Monday, March 31, 2014

Saddling up the Endorphins

ME:  Give me your hoof [click!]!

ZIP:  Say what?  You...what?  What's that again?

ME:  [click!]  Hoof!

ZIP:  [sniffing, noticing the clicker and treat bag] I know this!  I know this!  I can do this!

[Herewith follows a series of random behaviors Zip has been reinforced for in the past...]

ZIP:  Okay!  Cookie me!

I can see the cookie bag.  

We all know from research and experience that animals (including humans) learn better, catch on faster, and recall longer when training involves a reward.  Food rewards are preferable to all others (except for the humans who prefer expensive gifts), and will ensure that whatever point you were making will be remembered better than you hoped.

But why?  What is it about this process that makes it such a slam-dunk?  This isn't a question that can be answered by trainers or owners.  Most of us are just happy to find a way to get our subject--equine or otherwise--to perform as required.  We don't go much beyond buying the book and the clicker and the treat bag (this one is perfect) and setting out to get Whizzboy to sit up or whatever fuels our personal water craft.

Not so the research physiologists among us.  I mentioned in an earlier post a book with the title The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.   I'm assuming you've been too busy shoveling snow or manure and haven't bought the book yet.  When you finally do (and you will), turn to Chapter 5 and read along as we talk about endorphins and the role the play in training, habit, addiction, and behavior modification.

I would love to simply cut and paste the whole chapter here, but that's neither possible nor legal.  Instead I will summarize the pertinent facts.

1.  ENDORPHINS  are neurotransmitters that encourage and facilitate the transmission of electrical signals in the brain.  We all have them.  So do other animals.

2. The release of endorphins, which are the body's natural morphine feel-alike, is what we live for.  It's what motivates us to do anything at all.  Without that, we sink into what we interpret as boredom and depression and anxiety.  In humans, the release cues the release of testosterone, which is the chemical that makes us move, and adrenaline, which gives us the super-power boost to move faster.

3.  You can tell when you're enjoying an endorphin rush (and a hit of the other chemicals) because you will feel as if you can do anything, all is right with the world, and whatever you did to feel that way needs to be repeated indefinitely.  The good news is that it even boosts your immune system and makes you (briefly) smarter and more focused.  Party on!

You take a bite of chocolate and you get an endorphin burst because the sensation the chocolate creates in your mouth, your throat, and after swallowing is pleasant.  Whether it's pleasant because of the endorphin release or vice-versa is moot at this point.

You give your horse or dog or partner a cookie, and s/he has the same feeling of well-being.  That's what makes him/her want to recreate the situation.  What's interesting is that if you do the same thing a few times--reward a behavior with a treat--in no time the endorphin release will precede the treat.  That's the classic Pavlovian effect.  The subject will find a pre-cue to let him/her suspect a treat is coming, and the party will begin before you reach for the bag or pick up the clicker or put on the sexy shoes or whatever.  That's where the clicker can come in handy, as it helps create that heads-up that something good is going to happen.
Good horses like to work for a living.

Take it one step farther in the research, though, and something even more intriguing happens, and this is where you need to read Chapter 5.  Research has shown that if you give the horse a cookie repeatedly, he will have a flood of endorphins (along with adrenaline) at a certain level each time...for a while.  Then the flow will level off.  Add another cookie--give him two instead of one--and make it a surprise, and the flow will burst higher than before, then level off at the previous level.

So there's more at work here.  There is the Novelty effect.  Novelty is information.  If it's not new to the subject's brain, it's not worthy of note.  Part of what happens when we bathe in brain chemicals is that we begin to look for more and more novelty.  If the "treat" is a drug--cocaine, for instance--we want more and greater effects.  We anticipate the "high" as soon as we see the pipe or the baggie, and it's that anticipatory response that is the actual addiction, not the drug.  Read the book to find out how we're screwing up on addictions therapy.

In your horse, if you want to control the effect, controlling the pre-cue is important.  He's going to find one anyway, so you  might as well set the one that works best for you.  If you approach the training the same way every time, show him the bag or the cone or the stick or the cookie or whatever (in the pic above, it's the little whisk broom that's the cue) so he's not being cued into behavior at odd times (like when the light goes on in the tack room, or he hears the barn door open, or the horse in the next stall coughs, or he turns his head to the left) and you are better able to focus his attention at the same time yours is focused on the experience at hand.

