Mar 18

Field notes from the Equine Behavioral Studies Dept.

Stella, genius. March 2009.

Stella. March 2009.

My young grey mare Pearl looks like a little porcelain unicorn, but she has fearsome intellective powers, which powers she unfortunately inclines toward the service of evil. Her practical jokes include bucking me off, terrorizing the other mares, throwing her feed pan in the air, kicking down stall boards, and, the latest addition to her repertoire: refusing to be caught.

Yesterday when I went to get her, I was relieved when she came sauntering right up to the gate. I held out the halter. She accommodatingly stuck her nose right in. It wasn’t until I reached around to buckle it that I espied the red glint in her eye. I made haste, but it was too late; young Pearl had executed an exquisite pirouette at the last moment and was cantering off, bucking and chuckling, before I even knew I’d been suckered.

As I jumped up and down on the halter that for the umpteenth time that week contained no gray mare, it began to dawn on me that Pearl’s imp of the perverse had gone unchecked for far too long. Her idle genius had become a torment to all. She needed a little more stimulation in her life. OK, a lot more.

Toward this end I decided to teach her how to play catch, since she is obviously the sort of horse who can appreciate pure sport.

I’m big on operant conditioning to teach critters to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing on their own in a million years. Say I want the horse to “count” to 5 with her right front leg. I assume a neutral posture and wait around until she inadvertently performs the first part of the behavior — say, she stomps her foot to shake off a fly. The second she moves that leg — it doesn’t matter why she moves it, just that she moves it period — I make a little clicking noise. The noise “marks” the moment that the horse displays the desired behavior, and — this is the key part — signals that I will be producing a handful of food forthwith as a reward.

This noise/reward dealio motivates the animal to reproduce the precise marked behavior in future. The horse will be counting like mad in no time.

By stringing together incremental behaviors, I can get complex ones. I become a vending machine, wherein the coin of the realm is the desired behavior, and the reward is a handful of organic flax flakes. After the first phase of the behavior is 100% down, I add a new criterion, then another, until the horse is dancing the lambada on the head of a pin.

As an organic hippie dippie new age crone, I am fond of operant conditioning because it involves no force, no fear, no negative reinforcement of any kind. The only consequence of not doing it “right” is no handful of organic flax flakes. The horse can walk away any time she wants, game over.

Yesterday’s episode: I entered the paddock containing Pearl and produced a soccer ball. Pearl, who acutely perceived that I carried no halter, consented to wander over and eyeball the unfamiliar object. The moment she looked at the ball I made the noise that tells her she did something right, and she got a handful of organic flax flakes. Repeat. In a minute or two, Pearl was associating the ball with the flakes.

So I upped the ante; now she had to take a step toward the soccer ball to get the flakes, which she figured out once I started rewarding her for inadvertently shifting her weight toward it. Then she had to bonk the soccer ball with her nose, then she had to roll it a foot, then two feet, etc, you get the picture, until we’re rolling it back and forth. It is enjoyable for both parties. It also draws a crowd at the boarding barn because “real” horse people don’t train like this. They come over to laugh at me, but they’re always amazed that a horse can be taught to toss you a soccer ball in 20 minutes flat.

This is no big whoop; you can teach any animal or human pretty much anything you want if you reward them with sufficient whatever-it-is-they-value: organic flax flakes, Porsches, bacon. I have a golden retriever who will do my taxes for a Cheeto.

Back in the paddock, my old mare Stella was loafing under a tree. I confess I had not fully appreciated Stella as a thinker prior to this episode. I had used operant conditioning to teach her not to kick me in the face when I pick her hind feet, but that’s as far as I’d taken it. She had certainly never seen a soccer ball before.

Anyway, I noticed that Stella had been observing with keen interest Pearl and these strange soccer ball proceedings. Before long an interesting thing happened. After studying us for about 20 minutes, Stella strolled purposefully onto the field, pinned her ears at Pearl to get her out of the way, bonked the ball with her nose for the first time in her life, and presented herself forthwith for her handful of flakes. Zounds! I said. Operant conditioning-by-proxy!

I don’t know if you have to be a horse person to understand how remarkable this is.

Probably you do.

Originally posted at I Blame the Patriarchy.


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  1. Yatima

    Stella is clearly an evil genius. How’s the containment facility coming along?

  2. aetherbee

    I’m a horse person. I also worked 8 years as a behavioural therapist with small human creatures. I would expect any one or thing with half a brain to learn by imitation. Having said that, I’m always amazed how many stupid people there are. ibtp.

    Stella is nonetheless a star. Hoof and nose ball for fun. Teaching them to pee in a bucket for function; saves on straw if they’re stabled.

  3. slavdude

    I’m not a horse person, but we (the wife and I) have seen this behavior (and read about it and watched shows about it) in other animals such as, in our case, chinchillas and even our cat.

  4. Pinko Punko

    Bert knows all the best tax shelters.

    I was surprised that this post was 2009 because it felt like it was last year. Wow.

  5. Comradde PhysioProffe

    Very cool! Now can you get the two horses to toss the ball back and forth to each other?

