Saturday, April 24, 2010

Horses, Lies, and Videotape

In my last post I mentioned (glossed over) the "horses never lie" concept and realized at the time that head-shaking and denials would follow.  It's time for another shot at explaining what that means and how it looks in your everyday horse life.

"Can I play?"  Most training starts by accident.
Training works like this:

Trainer A wishes to elicit behavior X from trainee C.

Trainer A, being astute and highly intuitive finds a way to trick, cajole, or accidentally force trainee C's performance of behavior X.  (Example:  I trip over the crop I left in the ring, causing Zip to shake his head in laughter--X = head-shaking)

Trainee C, having no clue that anything other than humor is afoot, is delighted when Trainer A clicks a clicker (or makes a kissy noise, or whatever floats A's boat) and hands over a cookie.  Stimulus-response follows as the night the day and is always perfectly in tune.

Trainer A, wishing to elicit X without the pratfall, waves an arm with the errant crop at the end of it.  If she waves hard enough, C will once again see the humor in the situation and shake his head.  Click (kiss/whatever)-treat, and the deal is sealed.

What does this have to do with lying?  Well, how many times have you heard "Bronze Bomber is only pretending to be lame to get out of working!"  It looks sillier in print than in sounds in your head, doesn't it?  Bronzo isn't lying to you.  He's training you.  He's figured out (faster than you have) that when he does a passable Chaplin walk, you will bring out the soaking tub, warm water, Epsom salts, spa robe and carrots and fuss over whichever foot you perceive to be the culprit.  He never actually said he was lame; he just performed a behavior he knew would cue something he wanted from you.  Your brain and your tendency to anthropomorphize turned it into "He's a lying sack of manure!"

You may be accurate in guessing that he's not in the mood to work.  He never said he was. But the whole idea of lying isn't in his repertoire.  What is  there is enjoyment of the moments you spend together with his foot in a warm tub and his mouth full of carrots while you croon love songs to him in an attempt to salve his misery.  That, for whatever in explicable reason, sounds as good to him as the hour-long lesson in tempi changes you'd planned sounded to you.  The thing is, he's a better trainer than you are, and you're a pretty sappy student.  Face it:  if you could get your boss to give you a cake break every time you sighed and flapped your hand as if your wrist was broken, wouldn't you be a flapping fool in no time?

Stimulus-response works for everybody, not just human trainers.  Your horse, your dog, your cat, your gerbil, even your goldfish are adept at seeing the connection and rewarding behavior they wish to see repeated.  No lies involved.  You're not lying to your horse when you ask him to bow in exchange for a cookie.  It doesn't have to make sense or have a purpose to be honest.  You know what you want, and you're going to pay to get it.  That's the way the world works.

Humans lie to each other, but they can't lie to their animals because animals always know the truth.  You think you've tricked Tizzy into entering her stall without a fuss by throwing a carrot chunk in her bucket.  What a smarty you are!  But in reality, you and she have each other trained.  She hangs back, you chunk the carrot, she does what she knows you want her to do.  Win-win!

It's about being in the moment (do you hate that phrase yet?) and simply looking at behaviors as nothing more than behaviors.  Know that everything you do, everything your animals do, even the bizarre things your spouse and children do are responses to some sort of stimulus and are geared to earn some level of reinforcement.  No, you didn't give your 16 year-old son a cookie when he came home with Sponge Bob tattooed on his bicep.  Think about it for a minute and you'll know precisely how you (or someone's not always about you, you know) rewarded that behavior.  Or you'll recognize it as the same kind of trial-and-error effort that you used when you tried to find a way to get Bronzo to come to you in the pasture.  Whatever it is, it's on the training spectrum.

No lie.

You're wondering where the "videotape" comes in, right?  If you're unconvinced that you've been trained and that your horse is being painfully honest, set up a video camera (Flip video makes a neat one that, with the addition of a Gorillapod tripod, can be stuck on a fence, a ladder, the stall bars, or anywhere else handy to the action) and just let it run while you mess with your horse.  I promise you'll see expressions and reactions you didn't notice when you were embroiled in the interaction.  You'll also see how unflattering your favorite barn outfit really is, so you might want to pour a drink before you watch the replay.

Want more training insight..?

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