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That's so random- why randomness is not good for horses

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on February 22, 2013 at 7:50 PM

A (much) younger friend of mine was telling me about a friend of hers who has just gotten married to a long time boyfriend who'd sworn he'd never get married.  "That's so random!" she told me. "Pardon" I replied, "Random, I am not sure I understand".  "Yeah, so totally random," she repeated.  Being a bit over the hill it took me a while but I got it eventually.  Surprising is what she meant, rather than random.  I'm starting this post with this anecdote to explain what I don't mean when I use the word random.  Random events are events that happen by chance, out of sequence and are unexpected.  They are usually surprising, but not all surprising events are random, like my friend's friend's engagement.  Given they'd been going out for 10 years, their getting married was not a random event.

When we train and handle horses they however often behave in ways that are random- that is unexpectedly, out of sequence and in some cases, appear to happen by chance.  Here's some examples- we pull on the reins to cue slow down and the horse opens its mouth, or throws its head in the air, or slows and then quickens.  We cue walk to trot and the horse stalls, stops, or jumps into canter.  We're trotting along and the horse goes quicker for no reason, or slows then quickens, so wobbles left or right, or turns for home.  Or we ask for canter and get pigroot.  Or we are leading a horse and it walks into our space, walks much quicker than us, drags us off in another direction.  All of these are examples of random responses to cues.  Responses that we didn't expect and which shouldn't occur in a training situation because they are a sign that the horse is not under our stimulus control. 

On the surface, such unwanted responses may seem simply annoying, but at a deeper level they can actually be a sign of anxiety.

In horse training we primarily use what are known as aversive conditioning (training) techniques to gain control over our horse's behaviour.  The aversive cues we mostly use are pressure which we apply directly to the bodies of our horses, either with our bodies or via equipment.  The horse is motivated to respond to those pressures because they are uncomfortable and they want the pressures to go away.  The removal of the pressure is rewarding and the horse believes that the behaviour it performed before the pressure went away is what actually made the pressure go away.  In fact, in a training situation we control when the pressure is removed and in so doing can reward specific behaviour and gain control over the horse. This is known as the law of effect and was formulated by a US scientist, Edward Thorndike, way back in 1911.

Because the pressures we use to motivate responses are aversive, it is imperative that the horse quickly learns the exact response that allows it to escape the pressure.  If it is unsure about how to make the pressure go away, it will trial other responses.  If the pressure it is trying to escape is strong, and it can't quickly escape it by performing a response (like slowing/turning/jumping etc) it is likely to become anxious and fearful.   It has been well demonstrated in a myriad of studies that fear interferes with learning and memory retrieval.  If the horse has to try a variety of responses each time it experiences a pressure in order to test which one will get the release today, it is placed in a state of anxiety.  In experimental settings in rodents, those which had to choose between a number of responses to escape shock developed more ulcers and lost more weight than those which only had to choose the same response each time.

Many unwanted behaviours in horses arise because we have inadvertently trained them that there is more than one answer to a particular question, and in any given moment, the correct answer to pressure question one could be A, B or F.  The anxiety caused by not being able to predict which answer will lead to the pressure removal results in tension, lack of attention, attempts to escape the training situation (by being forward, not straight, or even bolting) and so on.  When we make sure that there is always only ever one answer to each question the horse gains control and predictability in its world.  It can control how much pressure it is exposed to by how quickly it responds with the correct answer and it can predict that when it performs the correct response it will get the release of pressure it is working for.  There is no randomness.  Horses which respond immediately to cues and are rewarded with immediate release will be quiet and calm, because there is no scary randomness to worry about. 

To achieve this we need to keep in mind the following:

  1. Train one cue for each response.  Use each cue for only one response.  The same cue should never be used to cue two different responses.  How is the horse to know which response is required otherwise?

  2. Reward only the target response for that cue.  If we don't reward (release) the horse is likely to try something else to make the pressure go away.  If we reward before the horse has completed the response then we are rewarding something other than the correct response.  Next time we apply that cue the horse won't know which response to give.

  3. Delete unwanted responses to a cue.  If we allow the horse to practice random responses its likely some of these will get rewarded and the horse will be confused about which response to give.  Next time it may try a range of responses that have worked in the past.

  4. Shape responses to cues.  Some of the behaviour we expect of horses in response to cues is actually made up chains of single actions.  In order to train these correctly we need to start with simplest component of the behaviour and get the horse responding reliably to the cue for that behaviour.  Over time with many repetitions we can start increasing the complexity, one small step at a time, so that eventually, our cue signals to the horse to perform the complete behaviour. 

If the extent to which the horse is exposed to aversive (pressure) cues is predictable and controllable because the horse only ever has to give a single response to each separate cue in order to achieve the reward of release of that cue it will become calm, relaxed and easy to work with.  To achieve this we must make sure that we are always consistent with our cues and rewards.  We need to be strict with ourselves and not get sloppy, indecisive or imprecise.  Random unpleasant events are unsettling for us and very unsettling for horses.  The less randomness in their worlds the safer they will feel.  And that makes things safer for us too.

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