Thursday, July 29, 2010

Science VS tradition: Training with reinforcers

Prepare for a novel. I intended this post to be just short but of course once I got carried away it got really long, really quick. Get a snack and go to the bathroom first.

Reinforcement. It's something we all use consciously or sub consciously to teach horses, cats, dogs and even other humans things about the world and how it works according to our rules.

Essentially a reinforcer is an environmental change that increases the likelihood that an animal will give a particular response.

There are two major categories of learning: Non-associative and associative. Non associative learning the horse is exposed to a single stimulus which it will become habituated (sensitized) to. Associative learning the animal is exposed to at least two stimuli and a relationship is established.

Non-associative learning the horse is exposed to something unpleasant that may provoke a fear response and it is exposed until it learns to behave passively rather than head for the hills or lash out in fear.
Normally the stimulus would be introduced gradually. Introducing something too fast and the horse may go back to a fearful response. When this happens exposure of the feared item or action must be brought back to a point where the horse has been habituated.
In horse training terms we call this Desensitization.
Of course if a horse is going to react to something fearfully instead of trying to habituate him you could counter-condition him to respond before the stimulus that might provoke the fear arises. This could be used in terms of for example, teaching a horse to step towards a mounting block for mounting before you mount rather than you having to try and pull him back once he has had a bad experience and you have a struggle on your hands when he thinks mounting is about moving away from you.

Sensitization. The opposite of habituation in which the horse will have a heightened response after the repeated presentations of the stimulus. For example a horse walking into a paddock may slip in the mud a few times in a week and at the end of the week the horse may gallop full tilt through gates from now on in fear he might slip again. Sensitization can override something that has already been habituated. An example of this would be a horse habituated to cars driving by it on the road and having a couple bad experiences begins spooking and reacting to the sound of a vehicle's motor even though it was previously habituated to them and showed no response.

When a horse makes an association between a stimulus and a response, or cue and an outcome this is associative learning.
There are two sub categories under associative learning: Classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is what most people are familiar with. Classical conditioning is the acquisition of a new response to a new stimulus in association with an old stimulus.
Or for those of you that want me to speak English again it is "Pavlov's dog" an experiment with a bell and meat powder puffed into a dogs mouth with the ring of a bell which would cause the dog to salivate was conducted by Ivan Pavlov. Eventually the dogs would salivate just by hearing the bell, even with the absence of the meat powder. Classical conditioning enables the horse to associate events it has no control over and thus it makes the environment it is in more predictable.
An example of this would be a horse seeing it's owner lay out hay. The horse knows what the hay is and will come from across the pasture to eat. Seeing forage is an unconditioned stimulus in a horse. The horse seeks forage constantly. The urge to come in and eat that hay in a horse is an unconditioned response because horses were designed to eat many, many hours of the day.
The same horse is placed in a different environment where it first hears a creaky door being opened then sees the owner placing out hay. Eventually the horse would come wandering across the pasture the moment it heard the creaky door, even if the owner did not put the hay out right away. The horse has learned to associate a conditioned stimulus, the creaky door and it created a conditioned response, coming in from the pasture even before the hay was set out.
When Pavlov made notes he noticed that dogs in his meat powder experiment would race ahead of the handler to get to the area the experiments were conducted. They would try and put themselves into situations and perform actions that they knew lead to rewards.

Our other sub-category is operant conditioning. An operant response is a voluntary action that brings out a reward. This can be taught in many different ways to horses using food or not using food. Basically it gives an option for the animal to put itself in that situation. An example of this would be a horse learning to let itself out of it's stall. The horse sees the latch (the triggger) performs a response (opening the latch with his mouth) and gets a reward (freedom and possibly food depending on where the hay and grain are kept). The effect of the reward strengthens the response, this is known as reinforcement. Operant conditioning allows a horse to associate events over which it can control. This increases the controllability over the environment which is the big difference between classical and operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning has potential benefits for horses by improving choice. Classical conditioning rewards are associated with stimuli (remember the door creaking associated with hay) and operant they become associated with a response(Freedom, food etc).

Now that we have basic learning types down we have four different types of reinforcement that we can use every day with our horses put into simple terms.

Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

They go hand in hand and both are a very vital part of a horses training regime. Reinforcement, positive or negative will always make a response or behaviour more likely to happen in the future. On the opposite end of the scale positive or negative punishment will generally make a response less likely in the future.

First I will talk about negative reinforcement because it is the most widely used in the horse world. It sounds bad doesn't it? Negative is a word that is used so often to associate us with things unpleasant so we think "Gee if we use negative reinforcement on our horses we are going to be going all backwoods cowboy on them right?" Not at all.

When we first get on our horses and squeeze our legs on their sides to get them to move, that was taught using negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is putting an undesired stimulus into a horses environment, such as legs squeezing on the horses sides, to attain a desired result, the horse walking forward, before you release the stimulus or take your legs off the horses sides.

So I bet now you can think of a hundred other things we have taught horses to do using negative reinforcement. It is a lovely tool so long as you are being fair to the horse. By fair I mean you apply the stimulus and then take it away when the horse responds. Keeping it on is what makes a horse dull to your cues. You want to be quick about taking a stimulus away just a second or two after the horse responds correctly.

Positive reinforcement is shaping a desired behaviour by putting something positive into the environment, such as hay, grain, treats etc.

I taught Indigo how to "smile" by reinforcing the behaviour with a verbal cue and treats.

But not all things you teach with positive reinforcement are tricks and sometimes they involve negative reinforcements too. Many behaviours can be taught or reinforced positively to attain more willing results.
For example a year ago a young Morgan mare I was training was having a hard time learning how to set up for halter classes. She would stretch but only if you really got after her and moved her hooves with your feet, which is a big no-no in halter/showmanship to touch your horse. Once you stretched her moving her feet manually she would hold it but only for a short wile before moving. I brought her out and every time I moved her feet I would praise and offer a small tidbit of treat and then walk her ahead instead of just re-streching her time after time when she moved. I stretched her, treat, rinse repeat. A light bulb went off in her head and all of a sudden that mare stretched out like she had been doing it all her life. Fast forward to a show a couple months later when it came time to do showmanship. She stretched out when I cued her and stood there for 15 mintues without moving a muscle! No treats involved. The behaviour had been shaped positively and she knew the positive results it had resulted in before, thus offering it to me without a second thought. She stood quieter in the class than her brother twice her age right next to her.

Positive and negative punishment always make a behaviour less likely to happen in the future. They are both applied as a consequence to a behaviour and are operant conditioning.
Positive refers to something added to the horses world and negative refers to something being removed.

Using positive punishment a trainer might make a horse move away from his space using a rope or crop tapping on a part of his body. The next time the horse is tapped he will be more likely to move away from the rope or crop.
Negative punishment a horse will respond in a way he thinks is appropriate and what is making him respond is removed, for example a horse pawing at his stall because he wants hay and the hay being taken out of his view, is negative punishment.
When I talked about not treating a horse when he begs when you are teaching him tricks, this is negative punishment. It stops begging because the horse learns no matter how many tricks he does unless I ask, there is no reward.

Contiguity states that events close to a behaviour will become associated. So for example giving a horse a cookie two minutes after he gave you his foot he will not create a useful association. The cookie would have to arrive seconds after the hoof was lifted in order to create that useful association.
Of course time between a stimulus is not necessarily the most important factor in the association. Events far apart can be triggered by a high predictive link between the two. An example of this is a horse that previously colics because of the ingestion of a bitter plant. The horse would later relate the scent and taste of the plant to the sickness and avoid it.

Horses are also known to learn far quicker when given positive things to look forward to rather than negative. In studies a horse will learn to navigate a maze. Subjects taught to go through the maze using food as a positive reinforcement made their choices quicker than a horse being taught to go through the maze using a shock negative reinforcement. The horses being taught to avoid the shock with positive reinforcement made their choices quicker than the horses simply let to figure out the shocking on their own. Punishment can hinder creativity in horses, possibly because they have learned in the presence of human handlers there can often be punishment as results because of the handler not knowing what the horses behaviors mean. So keep in mind what you ask your horse to do. Always try and be fair and give the horse a chance to give you an answer before you go about using negative punishment.

