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Posts tagged ‘horse behaviour’

Fact Friday: difference between negative and positive reinforcement

Let’s start with explaining what positive and negative reinforcement is. Then I will share what was a real eye-opener for me about the difference between positive reinforcement (R+) and negative reinforcement (R-). It is not so much the obvious difference (the carrot or the stick-difference), it’s way cooler!

Definitions

Reinforcement (R): strengthening (a behaviour)

+ (plus): adding

– (minus): removing

Appetitive: something the animal really wants to have and values

Aversive: something the animal really wants to avoid or escape from

Positive reinforcement: use of an appetitive in order to make a behaviour stronger (reinforce the behaviour).

Negative reinforcement (R-): taking away an aversive in order to make a behaviour stronger (reinforce the behaviour).

reinforcement_hippologic

Positive reinforcement_positive_reinforcement_clicker_training_hippologic

 

In R+ trainers use mostly food rewards because food is of high value to the horse. In R+ the use of a marker signal (often a sound, eg a click) is used to communicate to the animal what behaviour the horse was reinforced for, not the moment of offering the appetitive. Clicker training is an example of positive reinforcement training.

 

Negative reinforcement

Traditional riding aids are based on R-

In R- trainers use mostly pressure to communicate. The moment of taking away the aversive is the way to communicate to the horse what behaviour the animal was reinforced for. Traditional training and natural horsemanship are based on negative reinforcement.

The difference between R+ and R-

It is not the food or the use of a marker in positive reinforcement that is the biggest difference. It is the way the horse responds in training that is the real difference.

In negative reinforcement it's the trainer that raises the criteria, 
in positive reinforcement it's the animal that raises the criteria.

 

In other words, in R- the horse will not offer behaviours spontaneously (because there is no reward involved for the animal).

The ‘release of pressure’ is not a reward: the horse will not offer ‘more behaviour’ in the hope of a more severe aversive ‘in order to earn a bigger sense of relieve’.

In R- the horse learns to avoid or prevent the aversive all together by anticipating his owners behaviour, but he will not actively seek ways to improve the behaviour since there is nothing in it for him if he does.

If the trainer wants to create more of a desired behaviour or better quality behaviour he uses an aversive to communicate that he wants something different now (raising criteria).

horse_eye_hippologic_clickertraining.jpg

In R+ the horse keeps actively looking for ways to earn the appetitive reinforcer by offering more of the desired behaviour. The horse learns he can influence the appearance of an appetitive by anticipating the behaviour. He will actively look for ways to earn the reinforcer and therefor will raise the criteria on his own by offering more of the desired behaviour.

The horse as individual

For me this way of approaching the difference between R- and R+ was a real eye-opener!

I suddenly realized that not everyone is looking for a horse that learns to think and comes up with solutions on his own!

Personally I think this is a tremendous asset in training animals. It can sometimes be a challenge to channel this motivation, but if you know how you can achieve spectacular results! It not only helps speed up training but it also benefits the relationship with the horse: he wants to train with you because there is something in it for him!

I also realize that this is exactly the same reason it can be such scary thought: a huge animal that thinks he is entitled to his own ideas (he is!). What if this is turned against the trainer? Then what? What if the horse decides not to cooperate… does that mean he doesn’t like you or your training? What if the horse ‘decides to let you down’?

What if… this is not the case at all? What if the horse mostly doesn’t cooperate because he simply doesn’t understand the question? Or he won’t do it because he is afraid? What if he is allowed (and encouraged) to communicate his concerns or fears? Would that benefit the relationship? I think it does!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe beauty of herd animals is that they are hard-wired to cooperate: the drive to work together in order to keep safe and survive is so strong they can’t ignore it. That’s the same reason we could domesticate them in the first place.

I think it is amazing to see how much horses put up with in order to cooperate. That’s the very same reason you can train them so well with negative reinforcement: their will to stay safe and survive is so strong.

Food for thought

Anyway this fact was food for thought for me. What about you? Are you afraid or delighted to let your horse raise the criteria and have a say in his training?

