Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A thought on orphan foals

So, this is just more random musing...

The young of some species are coprophagic, meaning they eat faeces. There are various theories about why they do this. Foals eat their mothers faeces. So do baby rats!

I came across this paper today - 'The Maternal Pheromone and Brain Development in the Preweanling Rat'
TM Lee et al. Physiol Behav 33 (3), 385-390.  
The abstract says 'Preweanling rats selectively approach and consume pheromone-containing maternal feces. This selectivity suggests that the consumption of maternal feces might be important for the growing pup. Previous research suggested that such feces might promote brain development. A series of experiments was carried out in which pups were denied access to maternal feces. These pups were clearly inferior to control pups in brain growth and neurobehavioral maturation, as well as in the quantity of brain myelin.'
Interesting - often hand reared foals have behaviour problems, and we tend to put this down to the absence of other horses to teach them social skills, stress, our inadequacies in training them and so on. But I wonder if the simple lack of the building blocks necessary for normal brain growth and behavioural development plays a significant role?

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The side effects of how we train horses...

People often evaluate training simply in terms of 'does it work'? Sounds reasonable.
If they mean 'does it change the specific behaviour we are focussing on, in the way that we want' then it is definitely not enough.
Every interaction we have with a horse may change lots of things other than the specific behaviour - for example they also learn about the individual trainer, may generalise this learning to all people, may come to feel more relaxed or more worried in certain environments, with certain equipment and so on - all as a result of one simple piece of training.
Just rereading a paper, 'Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus)', Carol Sankey et al. To quote from the abstract:
'In this study, we tested the hypothesis that the use of positive or negative reinforcement in horse training may have consequences on the animals’ perception of humans, as a positive, negative or neutral element (in their environment). Two groups of ponies were trained to walk backwards in response to a vocal order using either positive or negative reinforcement. Heart rate monitors and behavioural observations were used to assess the animals’ perception of humans on the short (just after training) and long (5 months later) terms. The results showed that the type of reinforcement had a major effect on the subsequent animals’ perception of familiar and unfamiliar humans. Negative reinforcement was rapidly associated with an increased emotional state, as revealed by heart rate measurements and behavioural observations (head movements and ears laid back position). Its use led the ponies to seek less contact with humans. On the contrary, ponies trained with positive reinforcement showed an increased interest in humans and sought contact after training. This is especially remarkable as it was reached in a maximum of 5 sessions of 1 to 3 min (i.e. 5 to 15 min) and had lasting effects (visible after 5 months). Even learning was positively influenced by positive reinforcement. Overall, horses seem capable of associating humans to particular experiences and display extended long-term memory abilities.'
Common sense, you might say - if we do nice things with our horse they want to be with us more, if we train them by doing things they find unpleasant, they want to be with us less.
This is only a little part of the picture of 'good' training - for example simply throwing large amounts of food at your horse for every good thing he does is probably not the answer either! But it is an important element that is often overlooked, by scientists and trainers alike, so it's great to see some research in this area.

Friday, 30 September 2016

More horse watching - social behaviour

Came across this video I took a couple of years ago. Tigger meeting Duke, the stallion who lives at his yard, for the first time. Tigger's posturing is obviously attention grabbing. You can look up any good book on horse behaviour and find descriptions of this kind of sequence of behaviour. But what I find interesting is the more subtle interactions.

For example, at the start of the video, the older, wiser Paddy (grey) is not particularly interested in Duke, it is clear that his communication is with Tigger (the touch behind the elbow, then sniffing). He moves a little way from Tigger then waits until Tigger joins him. When Tigger then turns back to Duke, Paddy considers going with him but doesn't. There's very little written about these kinds of interactions.

I would say it looks very much as if Paddy recognises that Tigger's interactions with Duke aren't very wise, and is suggesting that Tigger should move away/calm down. It's a shame that the moments which bond horses, or demonstrate an existing bond, are not given more attention.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

What's in a whinny?

I love just watching horses - and there's always something new to ponder. So today - the whinny.

The whinny is generally described as a way for horses to maintain or regain contact with each other and also as a friendly greeting. It's an effective way to attract another horse's attention over a distance, and emotions can certainly be transmitted through frequency of whinnying and different types of whinny.

I think the whinny can convey more than simple communications like 'I'm here and excited' or 'where are you, I'm scared'.

Getting video of a really interesting example isn't easy - but here's a fairly basic one. Paddy is often observed 'managing' the social life of the horses in his field - herding 'his' mares away from the other horses, and breaking up interactions between certain horses.

In this case, Paddy is some distance away from one of his field mates who is talking to a pony over the fence. Paddy hears a squeal, whinnies in response and continues to watch until the interaction is over. I have seen more extreme examples where a play fight is turning a bit serious, and a distant whinny from Paddy breaks it up immediately. This whinny could simply be attracting the other horse's attention and thus interrupting their behaviour. But I do think there is more being communicated than that.

Friday, 26 February 2016

On learning... ??

So, seems a bit off topic, but I'm reading a book just now on psychotherapy. Lots of ideas in there for anyone who is teaching/coaching, for example the importance of relationship between teacher and student -  creating and maintaining an environment in which the student can learn rather than , say, trying to push information into them regardless!

