What would I do if my horse had a behavioural problem?
Firstly check for any physical reasons for the behaviour - pain, ill-fitting tack, back problems, teeth, feet etc. Then check the environment is right for the horse - has he got friends, freedom and forage? Is he free from stress - e.g stabling for too long without enough forage can cause stress related problems such as gastric ulcers and stereotypies.
Look at the diet, is he over fed for the amount of work he is doing?
Then look at why he performs the behaviour, what is the purpose of the behaviour, is it a fear based behaviour, does he feel insecure, does he have separation anxiety etc.
Often changing the environment will make a huge difference.
Only then can a plan be made to help.
Training alone may never get to the root cause of the problem, at best it may put a sticking plaster over the problem, by suppressing the behaviour.
Yes, we can train alternative behaviours to ones we don't want, we can punish the behaviour e.g adding an aversive stimulus every time he performs the behaviour until he learns how to avoid the aversive and the behaviour stops. EG adding pressure to the halter every time he tries to run away. The use of aversive stimuli can either stop a behaviour (punish), or its removal can reinforce a behaviour. So are you punishing the running away or reinforcing the stopping? It pays to know the difference.
Get professional help from an equine behaviourist well versed in the correct use of positive reinforcement and classical conditioning. Find one who can help you use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. This will change the emotions associated with fearful situations.
Horses are big, strong animals and we do need to stay safe but that does not have to mean using pressure halters or other controlling equipment. Yes they may work as the horse learns to avoid the pressure but without examining the underlying cause of the problem it may reappear later.
Suppressed behaviours do have a habit of spontaneous recovery.
Horses need to feel safe, our relationships should be built on mutual trust, not on dominace and submission.
This is an interesting statement from the Equitation Science group. Debunking the need to use dominance as a form of leadership with horses.
If we use positive reinforcement the horse has a true choice, he is not coerced or subdued but is a true partner.
Medical Definition of approach–avoidance conflict
1. : psychological conflict that results when a goal is both desirable and undesirable—called also approach-avoidance; compare approach-approach conflict, avoidance-avoidance conflict
This is can occur when the appetitive stimuli is greater than the aversive stimulus e.g trailer loading when the horse is afraid of the trailer but we use a target and +R to get the horse in the trailer. The horse may still not be unafraid of the trailer. So we do need to use desensitisation and counter conditioning first before any attempt to load and travel a fearful horse.
Medical Definition of avoidance–avoidance conflict
1. : psychological conflict that results when a choice must be made between two undesirable alternatives—compare approach-approach conflict, approach-avoidance conflict
This is where we use an aversive stimulus to get a horse to do something he doesn’t want do to. So trailer loading when we use aversive stimulus to coerce a horse in to a trailer. The horse is still afraid of the trailer but is more afraid of the external aversive stimulus. Pressure applied to a halter, tapping with a whip, using lunge lines or the rhythmic pressure often used in natural horsemanship.
If we don’t alter the horse feelings about the trailer he may still be afraid of travelling. If he travels enough times and has good experiences the horse may well habituate to travelling but the initial process is stressful.
The use of desensitisation with counter conditioning changes the emotional responses around the lorry/trailer. The following is an excellent article written by Dr Helen Spence.
When I asked a question on a natural horsemanship website about learning theory, this was the response.
They got the definition of negative reinforcement correct - it is the removal of an aversive stimulus (something the horse wants to avoid). Training with negative reinforcement uses an aversive stimulus to form the behaviour, that stimulus is then removed when the animal performs the behaviour. So use pressure to form the behaviour and release of that pressure to reinforce the behaviour.
So all natural horsemanship students and instructors ought know how to use this correctly and indeed most do use negative reinforcement very well.
The answer to the use of positive reinforcement is a little vague. "The positive reinforcement (food, scratches, gentle rub, rest, grazing, treat, etc.) should be presented consistently and should occur frequently."
What it doesn't address is how to train behaviours using positive reinforcement. This I think is where many get confused - as they form a behaviour using an aversive stimulus and then give a cookie or a scratch and think that is positive reinforcement.
