Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Instinctal Horses

A discussion on what we know and do not know about the main driving force in a horse’s behavior, and that is instinct. Understanding of instinct is essential to one's ability to understand and relate to horses. Without this understanding you will be like a blind man in a world of hidden hazards. You may find yourself from here to there, but you will never see what you are doing.

There are two types of instincts, the inborn and the gained instincts. The inborn instincts are the inherent disposition of animals toward a particular behavior. In other words they are born with a preprogram that dictated certain behavior under certain circumstances, fight or flight if you will. A bird need not be taught how to build a nest or how to fly.  The knowledge when and where to migrate from is inborn.  The same is true of all migrating animals from the antelope to the elephant.  They are born knowing how and what to feed their young.  The wolf will not eat grass (except maybe to make himself puke) and the horse will not eat meat, they could be separated from their kind from birth and still know these things.

The “gained instincts” come from the instinctive learning nature of the horse, this instinctive learning nature of horse is primarily for its self-preservation and manifests itself by it adaptation to the environments in which they live.  In the wild when horse are going from one grazing field to another if they have passed water in the pass they will remember it and go that way again instinctively, they do not have to think about it they just react to the memory of where water is to be found on that route.  This explains why horses are easy to train, it is their instinctive nature to adapt to the environment that we have created by taking them out of the wild and making them, fortunate/unfortunately, a part of our world in which they must live in.

Whether we know it or not we train horses by manipulating their environment and their perception of it, and by exploiting both their inborn and gained instincts. Their gained instincts are what they have learned and do instinctively to live in their environment. They do not think, they cannot think, they react. To prove this to yourself just ask and answer this question, “How do we train people?” and consider the difference  Horses do process information, they have to do this to adapt to the environments in order to preserve themselves. It is this ability of theirs that allows us to train them. The horse instinctively responding to our changes and manipulations, and ends up doing what we want them to do.  No matter the method you train your horse you are using conditioning reflex to do it, you are conditioning the horse to do this or that after he has been given certain cues.  You may do this knowingly or unknowingly but that is what you are doing.

Try this experiment:  You will need one of your friends to help you.  Think of something you want your friend to move, say his/her's right foot (but it can be any body part).  Now to get your friend to be able to help you understand what you are doing you will have to explain to him before you start the experiment.  What you explain is that you are going to apply pressure to his hand or wrist with the grip of your hand, and when they do what it is that you want them to do that you will release the pressure.  Then squeeze the hand and wait for them to pick there other arm up.  As soon as they do release the pressure.   As soon as they lower that are reapply the pressure.  Repeat this as often as required until your friend lifts and hold his other arm up.  

Now consider how long it took your friend to learn what you wanted for them to do, that is if they ever do before you have to give up.  Now consider that your friend had the advantage of an explanation before the lesson began that the horse cannot get for you cannot explain to the horse that the pressure is for a reason that you have decided upon.  He just feels the pressure and does not know that you want him to move something, say drop his head to the pressure of the lead rope, and will resort and try any movement to avoid the pressure. He may try to go frontward, backward, rear, but you keep the pressure until he stumbles upon the response you are looking for, i.e., lower his head, and as soon as he does you release the pressure.  After he stumble upon this solution to releasing the pressure he will remember it, and give that response each time he feels that pressure. 

This is what we call yielding to pressure, it is something that every horse should be taught early on it its training.  Its inborn instinct is to pull away from the pressure, not move into it.  The trainer condition the horse to a new reaction to pressure, and the horse stores it into the memory into his “gained instincts”.

When you put a horse in a round ring he is running away from you and cannot understand why he cannot leave you behind.  By putting him in the ring we have changed his environment, and by the application of pressure we manipulate his feet, making him run, making him turn, and letting him stop.  The horse learns and remember what it is that relieve the the pressure he detests, and will do it instinctively.  They will not have to think about it, they just react to it like a marshal artist who practices his moves over and over for year such as he no longer has to thing when attacked in any manner, he just reacts as he has taught himself to do.  The only difference is that he decided to do this and the horse does not decide this you do.  Treat or clicker training is no different, you are using instinctal ability to learn, remember, and react.  Reacting requires no thinking, that is why they are so much faster than us to respond to fear, before we even consider that it might spook them, they have jumped half way across the road.

One other thing I would like to point out, a lot of people think that a horse can know if you are afraid or not.  Well in part this is true, a horse can understand if you are nervous, and reads that as fear.  They cannot read your mind, but they can read your body, I am using read in a metaphorical sense since they can no more read that they can think.  But they practice understanding body clues every minute they spend with other horses, they have to as they have no words to express them selves with.  You do have an advantage over them is this regard too, you can act they cannot.  You can pretend that you are not afraid, and if your acting is good enough they will never know that your are, if you are that is, as my aunt Ida use to say, "Put on your Indjun face".