Over the years, one thing I've had to work on is saying less! The desire to give someone 'useful' information and help them leads you to do and say too much, where often giving them the space to work things out is more productive.

But the bit that really caught my attention - a story about a man who had been coming for therapy for months, mostly about his failing marriage, but had not revealed he was having an affair with another woman! His desire for the therapist to have a good opinion of him was stronger than his desire to work out his problems and change.

So, this obviously isn't about horses, but my horse-obsessed brain draws parallels... I have suffered from something very similar when getting help from people whom I respect - I very much want them to have a good opinion of me, so consciously or not, you try to hide what you think are the 'bad bits'. You don't ask the 'silly' questions for fear of sounding stupid, you maybe don't ask to work on the weakest bit of your riding because you know its a big mess, and you'd rather work on something that looks at least passably good!

Being aware of this tendency (if you have it), being aware that it isn't helpful and will actually slow down your progress, and also being aware that a good trainer/coach/teacher will not be judgmental and think less of you for being willing to expose and tackle the weakest areas, but will be pleased to help you through them... all very important.

As usual, not quite sure where I'm going with this, have nothing profound of my own to add, but may strike a chord with some of you, as it did with me, whether you are teacher or student...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

When horses don't 'live in the moment'...

For the past few years, I've felt that while I would use clicker training, or treats as rewards, to train 'routine' tasks such as lifting a foot or standing to get legs hosed, I wouldn't use treats for anything where I wanted quality in the action - for example teaching shoulder in. Mostly I've just said this is because, having trained these types of movement both with and without treats, there is a different feel to them - the quality is not there when you use treats.
So, I was really interested when one of last years students came out with pretty much the same comment last week. As happens sometimes, I had 3 separate conversations around this subject with 3 different people and finally something clicked. 

I think there would be lots of different ways of explaining this, but basically when we use a valuable reward in training, at the point where the horse has learned the task and knows a reward is coming, he is anticipating a future event, rather than being focused on what he is doing right now. 
For us people, we know that 'being in the moment' is crucial to improving our horsemanship - if we are thinking about the last poor canter transition, or wondering what we'll have for tea tonight, we are missing what is happening now. I think the same happens for horses - if they are busy thinking about the tasty carrot they will get if they complete 3 steps of shoulder in, they are not feeling the movement, and it feels different to us. 
Not saying don't use treats - if you fade them out appropriately it wouldn't be a problem, but just interesting to consider?

To put this another way, when the consequence of the horse's actions are big, whether it be reward or punishment, this will cause the horse to anticipate to consequence, which distracts their attention from what is happening in the moment. Which will affect their learning...

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

All because Elvis left the field - problem solving...

In my last blog, I was talking about Tigger and his lamentable lack of social skills, more evident that usual when Elvis left the field and Tigger's social life was turned upside down. 

Not really relevant here, but this picture just sums
Tigger up for me - always a bit different!
Usually during the summer, Tigger either comes when you call, or you have to go and fetch him, and he is quite happy to come in once you’ve reached him.

A few days before Elvis and Paddy were due to return to the big field, Tigger didn’t want to come in any more. His attention was glued to the mare and foal, and he didn’t want to leave them.

What now? The first thought most of us would have is probably a training solution – carrot or stick – fairly literally in this case. But neither would be a great idea.

Treats for the wanted behaviour (leaving the foal) would most probably not work – as he gets further from the foal he becomes increasingly anxious, and treats would not be a sufficient incentive, nor would they really address the problem. Safety wise also not the best – Tigger might well move further from the foal than he is comfortable with in order to get his treat, which might the trigger an explosive dash back to his buddy.

So – maybe a schooling stick or his bridle? In this situation I’d say not. He is clearly worried about leaving the foal, and putting more pressure on him will not help matters. Firstly, safety wise it’s a really bad idea – the field is deep and muddy in places, and ‘picking an argument’ with a horse on bad footing is just daft J .  Secondly, particularly in the deep and muddy bits, you are likely to fail – Tigger will return to the foal leaving you stranded without your wellies, or worse! Finally – you might get him in from the field, but if it’s not an emergency what is the point really? You’ve risked your safety and the horse’s, done no good to your relationship, probably stressed both of you quite a bit….

Think again… another option would be to bring the mare and foal in. Tigger will doubtless follow, not get stressed, this will be safer and more likely to succeed. Nothing wrong with this solution, except than in this situation, the mare and foal aren’t mine, and I don’t have anywhere to put them once they are in! So an option in an emergency, with permission from the owner, but not ideal in this case.

And we think again… and find the lazy solution, which always suits me well J Does Tigger really need to come in at all? I can check him in the field, he doesn’t need fed, and I’m certainly not going to try and ride him while he’s so distracted. In a few days Paddy and Elvis will return to the field, and they will most likely fix the problem for me. Once field life is back to normal, Tigger should get back to normal too, and we won’t have done any damage in the meantime. If things don’t settle down, we can think (yet) again.

Sure enough, the ‘not coming in’ thing stopped a few days after Paddy and Elvis returned to the field, and we’re all back to normal now.

A good example of how each ‘behaviour problem’ is so individual – we need think before acting,  understand the causes and find a solution appropriate to that unique situation.