Friday, April 4, 2014

Citizen Science- Why Do Clicker Trained Horses Drop?

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!


Laurie H. said...

I currently have one horse, Ollie, who will drop while he's eating hay at the hay box. He also drops while being groomed. I used to have a horse (OTTB) who dropped while being groomed and while having his feet done (trimming and shoeing). He also dropped while standing still and being fed treats while training.

I've also seen a photo of a horse fully dropped while being ridden in piaffe in the traditional manner. But I'm sure that the rider didn't know what was going on.

As far as the lateral work to get the racehorses to urinate, it was a way of getting them to drop so that that behavior could be put on cue (a whistle) so that the urine could be collected more easily than waiting around for it to happen naturally.

I sure hope a grad student picks up on this and does a study.

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks for commenting Laurie!
I understood that they were trying to get the racehorses horses to drop…my point was that just getting them to drop did not necessarily have to include urinating. So did the lateral steps (supposedly) cause them to want to urinate or to want to drop?
I have also read that whistling was not always simply a cue added later, but that it actually inspired the was compared to running water- the sound itself actually inspired the act.
It's all conjecture anyway. As you say, we need a real study!
Really appreciate your sharing your personal experience! Hope others do as well.

Lottie said...

It would indeed be interesting to see a proper study of this. My horse will sometimes drop while he's just standing in the field, dozing in the sun; that is the kind of relaxed dropping you're describing happened with Percy. A person I know who does professional body work on horses says she often see them dropping, and it seems to be a sign of relaxation.

However, I also see my horse dropping while we're training, or when he is expecting clicker training, and then it is not accompanied by relaxed body language but rather by some tenseness and sometimes actions I interpret as displacement behaviours (licking, yawning, rubbing nose on leg). The more I observe him dropping in those situations, the more I think it is a sign of frustration, due to unclear criteria or inconsistency in the training.

Bookends Farm said...

Thank you for your input Lottie! So it seems that simply "dropping" is not indicative of a specific emotion in your situation. I think that is really important to note for all of us. Just because a horse drops does not mean x, y or z!
Just to add more questions to the equation, when he drops while being clicker trained, is it only when he is also showing the displacement behaviors? Is it only when doing new behaviors? Are there any other connections you can see between the dropping and the training?

Anonymous said...

I have a Trakehner who was a stallion until he was 5 and is now a gelding, and I don't recall ever seeing him drop during training sessions even though I do a lot of free shaping using high rates of reinforcement for extended periods. I did have another gelding that I free shaped quite a bit and he did drop consistently, but the Trakehner doesn't. In discussing this with other clicker trainers we came up with the theory that perhaps the geldings who have been clicker trained from the time they were babies are less likely to drop than the ones who start later, after they've already had more -R training?

Lottie said...

Good questions Jane! I'm still trying to figure this out; at one point it seemed that it happened mostly when I was doing intense sessions with a high RoR, but I have since found that is not the case; if my focus and criteria are clear enough I can train new behaviours with a high RoR without him dropping. Nor is the dropping always accompanied by displacement behaviours; both can occur independently of each other.

My current theory is that a major factor is uncertainty (of what to expect, or of what is expected). Like I mentioned, I think inconsistency on my part is a huge part of it. There are many details to this, but I won't write a novel here! :-)

Bookends Farm said...

Anonymous with the Trakehner- I definitely have had the same experience. Early in my clicker training days, I used it on TB geldings, one teen (the adorable face that is my avatar here) and one just off the track. Both dropped frequently. The old guy would also nicker when he heard me click. Absolutely melted my heart at the time- I interpreted it as joy that he was an involved part of his learning.
Then I had three homebreds, two of which were colts. I remember being astonished that I never saw them drop during clicker training until they were about 3. I was kind of hoping they never would ;) But they do now (at 5 and 7) but not often and certainly not as much as the others did nor as much as I've seen in many clients' horses.
Thank you for the detail in your comment, regarding free shaping and rates of reinforcement. I think those a pertinent points to include!

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks for following up Lottie. One reason I wanted to broach this subject is to share the many contingencies involved. It may be different for each horse, but I hope the other stories will relieve yourself of some responsibility that it's inconsistency on your part!