Remember: 
Negative reinforcement for the horse, is positive reinforcement 
for the trainer (the trainer gets what he wants: desired behaviour).

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologicSandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training.
I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both horse and human.
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The horse that changed my life

Which horse changed your life? Was it a challenging horse? I bet he wasn’t cooperative all the time, was he? The horses that changed my life were ‘stubborn’, ‘difficult’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘challenging’. Some horses had ‘character’ according to the salesperson, which usually meant that they are not very cooperative.

‘Stubborn’, ‘difficult’ or ‘dangerous’

ChicaSholtoBoy_HippoLogic.jpgWhat does a horse have to do to earn a label like that?  In most cases the horse desperately tries to communicate something to humans: pain, fear, discomfort. Horses want to please and cooperate. Since they are herd animals, it is in their nature to do so. If they are very uncooperative or dangerous the horse generally is in pain or he is very, very confused.

Message

Horses that don’t ‘follow the rules’ have a special message. Are you listening? tell me about the most extraordinary horse you ever met. What did he do that was so special?

 

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a free intake consult!

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Fact Friday: ‘Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences’

In a study done in Norway researchers taught 23 horses to communicate to their trainers if they wanted blankets (rugs) ‘put on’, ‘taken off’ or ‘unchanged’. The horses were taught 3 different symbols to express their choice. If they chose ‘unchanged’ they kept their blankets on if they wore one and didn’t get one on if they were already without blanket.

Let the horse speak for himself

I like the idea of asking a horse their opinion in training, which is why I like to use positive reinforcement. I think it is brilliant to conduct a study in which the horse is taught to communicate their opinion about blankets.

Set-up

All the horses were solely trained with positive reinforcement. They had to learn the meaning of three symbols and their consequences. Touching a white painted board with a black horizontal stripe meant ‘put blanket on’, a blank white board meant ‘no change’ and a white board with a black vertical bar on it meant ‘take blanket off’.

They were trained for two or three sessions per day, 5–7 days a week. Each session lasted about 5 minutes. The horses varied in age between 3 and 16 years. Some horses were cold-bloods, other were warm-blood horses. The speed of learning varied between the horses however all 23 horses learned to distinguished the symbols within 14 days of training.

Conclusion of the study

Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold. This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.

Find the study here.

_winter_hippologic.jpg

To blanket or not to blanket is a question you can teach your horse to answer himself.

I think it is really interesting to see what happens if we give our horses a choice and a clear way to communicate their choice to us. It prevents us from making an anthropomorphic choice for them, like ‘It is a cold, sunny  day, so I put this nice warm blanket on my horse’ or making guesses about their wishes.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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Myth Monday: the leader of the herd

Equestrians are told all the time: ‘Be the leader to your horse’. But how does one become a leader? By dominating your horse? Who is the leader in the herd? Is it the stallion or is it the alpha mare? Or is there another leader?

Odile Petit, PhD, of the University of Strasbourg, in Alsace, France says: ‘To really be a true leader, you need followers, and that’s true of horses as well as humans.’ Petit (2015) shows that it is not the most dominant horse that leads the herd, but it is the most sociable horse that initiates movement of the herd.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

This gives us a totally different perspective on the role of ‘herd leader’. It also changes our view of the role a dominant horse has in the herd if it comes to initiating movement and giving direction.

When I heard this the fist time it totally made sense that a herd movement is initiated in a more ‘democratic’ way. How does this new insight change the way we approach ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ in training situations?
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Are you inspired and interested in personal coaching or do you want to sign up for the next  online course ‘Set Your Equestrian Goals & Achieve them‘, please visit my website

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The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons (3/5)

Often when I watch people ride I see struggle. I see a lot of frustration and it seems so difficult to learn how to ride. Truth is, that is is in the way riding is taught (in general), but it doesn’t have to be like this. Riding and learning to ride can be relatively easy and effortlessly if only these prerequisites were met. Riding certainly doesn’t have to be a struggle what it seem to be for most riders.

