The Art of Natural Dressage

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 18, 2013 9:38 am 
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Spirit has clearly got a huge fear of humans, and I have definitely gained her trust in a big way, but I began positive reinforcement techniques with her with food fairly early on, because she developed awful conjunctivitis which needed treatment, and she has very overgrown hooves that really need trimming, so i'm slowly working with her and she's gaining confidence all the time...

However, I have been ever so slightly uneasy about starting this food reward training so soon with her, and my concerns were put into words really well in Ben Hart's book, "Clicker Training for Horses". I'm going to quote a section of it, from a chapter where he describes various equine characters that he believes should be approached with extra care and discretion when beginning clicker training. (Just so you know, I haven't actually started using a clicker yet, but my method is very similar, just not as accurate as with that nice clear sound of a clicker.)


"The horse, donkey or mule that is extremely nervous of humans may not initially be the most suitable candidate for clicker training. While clicker training using food can help to create a positive association of the human to food, it is not always the ideal way to build a trusting relationship. A nervous animal that is fearful of humans will want to run away from perceived danger. If the animal is also motivated by food a conflict can arise, pitting the fear of humans against the desire for food. Equines in general are not good at dealing with decisions created between to equal, conflicting choices.
I have found the horse that is truly convinced of the untrustworthy nature of humans, through past experiences will not even want to overcome this fear for any type of reward. An extremely nervous equine may even panic at the sound of the click and have to get used to the noise before the can progress. The nervous animal may not want to take food from the trainer's hand, which futher complicates the training.
If the animal's motivation for food proves greater than the fear of the human, they will learn to approach the food source. However, the animal's approach can mask the animal's underlying fear and if their approach is mistaken for a lack of fear the animal can be put in a situation where they are overexposed to a fearful stimulus and their flight mechanism is engaged and, this can lead to injury to animal or human.
When working with nervious animal I believe training is about developing trust and learning about each other in order to understand what the animal requires and what their true nature may be. Perhaps it would be best to consider this situation in human terms. If we were shy and nervous, perhaps we even had a bad experience previously with people and then a stranger turns up and starts to give us £1 coins just for being near them, how would our relationship look? The stranger does not say much but continues to give us £1 coins as long as we are near them. We want the money but what are we learning about the stranger? We are getting richer, but are we really getting to know and trust this person? If their behaviour changes and they start to invade our personal space, at what point is their behaviour no longer worth accepting the £1? I believe equines need to learn to trust humans and that the best relationships are the ones started on solid foundations of acceptance and knowledge usually achieved through the use of body language.
Trainers tend to use clicker training with nervous animals as a way of counter conditioning, which means pairing something good like food with something the animal perceives as nagative, in this case the human, so the negative will take on a positive association. Training a nervous animal is not just about being patient or nice to the animal through the use of positive reinforcement. Successful training requires the animal to expand their comfort zones to humans and being handled. The horse, donkey or mule needs to be gently stretched mentally and physically in order to reach their potential. If the animal receives food for just being near the human the animal's comfort zones are kept limited. Once the trainer wants more commitment from the animal, or for them to accept being handled, the animal's comfort zones can be massively over reached and problems occur.
With nervous horses I like to get to know them a little first, be around them, build trust so that, even without rewards, I let them know I am not going to cause them pain, or make sudden movements to trap them. In some situations a good trainer could use clicker training to get a nervous horse to come up and accept being touched but there is then a doubt in the trainer's mind. Does this horse want to be touched or does it just want carrots? As long as we recognise this possible conflict, we can use clicker training.
Wherever possible I like to work on building a relationship first with as few pieces of equipment as possible and then to introduce clicker training after gaining the animal's trust and learning about the animal's character without the distractions of food."

I hope I haven't breached some sort of copyright copying that little section up here :ieks: and I hope Ben Hart doesn't mind.