There are several ways to train a behaviour:
So we don"t just wait for the behaviour to occur naturally, as some seem to think, we can be active trainers and also use no aversive stimuli.
Negative reinforcement can be mildly aversive but it does have to be something the horse would rather avoid for it to be effective. Hence the term avoidance learning.
Every horse and every person is different - what is mildly aversive for one horse may be too much for another, just as what is exciting for one person might be terrifying for another.
So if we put too much pressure on a horse and he or she rears, bucks or does any other "FEAR" based behaviour we have gone too far.
Stimuli can be aversive, appetitive or neutral.
This is one reason I try not to use aversive stimuli to form behaviours, plus the emotions are very different when we use positive reinforcement. It triggers the CARE, PLAY and SEEKING systems. Negative reinforcement triggers the FEAR, RAGE and PANIC systems in many instances. So chasing, driving, flag waving to get the horse to move will trigger a FEAR response. FEAR can be seen as anxiety and RAGE can be seen as frustration. (Based on Jaak Panksepps Emotional Systems).
Positive reinforcement used incorrectly can also cause RAGE (frustration) if the horse begins to feel entitled to the reinforcement and it isn't given on time or we are slow in getting a behaviour on a variable schedule of reinforcement.
We can also use shaping. Shaping is a conditioning paradigm used primarily in the experimental analysis of behaviour. The method used is differential reinforcement of successive approximations of a behaviour.
So shaping is not a method of getting a behaviour but a method of reinforcing small approximations of the required behaviour. It can use either positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement would entail either a target to get behaviour - bridge and reinforce; capturing any slight movement towards the desired behaviour - bridge and reinforce. Negative reinforcement - release of pressure for the slightest try.
It is up to each person to decide for themselves what they want to do with their animals, my personal choice is to use reward based training and may not be for everyone to follow at this moment in time.
Negative reinforcement = removing an aversive stimulus (first the stimulus has to be applied to form the behaviour then removed as a reinforcement).
Positive reinforcement = adding an appetitive after the behaviour has been performed (the behaviour can be formed using target training, capturing the movement or using mild tactile touch, a bridging signal is used to mark the exact time of the wanted behaviour.)
This explains what happens in some natural horsemanship programs - it may seem like magic or a deep connection with the handler but it is the laws of learning being applied - even if the handler is unaware of them.
“Contrary to NH trainers argumentation, it seems that during the “natural” training, the horse does not follow the human because it feels safe and accepts the human as a herd leader, but because the human removes aversive stimuli in response to animal’s gestures that reflect higher submissiveness to the trainer or the relaxation (e.g. lowering of the head – Rietmann et al 2004). The affiliation signals that shorten the distance may be wrongly interpreted by the human [Goodwin 1999], and recent research have shown that horse’s response to humans is context-specific and may be based on negative reinforcements rather than on the social strategy [Kruger 2007, Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2008, McGreevy at al. 2009].”
“Many papers show unambiguously that positive reinforcement is the most effective training tool [e.g. Lieberman 1993, Sankey et al. 2010, Waran 2003], although application of such stimuli only in horses are impractical [McGreevy 2007]. The positive impact of rewarding has been widely discussed and reported in scientific literature; yet, this kind of reinforcement is still unwillingly applied in equine practice based on the conviction of its negative effect on equine behaviour which undoubtedly reveals the partial ignorance of documented scientific research. It has been shown that in the process of young horse training rewarding evoked positive responses of horses to humans, which persisted during subsequent months [Sankey et al.2010]. Additionally, enhanced interest in training and improved memorisation ability were observed.
The use of positive reinforcements motivates horses to confront challenges and undertake learning, and ensures perception of training as positive interactions [Sankey et al. 2010]. This is related to activation of neurophysiological processes associated with the dopaminergic system [Jay 2003].
Moreover, expecting a reward itself produces the same effect, which is not the case when aversive stimuli are employed [Schulz et al 1997]”