Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shut Down

I have said before that I consider Stowaway to be "shut down". There is a technical term, Learned Helplessness, which is defined by Wikipedia (not a scientific definition but a layman one!) as an animal who has "learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected." This condition was found in a very nasty set of experiments with dogs, harnesses and electric shocks. If you google Learned Helplessness, you'll be able to read about it (it is also connected to depression in humans). I hesitate to use that term as it denotes very extreme examples (an animal who will stand still while being shocked), but I believe a lot of our horses, as well as other animals, have learned similar, if less severe, lessons.

Many visitors assume that Stowaway is an old pony- he stands quietly, does not approach or pester people, has to be dragged places by his halter or bridle, needs a lot of leg to get him moving under saddle and when he does move, it's pretty slow. All this is exactly why I bought him as a lesson pony. He is "safe" for children. But in fact, Stow is the youngest of the lesson horses. One could say that his quiet demeanor is his temperament or that he was just blessed with this perfect personality to be a lesson horse. But Clicker Training invites the horse into the learning process. It requires him to offer behavior, not just react when forced. Clicker trained horses learn that they can make good things happen. Watching Stowaway respond to his initial targeting lessons showed me that he really did not believe he could make good things happen...that he had learned to do nothing unless forced to. While the young horses catch on to CT rapidly, Stow took a long, long time to figure out that HE could reach out and touch the target and get rewarded for it. I spent a lot of time doing that with him and he still can't quite believe it when I introduce a new behavior.

Unfortunately, it is usually the shut down horses that we label as "well behaved". They do what they are told and nothing else. Horses learn this defense mechanism at an early age when they get their first lesson in being tied. Although horsepeople are currently warned against tying foals in the first weeks for fear of injuring their necks, it is still common practice that once this danger period is over, you tie the foal with a good strong halter, rope and ring and let him fight until he learns he can't get away. He may scramble, thrash, and fall in the process but with strong enough equipment, he does not get free and so learns....he is helpless. With enough repetitions, he gives up trying. So put yourself in those shoes...or that of a dog with a collar around his neck tied to something with a cable. You have no hands to free yourself and you are quite literally trapped. The animal gives up trying. All too frequently this is seen as a good thing. Think of the term "breaking" a horse...going back to breaking a horse's spirit.

A popular current practice, deemed "kind" in many circles, is that of round penning young horses. There are as many ways to round pen a horse as there are horsemen and there are certainly many popular so-called Natural Horsemanship techniques. My objection to most (not necessarily all) of these is that the horse is basically chased until he is so frightened or exhausted that he struggles to figure out a way to make it stop. Horses that try to jump out or fight back are deemed "dangerous". There is no doubt in my mind that these trainers have good eye, good horse sense, boatloads of experience and a method that works. But I do not agree that these are kind techniques and certainly not that they build trust. If someone chased you around a room from which you could not escape until you were so tired or frightened that you showed submission and complied with their requests, would that be because you had learned to trust them? Certainly not. You might learn afterward to trust them, if they
fed you and treated you kindly. But the basis of your relationship would still be one of fear...indicated by a warning with a raised whip, whether you call it a stick or a whip or a magic whatsit.

The alternative as I see it is to give horses real choices. You can say that they have a choice to be chased around a pen or to turn in and approach the person in the middle, but I say that's not much of a choice. I'd rather give a horse the choice to approach me or to avoid me, with no negative consequences for either choice. If they approach me, good things happen; if they don't, nothing happens, so they choose good things over nothing. I would define examples of good things as Primary Reinforcers: food being an easy one to offer.

So rather than tying a young foal and letting him struggle until he gives up, I don't put him in a position where he feels panicked enough to struggle. I can put a tiny amount of pressure (which is a dicey word to use when a LOT of pressure is frequently used) on a foal's halter. If he backs up, I do not increase the pressure, but I maintain that tiny bit. It's not enough to cause pain or panic, just enough so that he is inclined to try to lessen it...the same you would put holding someone's hand to ask them to come with you. If he is in a stall, he may quietly back to a wall and if the light pressure remains, he may then step forward. THAT is when you release the pressure. The foal then learns that approaching someone increases his comfort. If he is also offered food (and yes, young foals quickly learn to like grain or hay stretcher pellets), that is even more enticement to approach a person. Once you have him coming to you on a tiny amount of pressure on his lead, you can add the click which makes the gigantic transformation into immediate information to the horse "YES!".

Long after he is comfortable with this, you can begin tying. Tying him for the first time can be done by simply running the rope through a ring on the wall and gently holding the far end of it so that you can release it slowly while maintaining that tiny pressure if he should back up. I make sure the sound of the rope running back and forth through the ring isn't scary before I ever do this. Then I apply that tiny pressure to the rope and this time, the foal needs to figure out that he still is better off yielding to the pressure even though he isn't necessarily approaching me. I take it in tiny baby steps as always, but am careful that he understands that sometimes the pressure will take him away from me, not always to me. With all this playing, he learns not to be afraid of the pressure, the ropes or me. He learns to relieve the pressure himself, not because things will get worse if he doesn't, but because things will get better if he does.

Begun this way, I think I train a horse who is not shut down, but instead grows up knowing that he can figure things out to make his life better. I believe my young horses do trust me- not only because I supply the food, water, access to fields of grass and beds full of fluffy shavings. They trust me because when I show up, good things happen and I have never had to frighten them into behaving.

If you carefully watch the physiological signs that horses in training exhibit, it helps you to decide whether the horse is stressed or not. Is the breathing rapid and heavy or slow and quiet? Is the head raised or low when given the choice? Are the eyes wide with fear or relaxed and blinking. There is a lot of talk about licking and chewing...is that submission or relaxation? Is that achieved after frightening or chasing the horse or present throughout the session?

To get back to Stowaway, I will continue to work with him and try to convince him that good things happen with us. He has begun whinnying when he sees me coming (he used to just hang back and ignore people). And he nickers when I click now..."oh boy, I got it right". His ears are up, his eyes are bright and he is looking for the right answer, not locked away in a little black box that you have to bang on to even get his attention. In the photo above, Stowaway is being offered oat cake by several students who made it for themselves and the horses. It is my goal to teach people and horses that good things happen when they are together.


Mary @ StaleCheerios said...

Great post Jane. I really enjoy reading about your lesson horses.

Many horsemen talk about giving the horse a "choice" between two things. In a lot of cases, one choice is so aversive that it's no wonder the horse complies with the alternative.

You might like this quote that I found recently on a friend's blog (the quote is from Tom Moate):

"If you drive a horse forward around the pen, then back off that pressure, you create a vacuum that sucks the horse in. It's a trick that works, but the horse has very little choice in that scenario really because if the pressure applied is hard enough to drive him forward, then it is certainly hard enough for him to desire relief from it."

Anyways, it sounds like Stowaway is already making progress. I'd love to hear more as you continue to work with him.


Bookends Farm said...

Thanks Mary- I thought it was interesting in concert with your recent post and the comments which followed it. This was initiated from the Ark post that included the video of the Argentinian guy. But it took me a long time to write it because I kept wanting to add more and more and it could have been a book!