Sunday, January 24, 2010

Horse Sense:Can a Horse Problem Solve?

Stephen Budiansky's book The Nature of Horses delves into many areas of horse behavior and learning. In the previous post, Is Your Horse as Smart as a Guinea Pig, I touched on the horses ability of "learning to learn". We learned that consistency is crucial for horses mental well being and the reasons why.

Using the maze again to study how well a horse could actually problem solve , the studies that Budiansky writes about discovered one thing that most people have already known for years; Horses have excellent memories once something is learned, good or bad. In terms of real problem solving, surprisingly, they did not rank too well. Some of the species that did rank high in some of the tests that were done were dogs, raccoons, money and most carnivores (not sure what the correlation might be here but maybe part of the survival instincts necessary to catch elusive prey?)
Instead, what was confirmed was that horses are exceptionally good at making associations. I guess that makes sense;

I open the creaky door to the feed room shed, ears are perked up. I open the creaky door to the tack shed.. no response.

Our horses even know the sound of our truck coming back with the trailer from a day of riding, as opposed to the thousand other diesel trucks that go by… I guess Pavlov knew what he was talking about after all.

The book states that ability to make associations with actions or events relates to one thing; survival. Learning to move away from the dominant horse when his ears are laid back might be the difference between being able to continue to be able bodied or get injured…a kick is an unpleasant consequence.

So this begs the question of whether ability to learn coincides with the ability to be trained. The bottom line as Budiansky notes was simply this: "that much can be accomplished in training by ignoring incorrect responses". "A response to a stimulus that in neither rewarded not punished tends to disappear of it own accord".

This makes sense but I can't help but feel he missed something important. Budainsky discusses the scenario of when a trainer or rider is working with a horse who is shying at some imaginary object or , one corner of the arena, for example... The best way to deal with this , he says is to ignore it. Attempting to correct it through punishment may turn it into a bigger issue and sometimes even reward it. I would agree with that in most cases. As endurance riders teaching our horses to approach objects that look scary, cross water, go over bridges, etc is part of the job and we spend alot of time working our horses through these things so that in time they can approach things with confidence. What he doesn't mention though is what is the rider is doing with their own body; breath, seat, hands, legs, to reinforce the horse reacting. Often times, if a horse is spooking at the same place and the rider is anticipating this, the rider is subconsciously telling the horse with tension in the riders body, that there is something coming up that is going to be scary....9 times out of 10, the horse is going to be scared and respond in an unfavorable way. Most times, we may not even be conscious of what our bodies are doing but our horse is sensing it.. after all, they do feel flies...

So what do you think? Is it simple associations or do horse reason and problem solve? I have to admit, my gelding Rebel puts wide gaping holes in the research with his antics that Budiansky writes of. Share some of your experiences with your horses.

Next and Last Post in Horse Sense : Does Learning ability Correlate with Certain Personality Traits?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Horse Sense; Is Your Horse as Smart as a Guinea Pig?

Well, that seems like a simple enough answer , doesn't it?? Of course! A horse must be smarter than that? Right?... Right?

While horses brains aren't exactly big, they apparently do use much of that grey matter just to keep their feet in the right place. Imagine, so much brain power used to do what is seemingly a simple, subconscious thought. I guess Harry Whitney, Ray Hunt and some of the other masters of natural horsemanship out there really do have a point when they talk about the relationship between a horses feet and a horses thought!

" Agility , speed, and the variety of gaits create a huge demand for hard wired control in the central nervous system", according to the book. Apparently, getting motion and controlling four limbs in an organized way isn't as easy as one would think. Now, add to that those four limbs now traveling at high speeds over uneven ground, turning , maneuvering around and over obstacles.

"A four-legged creature on the move is not a wind up toy that just goes, maintaining balance is a matter of continual feedback and adjustment". The added burden of rider, who may not be so coordinated themselves adds another level of difficulty for the horse.. and yet, look at how they so often take care of their passengers? It really is quite amazing when it's coined in those terms, the horses ability to just move, in a coordinated and balanced fashion suddenly becomes not so simple of a task. How many of us have ever thought about it that way?

It's more common place , as humans, to define intelligence in an animal by it's ability to learn the tasks we ask of it, is it not?

In some of the tests that Budiansky mentions, horses were able to discriminate between a feed box and a feed box covered in a black cloth. They were taught to go to one of the other. This was a pretty simple task, especially if there was a reward involved. More interesting, the book points out that they "learned to learn". They were able to identify when a pattern reversed. So , they are able to make appropriate distinctions that something has changed and then adapt to it. That's probably a pretty well known fact among horse people. If the routine changes, the horse picks up on this and learns that feeding time is no longer at 5:00 but now at 6:00... eventually they stop getting anxious at 5:00 and hold off until a bit later... However, the studies went on to show that the horses ability to be a quick study was lacking, about equal to an aquarium fish, guinea pig or octopus... So maybe our horse are a bit more complex in their abilities to learn but I guess they aren't any quicker than a guinea pig.... I might have to get used to that idea....

