Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Poisoned cues and Natural horsemanship Part 1

"Pavlov hits me with more bad news every time I answer the phone so I play and I sing and I just let it ring, all day when I'm at home"
Ani Difranco

While reading Karen Pryor's Latest book I had this amazing ah hah! moment. I am going to attempt to explain what I figured out so bare with me! Let me know if it doesn't make sense. I am really excited about this if you can not tell and I would love to hear what you guys think!

First let me attempt to explain this new concept of a poisoned cue-- a term coined by Karen Pryor to describe an event that we have all had experience with. I will start with an example she gave in the book that really helped me to understand. A great example of a poisoned cue is your name. Your name does not immediately illicit a positive response or reaction from you necessarily. It can be quite ambiguous. Your name is complicated. It depends on how it is said. It can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the context.

I hear---"MOLLY" and I stop and think, is this person wanting to praise or to punish? Should I answer?

This is fine in language but it is bad for getting a consistent result in training. I thought of another great human example of a poisoned cue; the telephone ring. Sometimes answering the telephone can be a positive experience, like talking to a friend, or getting a call about a job offer etc... sometimes it can be an aggravating one, telemarketers, your mother in law nagging you about something, or surveys. It can even be a very negative one, someone calling you to yell, or to inform you of a loved one's sickness, or death. How many people screen their calls or feel a bit of anxiety when answering the phone? That is a poisoned cue!

Now lets look at this in the light of horse training--- We all know that habituation is a common cause of horses becoming "dull" or "lazy" to our aides. Habituation is a consequence of poorly executed negative reinforcement and I have never met a single trained horse that does not exhibit some extent of unintended habituation to cues.

Poisoned cues also is they key to a lot of "resistance" behaviors seen in horses. A rider's aides become ambiguous to a horse over time because of poorly executed negative reinforcement as well as the concept of the aversive stimulus of negative reinforcement must get louder if the aide is "ignored". When riders kick, pull, and tap harder it is not just a negative stimulus it becomes a punishing experience. Soon your horse does not know if a squeeze is going to lead to a release or going to lead to a good thump in the ribs. See what I mean? At the least you get muddy communication, hesitation and dullness, stiffness and mild anxiety. In worse cases you get bucking, rearing, bolting. John Lyons likes to say things like "You gas pedal is broken" Well I think it is more that your gas pedal is poisoned! Horse anxiety in training and avoidance behaviors like bucking are caused by something a bit more sinister than habituation, but a lot more subtle than horses subjected to obvious cruelty. I have met many horses with some extreme behaviors that have led very great lives and I think the poisoned cue is a concept that explains this phenomenon well!

In PART II I am going to tie this in with Natural horsemanship I swear! :)

Further Reading....



  1. This is a really good point - Temple Grandin points out in her most recent book that the use of negative reinforcement (e.g. pressure, and at the extreme, punishment) can only be effective at all if it is very carefully done where there is an immediate release when the response you want starts - not when it is complete - otherwise you're just giving the horse mixed messages - the horse starts to comply and the pressure/negative reinforcement continues - of course the horse doesn't think it's doing the right thing! Confusion is a major cause of anxiety and disobedience in horses.

  2. Yep! And every time you don't release the cue and you accidentally punish instead of reward you are poisoning that cues meaning.

  3. Good points! Sometime we forget that every time we are working with our horses we are training, or untraining as the case may be.

    "Horse anxiety in training and avoidance behaviors like bucking are caused by something a bit more sinister than habituation, but a lot more subtle than horses subjected to obvious cruelty."

    I find this sentence to be very poignant.

  4. Great post!

    Poisoned cues are so important to understand. No wonder they make our horses unhappy.

    I find behaviors trained only with positive reinforcement tend to be a lot more reliable in the long run. The horse is much more likely to not comply or to "test" the trainer if +R has been combined with -R, especially if significant amounts of -R are used.

    You would probably really enjoy the poisoned cue DVD Alex Kurland made with Jesús Rosales-Ruiz. It's a 3 hour DVD and packed with a ton of good info, including footage of animals from some of the poisoned cue research that was done at the University of North Texas. Alex sells it on her website, it is DVD `14:



  5. Great point! I think you illustrated it really clearly, and I love the telephone example you came up with!

  6. I'm very interested to see your thoughts on how this relates to the Natural Horsemanship method of training....

  7. Hey Diane glad you came by. I guess I try to connect the idea back to natural horsemanship in Part 2 of this post (the next post in the archive) If you still have questions though I would love to try and answer them. :) Hope to learn more about your interests and thoughts.

  8. "Poisoned cue" is from research study by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and students at the University of North Texas. This may help folks research the topic more.