But there's another interesting twist reported in the research.  It seems our animals (and we) prefer to work for our rewards.  Animals (and teenagers...just sayin') rewarded without doing anything to earn it don't have that same physiological response.  Zip might love his cookies, but if I try to give him more than one without cuing a behavior, he will throw some tricks in anyway.  This is very good to know.  They (and we) want to work!

So armed with all this understanding of the physiology behind the psychology of training, go forth and click!  Your brain and your horses will thank you.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Self-interest or self-defense?

How to Stop Giving a F*ck What People Think

Many of us like to shape our images to prove that we just don't care what anyone thinks of us.   We like to put it out there that we are the outliers, the rebels, the mentally and emotionally off-the-grid humans who are completely at ease in our own skins and at home with our connection to the planet.

We like to lie.  To ourselves and others.  Daily.

Now, this is an outlier!  Apparently capable of using scissors,
this doe was unthwarted by deer netting and just cut herself a door
to the tomato patch.

I'm not suggesting that there do not exist those among us who actually fit that schematic.  I've met a few folks who truly do appear to be removed from the stress of fitting a mold created by others.  I'm not one of them.

I can say with certainty that the mold-fitting urge does lessen with age.  It lessens, but it doesn't disappear.  No matter how many times we repeat to ourselves the mantra I first heard on Oprah years ago that "you wouldn't worry what people think of you if you realized how rarely they do", I still find myself scanning catalogs for the most up-to-date styles in fashion, philosophy, and lifestyle.  Just this week I had to do some serious research to find exactly what I "should" be wearing to the next event I'm scheduled to attend.  I did start in my closet, but that's not where I ended up.

At least I haven't bought a purple dress and red hat so I can blend with the scenery at every event in the world where the "outliers" show off their lockstep finery.

The irony is that even the whole "off-the-grid" thing is driven by the accolades of the influencers in our society.  There's just no escaping the pressure, even if it's pressure to be somehow apart from it.

If your head hurts now, that's as it should be.  We humans spend an inordinate amount of time testing ourselves against a set of norms and requirements that came to us from nowhere in particular and are apparently mandatory, though the punishment for failing to achieve is amorphous at best.

Those of us who have animals in our keep are lucky that we have some connection to the real world.  It's part of what keeps us from spinning (mentally) off the planet.  The more animals we have, the less likely we are to be caught up in the minutiae of style and the need to belong to a tribe, right?

Nope.  Not right.  Not even close to right.  As this study and this news report indicate, the need to belong is a survival instinct.  Without the group's approval, we are on our own in a hostile environment.  Even off the grid, we need approval and the help of the other members of our chosen tribe to find what we need to maintain our lives.
Is it even possible to be a DQ and an outlier?
I think that would make the world implode.
And who ever thought this was a great look?  Sheesh!

So the big issue isn't whether you can get through a day without wondering what someone else thinks of you.  The issue is finding the right tribe.  And it's not just about which philosophy is your mode du jour.  It's about what is safe, sane, and reasonable given the restrictions of your life.  You aren't going to cut the cord, but you can sure pick a cord that is worth tying yourself to.

When it comes to our personal lives, there's a lot of leeway in that worthiness.  We can change modalities in a heartbeat, and we do.  But when we are responsible for the lives and well-being of others, human and non-, then we have to be pickier.  The small change we make in our equine care-taking today can translate into a huge improvement a month from now or chaos.  Our choices in training and management techniques for our animals shouldn't be based on the latest trend on Facebook or the coolest equipment in the new catalogs.  In that area our animals really are like our children (do not use the "furbaby" term around me, please) in that they are incapable of explaining themselves or accommodating our crazy whims without some unexpected side-effects.

We need our relationships to survive.  We need our sanity to keep our relationships from falling off into the morass of lunacy that's swirling around us.  Doing a cost/benefit analysis of our relationships isn't the hardest or the worst thing we can do to ensure that those depending on us aren't suffering for our choices.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Social Comparison Theory and You

The High Cost of Vanity | Psychology Today

I saw a post online the other day about shopping addiction.  Specifically, the poster was asking how many others share the equestrian tack-buying fetish.  My hand shot up immediately.  I buy tack and other things compulsively.  There's no rationale that suits this compulsion.  I don't even opt for high-end goodies.  I get bored, and I shop.  Period.  I have very few interests that lend themselves to this habit, so I major in tack, shoes, and jeans.  I have a lot of all of those.