  6. Ruskii

    My cousin just brought her 3-month Bassett hound pup for us to watch a week or so until she moves into her new house, and I’ve been reading up on how to train him. My mom is absolutely terrible with the concept. She uses the same happy baby voice to say “stop killing the neighbor’s child” as she’d use for “aww, you cured cancer! good boy!” Our cat is deaf and hates treats so hand signals were as far as his training could go, and we got our walker coonhound after she’d been mostly trained by past (abusive) owners. But that leaves our old Jack Russell. My mother seems to think “he’s the alpha dog” means he can be a mean little shit to everyone, and that he gets what he wants, whenever. He can sit on the cat. He can snap at her. He can snarl and growl if you don’t scratch his ass immediately when he wants it. Absolutely terrible creature.

    Anyway, my cousin is worried about her pup picking up bad habits. Which is pretty fair. Going to try clicker training him tomorrow if I can find suitable treats. Wish me luck.

  7. Hattie

    Just enjoying your adventures with your horses. Will try your techniques on cats and grandkids.

  8. shopstewardess

    Spent part of yesterday trying to help capture five escaped horses and return them to safety. It would have been easier if their owner had taught them some basic manners, like following politely when being led, rather than having them constantly trying to knock the human over. Football would have been a distant dream.

  9. Mary caulkins

    How awesome! The horses at the ranch here will do anything for a Manna Pro Bite-Size Nuggets !!

  10. ChariD

    Operant conditioning works wonders with my two little Chihuahuas. I used it to teach them to fetch and to get them to learn to leave the kitchen when I open the dishwasher (they love to lick the plates inside and I fear I’ll close one of them in there one day).

  11. quixote

    Wow. Stella has to understand the difference between self and other and be capable of categorizing rather complex actions and then generalizing that, which is basic symbolic thinking, and applying it to her own situation. Horses aren’t really supposed to be able to do that!

    My animals are birds, cockatiels to be exact. So, parrots, but small-brained parrots. They never cease to amaze me in the opposite way: by their inability to figure out some stuff that seems super-simple. They had an exercise thingy which was a post with little dowels sticking out in a spiral arrangement. They liked climbing up it.

    But this was the thing that had me in stitches. They’d get to the top and want to get back down, and they couldn’t for the life of them figure out that going down was just the reverse of going up. They were capable of the motions and they’d make them in other contexts, but the generalizing capacity to understand that step up and step down are related just wasn’t there. They’d stand there, looking disconsolate until they got bored and flew down.

  12. Ruby Lou

    I’m not a horse person, and I didn’t know a horse wouldn’t ordinarily figure out how to get a cool treat by repeating an observed behavior. Also this phrase got my attention: ‘pinned her ears at Pearl to get her out of the way’. So when one horse pins her ears at another horse, this means ‘back off’? How much other body language do horses use to communicate with each other?

  13. blondie

    Holy horse whisperer! You’re going to have the first all-equine soccer team!

    p.s. Stella sounds like kind of a pill.

  14. blondie

    p.s., I’m not a horse expert, Ruby Lou, but in my humble experience, pinning your ears back at another horse means something to the effect, “I’m about ready to bite and/or kick you.”

  15. wondering

    Hi Ruby Lou,
    There is a ton of horse body language that they use to communicate with humans, horses, and other animals. You can find out more about it here: http://www.equisearch.com/horses_care/health/behavior/bodylanguagechart_111307/

  16. M.K. Hajdin

    Excellent! How’s Smudge?

  17. stephen benson

    stella is a smart one. pearl ain’t too shabby herself. operant conditioning is absolutely the best way to go. i’m a horse person type and I’ve used it since before I knew what it was, before college we just called it horse sense.

    try this trick with the haltering. take a halter out with you to the pen. and start tossing it up in the air and catching it. (it helps to have jingly noisy makers on the halter). if the horse begins to move toward, turn your back and take a small step or two while continuing to play with the halter. soon, very soon, the horse’s curiosity and sense of fun will force them to come right up to you. treats (my guys are suckers for licorice bits) are produced and in no time at all the horse will be walking up when you present yourself.

    another thing my horses do that a lot of folks deem to be magical is that they all have theme songs. singing, whistling, or pennywhistling a certain song will bring a certain horse. I tell folks “it ain’t magic, it’s skinner.”

  18. BBBShrewHarpy

    I enjoy hearing about Dreadful Acres and I hope you keep up this blog. I also very much enjoy your blaming blog. The fighting among blamers in the comments is just plain depressing.

  19. Veganrampage

    Knew the end before I read it. Horses. plants, cats; almost all species on earth can teach things they know, and generationally too. We, the smart-ass homo-sapien, think we know better than all, better than each, when we know barely anything. Just look around. We are smart? Most of us don’t realize we are animals.
    Until a white Western scientist does a study on some well known animal or plant behavior it just does not exist, even though generations of native peoples have known about the behavior for generations.

  20. Lidon

    Too cute! Horses are great. I used conditioning when giving nuts to squirrels that lived in my apt. complex. They would come to my back door and once when I closed my screen, deciding they had had enough, one of them started to chew through it, not understanding why this barrier was suddenly there keeping her from her beloved treats. So to prevent this, I would just sit there and say “no more” over and over and they would eventually just give up and scamper off. By the 2nd or 3rd time, they were able to associate those words with me not having any more food so all I had to say was “no more” a couple of times and they would leave instead of trying to break into my apartment for more food.

  21. Ambar

    I’m not at all surprised, given that Stella is an Arabian. We’ve seen that sort of generalization happen before. :)

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