Maze studies were also done to test how a horse makes a choice. 20% of the horses tested to take a left turn upon entering the maze still turned the wrong way. The more interesting, although a bit disturbing, occur ed when the scientists tested what would happen if the horse received a negative consequence for choosing the wrong turn in the maze. The horses were greeted with a blast of carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. Physically harmless but a bit traumatic in my opinion. The results showed that while horses made fewer mistakes with fewer lessons, they ended up spending quite a bit more time deciding about which way to turn. The study revealed that while they may have learned faster, they were more worried about getting the right answer.

That sounds alot like the horses I have seen come out of the "60 days to a fully trained horse" programs out there...

...but I digress.....

"Discrimination experiments have shown how a lack of clear choices results in hesitation and confusion.. When ponies were taught to tell a black feed box from a white one, they became confused to the point of neurosis as the color of both boxes was gradually shifted to an intermediate gray; they would hover between the two boxes unable to decide", essentially trying to figure out what happened to the black and white colored boxes.

The point??? Consistency , consistency, consistency; It is of utmost importance as a training principle. Unfortunately, it also is one of the most overlooked principles because it requires " self discipline to give commands in a consistent fashion and to insist on an obedience every time"

We can all think of times when we let our horse get away with pulling their head down to graze because we were distracted with something else, and then we can't figure out why we can't get our horse to stop doing that when the horse is dragging us around trying to graze every time a blade of grass crosses his path. Yep, you guessed it right, you taught him that....

The book goes on into much greater detail about experiments done and what was found but the part that really resonates with me is that these experiments show the importance of " making sure that the horse has an opportunity to pick the right answer and that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable responses is clear" and consistency is crucial to keeping our horses from becoming worried or worse.. crazy!!

Set things up for your horse so he/she can be successful and you have a happy, willing friend who is at least as smart as a Guinea Pig!!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Opinions Anyone???

I will be posting the next in the Horse sense series over the weekend but a short diversion here to ask a question to my fellow endurance/horse bloggers out there.

Any thoughts or preferences on endurance stirrups? Aluminum or the polymer? Having sustained a previous crush injury on my foot due to a horse falling on me and actually saved from a more intense injury because of the protection of a western stirrup, I am inclined to go with the aluminum but I am not really sure.

So, I am looking for feedback.. going once , going twice?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Horse Sense; Defining Intelligence

As horse lovers and owners, we all suffer a bit of barn blindness from time to time, thinking we have the most intelligent or the prettiest , or handsomest horse in the neighborhood. But in the moments when no one is watching, or in a moment when you are struggling through a training session with your horse, have you ever occasionally (maybe more often ) found yourself asking “Just how intelligent is this horse?”.

Maybe you are one of the fortunate few who own a horse that is a breeze to train, or alternately, your mount might be dumbed down a bit; slow to understand but willingly complies with your requests.

Or maybe, just maybe, that notion is backwards; Is the horse that is willing to comply the smart one and the one that gives you training fits, the not so smart one? I don’t really know… I don’t even know if there is really a good way to measure intelligence in a horse considering how many different qualities we label as intelligent behavior.

Exactly what behavioral tendencies make a horse a quick and uncomplicated training prospect? Or does complicated always correlate to intelligence ?

>>>>Is your head spinning yet??

How many ads of horses for sale read “great trainability” What does that mean exactly? Is it code for “this horse is so dull witted, you’ll be wondering if your dealing with a camel or a horse” (I guess I have no idea if camels are dull witted, never having the opportunity to try to train one, they just look like they are!). Perhaps you’re like me and happen to own or be working with a horse or two in particular that behave with such purposeful cleverness that you wonder about their capacity for advanced thought. Kinda like street smart versus book smart?????

These are some of the questions I was asking when I first came upon Budiansky’s book several years back . The book answers some of these questions but I also found it provoked more questions as I compared it to my little herd. Nonetheless he offers some very interesting data on the evolution of the horse, the movement of horses, and horse behavior. I have found myself referring back to the book time and time again.

To start, I think it’s probably a safe statement to make that with horses and their learning, they rely heavily on instinctual responses.
Much of what we expect horses to learn is a bit at odds with their general nature. Standing still for electric clippers, asking to hold one of their feet up (their main tool for their best survival instinct) crossing water on the trail, walk into a horse trailer, and the list is endless.

The survival instincts of horses compel them to flee from the loud noises, a vibration of the clippers, to avoid stepping into places where solid ground is not visible and to escape the trap of confinement. And yet , we still ask these things. In time, most individuals comply with these requests. It continues to amaze and humble me that these creatures are so willing to adapt to what we ask of them, which may very well be the exact reason they , as a species, they continue to thrive.. adaptability. If we put ourselves in our horse’s hooves for a moment, spooking and bolting at frightening objects is a smart response for these prey animals to make in the wild.