Both reinforcement and punishment are used weather or not we know it, hopefully now you all do. A lot of trainers try nor to use the word "negative" in fear it will create the image they are abusing horses but in reality it is the complete opposite. They are both extremely useful training methods and it up to us to know when and how to shape behaviors to attain a happy, healthy and sound relationship with a horse using these methods.

Next science vs tradition I will elaborate on using positive reinforcement with treats to shape some behaviors.
So what have you used? I bet we can all think of many scenario's for each type of reinforcement that have helped us shape the horses we have today.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Horse hugs

I don't think theres anything in the world better than a horse hug.
Or hugging a horse.
One of those two.
Photo's in this post by Sarah

But really it's just your horse squashing you with it's head and neck. Or maybe like Indigo they are wanting to smell you all over and investigate what you are all about. Not really affection.
It makes you feel good anyway.

Indigo has always been a really touchy-feely horse. Shes gotta have her nose sniffing all over, licking your shirt and pants and turning her head around to see what you are doing. Last week she surprised me by reaching all the way around and squishing me with her neck. I was at her withers and she sandwiched me for a second before she realized the bug she wanted to bite was out of her reach due to me standing in the way. I moved, she shooed it off her side.

This got me thinking about all sorts of new things I would like to teach her.
I love to feed horses treats, who doesn't?
I do not want to feed horses treats without a purpose because they will indeed become grabby and risk starting the habit of biting.By giving a treat for an asked behaviour (emphasis on the asked part) I have yet to create a nippy horse. The key here is to reward when you ask not when the horse offers a behaviour. I can have a whole huge carrot or handful of horse treats in my hands wile around Indigo and she will not take it or even touch it. She does however beg like mad.
Indigo is a very smart, quick learning, food motivated horse. If theres some sort of morsels involved she will try her darndest to get them from me. This usually starts with her first walking forward a step or two, then she curls her lip up in a flehmen response or "smile" as she has been conditioned to respond to. Then she will turn her head to the left, look back at me, smile again, back up a few steps, hold up her leg to see if I want to shake and probably add a few more smiles in there just for good measure. She goes through a whole routine before standing still and waiting to see what I REALLY want her to do. After a horse knows a trick I never, ever, ever reward a horse for a trick that has been offered without me asking first. This is begging and I look at it like the kid that cleans the whole house and demands double allowance without being asked to do so. Sure it's apreceated but you need to look at how you give your horse treats like how you would give allowance to a kid. Every treat is a dollar. I only reward when I ask for a behaviour the horse knows and get it. This right here is the key to preventing a nippy horse.

Back to Indigo. She learns so fast when it comes to using positive reinforcement I taught her how to give hugs with the cue of me wrapping both arms around her neck and hugging. First I lured her with a treat then conditioned it with the squeeze of my arms around her neck. Of course she tried to cheat and turned her head around when I did not hug her neck and she got nothing out of it but my elbow to block her from actually doing the behaviour because I did not ask for it. She learned this so quickly and very willingly she does it perfectly every time just like her other tricks. Shes a smart cookie.

This brings us to the sort of hiatus Science VS tradition posts. Look in the next couple days for a post on positive and negative reinforcement in horse training. I have used both and have come to some interesting conclusions. For other posts on scientific views of horsekeeping and horsemanship type "science vs tradition" into the blog search bar.

So to get this topic going why do you treat your horses, when, what kind and where (ground or on their back etc)? Do you treat them immediately after they have done something good? Just for the heck of it? Or because if you don't they will bowl you down in the paddock demanding treats? I want to know, it gives me good blog fodder for the next science vs traiditon post on reinforcements.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday stills: Rule of thirds

Sorry I really have not blogged lately. Been working and riding and driving and working some more and managing single handedly my 4-H group. Plus more working on top of that. It's been insane I haven't seen any of my friends all week but one night really. Tonight is a night to get away before I have to do carriage rides tomorrow morning.My last Sunday stills post when we did rule of thirds NOTE: Do no click my other post link if you have a fear of very large, eight legged arachnids.
That leaves this week. I never realized I take SO MANY pictures where I use the rule of thirds. All the time. I mean a lot of pictures. I could have included hundreds, no lie!

