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‘Nudging' your horse to achieve successful training outcomes

by Professor Nat Waran

Learning is a process that ensures an animal develops appropriate and effective responses through lifetime experiences

The mechanics of learning

Horse training involves shaping new behavioural responses whilst at the same time suppressing behaviours that are undesirable and/or unsafe. The process of training involves the use of reinforcers or rewards to signal to the horse that the behaviour is the desirable response (a negative or removal reinforcer such as leg pressure being taken away to signal a correct response such as moving forward, and a positive or addition reinforcer such as a food treat, wither scratch or kind word being given when the horse voluntarily moves towards a person).

Whilst knowledge of the mechanics of learning are essential for equipping riders with the ability to understand why horses do what they do, and how to change behavioural responses when required – its also important to consider how to bring about that change with minimal stress to the horse.

The Mechanics of Learning through Association

So how can you get your horse to alter its behaviour in a predictable way by making small changes in the training and management environment so that automatic cognitive responses are triggered to favour the desired training outcome?

One way is to consider how to apply a psychological concept called ‘Nudge Theory’. Nudge Theory was first written about in 2008 and is a human based theory about how to influence judgements and choices without force or coercion.

The Application of ‘Nudge Theory’ to training horses

‘Nudging’, targets the many small unconscious automatic decisions that we (and animals) make all of the time. Essentially the aim is to influence behavioural outcomes by making the desirable response the easiest option to perform. This draws on the fact that most humans and animals are unlikely to expend energy and effort if there is a clearly signposted and easy pathway.

An often cited example of a small change in a human environment that was effective in changing unwanted behaviour is the 'fly in the urinal research work. This describes how when a picture of a fly was painted on the inside of a public urinal, the men seemed better at aiming into the basin and there was less ‘spillage’. Another example is where healthy snacks are the only items provided at the supermarket check-out resulting in less sugary sweets being bought. There are lots of examples of this approach to influencing human choices, and its used effectively for marketing, politics and by health agencies.

The 'fly in the urinal' research explored the psychology of decision making

An understanding of this concept can work when applied in our interactions with horses during training. The art is to manipulate the environment or the training situation so that the horse offers the desired behavioural response unconsciously, and without the trainer or rider having forced or pressured the horse for the desired outcome. We know that fear or stress can be damaging to the learning process – causing motivational conflict where the horse may be more focused on escaping than on acquiring the knowledge of a positive association between signal, behaviour and outcome. Use of a ‘nudge approach’ means that we ‘stage’ each training session so that the correct response is the easiest and most obvious for the horse to perform.

For effective and humane training we must consider how we manage the process for durable positive outcomes. We want our horses to enjoy the process of learning and for them to make free choices, to freely offer us the desired behavioural outcome. Using a nudge approach, we manage the process to ensure that what the horse wants to do, is what we have already decided we need them to do.

So how is ‘nudging’ applied in training sessions?

There are a few steps to be considered for ensuring positive effective training including the use of ‘nudging’ and these are outlined below:

1. Create an effective learning environment’ – generally this space should be quiet, with few distractions. The horse needs to be relaxed but also alert/attentive and without any competing motivational states. Emotions such as fear, hunger, anxiety or discomfort due for example to a poorly fitting saddle or over-tight girth or nose-band, conflict with the learning process.

Negative emotions caused by ill-fitting tack or distractions in the training environment will interfere with the learning process.

2. Consider what the desired training outcome is for that specific session, and recognize that asking for a perfect response the first time is unfair and unrealistic. Training is a process and it takes planning. Identify the ideal outcome and then decide upon the milestones along the way. Set realistic targets for each session, and be prepared to revise when things aren’t going to plan. Ideally keep a training logbook.

3. Reflect on the previous training sessions (that’s where the log book comes into play) and what the outcome was, any issues that needed resolving and so on – Consider what stage of the shaping process the horse got to – details such as the time taken to get a response, the size of response (effort required), need for refinement of the response, number of errors made and so on.

Making it easy for the horse to make the right choice of behavioural response is the key to effective, stress- minimal training

4. Consider how you can make the horse perform the desired choice of behavioural response by staging things so it is the easiest and most obvious one for the horse to offer. This might mean that you think about where in the training environment you plan to work the horse, what tools you need, (ground poles, corners of the arena, a handler on the ground or even a buddy horse). In other words, think about horse psychology and consider what is most likely to help the horse to automatically do what you want.

The training session should be a positive experience, and the horse needs to remain relaxed and engaged

5. Keep your training sessions short, uncomplicated and effective. Make sure that once the desired response has been performed, the horse is reinforced immediately and the new 'signal - behaviour – consequence' association is reinforced a number of times (this number depends on the horse but its suggested that 3-5 repetitions is will be the minimum number required.

6. Very importantly make sure that your horse remains calm (no or low stress levels) throughout the training session and that once the newly 'nudged' behavior has been practiced, and the outcome reinforced, the horse is not asked to learn anything new or more at that time. Allow the horse time for latent learning to occur outside of the training session.

7. And finally – make sure that training is positive (enjoyable)! Horses (and riders) need to experience positive emotions during training – so make training sessions enriching and playful, rather than mentally/physically taxing and unpleasant. The horse should end the session in a relaxed and unstressed state. Be mindful of the signs of positive and negative emotions and ensure that horse welfare is always placed first and foremost in training and performance demands.

October 31, 2018

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