Now to all you barn moms out there, no horse is ever going to accept a human as a member of their herd. Nor will a horse ever look to a human as a leader. The horse will respond to its rider according to its training it has received, never because it sees its rider as a leader. I can put a 6 year old on some of my horses and they will do as the rider asks.  Other would give him a problem. Why? Because of the amount of training each has received.  We can train them to do as we wish, but cannot train them to see us as horses.  We can train them to accept us as their companion, rider, driver, and provider, but they will never be fooled into thinking that we are horses.  People who make pets of their horse are making a big mistake.  It is respect that you should earn from your horse, but gaining its respect does not make you its leader.  You can form a partnership with your horse, but it will never view that relationship as you do.  It is a horse and can never be human in any way shape or form.  You are human and never can be a horse in any way shape or form, get over it, and get with it.

You argue, "My horse is smart, it can think just like I can.  It figures out how to open the gates and the latched on the feed shed!  It knows when I have a treat for her, he know that I am going to put him to work and won't let me catch him, but when I don't he comes right up to me."  And so forth and so on.  Yes the horse is smart, and can figure things out but he cannot reason things out.  He figures thinks out by trial and error, and remembers what works and use that.  If he goes up to a new type of latch the first thing he will do to try and open it is the same thing that worked on the last one.

If you put an electric charge on the latch he will learn that and react to his memory, he will not think, "That is hot I better not touch it."  He becomes conditioned to the fact that the fence is hot and avoid it not as a matter of concentration, but in reaction to the times he got bit by it.  If you feed them at a certain time they will remember that, just as cows do, and come expecting to be fed at that time.  If you fail to feed them on time they will not think that you no longer love them, they will give up and go looking else wheres.  

Just because a horse cannot think does not mean that it cannot remember and react according to that memory.  If one person is mean to it, and another is kind they will react to the mean one not because they think "That guy is going to hit me", rather the memory will force a reaction to them in a self preservation way, i.e., get the hell out of Dodge, or kill the SOB.   Your horse will never love you, the best you can hope for is respect and affection, most of us just get tolerated.  The love is all on the owner's side, the horse is his slave and has no option in his situation.  If you open the gates to your pasture how long would you horses hang around?  Oh they might hang around the neighborhood  like mine do when they get out, but that is because it is the environment that they are used to, not for any love of me and what I do for them.

I doubt that I will change the mind of those who just know that their horses can think and have a language that they communicate with.  Well they sure do communicate but not with a language, other that with a few verbal sound they mostly use their body to communicate.  This is what we metaphorically call "Body Language", and they are masters at reading it in both horses and humans.  but body language is not a language at all, we just call it that for lack of a better word to describe what we are talking about.  A language requires words, agreed upon meanings, an approved (approved by the one speaking it) way of string those words together, among other things.

I am reminded of those who claim to have tough apes sign language, and that they use it to communicate.  I believe it for those particular apes, but I will not believe that they have tough them a language until and unless they go on to teach other apes unassisted by humans how to sign like it the movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes".  Other wise all they have done is to have taught their apes a bunch of very complicated tricks.

1 comment:

  1. “I also believe by working with them that they are taught how to use the thinking side of their brain more often.”

    Here is where we part company as I do not believe that horses can reason, i.e., think thinks out. Horses live in a world of instinct and learned responses. One side of the brain is no different than the other side except, unlike in the human brain, have a very underdeveloped corpus callosum to allow one side to communicate with the other side. That is why what you teach a horse on one side you have to teach the other side as well.

    This is not to say that horses cannot figure things out for they can, but they us a method of trial and error to reach solutions, not reason. A horse only uses one side his brain at a time. Like human who favor one side over the other, e.g., left or right handed, horses also can favor a side. How quickly a horse picks up a new skill on the second side is a good indicator of how balanced, or two-sided, the horse is. Like humans the left side of their brain controls the side of their body, and vice versa.

    Learning and perceptual capabilities are not the issue, I know that horses can learn and remember what they have learned, for if they could not training them would be a futile l task. When a horse comes upon a scary thing it cannot reason that it might just be a shadow, it must react to its conditioning whether that condition is the instinct it was born with, taught to it by nature, learned by trial and error, or trained how to react by a trainer. It does not sit there and consider the better of the alternatives; it reacts, and does so in a heartbeat.

    Lots of people think that horses can think because they make decisions, and coming to a decision implies thinking in their mind. That is because most people know little to nothing about instinct. When a bird decision which is the best tree to build its nest it no more thinks about it that it does about how it will build its nest, it just follows its instincts. The bird can learn and remember as well. It learns where water can be found, and remembers how to get back to it, none of that required thinking, just reacting to the need to build a nest, and to drink.

    The horse’s brain has millions of neurons and dendrites. The more neurons, dendrites, and synapses, the more brain power it gains. When a horse is stimulated through learning, the dendrites are stimulated, they grow, which facilitates learning. Teaching your horse a behavior without over-doing it; give the pathways a chance to establish and grow; and then re-visit the behavior in a few days and repeat the lesson and the horse should catch on quicker. The more your horse is stimulated, the more dendrites, the more brain power he has and the faster he learns. The learned path in the horse's brain starts out as a small two-way road when he learns his first behavior which may take a while, but as his learning progresses, his brain turns into an eight lane freeway, and he learns faster! It is like you when you learned your first line dance; it was hard, but got easier with each new dance you learned. Bty, the only thinking involved in learning a line dance was in deciding if you wanted to learn or not.