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.

Understanding a basic progression in the education of a horse

Spryte at CBH horses SB

Me, at Camp Black Hawk in 1992, happy, but uneducated about learning.

The first horses that most of us ride are already trained. When I managed the barn for seven years at my girl scout camp, the horses came to us already trained. Sure, we tuned them up after their winter off, but they came to us knowing all the behaviors we needed them to know. We didn’t even talk about training, or understand the process of learning very well. This phenomenon is pretty much true throughout the horse world, in part because horses live so long and can have multiple stages in their lives, one often being where the horse goes to a beginner or a recreational rider with their skill set already in place to offer the human while they learn the basics of horse care and riding. In effect, because our horses are so long lived, and often so forgiving about their handling and ways of being ridden, training can be something that we understand vaguely as having happened in the past, but don’t truly understand as a process. In addition, because so few people start out with a foal or an untrained youngster, many professionals included, the process isn’t immediately obvious like it is with dog owners who often start with a young puppy who knows nothing about living with humans.

Because of this phenomenon, I often see huge holes in my students’ skill set when they get their first horse that needs active training, rather than passive maintenance of already acquired skills. In particular, I observe that people struggle to understand what to teach when, so I’ve created a basic curriculum to help guide folks working at home. It’s the general progression I use with my own horses and all my students’ horses as well. It allows you to rate where your horse is in their progression of learning and to know where to go next in their education. (This progression assumes a tame horse that wears a halter and is unafraid of humans.)

  1. Teach your horse to be operant through introduction of target training. If your horse isn’t operant and doesn’t understand they can effect change through their behavior, then you must go back and introduce this step. Even if they seem to have many other behaviors already learned, go back and confirm they are operant and not just passively compliant.
  2. Go through the process of teaching your horse foundation lessons.
    For me this means: Touch a target with your nose, walk forward from a cue on the lead, back up from a cue on the lead, stand quietly in with your head and neck in the center of your chest, aka, “neutral” position, stand on a mat, and offer head down from a cue on the lead.

    All of these behaviors can be taught from target training and transferred to tactile cues on the lead to avoid learner frustration, but it is very important that the cues transfer from visual to tactile cues as your horse becomes more educated. If they aren’t transferred, you will be limited when you want to begin riding, especially because targets from the saddle throw the horse off balance and badly out of alignment.

    Initial teaching of these foundation behaviors should occur in an environment where the horse is totally comfortable and learning is optimal.

  3. Establish that all of these responses are easy for your horse and can be put together in loops without “extra” behavior creeping in: walk forward – click – back up- click – head down – click, before you move on to rehearsing these behaviors in more challenging environments. (For more information on “loopy training”, check out Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training DVD.)
  4. Expand the context of your horse’s foundation behaviors. Use them in new and ever-widening environments: in the indoor arena, in the outdoor arena, on the road from the barn to the indoor, etc.
  5. Confirm that you can use the foundation behaviors you have taught your horse to  help them balance out emotionally. In the beginning, horse training is essentially energy regulation. Each of the foundation behaviors is there to place your horse in space and offer them an alternative to increasing adrenaline or fear. Being able to help them back away, stand still, move to a  mat or lower their head, suggest to them, “Do this for reinforcement rather than just react!”
    Once you can use your foundation behaviors to help your horse balance out emotionally, they are safe and ready to move on in the process. This stage of training can take some time, so be patient.
  6. Choose a discipline.
    What do you want to pursue? Now that you and your horse have built a system of communication and you both feel safe working in varied environments, it’s time to move on to new skills.
    Whether you want to pursue art form dressage, trail riding, horse agility, or working equitation, there will be a whole new set of component skills to teach your horse. Luckily, your horse will now be comfortable in the arena, or the outdoor arena or at a clinic, so you will be able to get to work on teaching the building blocks of your new discipline. And, if your horse gets worried, you know you have the foundation to go back to to help them calm down.
    Is your horse not even under saddle yet? Congrats! It’s time to start with the building blocks for ridden work!