Rule of thirds is an interesting concept. The other two thirds are normally uncluttered and unfocused leading the eye right to the subject. Sometimes the subject is blurred. These pictures minus one have all been posted in other posts. I just love them I think they are worthy of being posted and mentioned again so here it goes.

Which one is your favorite? Why?

Happy Sunday stills.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday stills: Summer

I am a little late for this one. The heat has been getting to me. 90-95 + degree weather, with the humidex means it's been 104 and above, every stinking day for the past few weeks. Not to mention the lack of rain.

For me summer means a lot of things. Mostly that I ride my horse a lot more often and a lot longer.
I also have been training a lot more horses than my own this summer. I have taken on a good number of younger horses either needing to be green broke or older ones needing to be finished.
It means shorts and tank tops.
Swimming. A lot of swimming
Farmers tan.
Trail rides.
Farmers tan.
No rain!!!
The fair coming to town.
Lots of sun.
Farmers tan.
Mosquitoes that like to bite molest me. I itch the many itchy bites as I type.
Driving with all my windows open because my AC does not work and I really wish about right now it did.
Did I mention my bad ass farmers tan? Well it's bad. My legs are like white lightning, my arms and shoulders are a healthy brown.

And of course summer means I drink a lot more.
My absolute favorite being home made iced tea.I don't know a person who can make iced tea better than my mom... until I tried my hand at it. Sorry mom, my iced tea is pretty darned good. Maybe I am coming down with heat stroke I don't know.

It looks best in a neat glass pitcher like the one I bought a few days ago thinking gee, iced tea would look pretty good in that. It goes with my cool glasses.

It is really the easiest recipe ever and better than the sugary kind you buy at the store. You don't even really have to be around to make it. Just long enough to boil some water.

Heres the recipe. This is my own by the way. Feel free to adjust to personal taste. I don't like sugary tea so mines a little in the middle there. I really had to make it over again and measure how much stuff I used. I looked endlessly for an iced tea recipe and could not find one that did not use some sort of lemonade, splenda or other "fake" ingredients. What happened to tea, sugar and lemon?

So here it is. Sydney's Lemon iced tea. Adjust to your personal taste. Just like coffee, everyone likes tea different.
  • 8cups water
  • 6-8 tea bags depending on how strong you like your tea. I use orange pekoe, others like green tea, decaf etc. Personal preference here.
  • 2-3 lemons, squeezed OR substitute for 1/4 to 1/3 cup lemon juice, some like more, some like less it's personal preference and depends on the type of tea used.
  • 1/3-1/2 cup granulated sugar, splenda etc. Again personal preference for how sweet you like your tea.
  • OPTIONAL- Fruit of any kind, cut into slices and frozen. I like peaches the best but you can use whatever you have.
I was not ambitious enough to take photographs as I made it but heres the directions because it is VERY important you follow them or your tea might end up tasting funny.

Bring the water to a boil in a pot on the stove.
Once the water is boiling add the tea bags and turn the burner off. Stir and let the tea steep for 3-5 minutes, making the water a rich brown colour. When you put your spoon in to stir, it should look a dark brown almost reddish colour.
Remove the tea bags from the water and the pot from the burner and let cool 1 hour minimum, ESPECIALLY if your container is glass like mine. It might shatter when the hot water hits it and you will have a big mess on your hands.
If you do not wait for the tea to cool before adding the sugar and lemon it will make your iced tea look cloudy and leave a weird texture in your mouth. Now if you are in a hurry and do not care what your beverage looks like you can add it then but I personally like my tea not looking cloudy.
Add sugar and lemon and stir until all mixed. I like to slice an extra lemon and put some slices in the pitcher. I freeze the slices and use them as ice cubes.
Put it in the fridge until it's chilled enough to drink.
I like to add a couple slices of peach because it gives this wonderful sweet taste to the iced tea along with the lemon. Plus once they thaw in your glass they are great to eat. Of course add whatever fruit you have. I like rasberries, strawberries, cherries and limes too.
Add a couple slices of frozen fruit and a lemon slice to each glass instead of iced cubes, which would water your tea down as they melt.