So that is where i'm at with Spirit really. I know that she has far from dealt with her human phobia completely, but I can put ointment in her eyes using food rewards, put on a fly mask with food rewards, and run my hands down all four legs and she will now pick up her front feet - with food rewards. I do however, spend a lot of time 'just being' with her, and she now likes her neck and fact being stroked, but is afraid of scratches (apart from on her itchy ears!). If i'm very polite I can stroke her all over her body very gently now, without any kind of reward involved, and she does actively seek me out to hang out with now too. She'll also let me spray her all over with fly spray and touch her all over with a wet sponge...
But I am concerned about whether the food rewards did come in too soon. Of course, it would create further conflict still if I took them away altogether... I think i'm doing the right thing in just moving the goal-post slightly all the time and slowly expanding the comfort zones, sometimes with food rewards and sometimes without, depending on the situation.
I have also noticed that she goes back to square one with other people. She will only let Bill touch her on the nose, and yesterday as she was in a wonderfully wild mood, she wouldn't let Bill anywhere near her.

I know it's a very slow process, and I think i'm on the right path with this wonderful girl. I can see that she wants to trust me, but memories of past experiences are clearly quite strong. So i'm guessing I just need to gently introduce other people (carefully chosen characters at first I think..), and perhaps start at the beginning, with each person only touching her with a feather duster and slowly a sensitively coming in closer if Spirit gives permission.

What are other peoples' thoughts on this? I just feel it's an interesting one as it is so easy to begin using positive reinforcement very soon, but could those internal conflicts be rather damaging, causing the animal to be forced to make great leaps too soon?


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 19, 2013 9:12 am 
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It's interesting to read the coin analogy, because once again it makes it clear to me how much people can differ in their ways of applying R+ training. Indeed, if my training was like that, I might fully share Mr. Hart's concerns. :smile:

Ben Hart wrote:
A nervous animal that is fearful of humans will want to run away from perceived danger. If the animal is also motivated by food a conflict can arise, pitting the fear of humans against the desire for food. Equines in general are not good at dealing with decisions created between to equal, conflicting choices.


I think that any kind of predictable consequence you provide for a horse's behaviour, be it food or a release of pressure, warm words, turning away, or whatever, will bias the decision between possible behaviours. If the fearful horse knows that you will move away when he dares to approach, this will shift the weights between fleeing and approaching in favour of the latter. The special thing about food is just that it is so strong and therefore can create more conflict. Now you have the option to decrease the conflict by simply not incresing the weight of the one behaviour so much (by not giving food). But alternatively, you can also make it less costly for the horse to approach you.

Personally, I always try to work sub-threshold with a fearful horse. That is, if feel that he is scared of approaching me, I can simply throw the food towards him. If I feel he has a problem with the conditionality of the food ("You get it only if you do xyz..."), I simply give it for free, or for easier things that do not pose such a problem for the horse. If I feel that my presence (physical or mental) is a problem, I try to be more passive, almost as if I wasn't there. If I feel that the sound of a click or reward signal is too much for him, or merely the fact that there is a reward signal at all, I simply leave it away or decrease its intensity. Thus, I continue offering the positive, but want to make it easier for the horse to accept it.

Especially for scared horses, I stronly prefer training with food rewards (or just food, not strictly as a reward), because I feel that it has the potential not to mask but replace old phobias. I will always remember what a Clinical Psychology professor told us when I was studying and we were talking about neuronal mechanisms of the treatment of fears and phobias: You cannot erase someone's memory. But you can put a new, better memory on top of it, which ultimately gets stronger so that the old memory plays no role anymore in controlling behaviour.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:23 pm 
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Thanks Romy! What you've said has really helped, because I am gently introducing Spirit to other humans, as she and I are getting a very good connection, but she's still so nervous of anybody else. The thing that I've really taken from what you've written, is a fantastic way of explaining to others my decision to use food. Every person who has visited the ponies has been concerned that my use of food is not good because they should not be 'food orientated'. Well, they are food orientated creatures, but I do not feel that that is a bad thing, as long as it is safe and fun, and like Ben Hart says, there is not too much of an internal conflict going on.