My tack room is disturbing only when one considers that there
is only one rider involved here.
A few years ago, I had an excuse.  Zip was having orthopedic issues, and I blamed, in part, his saddle.  So I bought more.  Three of them.  Then I had to buy matching girths, new stirrups (because changing them from one saddle to the other is time-consuming), leathers, pads, and so on.  That was almost reasonable.

Once the saddle issue was settled to my satisfaction, however, I moved on to other items.  Boots, bridles, bits (I own so many bits), and on down the list of possibilities.  Only toward the end of the craziness did I start thinking about upgrading to high-end goods.  I give myself credit for that.  OCD is not the same as Social Comparison in essence, though it's related in causality.

The article linked above and the explanation of Social Comparison Theory are enlightening.  It all harks back to my earlier post on how we valuate ourselves based on our "stuff" .  We are slaves to our egos.  I will take issue right now with the fact that the PT article goes on to give instructions on how we can obtain those high-end goodies we crave at discount prices.  I expect better of PT articles than to play into the syndromes they describe.

It's not a happy thought that our desire for the best of everything is simple vanity in service to our egos, is it?  We get together in huddles with our like-minded friends and rave on about "quality" and how it relates to durability and the like.  But in the end, we're only looking for validation of our decision to spend the mortgage payment on a saddle we really don't need or breeches no one will ever see us wear or boots that are so trendy they won't fit our legs (which are not trendy).  I did fall for that last bit.  I refused to go whole-hog and buy the high boots, but the combo trendy paddocks boots and half-chaps will never be besmirched by horse dirt because my lower legs are far too short and the boots only work with those chaps.  I could sell them on eBay, but I'm not done punishing myself for my idiocy.  They're hanging in the tack room where I can see them every day as a reminder.

Now that you know why you're doing this, will you stop?

That depends greatly on how much money you have and how strongly attached you are to your inner narrative--the story you've made up to explain who you are.

The article talks about upward and downward comparisons.  Are you feeling driven to be surrounded by lesser beings?  That might be because you actually don't have a heart-felt belief that you belong elsewhere.  Do you board your horse at a place where the other horse owners are happy just to have horses?  Have you attended shows or clinics where folks like your co-boarders are criticized behind gloved hands by the upper-class sorts?  Are you feeling a need to distance yourself from that image but uncomfortable about the idea that you belong elsewhere?

Often our real selves drive through the gaps in our inner narratives and cause what's called "cognitive dissonance".  That's when our beliefs and reality just don't match.  We feel odd and stressed and can't explain why.
Me and my bud, Leslie, back in the day (1964) when we all looked
like we'd bought our stuff second-hand because we had.  And
no one cared or criticized.  We just rode.

The same goes for a situation where you are low man on the equestrian hierarchy pyramid.  Do you put yourself into that setting then concern yourself about having cheap goods while those around you are flaunting their six-figure incomes by paying the big bucks for the big brands?  Do you actively think about selling your old, comfy, workable saddle and investing money that could be better spent elsewhere in the same saddle your fave barn mate is showing off?  When you hear certain maker names, do you start to drool?  Why are you there?Cognitive dissonance occurs when we don't get the reality of who we are.

The saddest part of this paradigm among horse people is that there's nothing in it about riding ability, horsemanship, or any other related factor.  The important things are left to drift while the pointless details take on a huge presence.  Who cares if your horse bucks you off during every ride?  You've got the most expensive tack in the barn!  Hell, you have the most expensive horse in the barn!  Riding him isn't even on the table.

My solution to the problem is simplistic, so it probably won't be acceptable.  You just need to change your inner narrative.  You need to change the story you tell about yourself.  You write it, so you're the only one who can change it.  Take some time to know yourself as you really are.

Imagine if you stop telling yourself and the public that you're a special being with superb "taste" (whatever that means to you) and no concerns about cost.  Create a story that says you're a dedicated sportsman who wants nothing but the maximum enjoyment from your efforts.  If you find a locus for your activities that truly matches your natural style, you'll likely stop the upward/downward comparisons.  If you take each situation at face value as it relates to your new story, get the most from it in terms of increasing your skill level that you can, and move on when you've mastered what is available, you will be focused on the part of horse ownership that matters:  Your relationship with your horse.