Serve to friends and enjoy. Or you can be like me and drink the whole pitcher by yourself. It's just too good! Happy summer.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A mid summers eve drive

I trailered Indigo out the other day to a local farm to use their large outdoor arena. I needed to get some video for Zoe of bitless driving. I also wanted to do some reinsmanship for a possible interdressage addition. I intended to kill two birds with one stone but that didn't happen.

From the time I got there and unloaded Indigo I could feel someone watching me. There was a lot of activity going on. Horses being shod, tractors crashing and banging when they were not unloading round bales, dogs, sprinklers, horses.
The arena needed to be worked up and was really bumpy. Indigo, bless her heart does not care about the cart crashing or banging around when it hits large bumps, holes or rocks. Shes such a superstar and just carries on at the speed you put her when the cart just about scrambles your brains on a bump. We drove around the rail, flattening the bumpy track with the wheels of the cart. My friend Sarah came along to watch and take pictures and video of us cruising around the ring. All images and video in this post are by her.
So I was walking, trotting and even cantering in the cart around the ring when I had that feeling of being watched again. I looked around and noticed the farm owners one girl was glued in awe to the fence boards, little hands just below her eyes watching me with much interest. As I came around near her I hollered if she went and got her helmet I would give her a ride too. No sooner had those words left my mouth She was on her bike, splitting for the barn as fast as her legs would pedal. I drove around a few more times before she was standing at the fence again, helmet on and buckled. Indigo and I stopped and let her in.
She started asking a million questions and explaining her horse and that she did reining and had never seen a horse being driven, let alone been in a cart. She was super excited about a horse driving around at her house.
We went at a walk, three speeds of trot and cantered before coming to a stop near the gate and backing up. The girl was super impressed and asked if she could drive. I handed her the reins. Now if you know Indigo shes normally a pretty forward horse but does know when it is time to slow down and stand around. She was not quite tired yet but as soon as that girl had the reins she knew. Her head dropped, she licked her lips and walked along like an old plow horse for her pint sized driver.
I keep thinking to myself, I am the only person who has ever driven Indigo. She did not come to me as a driving horse so she got everything from introduction to the harness, line driving and finally all kinds of carts, sleigh and whatever else I can make her pull. I am the only person who works her, other than when Murdo's granddaughter Faith is here. I can't keep that kid off Indigo.
So we cruised around for a wile and I explained the harness. This girl was mighty impressed and said she really wanted to drive a standardbred horse they had on the farm since she used to race. Before I knew it there were two more pairs of eyes peering over the fence the same way the first girl did. I hollered for them to get their helmets too and just like the first, these two split on their bikes like they were escaping a burning building to come back with their helmets strapped on. They hopped into the cart too and started rambling instantly and asking a million more questions.
So they both got to drive too. All over the arena. Poor Indigo, goodness shes a good girl. I had to grab the reins a few times to avoid running over cones or barrels or even hanging a shaft on the fence post.

Then their mother and the trainer at the farm came wandering to the fence. They said they were sitting back there for a wile discussing what got them so excited they blasted into the tack room and got their helmets and peeled back out without saying a word. Then they seen us in the cart and knew.

Edit: I did have a video, it however has been loading for almost 4 hours and it's still not loaded and my friend accidentally closed the browser. Welcome to internet in the buttcrack of the world. Maybe tomorrow.

I somehow coaxed the three very enthusiastic girls out of the cart and the trainer, who also happened to be named Sarah hopped in. She turned on her camera and said she was going to take some video for Michelle, who she was going to see that night. The Michelle she was talking about is Indigo's old owner before I bought her, who hasn't come out to see her drive but has seen pictures of her. Michelle has not seen Indigo since a month or two after she became mine. She has accomplished a lot of things in that time.
We did a short video pretty much of Indigo's rump, walking, trotting, cantering, sliding stop and backing under harness. Sarah was really enthused laughing and praising what a good job I had done with Indigo. Sarah knew her before she came to me and knew what a pill she could (and can sill) be. She was such a super, awesome girl. I couldn't have been more proud at how my horse acted in a new place completely by herself in this big, bumpy outdoor arena driving around with all sorts of horses neighing and galloping around a field over. Cause you know, another horse harnessed to a carriage has fangs and eats other horses for dinner according to those riding horses.

