Tuesday 23 April 2013

Some more on motivation in horse training

So, after letting my thoughts on autonomous vs. controlled motivation settle a bit, my feeling is that this stuff does have a lot of relevance to horse training, and is a useful way of thinking about how we train horses. 

To recap, my understanding is that controlled motivation is the usual 'method' of training animals, whether it be carrot or stick. Autonomous motivation is where you don't externally motivate (I will hurt you if you don't/I will give you a sweetie if you do) but rather create conditions in which they can make choices and motivate themselves.

In the real world even the most well-off humans have a mixture of controlled and autonomous motivation going on. There are things we do, like pay our taxes, simply to avoid punishment. We may do a job we don't much like to get money, and so on. But we don't put much 'heart' into these things. Controlled motivation isn't much fun, basically, so the less there is of it the better, but there will always be some!

Pure autonomous motivation isn't going to be a realistic goal with horses either, even if we wanted it. For most horses anyway. For example, say I was training up a youngster for sale, and teaching him to stand for the farrier. I'm really looking for him to behave in a way that is regarded as good by most people, and for him to be comfortable with it. I don’t want him to be creative, or self-motivated particularly, I am simply training a particular behaviour.

So, can I think of examples of autonomous motivation, or areas relating to it? 

1. Something people have recognised for centuries – give a horse a job he actually enjoys, and he’ll probably be good at it. Take 2 horses who are starting jumping – if one seems to enjoy it (whole other can of worms there, but never mind, will move swiftly on ;-)) and the other will jump well when you hold a carrot out after the jump but not otherwise – which would you think would make the better jumper? Similarly, I wouldn't aim to do endurance with a horse who didn't seem to enjoy being ridden out but had to be encouraged to go with an external motivator. 

2. I think I had an example of autonomous motivation when I was riding at a clinic about a month ago – great connection with the horse, all going well, then I dropped my reins to give him a scratch as a reward and ruined it! The balance and ease of movement we were achieving felt good to him, he was enjoying what we were doing together and didn’t need an explicit reward – in fact is seemed to spoil things! 

3. Another thing good trainers have been doing for a long time – where possible, when the horse is learning, give them choices. This is more tenuous, but I think it’s the same kind of thing. Say your horse doesn't stop on a light aid. You could move up to inflicting pain - saying the only behaviour that is acceptable to me right now is that you stop – you are attempting to remove choice. Or, you could say ‘if you can’t stop right now, I won’t try to force you, but we will have to move in a circle. We can circle for as long as we need to, it’s genuinely fine with me’. OK, that’s a very engineered choice, but it’s still giving the horse space to think for himself and learn.

So, we can train a behaviour (such as going over a jump) using carrot or stick (controlled motivation), but if the horse doesn't actually want to jump, we won't get any quality. People are not too surprised when we see conflict behaviours in horses when we use the 'stick' approach to motivate him to do something he doesn't want to do. More surprising, maybe, is that the 'carrot' approach could also produce conflict in the horse if, say, a treat
 is offered in return for some behaviour that he finds aversive, and withheld otherwise  forcing the horse to deal with conflicting motivations.

This last point is especially interesting, maybe, in the context of clicker training. What I'm picking up on isn't new - quite a number of clicker trainers and horse behaviour people have been discussing this for a while now. It's easy to believe you can't go far wrong in terms of equine welfare with a clicker and a pocket full of sweeties (I've been there!) but if your horse isn't coming to enjoy, or at least feel OK about the actual training you are doing, you could be creating more problems than you are solving!

Sunday 21 April 2013

On Motivation - drilling horses, or willing horses?

Just watched this video - about motivation. Very interesting, and spookily relevant to the post I put up yesterday about how we communicate with our horses. What I took from the video - controlled motivation is the usual 'method' of training animals, whether it be carrot or stick. Autonomous motivation is where you don't externally motivate (I will hurt you if you don't/I will give you a sweetie if you do) but through understanding of the 'other' you are trying to train, create conditions in which they can make choices and motivate themselves. The latter leads, in people, to all sorts of benefits, such as positive emotions and improvements in psychological and physical health.

Anyway, the video says it much better than I could. And my brain is bouncing about trying to think through how I would explain how this applies to horses! Autonomously motivating a horse is clearly not easily explained, but from my observations, when you link a behaviour consistently with 'carrot' or 'stick' you may get the external behaviour that you want, but you lose the quality, and end up with something rather robotic. 