    Helping people identify where they are in this progression with their own horses and helping them acquire the skills to teach each individual piece forms the bulk of my work with my students. In my experience, it takes from 2-4 years to learn the entire skill set as a human, but is a much briefer process to teach to a horse once you understand it yourself, six months to two years, depending on the horse.

    Where are you in the progression with your own horse? Do you know where you are going next?

    Enjoy the journey.

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A new year at Idle Moon Farm : 2014 : Balance

Yesterday morning as I watched Rumi cantering through the snow, totally relaxed with an even cadence, I thought how lovely it would be to ride him. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about riding him lately, his pasture gaits are really very balanced and full of impulsion and more than once I’ve just stood holding the hay in my arms while I watch him trot or canter with lovely control and variation within his gait. He’s a very athletic horse. He’s also a nervous horse who bucked a lot of people off when he was started too quickly under saddle. Before I get on him, he needs to have mastered many skills he doesn’t yet have. To do it well, I need a plan, both for individual sessions and a larger outline that helps lead the way to where we are going. Since it’s New Year’s Day, its a fitting time to lay out broad goals for all of my horses and release solid intention into the universe.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi gathers Sufi mystics.

Rumi :  I would like to work toward riding Rumi. This means teaching him the six foundation lessons: target, happy ears, back up, head-down, the grown-ups are talking (stand quietly), and stand on a mat. These lessons can be taught first in the barn where he is comfortable, then out on the big driveway circle and then finally in the indoor and outdoor arena. Once he is comfortable with these lessons and relaxed in either arena with all the foundation lessons, we can move to WWYLM (Why would you leave me?) on a cone circle. I’m excited to get to work on his physical balance because I think he’s going to enjoy the work. I suspect it will change him emotionally and I am eager to reach that phase. I will set a loose goal of sitting on him by this fall while he works in-hand on a cone circle with a header. Then he could have a few winter months off and we can pick up in spring and begin riding on our own in the summer of 2015. An eight year old Arabian certainly has a good 20 more years of riding.

Best of the Dragon, Vol. 1

Dragon: Dragon is the most educated of my horses and a very fast learner, so mapping out an entire year seems too large. He changes and progresses so quickly and has so much to teach me that I really can’t claim to know where we will be in six months. It’s a conversation based on what comes up during our rides. Currently, we have been working on and have achieved a very open, engaged walk that “has the trot available” within it. He’s using his back beautifully and becoming quite strong. His muscles have evened out and we no longer need our right side shim which balanced out his weaker muscles on that side. I’m learning how to keep him in balance in that walk and my goal is to be able to request that walk and have him be able to maintain it joyfully on the circle, across the diagonal, in half-turns in reverse and throughout all the “training turns” without losing a particle of impulsion. (Nuno Oliveira) We are working on brief trots when his balance in the walk is divine and clicking before there is any loss of balance.
In-hand we are working on haunches-in and shoulder-in, so we both have the feel of it in our bodies before we ride it. We are working on duration for haunches in and still fiddling with an ideal balance for shoulder-in. We are also doing much more trot work in hand, releasing Dragon into his own balance when he finds a good equilibrium and clicking him for maintaining that on his own.
For my part, I am working on my seat and own riding both in dismounted and mounted exercises as well as deep body awareness. I need to be as balanced, strong and aware as I am asking Dragon to be.

I graNt YoU 3 WiSheS

Djinn: Djinn will be five this summer, so it’s not too early to think about riding her. I already bought her a beautiful blue swallow tail saddle pad, so I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have been thinking about it. Djinn has already has learned five of the six foundation exercises;  I still need to introduce “stand on a mat” to her, but everything else she learned last year.
Even though she already has a reasonable foundation, I am going to review each exercise with special attention to how light she is and how *connected* she is within her body. She is a horse that can get “stuck” in her body and I want to feel like my lead/rein is literally just an extension of her body, even in higher arousal situations. So we will be going back through our foundation work to add in layers of refinement. From there we will move to WWYLM on the circle and then all the same work with the saddle on, as well as “mounting block games”, teaching her to line up with the  block. I really adore this little mare and I think she is going to look spectacular moving in balance. It will be interesting to compare the differences between her and Rumi as we look toward riding – how they both need to learn the same things, but likely need totally different aspects of the work emphasized.