Even then you're likely to fall prey to the FT (Famous Trainer) syndrome.  You might possibly feel that you need to find a trainer with a bigger name than the trainer available at your barn.  You might find yourself shopping online for trainer-labeled goodies that will allow you to pretend you have actually mastered something of social value.  I own a John Lyons-branded bit.  It happens to be one that works well for most horses, so I don't feel too bad about myself for buying it.  I've never met the man or attended any of his clinics, nor have I paid the outrageous sum for a week-long boot camp at his place Out West somewhere.  But for a brief moment in time, I wanted to feel as if I had, so I ordered the bit.

The end result of acting on the unreasonable desire to compete is usually depression and anxiety.  Either you will come up against the reality of not having money to pay the bills because you spent it on something you didn't need, or you will find that no matter how much you spend, there are more, better, more expensive items you don't own.  Either way, you will be angry and upset with yourself on a subconscious level, and you'll feel sad and depressed and frenzied.

Don't do that.

Don't compare things that are pointless and of little value to your bottom-line goal, which is to enjoy the sport of riding at whatever level you and your horse inhabit.  Don't belittle others for their choices, and don't belittle yourself.  Just go out and ride your goddamn horse and have fun!

Ride on!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Risk-Taking and the Thinking Horseman

Are You a Risk-Taker/Psychology Today

This week I happened to read an amazing book about "Testosterone Trading" in the financial markets.  The link at the bottom of this post will take you to an analysis of the book by Bloomberg.  If you have any interest at all in the markets or how testosterone plays a part in risk-taking, read the book.  It's fascinating, mostly because it tracks actual and hypothetical situations and the physiology surrounding them.  Don't be put off by the fact that the author is a former trader.  He mentions repeatedly that the same physiologic responses that drive risky behavior in traders also drive that same behavior in athletes.

The rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals makes time
perception skew.  This was the longest 13 seconds of my life.

In case you weren't aware, horseback riding is considered by the insurance industry to be an "extreme" sport.  So don't be sitting all cocky about how you aren't a risk taker because all you do is an occasional weekend trail ride on your aging beastie.  Think for a minute about the leap of logic that got you to climb onto a thousand-pound animal in the first place.  Look around you.  How many of your fellow cube-dwellers and neighbors took that leap.  Yeah.  You got it.  That's risk-taking.  You put your faith in someone who said, "Nah!  He's not going to do anything to hurt you!"  Then off you went astride the unknown of a hairy critter with quick reflexes and only a cursory interest in your personhood in his control.

Physiological Response to Risk-Taking

There's a lot going on in that moment when adrenaline and testosterone overwhelm logic and create an atmosphere that just screams, "How can this be a bad thing when it's so frickin' cool?"  That chaos doesn't happen to everyone every day.  Here's a passage from the Bloomberg article describing the situation used in the book linked below:

"Scott’s heart rate sped up, to pump extra blood to his arms and thighs, Coates writes. His pupils dilated, to absorb more light. He began to sweat, his breathing accelerated and he got a hit of adrenalin. Then, as his losses surged to $24 million, his bowels liquefied." (James Pressley writing for Bloomberg)
Her supreme confidence kept Jess from seeing this as risky.
I, on the other hand, was terrified on her behalf.

There don't have to be dollar signs in the mix for most of us to acknowledge that some of our experiences felt exactly like that.  The sound of my heart beating out of my chest accompanied pretty much every barrier-breaking moment in my riding career from the first ride on a new horse to the first jump over two feet to the first barrel race (and most of them after that), all of my risky behavior was perpetrated to the tune of an adrenal cascade.  Think about the time you watched the horse you were about to ride doing a special version of airs above the ground at the end of the lead rope and that passing thought that maybe this wasn't the best day to saddle up for a ride.  Think about what made you do it despite that little voice in your head begging you to back away from the barn and find something safter to do.  What made you override that voice?

Physiology, that's what.  The same heart-pounding, blindingly-bright sensation that told you there were reasons for concern indicated that your body was preparing to engage in something questionable.  It's all part and parcel of the flight/fight response that all animals share.  Our position at the top of the food chain does nothing to relieve us of that bit of chemical goodness.