However, to live in the world with humans require that horses learn to overcome such behaviors to better suit our purposes. In behavioral science, there is a difference between the ability to perceive and comprehend meaning, which we call intelligence, and the willingness to comply with human expectations, which is called learning ability.

A few years back, when we had just bought our place , one of our horses became entangled in some chain link fence panels that were out in the pasure. We didn't know about , since the sale had just gone through and the pasture was covered in snow. We noticed that Cassidy was not coming in to eat and was instead lying down. We walked out there to investigate, thinking he was colicky. Judging from the amount snow on him ( it had started snowing that morning), he must have been tangled in the fence for several hours, but he had patiently laid there, until help came. The leg was not damaged exept for a slight patch of hide worn off . We got the wire cutters and set him free . He was not injured and shook off the long day with nothing more than a little stiffness. The fact that his horse did not panic and struggle is what protected him from permanently debilitating tendon injury. I'm certain most of us would value such a sane and sensible disposition in the horses we trust to carry us.

If your wondering, tt was not total coincidence that this horse did not struggle when he became entangled. Cassidy had been taught about giving to pressure on his legs, with some rope work earlier in his life. It wasn't a skill that was practiced with him routinely, but it had been taught to completion with a solid understanding when it was taught years before. This horse can be led around backwards or forwards with a cotton rope attached to a hind leg. In horse training, we expect horses to build upon prior learning to attain new levels of performance. The long-term effects of early training may be more important than we ever imagined. In this case, it saved this horses leg and possibly his life.

With all the research out there, behaviorists are making rapid advances in understanding learning ability in horses. As an owner, trainer, and breeder , I think it's important to remember the development of this species depends on the decisions we make. As research discovers ways to determine learning ability in horses, it may become more a trait specifically selelcted in breeding programs. For better or for worse, if that happens, the future of the horse rests with all of us.

Next post:Is a Horse as Smart as a Guinea Pig??

Horse Sense:

Catherine over at The Horseback Writer did this post and mentioned the difference between Intelligence and trainability.

When I read her post, the sentence jumped off the page at me. My fascination with horse behavior peaked. If you don't know me, I am a bit of a behaviorist by nature, at least I think it’s by nature. A fascination born to me I suppose and as life has turned it’s pages, continued to develop. Whether we are talking about horses, animals or humans, it doesn’t matter. Sit me on a bench in a mall or airport and I will be entertained for hours simply watching people and their behaviors; no ipod needed here; My favorite ofcourse being horses. If the horses suddenly start running around in the pasture or playing with one another; I stop what I am doing to quietly observe from a distance. I can easily lose hours , and have, this way. I can’t seem to help myself.

I would like to believe that being naturally observant has benefited me greatly in my life not only as a person, but as a horse owner and trainer. Maybe more importantly, it has proved to come in handy a time or two and kept me out of harms way with the humans more than once!

Catherine's post came around the same time that I was giving these two exact words some further thought myself, inspired by a fascinating book I have been re- reading; The Nature of Horses by Stephen Budiansky. The author is not a horseperson necessarily but takes the information out there by vets, trainers, anthropologists, biologist and various other sources . With this information he covers some questions that we have all asked, but with a critical evaluation of the many “myths” that surround the horse. The book is a must read for any horse crazed person wanting to gain insight into what makes these creatures "tick"

I 'll share with you a few of my favorite parts of the book that I have found to be most helpful in my own experiences with my horses, the focus of which will be behavior in respect to learning and training.

Stay tuned for the first: Defining Intelligence in Horses

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ringin in the New Year

.........not the way I had hoped but fun nonetheless.

You know what they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. With the footing being less than safe for riding at the moment, I fiugred that I should heed that advice, embrace the cold snowy weather and have some fun. I have thoroughly been enjoying some much needed time off, sleeping in until after 8:00 and spending my days with family visiting from out of state. My days have been filled with snowmobiling, drinking brandy, snowshoeing, sipping brandy, skiing , a little more brandy..taking the dog for long snowy walks and all kinds of other outdoor winter activities. While I am not riding for now, it 's never far from my mind, so today I decided to go snowshoeing at one of my favorite training ground haunts just to see what the footing really is like out there... and at the same time, getting in a good workout myself. My sister and I went 2.5 miles up the trail, which doesn't sound like much but on snow shoes, it feels like you went 20 miles. The footing was as bad or worse than I feared. 6 inches of snow covering a thick layer of ice.... grrrr......

2009 is long since gone from my mind, but not the lessons learned from it. 2010 could have the makings for an interesting year, with two horses on the books now, one of which is very green and very strong willed, the other , with one successful completion under his girth, looking for longer ,faster times....I'll surely have my work cut out for me and I can't wait.

While the snow, rain, freeze pattern we seem to be stuck in continues, I will pass my time getting conditioning plans in place so that when the weather turns a bit less treacherous, JB, Maggie and I can hit the trail, on our way to fulfill all those endurance goals, hopes and dreams.

HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!