Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bitless? My Thoughts on the Wide Range of What Is Acceptable to Different Trainers

Myler Level 1 Loose RingAll one has to do is pick up a hefty tack shop catalog to see the enormous variety of equipment available for working with horses. Or visit the website. Some of the equipment looks like medieval torture devices to me. But some of the equipment I use, like a plain snaffle bit, apparently looks like a torture device to others. 

"Pressure" is a loaded word in horse training circles. There are those who say it's the most natural way to train horses (a la "Natural Horsemanship"). There are others, like myself, who have found that using Positive Reinforcement instead of escalating pressure to train is a highly effective method which is also more humane. But the continuum continues. There are those who think that what I consider a "contact" cue is really pressure. They want to hang me by my toenails, even though I teach contact cues with positive reinforcement, rather than escalating pressure (and the irony of the highly aversive words and deeds these individuals bestow on fellow humans does not escape me).

Pressure is not just physical. As soon as an animal perceives your presence, there is pressure. And pressure can be a pull as well as a push; just ask anyone who has livestock..."pressure" will pull animals to a barn, to grass, up a hill, to a larger group, etc. 

So where do each of us draw our lines as to what is acceptable and what is not? 

If we start with truly wild horses, those who have never seen people (wow, is that even possible today?), then they experience pressure from humans miles away. Horses are horizon scanners; just ask mine. A person appearing in the distance is noticed. The horse is already considering its flight options. So, for those who don't want ANY AVERSIVES used in training, I would propose you leave them wild. Because your presence is initially aversive. 

Maybe you say I'm talking nonsense when I start with wild horses. So start with a newborn foal from a very domesticated line of horses. I posit that your first appearance will be aversive to that foal. Is that reason not to enter the stall? How are you going to train that foal if you don't get that foal accustomed to your presence? You may do it carefully, gently, with scratches (oh, but don't they twitch at that first touch of a human hand) on the chest and withers. But you have applied your hand to that foal, or mustang, or any other equine. That's contact. 

Where does contact cross the line to pressure? Is it a pounds per square inch measurement? Does it depend on the body part? Is a massage aversive? The answer is, as we so often say, "it depends". The type of deep tissue massage my husband likes makes me miserable. Everyone has different sensitivities. So we need to assess the individual at hand. 

Is pressure defined as aversive if the horse moves away from it? How do these folks who claim not to use pressure ever ask a horse to step away from them? I train a horse, using positive reinforcement, to step away by reinforcing the slightest movement away from my hand. Yes, if I can detect the movement away, I click and reinforce. Animals move. Even when they look like they are still, they move slightly, shifting weight. I can capture that little move when it happens away from me, and I can click and reinforce and my educated learners will repeat that. They will do it again, and I can shape more or less movement. So yes, my horses move away when I put up a hand in a certain way, but it is not because I have used escalating pressure (escalating pressure would be if I put my hand on the horse and intentionally added more and more pounds to my pressure until I got a reaction. Or if I got louder with my voice until I got a reaction. Or I kept kicking or pulling until I got a reaction).

So, in my life, I now have a horse who will move away from me on the cue of my using my hand in a certain way. I trained it using positive reinforcement, not escalating pressure. But because the horse moves away from it, do others consider it aversive? I don't think that assessment can be made unless you know how it was trained. 

How would we put any equipment on a horse if we never used contact/pressure? I would say the ethology of the horse does not include wearing a halter, or a blanket, or a cordeo (neck rope). Therefore, if we put any of these things on a horse, we are applying something inherently aversive. When I do this, I initially click and reinforce for any interest (looking at, sniffing, touching) the object. Once they make voluntary physical contact with the object, I can progress to touching them with it, gradually, and with reinforcement for every approximation along the way. The formerly aversive object is no longer something they move away from. In time, I can help them become comfortable with that object. Why would I do that? Because I feel that there are times when halters and blankets help keep horses safe and comfortable.

And what about riding a horse? Well if we look at the painting below and read a little about equine predators, it isn't too big a stretch to know that the "natural" horse might consider other creatures on his back to be quite aversive.

So we train. There are many, many, many steps I take to help the horse be comfortable with having first my hand, then a brush, then a pad, then a blanket, then a saddle on her back before I stand above her on a mounting block and lean over, lean on, put a leg over, rest on and finally sit on a horse. 

If one doesn't believe in desensitizing or counter conditioning a horse to inherently aversive stimuli, how does one ever get to the point of riding a horse? 

Note! Desensitization as I refer to it means working under threshold; one exposes a horse to potentially aversive stimuli in an incremental progression so they are not stressed. "Sacking out" in a traditional method is not desensitization; it's called flooding. 
Counter conditioning is when you take a stimulus which was formerly aversive and change the response to a pleasant one. An example would be the halter which was initially aversive to a young foal can be conditioned to be a sign of an enjoyable training session with treats. (some say that the item must formerly have been conditioned to be aversive. I'm not clear on that.)
And this brings us to cordeos vs. bridles vs. bits.  If we put a rope around a horse's neck and a halter on her head, why not put a bridle on her head? I am going to assume we all know the proper fit for said pieces of equipment, including the sensitive areas (where the nerves run) of the face and that we are not using nosebands to tie the mouth shut, etc. I'm also going to assume that we all know that some of the bitless bridles are much, much harsher than a snaffle bit. Poll pressure and nose pressure can be quite aversive to horses and many of the bitless bridles are designed to exert a lot of pressure on these areas with very little pressure applied to the reins. Novices beware. I've also heard that some of the pretty little neck ropes include barbs. Nuff said. Looks can be deceiving. Oh and that a properly fitted bit hangs in the horses mouth, not resting on the bars. It should not interfere with chewing or physiology of the teeth, bars and tongue. 

If the above are true, can we not help a horse be as comfortable with a bit as with a blanket? If we train the contact cue from a bit/rein combination with positive reinforcement, can it not be an effective and kind way to communicate with the horse? A bit offers subtlety of communication that can be difficult to achieve with a loose fitting halter or bitless bridle. Loose fitting means it can move around. That can be more aversive to a horse than a securely fitted bridle which stays out of eyes and minimizes chafing from the movement. 

I think the final question which remains is why? Why do we use any of this? Why do we have a domesticated horse (or 2 or 6) in our lives? Why do we want to train them at all as opposed to having pasture pets? Why on earth do we want to sit on their backs?

In the Introduction to Animal Training, by Ken Ramirez, he states:
As teachers or trainers, we must know why we are training...important reasons for training are those that directly benefit the animal being trained. 
He lists the primary reasons for training an animal are to benefit its physical exercise, mental stimulation, and cooperative behavior (husbandry skills to keep the animal healthy). I think if we start there, we can also end there.