Saturday, 9 January 2021

Attachment theory and horses - serve and return

 A few people have been writing about attachment theory and horses recently, so I thought I'd 'go public' with this little piece relating to attachment theory that I was putting together as part of the Equine Behaviour Affiliation's Applied Behaviour Course. 

Serve and return. If it's new to you, this video may help 

InBrief: The Science of Neglect

So, that's a good introduction for humans, and particularly the importance of serve and return for children. 

As adults, this still matters - for example just brief eye contact with a trusted friend can really help to calm you when you are feeling worried. 

How about horses? The relationships that are central to a horse's life will hopefully be equine, but aspects of attachment theory can help us to think about how we interact with them too. 

Here's a little clip of Harvey, an ex racehorse who lives at my yard. Harvey has just been attacked by his food bowl! He somehow managed to flip it up and fire food into his face and got a big fright. 5 minutes later he is still not eating. 

Here, I think we have some serve and return. He touches me (and it's not for treats - he knows all about my right pocket!), I respond, and he then feels safe enough to eat. He repeats this movement a few times before really settling.

Completing this serve and return might seem a small thing to us, but think how you feel when you try to catch that friend's eye when you are worried and she looks away or ignores you. It's not so different, and can make a huge difference to the horse and really strengthen a relationship. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Grazing muzzles: thoughts on applying research findings to the individual

This is a great example of considering the individual as well as research.

Also considering what the research actually tells us - for example, testing 6 ponies is completely understandable from a research point of view, and provides useful information, but is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about most horses from.

In this paper, grazing muzzles are found to have several benefits for the ponies tested, and no measured problems. For these ponies, grazing muzzles would seem to improve their welfare.

For the individual horse - consider the pros and cons and that horse's reaction to the muzzle. Although the ponies in this research showed no increase in physiological stress in the measurements taken, some horses are clearly very stressed by a grazing muzzle and there may be other less stressful solutions to weigh management.

Throughout nearly 20 years of looking after Paddy, the only item he has ever consistently avoided - with an added kick threat if I persisted - is a grazing muzzle. In his case, weight control was essential, but he seemed much happier with a small bare paddock and company. Others have accepted it without seeming too concerned. For the horse who is clearly not thrilled about the muzzle but does tolerate it - careful ongoing evaluation of your options!

Learn from the research, but always listen to your horse too.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Equine Aggression: Character or well-being?

Flynn (the chestnut horse in the video) is lovely with people, but in the first yard shown in the video spent a fair amount of time threatening and moving the other horses.
It's common to label a horse like this as aggressive, antisocial, dominant.
There are actually many factors involved in Flynn's behaviour. Out in the field with the others he looked very relaxed. He needs to have a good bit of space to feel he can safely be around other horses. So much of his behaviour was about maintaining a safe space around himself. This may have come from being cornered/injured/threatened by other horses in the past - we don't know.
If we label an animal, we tend to lose empathy for them, and we may be annoyed or frustrated by their behaviour.
Instead, we could consider this behaviour as a symptom of an underlying problem; his well-being is compromised. It could be a sign of pain, fear; really any form of stress. We can then consider how to help him.

Having sufficient space and feeling safe are basic needs for all animals, and vary for each individual. In this case, we could simply say that his basic needs are not being met in this environment, causing stress which then (as is often the case) causes aggression.

Flynn will also behave more aggressively than usual if other basic needs are not being met; for example if he is cold and wet, or in pain.

Even if we can't resolve the issue entirely (we didn't move to the new environment in the video for over 5 years), we can at least make some changes to improve things, and appreciate that we should be looking for ways to help this horse rather than impugning his good character.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Horses as individuals (not statistics)

Asking a good equine behaviourist questions about your horse may initially be frustrating. They are often going to say something like ‘it depends’.

Why is my horse bucking after jumps?
Why won’t my horse go in the trailer?
Why does my horse pin his ears when people pass her stable?
Why does my horse yawn after I put his bridle on?
What should I do if my horse is pulling away from me for grass when I lead her?
And so on.