5 Things I would like to see more of in today’s riding lessons are:

  • Independent seat
  • Schoolmasters
  • Facts about horse behaviour
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Attention for the horses emotions

Facts about horse behaviour

If you are a horse behaviourist and you’re watching a riding lesson you hear a lot of nonsense about horse behaviour being taught to riders. I wish all instructors had to write at least one paper about natural horse behaviour before they are allowed to teach.

_Horse_behaviour_hippologicMost famous ones are the ‘be the leader’-myth and the ‘don’t let him win’-myth that refer to the idea of one alpha horse that makes all the decisions and is the dominant horse of the herd. There is no such thing in a herd. Yes, horses can behave dominant in certain situations, but decisions when to move and were to go are more based on a (part of the) group decision.

Instructors make riders believe that they have to ‘dominate’ the horse all the time. How? By being dominant in a way people are by using pain inflicting methods such as kicking the horse forward or using whips and spurs to make the horse obey. It just breaks my heart…

This is not only cruel to the horse but it is unnecessary too. I also think that most riders (who start riding because they love horses) are made insecure by behaving ‘dominant’. Horse lovers want to bond and connect with their horses.

The good news is: you can develop a friendship and still ride your horse safely. Horse lovers don’t like to inflict pain to horses, but they do so because they are taught to by the instructor, so they are acting against their own gut feeling. That’s never a good feeling.

Horses are highly social animals

The reason horses could be domesticated in the first place is because of their social structure. They depend on their herd members for survival and they are ‘hard-wired’ to work together.

If a horse doesn’t follow a cue there is always a reason:

 

  • They don’t understand the cue. All riders are different and not all riders give the exact same cues all the time.

 

  • Something else (danger or getting out of sight of a herd member) has a higher priority. They can simply have missed your cue because of that.

 

  • The behaviour has not been reinforced enough (they lack motivation) or
  • other behaviour is more reinforcing

 

  • The are physically unable (anymore). Maybe they have pain or are tired.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHorses don’t think in ‘winning or losing’ they act on ‘surviving or getting killed’. They spook because they are afraid, not because they are ‘out to get you’ or ‘want to avoid work’ or ‘are acting out’.

I wish riding instructors would explain more about the natural behaviour based on facts/scientific research to their students and not on century old hear-say.

Horses don’t have to be dominated in order to let them cooperate, they will cooperate freely if they benefit from it. Thankfully more and more people discover the power of the use of positive reinforcement training: it works extremely well and it gives the trainer a good feeling too.

More about positive reinforcement in the next article.

What myths have you heard in riding lessons that you wish are not being taught to riders? Please share.

Sandra Poppema, BSc.
Are you struggling with applying clicker training under saddle? Visit my website to book an online consult. I will be honoured to help you and your horse out. I’ve 2 decade experience with teaching equestrians to ride and train their horses in a horse-friendly way.

Read more in this series The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons

Part I: Independent seat
Part II: Schoolmasters
Part IV-a: Positive reinforcement (horses)
Part IV-b: Positive reinforcement (riders)
Part V: Attention for the horses emotions

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5 things I wish I knew when I bought my horse

It is useful to make mistakes and learn from them, but sometimes it is better to learn from other peoples mistakes. Here are five things I have learned owning my own horse.

#1 Horses

I wish I had known more about horse behaviour, training and learning theory when I bought my first pony. I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t realize that most of the things I knew where hear-say myths, based on traditional ideas like ‘you have to dominate your horse otherwise he will dominate you’ and you have to be ‘the alpha horse’. Turns out that there is no such thing as one leader in a herd who makes all the decisions, a herd acts more like a democratic society.

In today’s society we are lucky that there is so much research about horse behaviour and how to teach horses new skills at our hands on the Internet. Make use of it! Don’t believe everything you hear and don’t be afraid to ask (critical) questions. All the time. About everything.

#2 Instructors

A lot of instructors are still teaching the myths I mentioned above. Most of them are also more focused on results than on the way the results are reached. That makes me sad. I know all riders want results, but they also really love their horses. If they only knew they can have the best of both worlds: building a good relationship with their horse and booking results.

Knowledgeable instructors

I find it very difficult to find instructors who can explain clearly the reason for everything they teach you. I’ve had coaches who couldn’t explain why I should ride circles or what exercises it prepared my horse for. They couldn’t explain why I should ride a raising trot and why it must be on the outside leg.