Katherine Bartlett said...

I’ve been collecting data on this for years, with no conclusion except that there are a lot of variables.

For starters:

Horses trained with food drop (even if not clicker trained)

A lot of horses drop during groundwork (some with no food or c/t) – Mark Russell says there is a kidney release point and when I watched him work horses it did happen more in movement that involved bending the spine (arcs)

Horses often drop during grooming or resting. Dorothy Heffernan wrote a blog on this a while back. They also often drop after being ridden (maybe during grooming, but maybe just when they are resting). Horses also drop all the time when they are resting so it's important to know that some dropping is normal. If I had a horse that never dropped, I would find that very odd.

When observing “dropped horses,” I think it’s useful to make the distinction between the horse dropping from relaxation and for some other reason. Last summer when I was doing all the Masterson work, I thought how odd it was that I went from the body work where people would say “wow, that’s great, he has dropped, I must be doing something right” to the clicker people who were saying “Oh no, he’s dropped, we must be doing something wrong.”

In my own horses, I have observed:

Relaxed dropping during grooming or while doing a stationary but easy exercise on a high ROR

Less relaxed dropping during certain exercises. Common triggers were any exercise that looked like “stallion behavior” or involved bending and arcing the back (Spanish walk, shoulder-in, collected work, etc..). I also see it if you teach a gelding to park out. That one always made sense to me as the usual reason a gelding would park out would be to pee.

If they are nervous (new environment), they are less likely to drop

If they are learning a new exercise, they are more likely to drop. Once an exercise becomes familiar (boring?), there seems to be less excitement associated with it and they drop less.

Movement usually results in the horse tucking it away. I can mostly ignore the dropping but I hate seeing a horse trotting with it dangling out because this is so totally unnatural. A horse would never do that voluntarily except for breeding, and then it would not be flopping around, but well… you know.

This is part 1 (my comment was too long), so see part 2 for the rest.


Katherine Bartlett said...

part 2 of previous comment from Katie...

What do I think?

I think that excitement or stimulation triggers it (the non-relaxed kind). I don’t think it means the trainer is necessarily doing anything wrong. It could just be something about the behavior they are training. People often suggest dropping is due to trainer error and I'm not so sure about this, but if dropping is related to tension, perhaps from trying hard, then maybe there is an element of this in some cases. A trainer that was not breaking behavior down into small enough parts, or had bad food delivery, or was somehow making the horse "think hard" might be contributing to the problem.

I think that if you click consistently while they are dropped, then it does become part of the behavior.

It’s really hard to train them to put it away (I’ve tried) because as soon as you click and treat, they drop again and I’m pretty sure it’s not something a horse consciously controls.

The best luck I have had is to try and avoid clicking while the horse is dropped and to mix things up.

I did a little experiment with Red last summer, who doesn’t drop much at home, but does for some exercises. I picked an exercise where I knew he would drop (I was working on releasing his poll out and down) and I only did one or two reps before I trotted him off. So I had a little chain of two c/t for standing and then trot. My theory was that if he KNEW (or his body knew) he was going to trot, he would be less likely drop and because I built it as a chain from the get-go, maybe I wouldn’t get dropping. In the past I have trotted him off to get him to tuck it away, but that’s always seemed a bit mean because it takes them a moment and it is uncomfortable. It did work. He didn’t drop for that particular behavior but it was slow work shaping it because I could only do a few reps before going off again.

I go back and forth on whether or not I think this is a big deal. Just on a visual level, I do think it detracts and distracts from what the horse is doing. I think some people find it embarrassing and become self-conscious about it. If a horse is dropping during an activity where it might be expected (grooming), then it seems to me that it's not a big deal. I tend to get more concerned about it when I see things like a horse trotting while dropped. That just seems wrong to me.

I have had very few times when the dropping was an indication that the horse was going to escalate into stallion like behavior but I have certainly heard stories. In my experience, the dropping can just be there and you don't even notice unless you look, or it can be accompanied by some other body language or signs of tension (nipping) and in those cases, I do think it's important to address the underlying problem of which the dropping is a symptom.

