any other way than in the quiet spaces of time when it is just you and your horse and the peace of a stolen moment. 

I still take my horsemanship very seriously.  I still work hard every single time I am in the arena.  But what I have made sure to add each time I ride whether I have the time for it or not, is the peace and appreciation for the moment that 2020 taught me we cannot take for granted.  Maybe my ride is cut short by life or the dang phone that never seems far away.  Maybe I only get 15 minutes of actual saddle time.  But what I don't skimp on is the connection and the time to just sit and be, whether in the saddle or out.  To just be at peace and tell my horse how thankful I am for the time I get to spend with them.  That time, and that partnership is more valuable in the long run that the fabulous feats of horsemanship that we chase.  

So thank you 2020 for reminding us that we aren't really in the driver's seat.  Life and all that comes with it is precious and fleeting.  The gift of the sun on our shoulders and the smell of leather and horse sweat is enough.  I hope that it doesn't take another global pandemic to remind us of the simple pleasures in life.  I hope that normalcy returns in some form as the decade marches on.  I will continue to scratch out some goals each year, but I'm not going to loose the forest for the valuable TP producing trees as I march down my horsemanship trail.