Sunday, December 1, 2013

Equine Learning - There is Science Behind the Friendly, Porcupine and Driving Games!

I recently came across this wonderful video of a talk by Dr. Andrew McLean at Equitana Australia 2011. It's a long one (over 50 minutes), but if you are passionate about horse training and understanding how they think, feel and learn, you will also be captivated by this clip.

Andrew McLean holds a PhD in equine cognition and learning, has been an accredited horse riding coach for over 30 years and has written 5 books (including an International Best Seller) and authored 35 peer-reviewed journal articles.  

In this presentation, Dr. McLean shows us a glimpse of the scientific evidence which explains why Parelli and other natural horsemanship methods actually work and how they align with the way horses learn.

I could not help but jot down some key points and takeaways as I was viewing this talk.  You might also find them quite interesting and be curious to watch the whole video, which provides several live examples with video clips and pictures.

The differences between the human and equine brain
  • Humans have a rather imprecise memories and are wired to extrapolate and revisit a memory without being in the context, and expand or modify the memory.
  • Horses have very specific, photographic memories, and they are context specific.  Their recall span is 5 seconds or less, which explains while timing of the release or reward is critical to their learning process.
Herd dynamics and leadership is not set - the social hierarchy is very fluid and mobile, and changes according to the resources being contested and context. Very simply, one horse can be dominant for food, but not so in other areas.  They can be dominant with other horses, not with humans, or vice-versa.  

Negative Reinforcement is not negative, it simply means using the process of applying and releasing pressure to teach a response.  Release of pressure is the most common way to teach all animals.  Every horse has its own profile of NR, based on learned experiences!  

First impressions will tend to stick with a horse for life.  This is why the way you introduce a horse to a new context is critical.  The example of the foal with the umbrella in the arena really demonstrates how easy it may to teach a young horse to be afraid of an object if the process is not done with understanding and control.  Learning in new contexts must be done gradually to help the horse.

The horse is wired for fear.  The amygdala (the fear organ) is largest in horses and it has strong projections to the jaw.  This is why horses often express fear and pain through head and jaw movements and reactions.  Salivating, teeth grinding, head tossing, tongue hanging out... you get the picture.

Operant conditioning is training through Negative Reinforcement (application and release of pressure).  This would be the equivalent of the Porcupine and Driving Games in Parelli, using steady and rhythmic pressure to initiate a response.  Dr McLean explains why RHYTHM, TIMING and phases are important.  
Positive Reinforcement is where you add a positive to reinforce - treat, scratch, clicker - but works best once the behavior is trained with NR.  It makes the response more likely to be repeated and accessed over time.

Classical conditioning is training the horse to respond to a very specific cue - voice, aid - it is identical to a Pavlovian response.

Backup cure biting!  We have all heard Pat Parelli say this one.  Dr. McLean explains why!

Habituation is the process of getting a horse confident to a stimulus (we call this the Friendly Game).  Dr. McLean explains the 5 ways of doing this and how some may be more effective than others.
He also explains how a fear response in context, once learned, will never completely disappear.  It can be suppressed, but it is likely to resurface spontaneously at any time.  This would be why a horse that has learned to pull back may never be 100% rehabilitated.  It can be improved, but that horse may never be completely safe when tied.  He demonstrates why general habituation is not the best way to teach a horse confidence (again, like leaving a horse alone with an object so it gets 'used' to it - the opposite may result).
This is why educating a young horse is such a huge responsability and must be undertaken with a lot of savvy, knowledge and feel.

The importance of teaching a horse to stand still!  This teaches a horse an alternate response to his natural instinct, which is flight.  He shows a nice demonstration with police horses and an inflatable clown.  Go and whoa should be equal, this is what the Yo-Yo Game is all about in Parelli.

The importance of being consistent and not changing the rules!  If reins means stop, they cannot mean something else (like round)... That will only confuse the horse whose brain is very context specific.

Finally, the psychological effects on the horse of inescapable pain and the coping mechanisms:
  • Active coping - resisting, physical expression (rear, buck, run, etc.)
  • Passive coping - becoming dull, enduring, giving up - this can lead to....
  • Learned helplessness - usually a fatal condition, horses may never recover from this state. Unfortunately, we have all seen horses that got to this point  :-(
Dr. Mclean pokes the dressage community a few times, or at least, a certain approach to dressage that he feels is not based on the welfare of the horse.  He also makes a point of explaining why contact should never be heavy.  In the presence of real communication between horse and rider, contact should never exceed the weight of the reins.  In Parelli, we aim at 4 ounces or less :-)


Enjoy, and feel free to post your comments and highlights below!


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