The guest speaker at Clicker Expo was biopsychologist Susan Schneider, author of The Science of Consequences. In her closing talk, she stressed the opportunity we all have in this day and age to participate in Citizen Science. Citizen Science is defined by Wikipedia as "scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowd sourcing and crowd funding."
An example Dr. Schneider used is the Christmas Bird Count each year, where volunteers from around the country help do a bird census. An experienced naturalist, she encouraged participants to observe the world around them and then share their findings with others via blog posts or letters to researchers or universities or any way one can think of to communicate and collaborate.
It occurred to me that an issue which would benefit from this sort of collaboration is that of dropping penises. Many people find that having a horse going around with his penis dangling is a bit embarrassing. And yet many male horses being clicker trained do this. There are many guesses as to the reasons for this occurring, what to do about it and what it implies.
The important word in the previous sentence is "guesses". They certainly aren't theories, which require a tested, well-substantiated and unifying explanation. It would even be a stretch to call them hypotheses, since those are educated guesses and these guesses run the gamut on how educated they are.
Some people warn that a dropping penis indicates Dominance. The D word has caused more trouble in animal training than any other I can think of. I cannot follow the twisted logic that uses dominance to describe each problem every dog, horse or other animal exhibits. I certainly cannot figure out any reasoned argument where it would apply to this situation.
Other people think that there is a sexual component to it. Perhaps the horse is too excited, over threshold, over stimulated by food. Again, how does this line of reasoning proceed? Where is the connection between food, excitement and the horse dropping his penis? If there is a sexual component to it, why do so many the geldings do it? I agree with those that say some real brain studies would need to be done to make this connection.
I have also heard that somehow lateral steps initiate this and that race stables use stepping laterally to encourage a horse to urinate for a drug sample. Others say their clicker trained horses can do lateral work for a long time while keeping everything tucked away but this same horse will drop while being clicked for going straight. And where is the connection between stepping laterally and urinating (and they don't always drop to urinate)?
The time which I am most familiar with geldings dropping is when they are sedated. They are relaxed, their heads drop, their eyes droop and their penises drop. I would guess that this is due to loss of muscle tension. Yet while clicker training can really help a horse relax, it also frequently perks them up and engages their minds.
Here is an interesting series of photos I just grabbed from a 55 second video I took of Alexandra Kurland working with my young horse Percy. We had traveled to Alex's Clicker Center a year ago, fall. Percy was very vigilant in his new surroundings- (I wrote several posts about this trip which you can read here if you like). He looked, he paced, he worked himself into a sweat trotting back and forth, he didn't want to eat, etc. At one point, Alex did some body work on him. There was no special modality, just Alex doing what she felt Percy needed- and wow did it work. As you can see in these photos, he completely relaxed- to the point of head hanging, yawning (photo 2) and finally dropping (photo 3). There were no drugs involved, there was clicking and treating, he was free to express his opinion of the process, but he was soooo sleepy by the time she was done. There were no lateral steps, no overstimulation from food and uh, no dominance.
|Percy being lulled into nap time by Alexandra Kurland.|
I hope it's obvious I have no clue as to the cause of this issue. But speaking with Alex about it, she brought up a very pertinent point in my opinion. Lots of geldings who drop get punished for it. Whether it's on the cross ties, working in hand or anywhere else, I've seen some pretty harsh punishment doled out. So perhaps it isn't that clicker trained horses drop, but rather that all horses do, and we clicker trainers just don't punish, so the behavior persists, for whatever the antecedent and consequence naturally.
Bringing Citizen Science to this issue would include bringing the subject out of the closet. We need to replace the embarrassment with curiosity, data collection, and sharing of our experiences and results. I invite everyone to jump on this project. I am going to create a table I can fill in quickly and easily when I observe this. Horse, conditions (on cross ties, work in hand, being groomed?), any antecedents or consequences I can observe (what happened right before the dropping which might have triggered it? What happened afterward that is reinforcing this? Did the horse remain dropped or did something trigger him to pull it up again?). And certainly note any erect component. This is not as common but certainly does happen.
If anyone knows a graduate student looking for a thesis project, let's send them all our data and encourage them to research this!