The super power of reinforcement histories

R H Aesop SB

A few months ago, I read a blog that confidently stated, “Using feed to tease a horse into the trailer might work on a sunny day with no wind or challenge, but attraction to food fails when the stakes go up. When faced with multiple horses or injury or natural disaster, a relationship with treats will never save your horse. He needs a relationship with a leader for that.”

I felt the familiar sensation of frustration and exasperation rise together in my chest as once again I saw a chance for clear explanation of learning, stress and reinforcement histories traded in favor of a moral interpretation of horse behavior.

The laws and details of learning are a science. They are clean, spare little laws. Bare bones. They are always there, clear, unafraid and consistent.

I want to take apart the story about the horse and the trailer and the food and leadership, so we can see the actual laws at play within that situation rather than the story created around it. It’s only when we see clearly, that we can make informed choices for ourselves as trainers and for our horses as learners, so let’s begin.

First, we have to look at the nervous system.
I like to describe the nervous system to my clients as the scales of justice, a scale on each side hung from a central point. When one side of the nervous system gets heavier (or activated!), it hangs down a bit lower and the other is lifted a bit higher. The two sides counter-balance one another.
Essentially, one side is for threat preparedness, and the other is for return to homeostasis and relaxation. To make it easier to remember, think of your horse having a “survive” side of his nervous system and a “thrive” side of his nervous system.
Officially, the “survive” side is called the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the “thrive” side is called the parasympathetic or PNS. We all have both and we need both to be alive.
Based on your horse’s behavior, you can observe which side of their nervous system they are operating out of. It’s good to know, and it matters a lot when you are trying to work on re-training something previously stressful like trailer loading.

On the thrive side we have: rest, digest, feed/eat, and breed.

On the survive side we have: fight, flight, fidget, faint, and freeze.

When we are truly worried about our survival, we don’t: lay down to sleep, stop for a bite to eat or to check out a love interest as we run for our lives.

When we feel safe and unthreatened, we do not: fight, run away from others, pace around, faint or remain frozen or immobile (like standing in front of a trailer.)

So, in the story about the horse who loses interest in food when asked to get on a trailer, what that detail really tells us is the horse was worried enough about being asked to step onto a trailer to be pushed into the sympathetic side of his nervous system.
His survival instinct just got triggered and when that happens, eating goes offline.

But does that mean food is useless when it comes to teaching and maintaining the skill of trailer loading? Oh my gosh, NO! It means you have to know how to use it. And to really understand the power of food, you need to understand reinforcement histories.

So, imagine this: Each time you ask your horse for a behavior, they perform the behavior and you feed them (ABC). Each time, they experience a little jolt of pleasure in relation to the behavior you asked for. Over time, your horse will grow to have a general impression, or “classically conditioned emotional response” to being asked to perform this behavior.
This emotional response is the composite of every time he performed the behavior and the consequence that followed. So, if each time you asked your horse to walk forward on a lead and they complied, you stopped and reinforced them with some grain, they would have a very positive emotional affect when asked to walk forward. Walking forward predicts good things. So, they feel good when you ask them to walk forward. This is their reinforcement history for going forward on lead. It contains the depth of multiple repetitions, rather than the shallowness of one bucket of food in the present moment.

So, cool! It would seem you were all set to walk your horse forward, which they LOVE, and into the brand new trailer you just bought!
But here is where folks go wrong. Walking forward near the trailer or into the trailer, ALSO needs to predict good things. This is a separate reinforcement history. (This is compound now. Walking forward+trailer = ?) If every time I walk into the trailer, my person closes me in and takes me on a long bumpy ride and then I’m away from home and my friends for days, then my reinforcement history for walking forward and onto the trailer is going to be poor. Getting on the trailer will predict unpleasant things.
To fix this, just breaking the ratio of loading to actual trips helps tremendously. If I load up ten times for every one time that I actually go somewhere, then I won’t worry so much about getting on the trailer. I’ll probably get on quite easily as it usually will predict a nice big flake of alfalfa and then unloading to go back to my paddock. And I’ll eat the whole time, because I’ll be lounging around in the “thrive” side of my nervous system.

So what of the horse who refused to get on the trailer and ignored the nice bucket of food? He wasn’t lacking for a leader and he, contrary to the post, DOES find the trailer to be a the problem. Trailers are small, often dark and when a horse steps in they don’t know how long the ride will be and where they will end up. Unpredictability is, by nature, punishing. Think of blindfolding an adult human and telling them you are taking them in the car for a “birthday surprise.”Lots of people panic, pull off the blindfold or get really angry about the situation. Honestly, it’s no different for the horse.
They see the trailer, their survival mechanism gets invoked and they go into (often) an extended freeze response to avoid loading up.

Their reinforcement history is insufficient to the task being asked.

So what do horses need?
Horses just need an observant, educated human to assess what part of their learning history needs to be re-worked if they are not loading into the trailer. The time to train trailer loading is not at the horse show or clinic or vet hospital. Yes, there are emergencies and natural disasters and other situations that come up and require urgent loading. And in those moments you do the best you can with multiple tools: chutes, panels, etc, because those are “oh crap!” situations, not training scenarios. But most days aren’t emergencies. Most days are calm and open and perfect for getting to work building deep reinforcement histories. Build yours carefully and deeply enough, and that reinforcement history will always lead right into the trailer.



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Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!