Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Clicker Myths: Myth 1

I am starting a series of blog posts on clicker myths. Clicker myths is a catchy title but these posts are not only about training using a clicker, but about looking at many popular beliefs in the horse-world from a behaviourist’s perspective. If you have any behaviour questions you want me to cover please leave a comment. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about these topics!

This first myth seems to be rooted fairly deeply in the horse world and can make for some heated debates... I hope you enjoy my take...
Myth 1:Giving horses food by hand teaches a horse to bite.

Is that so? It’s what I was told growing up but now I don’t think so. Here’s why:

I think the root of our problem is the traditional treat. Many riders enjoy feeding their horses as a way to show affection. Some riders give a reward at the end of the ride for a job well done. Even when we have a very thought out reason for giving Buttercup a sugar after a great ride Buttercup will not see that same connection.


When you give something as highly valued as food to an animal with no reinforcement schedule in mind (randomly) they will begin to associate the treats with the only thing that is constantly paired with the food reward-your hands or pocket.

Now what happens if you even give Buttercup a cookie when she nuzzles your pocket or lips your hand? You have just reinforced those unwanted behaviours directly! When you look at how most horse people traditionally fed treats to horses you can see where the myth came from. Food does not teach horses to bite. We teach horses to bite.

Another reason I have heard not to hand feed horses is it spoils them. Once again it’s not the food but how the food is being delivered. When you look at how some riders dole out the sugar, carrots, and cookies it does kind of remind you of well meaning parents “spoiling” their children with endless presents. When you give something away with no meaning attached animals and children do kind of develop a sense of entitlement. I don’t have any behavioural backings for this one. It just seems logical. We are all more honest hard working people because we have had to work hard for our rewards right? Life is not about free handouts. Or something like that...


Don’t take my word for it though! Here are some other articles about hand feeding and biting.

If you give a horse a cookie


Alexandra Kurland answers the question in this interview with Karen Pryor:


Many traditional trainers are reluctant to use food in their training. How do you prevent the horse from becoming too mouthy?

(look down the page until you see the question... or read the entire interview it's good!)


Sunday, December 4, 2011

4H fun show


Our barn is mostly western with a large lesson program and now a 4H program. Bodhi's part boarder rides western with Bodhi and is in the 4H club. The barn hosted a 4H show yesterday and since they did not get enough interest from other clubs that opened it up to us boarders and other barns to join in the fun.

So the part boarder, me, and Bodhi teamed up (team Bodhi). I competed in the senior group and she was in the junior. One other farm showed up with three teenage girls and three all business gamer ponies. It was quite funny to see the juxtaposition between our lesson kids (mostly beginners) the boarders, who had never done an egg and spoon race in their life, and these kids--they were professional butterfly race extraordinaires!

This was my fist fun show ever and I had a blast. I rode western (comical) and I tried all the games. Bodhi was surprisingly keen, kept a great attitude through the whole ordeal, and tried his best with all the crazy things we asked him to do!

The part boarder and I both did command class, barrel racing(we got third!), Egg and spoon, Toilet paper challenge (we got second), butterfly race, flag race (we got third which is pretty good for any competition with the word race in it), trail class, and keyhole(second!). When we got to take off the saddle Bodhi and I really did well. We got first in both the bareback command class and the bareback five dollar bill class. I may not have a fast horse but I have a very smooth horse. Go team Bodhi!

So proud of my boy for being such a trooper. It was a proud day for me to see my little man all grown up standing tied and working all day in a crowd and keeping a keen positive attitude. He has really grown into a great guy.

learning lateral

I have been working with Bodhi for a few five minute segments on side passing at liberty. We Keep it very short (5 mins) and work on it a few times a week. The biggest break through was getting him to hold still long enough to really understand what I was asking. That is one of our issues right now. He gets very excited and jumps into a behavior with out waiting for the cue. I know this just means he needs more work on cue control but I am also thinking about teaching him a chill cue. Never thought I would need a chill cue for this horse! It would be used specifically when he gets worked up during a shaping session. It is so adorable how hard he tries. He is one of the hardest working horses I have ever had the pleasure of working with. His slow little dopey baby self is shifting into a serious hard working adult horse. It is very fun to see him mature.