English: Tarot card II Jupiter of Swiss Tarot 1JJ

Tarot: Tarot is the horse that pushes me to explore the outer edges of possibility and to use intuition first, guided by the good science of learning. This year I want to explore his feet handling issues more intensively so he can learn to be comfortable for trimming without sedation. I’ve put together a new protocol that I’m excited to get started on once it’s warm enough.  We’ve also began de-sensitizing to the fly spray, which he’s shown continuous improvement with, until it became to cold to spray a liquid into the air.

I like to balance out working on fear issues with more emotionally easy and enjoyable work for him.

Tarot has learned all of his foundation skills to fluency, so we will be starting more work in-hand. We will start by reviewing his skills in the indoor arena and then move to WWYLM, which he had 3 or 4 sessions on last year. I am excited to explore balance work with him, to see him grow stronger and for him to feel powerful in his body in concert with a human. Humans have taken so much power from him and restricted him so frequently. I am interested to see what he has to say about this piece of the work in particular.
I am also interested to explore shaping on a point of contact and the deep tactile listening it develops. There’s something that opens up down the lead or rein when you and the horse are concentrating on that same point of contact, it’s like your nervous systems become one circuit and the feeling is indescribable. I want to know if that is possible with him. If it happens, I will know someday I can ride him.

Title page of Three Hundred Aesop's Fables

Aesop: Aesop will be seven this year. He’s already safe and started under saddle and he’s a lovely, easy horse to teach. He is very light and responsive in-hand and actually has much more energy and impulsion in-hand than under saddle. It only makes sense – he’s been working with me on the ground for over two years and the level of refinement and solid reinforcement history shows. Riding is newer and he looks like a less advanced horse with a rider. He has a more common balance and still some questions to be worked out.  My initial focus for him this year is to help him transfer all those wonderful qualities he has in-hand to ridden work.

I am going to teach this through a few different “conversations.”

We will continue our work in-hand, focusing on “Three-Flip-Three” or connecting his hip to the rein. This will allow him to really step under with his inside hind and carry himself in a way that is correct and will help make him stronger and more “through”, meaning, his energy will move cleanly and easily from the push of his back hoof all the way up through his back in a cycle of energy. Once he is understanding that equilibrium better, I will add in trot work in hand with that understanding, so he can be reinforced for working in a gait with more energy, but correctly. He likes to trot in-hand, but he lacks power, so that needs to be added so he can carry himself and me.

I will continue riding but with a person at our head to work him in-hand while I ride. Aesop needs some help with accessing the same balance in the saddle as he has on the ground. A person at his head can help him with familiar cues so that he can find the same balance and impulsion and start to offer it when ridden. Like Dragon, Aesop is more advanced, so planning out an entire year would be too big. This work will take us about six to eight weeks, so will keep us busy during later winter and early spring. By summer we should have some lovely videos to share.

Those are my basic big picture plans for my horses. Teaching emotional control through foundation lessons. Teaching physical balance. Combining the two to create a reliable riding partner. Refining physical balance and tactile communication in an ongoing effort toward the centaur. Re-visiting foundation lessons to focus on and reinforce lightness before starting under saddle. Setting up new, functional behaviors for feet handling and basic husbandry in place of old, fear and anger based behaviors through unconventional teaching. Using good physical balance to build confidence, strength and emotional engagement. Using in-hand work to inform balance and learning with a rider through utilizing a ground person.

When you look at the list, in the end, everything is about balance. Clinicians talk a lot about being centered and working on yourself and then working on your horse. But what does that mean? It just means: learn to be self-aware enough to see what you are doing and know what you are feeling. Learn to understand the horse’s emotional states and how to help them shift easily between them. Learn to understand the horse’s horizontal balance so you can help them find strength and fluidity when they are having trouble. Everything I have as a goal for my horses takes them more toward “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” Horses are a shifting puzzle of behaviors, motor patterns and behavioral tendencies that can teach us exquisite observational skills and body awareness if we accept the challenge of learning what they need to be in true equilibrium.