CLICKER ISN’T A CURE-ALL
The distracted, scanning horse…
I want to use this as an opportunity for observation.
First, what do we think she’s looking for?
She definitely doesn’t appear confident being on her own, here.
Me 10 years ago:
Well, she just needs to learn how to be separated from other horses.
Let’s tie her up until she gets used to it.
Let’s put her in a separate pen so she doesn’t get attached to any particular horse.
It’s a respect issue, let’s move her feet every time she ignores us.
What kind of associations do you think we’re building with our presence, there?
Sure, sometimes it works.
Sometimes, it’s not really a big deal, and they get over it, no matter what method we use.
They get over it, not because of us, but in spite of us, really.
Sometimes they don’t.
So now what?
We know it’s not natural for a herd animal to feel safe outside a herd.
They are literally not wired to self-regulate. They are wired for co-regulation.
Ever wonder why your horse flips their lid as soon as they lose sight of their buddy?
They depend on visual input from other herd members to provide information as to whether or not they are safe moment to moment.
So back to our question, what do we think she’s looking for?
She’s looking for reassurance, regulation.
She feels alone.
But she’s not alone. I’m right there.
Can I step in and basically act as a surrogate herd to address her feelings of vulnerability?
Can I be her safe space?
Me anytime during the past five years:
Let’s try clicker training.
After all, if I bring a reinforcer into the equation, I might change her mind about being separated, build some positive associations.
Very often, this works.
Because often, herdbound issues are actually people-sour issues.
It’s not so much that they want back with the herd, as it is they want away from us.
It’s a vicious cycle.
The harder we work to correct the herdbound issues, the more negative associations we rack up.
Yeah, sure, we might get them to shut down, but the next day, we have to start all over again because we’ve added even more baggage to our relationship.
Positive reinforcement often works, because changing the association often illuminates the problem.
That was text to talk auto-correct, it was supposed to be eliminate, but I guess they both fit, really.
Sometimes, positive reinforcement doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the horse will interact via positive reinforcement, but they still aren’t feeling regulated.
When we are trying to do positive reinforcement, this can feel really frustrating, because we’ve been taught that clicker training will solve all of these problems if we just make being around us a good thing and build enough positive associations.
It is possible for scanning and pacing to actually be more reinforcing than anything we have to offer.
It’s completely possible for scanning and pacing to function very similarly to human worrying.
Worrying doesn’t actually DO anything; in fact, it can make us feel worse, and even lead to anxiety attacks and panic attacks, but it does make us feel like we’re getting something done.
In that way, it’s reinforcing.
Even worse, it’s self-perpetuating.
Even without anything bad actually happening in reality, even if we aren’t building negative associations from negative events that are real, we can still create negative associations from worrying and anxiety itself.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety and anxiety attacks, I can attest that you can actually have an anxiety attack about having an anxiety attack, sans any other trigger.
It is absolutely the most frustrating thing, because, mentally, you know you’re being irrational, but you are struggling to stop the physical process.
So what do we do?
As humans, we can learn how to interrupt the process and regulate through mindfulness, refocusing and centering and grounding ourselves in the present. We learn how to regulate through breathing techniques, or body awareness, like somatic therapies.
Can we take this to the horse?
Of course, like with human anxiety, we should definitely address trigger-stacking, and thresholds. Flooding the individual and triggering them and then expecting them to regulate through that isn’t really setting them up for success. It can create even more negative association.
WHY ISN’T POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT A CURE-ALL?
Although clicker training can address and eliminate many issues, I’m not sure that switching on what affective neuroscientist Panksepp referred to as the SEEKING system, where the individual is seeking a reinforcer, is necessarily the answer to what he described as the separation distress circuit.
I’m not sure simulating foraging is the answer to an animal feeling unsafe and unregulated.
I am bringing this up, because I’ve heard people say, there is no neutral, you have to switch on SEEKING.
I think we can observe horses in situ and know that’s not true.
The most basic state of being for the horse, is just that… BEING.
Dozing, grooming, just hanging out and having that close contact or a little bit of tactile contact with herd mates, even with some relaxed grazing where they don’t have to be in an active SEEKING state, this is the way they spend the majority of their days, co-regulating moment to moment.
If we are trying to tap into that peaceful state by using the SEEKING system, it’s not so much a bad path, as the wrong path at the moment.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still do clicker training, food reinforcers are great for motivation and positive association-building, and a great way to build rapport and connection around DOING.
But I think regulation is more about BEING.
Isn’t that what draws us to horses in the first place?
I don’t care if you compete, or you and your horse ranch together for a living, or if you just like to have fun and do clicker training, what draws us to horses in the first place is BEING with them, letting our worldly worries slip away as we find peace with them.
We were all drawn to them originally because they regulate us. I think it’s only fair we return the favor.
LIBERTY AND CHOICE
When I first started sharing my experimentations with endotapping, I had several people ask me, yeah, but can you do it at liberty? Or, that’s negative reinforcement, it’s aversive, it’s coercion.
Liberty is the truth, right?
We need to take all the ropes off, and give the horse the freedom to choose, right?
If you love something set it free, if it comes back to you, and all that, right?
We need to give our horse choice in all things, and any attempt to affect choice with anything other than positive reinforcement is coercion, right?
Any attempt to regulate by using a rope or using negative reinforcement will result in the horse going into learned helplessness, right?
Choice is a complicated thing.
Do individuals have the discernment to make choices in their best interest?
Do horses, when we bring them into the domestic world?
If we’re going to be science-based and avoid anthropomorphizing the horse, this should include projecting discernment of choice onto an animal that requires our help navigating and staying regulated in our domestic world.
On to the observations, because I’ve talked enough, and it’s not my intention to necessarily argue my experience, observations, and resulting opinions, but share them.
Do you think this horse felt better or worse with a halter on?
Or do you think they just shut down and went into learned helplessness because I was using coercion?
Do you think I should allow them the choice to pace and and practice anxiety?
Do you think being at liberty was the truth, or do you think it was allowing this horse to get sucked into the whirlpool of their own anxiety without offering any regulation?
Do you think it’s fair to remove a horse from other horses, and not offer them a surrogate regulation?
Do you think that the fact that I needed a halter to be able to refocus this horse and bring them back to the present in order to do tapping, proves that tapping is aversive?
Do you think that being at liberty is the only way to prove that I have a connection and that what I’m doing isn’t aversive?
Do you think that the difference in posture and the difference in energy is a result of me shutting this horse down and not allowing choice?
Do you think the narrative of, if we use negative reinforcement, we are always creating negative associations, is true?
Do you think if I took the halter off and the horse started pacing again, that would prove that I’m not actually helping, just suppressing?
Is it possible to lift the lead and bring their focus back down that rope to us, and back to the present moment, to interrupt the cycle of anxiety?
Or it’s that just coercion?
Do we think that cognitive learning theory and social learning theory can apply to the horse?
Or is it always just behavior modification? Always either appetitive or aversive?
Do we think horses are smart enough and social enough to experience pressure as communication, and not just aversive?
Can horsemanship really be compared to a rat getting shocked in a box, or pressing levers for food?
Is that really all there is to our experience with the horse? Stimulus and response?
Or, can we act as a mindfulness practice for our horses to co-regulate them?
Can we use touch like tapping to center and ground them in the present and help them feel safe in their bodies again?
These are questions we have to take to the horse. They’ll always tell us the truth.