I am inspired by him to work with other horses. I wonder if it is just Bodhi or if it is the new way I am approaching training that gets me such consistent, positive results? I would love the opportunity to work with other horses so I can hone my skills as a positive trainer. Too bad as a graduate student I do not have the funds or time for a second horse.

I posted two videos below showing our process so far. The first one shows how I rewarded him after one correct step. The second video is later when I reward him after he fixes a straightness issue he was having. video video

Great comments I wanted to share..

My last post had a few questions about the issue of horse slaughter. Calm, Forward, Straight posted especially insightful answers and she said I could share them. I think she has a great idea about contacting your local congressperson.

1st comment
The main markets for horse meat are Europe and Japan, although it is also served in Canada. The meat is often misrepresented as being from wild free ranging mustangs, and touted for it's healthfulness. The reality is that bute, banamine, wormers and most other horse meds are explicitly labeled "not for use in horses meant for human consumption".

The horses aren't raised for meat per se, it has just become a convenience for folks who can't be bothered to humanely euthanize, or to be responsible for horses that are no longer "useful"...

Horse slaughter is not actually illegal, but horses began being transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter after the last American slaughter house closed several years ago. You do not want to know how they kill the poor horses who end up in Mexico.

The three slaughter houses that operated in the USA until recently were owned by foreign companies, Belgian I believe, and there is documentation ( I have seen the tax records) that they paid next to no taxes here.

Hopefully not too much information... I used to be the NC leader for Americans Against Horse Slaughter. We were trying for years to pass legislation that would outlaw the transport of horses across the borders for slaughter.
2nd comment
While the slaughter plants closed, in part due to the inspection issue, there is no legislation that I know of actually prohibiting horse slaughter. Just hoops the plants had to jump through regarding inspections which affected profitability.

Once there was no facility left in the US to continue slaughtering, horses began being double deckered across the Mexican and Canadian borders to their slaughterhouses.

The next strategy to end the slaughter of american horses was to get the transport across the borders outlawed, under an anti animal cruelty act. This legislation could never pass both houses - bogged down by obstructionist agriculture lobby $$$$.

My understanding is that a couple of pro-slaughter congressmen quietly added the plant inspection funding language to the current ag appropriations bill which is one of the very exasperating ways legislation is handled in congress.

As long as the anti-slaughter legislation gets passed - the funding language in the ag bill won't matter.

Call / fax / email your congressperson telling them you want their support for Senate bill S. 1176 and House bill H.R. 2966. Go to http://www.house.gov/ and click on the Bills and Reports tab to read the text of the bills.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

so many questions!

I am sure everyone has heard by now about the bill making it legal to slaughter horses in the United States again.... I honestly do not know what to make of it. I am not going to jump up on my soap box either because I have no idea... so please keep reading! :)

Making slaughter illegal didn't stop horse slaughter right? I am not sure making things illegal really even works very well. Look at marijuana as an example. When there is a market and money to be made people will always do it right? Making it legal or not legal probably wont change much. Has not with drugs and has not with horse meat. I mean the horse meat industry seems a bit shady doesn't?

I mean I have never met a farmer who raises quality horses for slaughter and takes pride in his crop of certified black Angus grass fed quarter horse. Do they exist? The way horses go from the pasture to the plate seems really back alley to me. Does anyone know more about the horse meat industry? I feel so ignorant about the basic facts! Who buys the meat we produce? Does it get tested by the FDA for drugs, hormones, etc?
If we are going to eat horses shouldn't we treat them more like food and less like athletes? How could we do both and truly have both human consumers and horses at heart? How do we de-incentivize the practice of irresponsible breeding and the dumping of horses at auctions? It did not stop when slaughter was banned and it wont stop now. How do we stop something people get paid to do?

Ok enough questions. But seriously I would love to hear your thoughts! I know this is heated debate in the horse world but I really don't know what I think. I want to know how you guys feel. I have trusted your advise on other issues for so long!