I think there are some driving shows in store for her this year, so long as she does not hurt herself again *knock on wood*

Hopefully video and stuff later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cross country Ireland, BITLESS

After long wait.

The post most of you have been waiting ever so patiently for.

Yes I jumped cross country.
These images are not me. The images are of Collin and Berthe. I cannot jump and take pictures at the same time.

Berthe and Collin make an excellent photogenic pair. Collin jumps with his ears forward and Berthe smiles like shes having the time of her life. Just my opinion but I think she really enjoyed coming out and being mine and Zoe's video/photography guinea pig as we asked her to jump certain jumps again and again and sat in the way and dove out of the way more than once to avoid getting trampled upon a jump landing.

Well they look good together, except when Collin was unsure of this ditch. There was a lot of debating going on. It took some trial and error and a few times to poop because you know, the ditch might eat horses and it's better to be unloaded to run away. He did make it over, look at that wild mane.

So finally after patiently waiting and dreaming and begging and pleading Zoe completed editing the video of Merel, Karina and myself jumping the cross country course at the Slieve Aughty Centre completely bitless. Videoed and edited by Zoe

First Merel on Tessa. Second Karina on Dynamite and third me on Pixie (the first big chestnut horse in the video that goes by) Pixie is a great, big, honest mare. She had the most comfy canter and a great jump, perfect for a person like me who hadn't jumped seriously for almost 2 years before we took on the cross country here. PS- There were many, many, many more jumps this wasn't even a quarter of them.

Yes I absolutely, positively loved it. I want to do it again, and again and again! I found myself after the tornado and other storms scouting out fallen logs to make into cross country jumps. I don't think Indigo would like that. Quirky mare hates fallen or cut down trees. They are always a reason to shy the first couple times we go by.

Now the only problem here is...It's completely flat and boring. There is literally big fat ZERO for cross country in this area. Nothing, nada, nill.

I must change that.

More cross country Ireland pictures to come.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Horse girls...

Somewhere behind the athlete you've become;
The coaches who pushed you,
The people who believed in you,
The long hours of schooling,
The dirt beneath your nails,
The falls you've taken,
The ribbons you didn't win,
The tears you've cried,
And the horses you've given your heart to,
Is the little girl who fell in love with a horse,
And never looked back.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Do you know what day July 10th is?

Ok yes, it is Saturday. But what else is on the 10th?

The 10th of July, 2010 is National Helmet Awareness Day.

Why do we need this day?

Because we all have skulls with (hopefully) brains worth protecting.

Horses + the human body + solid objects = injury.

Why do I wear a helmet? Because I believe in something I say all the time, several times a week "With horses it's not about if you are going to get hurt, it's when and how bad"
Now for your enjoyment a picture I found last night of me making a goofy face as I explained to Zoe how to take pictures with my camera as I was riding Portus in Ireland. I am very passionate about wearing helmets. Mostly because I have seen accidents and more so because I have been in some. Luckily nothing serious.

Anyone who has been around horses for any period of time more than the occasional petting over a fence or guided trail ride is going to get hurt. It is just a fact of horsemanship.. You can get your toes stepped on, fingers bitten, shoved, kicked, head butted and even thrown off. It's a fact of horsemanship and you either accept it or get out of the barn and back into your air conditioned office.

So strap one on and check out my guest blog post about my recent fall and how my helmet endured on the Riders 4 Helmets and support National helmet awareness day by posting this site on your blog to notify riders and helmet wearers/non wearers around the world of this great cause!

So, why do you wear a helmet?
Why don't you wear a helmet?
We wanna know!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday stills: framed

I apologize right now for the lack of posts and this one being so late. I have been really busy doing hay, riding, having hay fall on my head (cue "oh my achin neck") and taking care of my sisters place for a few days which has no internet I haven't had time to blog or check many blogs.

On to Sunday stills.

Framed, theres nothing like framing a horse by jumping through a keyhole jump in Ireland on the cross county course. Bitless as always. This is Berthe on Collin. Trust me I still have a few thousand pictures you guys haven't seen yet from Ireland, including a video of me jumping cross county to come real soon. Stay tuned.
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