The answer to all of these questions is – it depends…

Part of the reason ‘it depends’ is that every horse is an individual, and whilst research and experience may both reveal patterns in horses’ body language and behaviour, the individual may well not conform to the norm. So a behaviourist will want to ask an awful lot of questions and actually see your horse if at all possible before giving any sort of opinion.

In a recent journal club with IAABC colleagues, we discussed an interesting paper, ‘Horses associate individual human voices with the valence of past interactions: a behavioural and electrophysiological study’ Serenella d’Ingeo, Angelo Quaranta, Marcello Siniscalchi, Mathilde Stomp, Caroline Coste, Charlotte Bagnard, Martine Hausberger & Hugo Cousillas. Scientific Reports | (2019) 9:11568 |

The authors of this paper were interested in how horses responded to a voice they associated with a negative experience (V-) as opposed to their response to a voice they associated with a positive experience (V+). The figure below is reproduced from the paper (Many thanks to Springer Nature for their generous copyright policy!), with my simple additions of the letters A, B, C and D and a vertical blue line. Each dot in the figure represents a horse, so 16 horses in total are represented.

Figure from above cited paper: Theta wave relative frequency in % of the power profile (right hemisphere): correlation between data obtained for each horse during the playback of V+ and V− respectively.

Without reviewing the findings in this paper, we can simply use this as an example. Please don’t worry if, like me, you are not well versed in the significance of brain waves!

Here, a notable observation might be that 12 of the 16 horses are to the left of the blue line drawn from 0 on the x axis; the majority of horses have a negative measurement in response to the voice associated with a positive experience. This would be a typical and very valid point for discussion – we have found a pattern. 

However, this figure is also an excellent reminder to consider the individual.

For example, horse A measures 30 for the voice associated with the negative experience (V-), and around -15 for the voice associated with the positive experience (V+), whilst horse B is -20 and 20 for V- and V+ respectively. So they are showing opposite responses in this test. Horse C has negative readings for both experiences, whilst horse D has positive readings for both experiences. Horse D also has a strongly positive measure for V+, whilst most other horses are negative or close to 0.

Furthermore, if we were to look at, say, the mean average of V+ measurements, we would get a figure around -5. We need to be very aware that several individuals showed very different measurements.

Statistics gathered for groups give us useful information, but should not be assumed to relate to the individual. 

That this figure beautifully illustrates the point that each horse is an individual was observed by Dr Robin Foster at the journal club, so all credit is due to her for highlighting this. The explanation given here, and any mistakes therein are down to me.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

horses, fireworks and feeling safe

For very obvious reasons, feral horses prefer to be in wide open spaces, where they can detect threats from as great a distance as possible. Other needs - for food, water, shelter and so on may take them to less open spaces where they will be more vigilant - predators may lurk there.

When I built my yard, I wanted to provide adequate shelter from the scottish winter weather, but also tried to keep it as open as possible so it would feel like a safe place. And they look very relaxed and happy in the yard, and come in from the field to rest and doze.
As the weather turns, they have been spending more and more time in the yard. However, coming up the morning after fireworks night, it was interesting to see that they had hardly been in the yard. It was clear that they had spent the night in the most wide open area of the fields. Maybe seems obvious, but I thought it worth commenting on. Our view is often that a stable is a place where a horse can feel and be safe, and depending on the horse's situation and past experiences this may be the case, but often if the horse senses danger a wide open space will feel much safer. 

Of course, horses did not evolve to cope with traffic, fences, and thousands of other hazards in the environments we keep them in. Where a horse will actually be safe, may be different from where he will feel safe, but his emotional state and possible responses to feeling endangered are an important factor to consider. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Spending quality time with your horse

Got a message from a past student a couple of days ago with a very well put observation. 

Over last summer she had done a lovely piece of training with her horse to help him with his worries about trailer loading - very slow and observant, really listening to him and taking things at his pace. 

