What’s in a trail ride? Making use of  objects to cue learned behaviors and classically conditioned emotional states.

What’s in a trail ride? Making use of objects to cue learned behaviors and classically conditioned emotional states.

Aesop in field sbEarlier this winter, I did a lot of hiking out in the 100 or so acres behind our farm. There was plenty of soft snow and it wasn’t demanding on cold muscles like accurate arena work.  It was a good way to get the blood flowing and as a bonus, I could wear gloves when I fed my horses and while I hiked. I didn’t need extra dexterity on the reins like I do in-hand or under saddle. As we hiked, technically on a “trail ride” as the horses and I were off property, moving in a relative line, I started to think about what a trail ride really is, to the horse, how many owners struggle with taking their horse out alone and what we can take from our daily work to make riding-out possible, safe and fun.

I was very interested in observing the general change in my horses’ arousal levels as we left our property. All of my horses eagerly volunteer to come out and learn, and all of them are used to working alone, without any other horses. But leaving the home property adds a level of unfamiliarity and a much larger physical distance from the actual herd. Because I am not interested in suppression or force as a tool for controlling behavior, my horses were totally at liberty so I would have an honest read on whether or not they wanted to come along. (Our farm is very secluded, so even if my horses were to go back home on their own, there is really no traffic or road to cross. Other people might not have this set up and will need to make adjustments to ensure safety for their horses.)

Initially, I took my horses two at a time out hiking. I knew having two together would easily increase relaxation, and I wanted to take advantage of creating positive initial experiences. I had my wife or other training friends come along and each of us was responsible for one horse.

Out for a hike in a group SB

Dragon, Aesop and Sara out on an early winter hike.

With two horses, the hikes were easy and they both stayed quite relaxed, their thresholds nearly identical to when we trained on property. Awesome! But, as we neared home, maybe the last 50 yards or so, they would speed up and canter back into view of the other horses and our barn. It improved with every hike, until it was only the last ten feet as the trail switched from the field to our property, but it was still anxiety. Small things can always turn into big things, so better to address them early. The horses were letting me know where the holes were in their emotional confidence.

The next time I brought Dragon and Aesop into the field, I had a new plan based on what I had observed. Before I took them out, I set up the field with objects I use in training sessions in the indoor arena. I dragged out mounting blocks, some large buckets I use to mark off circles when we longe at liberty, as well as a large plastic spool I got at a dog training store.

Mounting block SB

My well-loved mounting block.

I set these things up at the entrance to the field, so they were some of the very first and very last things we encountered as we hiked. As we entered the field the first time with the object set up, the change in the horses was measurable. They had felt relaxed before, but now they eagerly walked up to the familiar objects, lining up with the mounting blocks, sometimes moving out ahead to reach an object first and then wait for me to catch up and reinforce. They were focused and thoughtful.

Aesop and Sam at the mounting block SB

Aesop lining up at the bucket for Sam.

It became very clear to me very quickly, that adding in objects that already had conditioned associations with them and deep reinforcement histories allowed the horses to access their best, most responsive selves immediately. Adding the objects onto our trail walks was like when we got to use our notes for tests in school: everything felt easy and suddenly test taking wasn’t nerve wracking in the least!

Dragon at mounting block SB best

Dragon at the mounting block, offering stillness and his back. Lovely!

The objects you use in your everyday training sessions: mounting blocks, traffic cones to mark off circles, and buckets to practice turning around are more than just mundane objects. They become a deep and integral piece of the learning process. What functions do they serve?

  1. They cue you to stop and ask for a certain behavior from your horse. These objects help order and pattern your training sessions. Trail walks and rides can be long and continuous. Once people start, they rarely stop, which can lead to both the horse or human becoming overfaced as they steadily move into uncharted territory. Using objects along your path can break up the pressure to go, go, go and provide better context for you and your horse.
  2. They become secondary reinforcers to your horse. Even though these objects are neutral initially, over time, their presence becomes reinforcing to your horse because they so often lead to actual reinforcement. This classical conditioning will help your horse to feel relaxed and eager because working around these objects always predicts good things!
  3. These objects also cue your horses for certain operant behaviors. If you have done a solid job using objects as targets and context cues in your foundation work with your horse (stand on a mat, line up at a mounting block, trot to the outside of cones, touch your nose to a jolly ball), you have a whole lexicon of visual cues you can take with you on the trail or in new environments. Rather than abandoning all of the familiar and well learned objects, bring them into your trail ride or new environments to help your horse be right!
    Dragon riding out SB

    A short trail ride alone, once we were comfortable thanks to our object work. Heading back toward a mounting block, not pictured.

    Aesop riding out SB

    Riding object to object with Aesop out in the fields.

    When we work in arenas, we never ask our horses to go any further from home than they are when they enter the arena. It’s a static space, controlled and safe. But when we head out onto the trail, not only is it an unpredictable environment in terms of wildlife, geographical variation and unfamiliarity; it also takes our horses continually further from home and their herd mates. That’s pretty challenging. Getting our horses used to learning and working in novel environments should be approached thoughtfully and with attention to detail. Intentionally harnessing the power of familiar objects with deep reinforcement histories allows our horses immediate relaxation and context in what can be a fear-inducing situation. It’s just good training.