Always ask what their vision is before you hire them and what they’ve learned in their education. What they liked best about it and if there are things they wished they had learned more about during their education.

I know what I missed. In my 500 page book that I had to study in order to become a certified riding instructor there where only 2 pages about didactics and no information about learning theory or how to help your clients become balanced riders. Needless to say I went elsewhere to learn this valuable information.

#3 Barn owners

This is a sensitive subject. I’ve come across the very skillful and those that are clueless. Again, there are barn owners who know a lot about horses and understand their natural needs (16 hours of high fiber, low calorie food, clean water, social needs and exercise) and the ones that think boarding horses is an easy way to make money. Be careful with barn owners that are not interested in horses themselves but started a boarding facility because they bought a horse for their daughter(s).

Before you move your horse to a new barn ask questions like: how much pasture time do horses get. Is this all year round or only in the summer? What about rainy days (weeks). Also inform yourself about their rules: what is included in the price, are you allowed to bring friends, choose your own instructor, vet and farrier?

#4 Fellow barn people

Don’t underestimate the influence your fellow barn mates can have on you. You will spent many hours at the barn. Look for a place with good vibes.

If there is a lot of drama, you won’t have a good time. In some barns people are very friendly and open to all kinds of riding styles, in other barns you are treated like outcast if you are ‘not one of them’. It is always nice to make friends and share your hobby.

#5 Farriers

Good farriers are worth their weight in gold! If you have one that does a good job, keep him/her! Since the good ones are very busy people, it is advisable to make already an appointment for the next time before they leave the barn. Especially on the first sunny days in Spring and at the start of the competition season: everyone needs a farrier. Treat them well. I provide cookies and coffee/tea/cold drink. Positive reinforcement works on people too!

What advise do you want to share with people who just bought their first horse? Please share it in the comments. Thank you!

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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Re-training Bad behaviour in Horses

From a traditional point of view one would say: “Just make him stop.” How? Well, let’s talk about ways that makes the horse understand. I don’t believe in punishment, because punishment is not telling the horse what you do expect from him, it only tells him to stop the behaviour in the moment.

Cause
First step in re-training undesirable behaviour should be: finding the cause of the behaviour. If you know the cause, it is easier to solve it. For instance: if a horse bucks under saddle and the rider punishes the horse by whipping him, it didn’t solve the root of the problem and probably it won’t prevent this behaviour in the future.

Causes can be: pain, fear or the horse has been rewarded for that behaviour in the past. Remember: the receiver (horse) determines if something is rewarding for him.

Pain

Hippologic

Hippologic

If the horse bucks under saddle and this behaviour is caused by pain, the horse doesn’t need training to solve the behaviour. Treating the pain will be sufficient in most cases. Check your horse and equipment and get to know his normal behaviour, learn to listen to your horse. It can be caused by poorly fitted saddles, something bothering the horse in the saddle pad, like a splinter, it can be the bridle, the bit that has been put back upside down in the bridle after cleaning, the rider is out of balance, muscle ache, back pain and so on.

Fear
Horses can buck because they want to run away from something scary and the rider is trying to prevent it. Here the solution would be to let the horse investigate the fearful thing at his own speed. For the future: practise scary things by doing a lot of de-spooking training.

It can also be a one time scare because another horse was scared or another horse scared him. Anticipate and expose your horse more to these kinds of experiences.

hippologic

hippologic

Rewarded behaviour
Imagine the horse is ridden by a novice rider or a rider that has been a bit too rough. The horse bucks and the rider is gone. Ping! Rewarded! Or the horse has been bucking in the past, rider fell off and the horse had a chance to go to that juicy patch of grass which he wasn’t allowed to touch by the rider. Ping. Reward. Or the horse bucks and he can run back to his herd once the rider has fallen off.

In these situations make the opposite behaviour more rewarding: change the rough rider into a balanced, light rider who gives lots of rewards, work on the herd bound behaviour.

Sandra Poppema

Website: clickertraining.ca

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