He had been a bit 'off' coming out of winter, and she was keeping an eye on him, looking for something to perk him up. For various reasons, as the trailer was out, she decided to try loading him. He did brilliantly, and the next day was full of enthusiasm when she arrived. Her comment was 'it's amazing how spending some quality time with him made him so happy'. 

When I first got involved with horses, I think I'd have considered quality time with them as going out on a long hack, or maybe grooming - but more from the perspective of what I enjoyed, unless the horse was really clearly unhappy about the activity! A trailer loading training session definitely wouldn't have been on the list. 

I've seen this often, how working at the horse's pace through a fear issue can transform a relationship, and also this training becomes something they really enjoy. The phrase 'quality time' was so accurate; when we can slow down and really pay attention to them and help them feel better about their worries in life, it can mean so much to them. And we can then bring this pace and attitude to other areas of our work with them, and build on a solid foundation. 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Some thoughts on negative and positive reinforcement

Most of us, if we learn about learning theory, quickly become familiar with the following:

Negative reinforcement : the removal of something aversive from the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to occur in the future. 

Positive reinforcement: the addition of something rewarding into the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour more likely to occur in the future.

Negative punishment: the removal of something appealing from the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future

Positive punishment: the addition of something aversive into the environment as a consequence of a behaviour, making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future.

Looks quite straightforward...

Then, we categorise the training and learning we see. We give our horse a polo when he touches a cone, and say we are training with positive reinforcement. We form biases about what kind of training is good and what is bad. Taken to an extreme, we form opinions about whether people are good or bad based on the kind of training they do, but that's a subject for another day! 

So - a couple of thoughts on positive and negative reinforcement. 

Is it positive or negative reinforcement? 

Let's say my horse Paddy has an itchy leg - he finds a tree stump, lifts his leg and rubs against it, removing the itch. We would generally describe this as negative reinforcement - the irritating itch has been removed by Paddy's behaviour - rubbing the tree stump. 

Now, let's say Paddy has an itchy leg and lifts his leg while I am grooming him. I reach down and scratch his leg for him. Is this positive reinforcement - I am adding a pleasant scratch, or negative reinforcement - removing the itch as in the previous case. Does Paddy learn any differently in the two cases above? 

Since it is the horse who is learning, it only really matters how his brain processes these two events - my opinion is unimportant in his learning process! But I'd be more likely to call the latter case positive reinforcement, because I added a good consequence. 

So already we see a grey area in how we classify the learning. 

Can  learning through negative reinforcement be a 'nice' experience? 
The example above, where Paddy finds the handy tree stump surely confirms that negative reinforcement can be an enjoyable method of learning - the relief of scratching the itch. 

To take an example involving a human rather than a bit of wood - let's say Paddy comes hobbling in from the field. He has a big stone trapped in his foot which I removed when he lifts his foot for me. We'd usually describe this as negative reinforcement - I've removed something aversive, and this was probably a very good experience for Paddy. 

How do we decide on our preferred training methods? 
If we think in terms of positive and negative reinforcement, and decide that positive reinforcement is good, kind, ethical, call it what you will, and negative reinforcement is to be avoided where possible - the above examples don't make sense! 

Not only is negative reinforcement a good experience for Paddy in theses cases, it's also sometimes not even clear if learning has occurred through negative or positive reinforcement - that just depends how we view it. 

When we are considering the effectiveness of training, then understanding the mechanics of learning is important. 

When we are considering the ethics of training, a major factor is how it feels to the learner, rather than how it affects their behaviour. Using a model that describes how their behaviour is affected to describe how they may feel is, I think, not enough. 

What really matters, I think, is how the horse feels about interaction we have with him. 

To take an extreme example, if we apply a painful stimulus to our horse then release it when he behaves as we wish, we are using negative reinforcement, but it is the active application of a painful stimulus that we should be concerned about, not the learning mechanism. Whether the aversive stimulus is applied before or after a behaviour, or entirely at random, for myself, I'd like to minimise these stimuli. I'd also like to increase the things he finds nice, whenever they happen! 

In summary - be nice to your horse :-)