 

Do you enjoy reading Spellbound? Head on over to my Patreon page to support me continuing to create stellar content AND see what sort of comprehensive educational materials I have in the works! You will find extra content, my other blog and patron-only rewards there.

“We don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” – A. Kurland

Fly spray for horses is often required in hot ...

Last week I demonstrated how to set up a training session so a horse can learn to stand still around something that scares them even when allowed to spin, trot or canter away as an initial response. I focused on the expression of the flight response not presenting a roadblock to calm, relaxed behavior if it happened in the context of a positive reinforcement paradigm. To be clear, though, the training session I set up for Tarot had many more components than simply allowing a flight response. Just allowing him to run away wouldn’t have helped him access behavior change. The other crucial elements in setting up this session for Tarot were choice, stimulus predictability, reinforcing active coping skills and presenting only one component of the stimulus per training session.

Choice:

The word “choice” is thrown around a lot in training circles these days. As we humans become more sensitive to  treating our animal companions more humanely, we are learning to consider what choices we can safely offer our horses and what truly empowering training scenarios might look like. With Tarot, in particular, who has had a life where he started out completely free until adulthood, making choices that felt right according to his instincts and sense of self-preservation, even seemingly benign training set ups can quickly make him claustrophobic. Choice, for him, is monumental

What choices was I able to offer him within the structure of our session? I left him loose so that he didn’t have the halter and lead putting physical or emotional pressure on him to stay, as had been done in his past. He could run as far and as fast as he wanted from the spray and he didn’t have to come back if he didn’t want to. To be fair to him, I wanted him to volunteer to work with the spray. He would vote with his proximity. Just like a human at a therapy session who can say “I don’t want to talk about that right now, I’m not ready,” I wanted him to be able to choose not to “talk” about his fear of fly spray. If he had left and not re-engaged after the initial spray, I would’ve put the fly spray away and worked on familiar exercises he knows and enjoys.

Stimulus Predictability:

If I were able to go back and change one variable in the training session, I would have conditioned the word “Spray!” to the lift of the bottle and then the active spraying three to five times outside his paddock, so he understood the predictive relationship between the two. He understood it within the span of the session but it was a small hole that could have and probably did undermine his relaxation.

Reinforce active coping:

Research from 2001 has shown that when animals utilize active coping strategies in response to previously negative (ie: scary!) conditioned stimulus, their amygdalas actually re-route their wiring from moving to the more primitive and fear-maintaining brain stem to the active, conscious, motor circuits. This re-route doesn’t occur if the animal remains passive or “frozen”.  According to the research,It is ‘learning by doing,’ a process in which the success in terminating the conditioned stimulus reinforces the action taken.”
In Tarot’s case, when he chose to walk toward the fly spray, an active strategy, I clicked the behavior, a yes answer, and stopped spraying and lowered the bottle (terminated the stimulus). For him, the sound, smell and feel of fly spray elicits a deep, conditioned fear response. Just teaching him to stand still or be passive and allow the spray to happen doesn’t give his brain a new response to code and use in the future. He has to be active in the process. He has to do something.

Present only one component of the stimulus per training session: 

Fly spray isn’t one dimensional. I can’t ask Tarot if the sound, smell or feel of it is the most alarming to him. So, to avoid making it too difficult for him to change his behavior, I have to make sure to “split” the presentation of it. In our first session, I only present the sound and visual of the spray. I have the bottle filled with water so there’s no unfamiliar scent and I only spray NEAR him to avoid the physical sensation of the fly spray hitting him. Once he is completely relaxed with spray near him, then I will move to actual spray with scent near him, then then spray with water directly sprayed onto his body and finally real fly spray sprayed directly onto his body.

Those are the components that make up Tarot’s session from last week. It all makes lovely sense in print.  But, as Alexandra Kurland says, “We don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” In order to find out how Tarot processed his lesson, I went out and repeated the same training session to see where he was emotionally and what behaviors he was able to offer. Here’s what happened:

Not only was Tarot more relaxed this time, he never chose to leave. Because there was no flight response, I couldn’t reinforce walking back toward the spray as his active coping strategy. Instead he offered incremental movements of his head-down behavior as a new strategy. You can see him begin to offer the head lowering almost immediately upon initiation of the spray. This behavior is totally uncued and is completely self-directed by Tarot. He is driving the session. Another horse might choose a totally different behavior and that would be acceptable too.

For Tarot, head-lowering says a lot about his emotional state.

Horse’s heads tend to shoot up when they are nervous, their backs invert and their muscles tense and are ready for action; this makes Tarot’s choice of active coping  particularly lovely, as a signal of relaxation. By lowering his head, he is reducing his binocular vision, less ready to flee and adopting the beginning of a “grazing posture” which only happens when there is no threat. He gives several long blinks during the session, very different from the wide unblinking eyes of fear. In addition, on the last repetition with the spray, he even gives a long sigh, indicating a release of tension.

 
When I assess what Tarot learned in his session, the measurable changes are:  he is able to be voluntarily in proximity to fly spray, he is able to stand near fly spray and he is able to offer head-lowering while fly spray is actively spraying. These are huge changes that took place over only two training sessions. Learning to offer our horses scenarios to practice active coping and learning to offer them real choice gives fearful and anxious horses a chance to have a better quality of life. Using these tools can help them access both safer and more functional responses so that living in our human world feels more predictable and easier. We all deserve a chance to re-route our fear rather than be trapped by it.