Ok, that’s it for now. There’s probably more. I think it’s a great idea to collect data. What we really need is to collect data on some new to c/t horses who have not been reinforced for dropping and see what they do. I think once the horse has been clicked while dropped, then it’s harder to sort out what is going on.

While mares can be a pain in the neck, I have to confess that I have been thankful that so much of my work has been done with Rosie. But it does make me wonder. She can get very excited while training. If she was a gelding, would she have been dropping? Since I didn’t have that input, I just adjusted based on her energy level and I certainly didn’t make a big deal out of it. Is it possible to have a training method that only works with one sex or that requires a completely different approach for the two sexes? That just seems odd to me.

Oh, and here's another tidbit of information. I just read recently that horses have lower levels of dopamine than other animals. I'm not sure how that ties in. Perhaps if they are not used to handling high levels of dopamine, then their bodies over-react. I'm going to try and track down some more information on this.

Rachel Bedingfield said...

An excellent response, Katie. We've been studying it for years too and Hannah Dawson addressed the issue in her presentation at last year's Equine Clicker Conference. You said "I think that if you click consistently while they are dropped, then it does become part of the behavior." I think this is the most important aspect in order to minimise the liklihood of it happening as, I agree, it is hard to get rid of once it has become classically associated with clicker training. If you ignore it, it rarely goes away!!

Abigail Morris said...

I have 3 geldings here who live out 24/7. I began clicker training 18 months ago with one of them, an Andalusian rescue. But, they all dropped before I began clicker training so it isn't something I associate with clicker training. Although I haven't really studied it , it seems to me that they drop when relaxed when I am around. I don't think they drop when in the field on their own, only when I am around asking them to pick up their feet or something. It is an interesting question, something which I will observe more closely now. It doesn't bother me and I have never tried to influence it one way or another. I don't think I have ever seen them drop when trotting. The Andalusian is very reactive and nips when even slightly stressed will nip even when dropped; is it possible to be relaxed but momentarily annoyed?

Bookends Farm said...

That's interesting that you've noticed it when you are working with them but not necessarily when clicker training Abigail.
I have been watching mine carefully and definitely have seen them do it while at rest outside on their own.
I also recently had a mare hot in heat and one pony gelding chewing on her (which she loved) and all sorts of teasing behavior…yet I never saw him drop during that.
As to being relaxed and momentarily annoyed…happens to me any time somebody tries to wake me up :)

tamworthwedding260311 said...

I have only just started clicker-training and so far, my boy hasn't dropped during clicker-training. However when we do stretches with a lick-treat he does usually drop. This is the only time he drops when I'm around. I had wondered whether it was a muscular release because of trying to stretch his back. I also wondered whether it was a concentration thing, like some people sticking their tongue out unconsciously when they do something taxing - like he was working so hard on getting the lick that he forget to keep himself in!

I think it's a really interesting phenomenon, thanks for posting.

Adele said...

I'm new to clicker training as well, but your idea of it being a concentration thing seems very possible! I open my mouth when I ride , I'm so concentrated on riding I forget to hold my mouth closed haha. When I'm not riding but concentrating I'll roll my lips in.. Hard to explain.. But like.. But lip biting your lower lip I just do it to both kinda? I do it subconsciously. It's extremely unattractive lol.

Keith Bartlam said...

All my geldings and one stallion drop after exercise....I do a lot of slow lateral work in walk as part of my warm up to relax them before collected work and jumping. I never use Clicker training or food in training. I consider it a testament to good training that hot warmbloods can be so relaxed that they drop at the end of the session. One is SO relaxed that he just has to have a BIG pee as well afterwards on his way back to the field! None of the other geldings or stallions on the yard exhibit this phenomena...its probably because they are ridden in the usual Show Jumping abusive way of "crank and spank drive them at the jump" attitude. They are all so stressed out and sweaty at the end of their session....mine are all so chilled out they drop.....and 2 of them are Sandro Hit boys....a stallion not known for being docile and chilled out! Its usually Female owners that seem to be concerned and think its some kind of problem...cant imagine why they do though!!