I think with Spirit you're absolutely right that through feeding her and generally doing pleasant things together, we are creating a wonderful new memory over the top of her previous memories... I think that she has been separated from her mother way too soon or something, because she has extreme separation anxiety... I guess that's a topic for a different thread!

I couldn't agree more with what you've written though, which I find very reassuring. Sometimes I just worry about whether i'm still on the right track :blush:


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 1:29 pm 
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I can totally relate to your worries whether being on the right track. I guess trying out new ways just brings that uncertainty with it. Discussing those topics again and again will make the right track clearer each time :f:...

I think Ben Hart touches a very interesting point. I'm not sure if it's special to positive reinforcement, but for me it highlights a topic of general importance: it's one thing to acquire a certain tool (like R+), but it's another thing to use it properly.

In my opinion the question cannot be whether I have used R+ too early, because it is just a learning modality that will happen all the time, with or without me. It's also not a question of introducing food rewards too early - food has been reinforcing the foal from day one. The question for me is, how do I use it.
A mother can coax an infant to try the first walking steps by the use of R+ and then, in the critical moment of finding balance, just get up and leave. The child would probably fall, and have lost quite some amount of trust in his mother.

The whole point of clicker training, as I understand it, is to break everything down in small steps and slowly expand comfort zones. Like Ben Hart writes, the problem arises usually when you don't heed the comfort zones and try to progress too quickly.
Another essential point for me would be - and that is what AND emphasises in contrast to common clicker training - to do everything I do in light of the relationship with the horse. It's not just about exercises, or the mere quantity of things, but it's about how each participant of the learning process feels while they are interacting.

_________________
Volker

The horse owes us nothing.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 25, 2013 9:32 am 
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Houyhnhnm wrote:
II think Ben Hart touches a very interesting point. I'm not sure if it's special to positive reinforcement, but for me it highlights a topic of general importance: it's one thing to acquire a certain tool (like R+), but it's another thing to use it properly.


Yes.. Otherwise that would be when it becomes more like Ben Hart's pound coin analogy, and could lose it's worth.

Quote:
Another essential point for me would be - and that is what AND emphasises in contrast to common clicker training - to do everything I do in light of the relationship with the horse. It's not just about exercises, or the mere quantity of things, but it's about how each participant of the learning process feels while they are interacting.


:cheer: Yippee! Now that makes me feel like i'm on the right path, as I know that whatever path it is that me and Skylark and Spirit are treading, it's always been about our relationship and a precious celebration of our learning process along the way.

I think food rewards are working just fine at the moment, and like Romy said, Spirit does not have to do X, Y or Z to get the food rewards, it's sort of a natural part of our interaction at the moment, interspersed with lots of touch, not just me touching her, but her being able to touch and explore me too.

I'm grateful for your replies, as I feel a little reassured. I have always used positive reinforcement over any other training method, but with the two girls i'm learning to take it to the next level, which I guess is why I came to this forum in the first place!

I think what I choose to take from what Ben says is that with a horse who has a fear of humans, the whole picture must be looked at before choosing to approach any form of work with it, positive reinforcement or not. You're dealing with an animal who has had traumas, and therefore you must make sure that he/she doesn't mistake your intent. From there on, you need to read that animal correctly, notice how even your slightest change in posture is being received, and behave considerately and consistently. There you can begin to build trust.
I suppose that is where the food rewards come in. Like you said Volker, if the mother abandons the child when it is just finding balance, then a would can be formed where there was once trust. If food rewards are one of my chosen ways of communicating with Spirit, then I must not break that communication. I must be reliable and consistent in our interactions, and therefore a much more trustworthy creature to build on a relationship with. I suppose that would count in any chosen method of communication. Whatever it is, it must be consistent, and therefore is a reliable source of information.
Something happened to my laptop while I was writing that, and I lost half of it and had to re write it. Isn't it annoying when you felt you were putting something into words just right, then when you have to re-write it, it just isn't as good!


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