Sunday, 29 April 2012

Learned Helplessness - an idiot's guide!

There have been so many references lately to Dressage horses displaying signs of learned helplessness that I decided to blog about what learned helplessness is (and is not!)

Any internet search on this topic will usually refer you to the work of Seligman and his colleagues.  They conducted several experiments, mostly on dogs . To understand the experiments you need a basic understanding of learning theory. At its very simplest this states that animals (and indeed humans) tend to repeat behaviours which lead to positive outcomes and/ or the avoidance of negative outcomes. For example, if a bell was rung followed quickly by an electric shock if you didn’t perform a particular action such as pressing a lever, you would very quickly learn to press that lever! This principle is an integral part of training the Dressage horse: a light leg aid signals the horse to go forwards – if it doesn’t go forward then it receives a tap with the whip. Horses quickly learn to avoid the whip by moving off the leg.

In Seligman’s experiments they set up various situations where the stimulus (signal) was applied but the animals were not offered a way of avoiding the negative outcome. So the bell would be followed by an electric shock regardless of any action (more here). Animals (and humans) subjected to these unavoidable negative outcomes learn that they are helpless.  Even if the situation changes, and there arises an opportunity to avoid the negative outcome, many of these animals don’t even try as they have come to believe that any action is futile. In humans this is sometimes seen in victims of repeated abuse and also in some who are clinically depressed. Animals and people suffering from learned helplessness are usually very withdrawn and non-responsive: they feel powerless to change their situations.

Let’s go back to the Dressage horse and look at jaw flexion. The usual sequence is: rider places light pressure on the jaw via the bit – horse flexes jaw – rider eases rein pressure. If the horse doesn’t yield then the rider may increase the pressure. So the horse is offered the option of avoiding the stronger pressure by relaxing its jaw. Result = happy horse, light in the rein.

But what if the horse is not offered a way of avoiding the increasing rein pressure? So the pressure is continually increased and applied even when the horse is in maximum flexion?  Is this in line with learning theory? No, of course it isn’t.  But is a horse ridden like this in learned helplessness?  Probably not. Because when it is offered the option of avoiding the pressure it does so: otherwise horses warmed up in hyperflexion would not ‘come up’ when presented in the test.

Just a bit more...

There have been suggestions that there are grades of learned helplessness, or that it may be context specific. An example could be a riding school horse that is dull to the aids, but a different ride altogether if taken out of the school environment.  Another suggestion is that horses can cope with learned helplessness in a certain situation if they ‘know’ that this is not permanent.  So a horse that may feel ‘helpless’ while ridden may be able to cope if the rest of its daily routine is stable and allows self-expression. At the 2011 Global Dressage Forum, Richard Davison light- heartedeadly likened this to girls at the supermarket checkout who look thoroughly bored but can cope because they know that at the end of the shift they can go out clubbing! These are nice ideas, but the whole point about learned helplessness is that it becomes overwhelming and the feeling of helplessness tends to be extrapolated to all situations. Horses in true learned helplessness would probably not be trainable, or even rideable. They would be withdrawn, unresponsive and unthrifty. They would certainly not go out and perform expressive tests at Grand Prix level!
I hope this post has clarified that whatever your opinions about hyperflexion and its physical effects on the horse’s way of going (I have mine, but will keep them to myself!), successful dressage horses trained by this method are not in learned helplessness.

Please feel free to post comments or questions below. If you’d like to read a longer and more scientific discussion of learned helplessness in horses, you can access a review article here.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Postulations on Posture!

Enter wiki here!
This week we have been uploading content onto the 'Posture' section of our Ridden Horse Behaviour wiki. We are trying to keep content simple, descriptive and objective, but this isn't always easy! Assessing the moving horse in real time will always involve some subjectivity because the human eye is simply not fast enough to capture what is happening 'frame by frame'. This is why you will sometimes see a photograph of a ridden horse showing behaviour which is not really representative of the overall picture: digital photography means that different stills from the same sequence can display the good, the bad, and sometimes the downright ugly! 

If you have any clips or links yourself that illustrate interesting posture in the ridden horse, we would love to receive them. You might like to also read this article on Relative Elavation and Self-carriage found here, which is also the source of this super diagram.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Wiki Horse!

Our new Open Educational Resource goes public today!

click here to enter wiki

The resource is designed to help students and industry trainees get a better understanding of ridden horse behaviour. We hope some of the pages may also be of interest to trainee Dressage judges and competition stewards, but anyone with an equine interest is welcome to view it. The wiki is purely descriptive and we are not discussing training methods or saying what is right or wrong (there are plenty of others keen to do that!)

You will see that there are a lot of gaps as it is still very much work in progress and we are uploading new content daily. The aim is that it becomes a collaborative resource: if you feel you can contribute some expertise you can apply to be a wiki member, which will enable you to upload your own content. Alternatively you can submit video footage on a stick, or via a link.

If you'd like to be updated when more content is added to the wiki, please follow this blog by email or like our facebook page.

We hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Body talk!

This week I am busy uploading content onto our Ridden Horse Behaviour wiki, which hopefully goes public at the end of the week.  

 The section on body language is focussing on the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and tail as these seem the best indicators of the horse’s internal state.

 It was interesting to see a poster presentation at the 2011 ISES conference investigating the attractiveness of equine photographs. The researchers,  Inga Wolframm and M Schnaudt, fitted participants with eye tracking equipment and asked them to rate 25 photographs of horses for attractiveness, and state whether they would  consider buying the horse (if they were looking to buy!). The results showed that the eyes, mouth and ears are the areas most looked at by potential buyers. Qualitative analysis of the photographs considered most attractive showed that the horses chosen all had pricked ears, an alert expression, and a mouth without tension. 
So back to the wiki: so far only ‘ears’ are complete!  I have been scouring YouTube for examples of happy ears in the ridden horse and  I think these are the winners:

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Hello World!

Welcome to our Ridden Horse Behaviour blog :)

This blog will run alongside the 'Ridden Horse Behaviour' wiki , which goes live next week. The wiki is an open access collaborative website, with the aim of increasing the understanding of ridden horse behaviour. It's going to be video based with minimal text and we are very excited about it!

There has been a lot of press lately about behaviour and welfare aspects affecting top level horses, but we are also (in fact mostly) focusing on horses ridden by amateurs and recreational riders.

Here is the story of one of my own horses, in a video that was presented at the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference in 2011.