Promoting Motivation, Health, and Excellence: Ed Deci at TEDxFlourCity

Saturday 20 April 2013

A quiet conversation? - how do we communicate with our horses?

About a month ago, I went to a Perry Wood clinic at Easterton farm. I had intended to do a write-up on the clinic, but I'm not sure that my scribbled notes and observations would be hugely meaningful to anyone else, so here's some stuff I was thinking about and working on during the clinic. 

Perry probably started me thinking on these lines, at a clinic a number of years ago where he talked about avoiding conflict with your horse. At the time, to be honest, I'm pretty sure I thought of conflict as an all-out argument, probably involving feet, teeth, shouting, pushing and all that bad stuff! Now I would think of conflict as much more subtle - the little things that cause a 'disconnect' between you and your horse. 
Not Connected!! (spooking at snow falling off the roof)

I'd give Perry a good deal of credit for helping me to develop my understanding in this area, but no responsibility for where my brain is wandering off to in this blog! 

To me, the avoiding conflict thing with horses seems much the same as with people - if we want a good relationship with another person, provoking or fuelling an all-out fight usually isn't the best plan. The more subtle 'disconnects', such as a scornful look or a snide remark, can be just as damaging. 

So, my aim at the clinic was to have a relaxed conversation with a horse that I didn't know terribly well,  using diplomacy rather than war or coercion!

Lets take a concrete example before I get too abstract. Say we have established a nice connection in walk. Now I would like a smooth, balanced walk to canter transition. Before I even ask, the connection is going! My brain has suddenly got too busy, and my horse, bless him, will certainly give me the transition if I demand it, but how can he continue to have that relaxed conversation with someone appears to have just lost the plot? 

Like most horsey people,  I've got a strong 'just get on with it' attitude, and find it hard to get over the feeling that it is self-indulgent to be looking after my 'emotional' state when I'm riding.
But of course, getting yourself sorted on the inside - calm, clear and focussed on what you are doing, honest about and dealing with the things that may be taking you away from this state is not self-indulgent, it's vital in helping your horse and making being ridden by you a nice experience! 

So, I take my time, wait, sort myself from inside out, then ask. And allow myself to be genuinely delighted with the results :-)

Sadly, no video of the canter transitions, but did get this...

Calm, clear and connected :-)

Do Horses Dream?

Like humans, horses experience both slow-wave sleep and rapid-eye-movement (REM) deep sleep. REM sleep is thought to occur mostly when the horse is stretched out flat on his side, rather than resting on his chest.

During REM sleep people dream, and its a fair assumption that horses do the same. Their eyes move (obviously, that's why its called REM sleep), and they can  make movements, much as sleeping dogs do. Elvis probably isn't dreaming here, not deeply asleep enough, but there's certainly something going on in that active little brain of his as he drops off!

Elvis dreaming?

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Safety around Horses

Working with horses, I am well versed in the standard safety measures - what to wear, where to stand, do's and don't when handling and riding.

On Saturday, someone (I forget who, let's blame Elvis :-)) chased Tigger out of the field shelter. Tigger hasn't been drilled in keeping out of my space (that's another story), but nonetheless swerved to avoid me. I commented, half jokingly, that the best safety measure around horses is a good relationship!

Having really thought about this, I'd say this is generally true. A horse who doesn't want to be with you is unsafe wherever you stand and whatever you do. So is a horse who doesn't listen to you.

Apart from this small example, I can recall two incidents in the last 3 years or so where I was nearly hurt by one of my horses. One was Tigger, again being chased by Elvis, backing away at high speed. He started to stand on my foot, but as soon as he felt it, made a serious effort to rebalance himself and managed to not put any weight down on my foot.

The second incident was more surprising - I had a tooth abscess, hadn't slept all night and was standing rather dazed in a very stupid place (just where the haynet is in this picture. Elvis came in from the field at full pelt, round the corner and there I was. For some reason, I ducked. Elvis jumped me and ran himself into the electric fence! That was some serious effort to avoid crashing into me.

I'm not saying that safety measure such as hard hats, gloves, all the usual stuff aren't necessary (please don't notice the pic above where Amanda is conspicuously without hard hat!). Nor that you should do idiotic things like 'hiding' round the corner as a horse gallops up. But I do think that safest horse to be around, by far, is one who genuinely means you no harm!

If, say, your horse threatens to kick you, do take sensible precautions, but the best thing you could do long term to keep yourself safe is remove her desire to kick you!