You notice that there might be a problem, and your heart starts to pump to send more blood to your brain and muscles in case you need to beat a hasty retreat.  That kicks your adrenals into high gear, and the zing of adrenaline gets you juiced up.  Your pupils dilate to take in more light so the craziness will be completely clear to you, as will your options for escape.  But by the time you've reached full flush, it's already too late.  You're not going to stop.  The risk of being seen as less than brave or of setting your training back or of doing something that undermines your is in the forefront.  The anticipated thrill of riding the lightning over a daunting obstacle is more than your reasonable frontal cortex can deny.  So you go, you jump, you race, you face down an angry beast, you spend your mortgage payment on a new saddle, you buy a horse well above your training level....and you bull ahead.

Sometimes you survive.

Sometimes not so much.

Not everyone has the rapid reaction of a confirmed risk-taker.  You're surrounded by people who think twice...three times...eighty times before they make a risky  move.  You're surrounded by people who don't put as much value on being tough or feeling the thrill.  You're surrounded by sane people.  Then there's you.

Figure out your level of risk-taking based on the Psychology Today article at the top of this page, then read the drier, less thrilling piece on the actual physiology of the response, and learn about why you do what you do.  The link below to the Bloomberg piece and the book with the title noted are the grand finale.  If your risk-taking is problematic--if your family is complaining about having to tube-feed you and change your diapers, for instance--you might find the fact that this is a chemical thing a bit comforting as you can possibly keep a clear mind in the future through sheer force of will and a pulling of the curtain that covered the facts.

If, however, you are on the bridge in that hour between dog and wolf, you might find that you really want more risk in your life and instructions on how to get there.

Ride on!

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

Monday, March 03, 2014

Another Round of Conditioning, Please

The Consequences of Consequences | The Science Dog

Thanks to my friend Gina Keesling for finding this article.  It's a clear explanation of the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, and reports the findings of a study that has some validity in terms of the model used that can be easily replicated for validation.

To summarize, this was a study with dogs that sought to discover which of the modalities--positive or negative reinforcement--was the more effective and whether either (or neither) created stress in the doggie subjects.  The clear conclusion was that negative reinforcement as the major form of training can cause stress in the subjects.  Stress was measured by averted eyes, lip-licking, stress yawns, etc.  There are photos in the article (linked above), so go look at them for clarification.

Dolly responding to the "smile" cue (for which she did not win
those ribbons) from Jess

What I like about this particular study is that the experimenter also included positive and negative punishment in the mix.  The term punishment has become taboo because it smacks of, well, smacking and the like.  In reality, punishment can be something as simple as removing access to food treats in order to extinguish an unwanted behavior.  Don't like your dog jumping on you when you sit down to watch Wheel of Fortune?  Put your knee in her way.  That's "positive punishment"--the addition of something she doesn't like.  Gina and I both opt for the "dreaded Eh!" sound as a precursor cue that means, "Knock it off or I'll stick my knee in your face!"  Then when that knee suddenly appears, it's not as if we didn't warn the animal.

Negative punishment is where the rubber meets the boot heel.  That's the fine line that is sometimes crossed from  "I'm going to take your cookie away" to "I'm going to beat you over the head with a stick".  That's the line that needs to be made firm.
Years later, Dolly's "smile" behavior is 100%
accurate without the visible cue (or any cue,
or any desire on my part for the behavior).

We're moving on to horses, because that's where this discussion actually came up.  There are many levels of negative punishment that are useful in inhibiting unpleasant learned behaviors in our equine partners.   One of my geldings developed the unpleasant habit of leaning into me as I walked him on the lead.  I don't know why.  My guess was that he hoped to direct me instead of my directing him, but I couldn't get him to confess to that.  After lots of attempts to use positive reinforcement for the "off me" cue ("Yay!  You're off me!"...cookie) and pretty much no change in his behavior, I moved to negative reinforcement.  "You want to lean into me?  Let's just circle to the left twice and back up five paces and stop when you aren't leaning."  That was fun, but it gave him a whole new slew of behaviors with which to annoy me.  His leaning turned into moving his butt away from me and rapidly circling to the left.

Leo takes his rewards in whatever form they come.
Finally, rather than sell him as a "leaner" and buy a different horse, I remembered a stupid human trick as described in Walter Farley's The Black Stallion.  The main character, tired of being bitten by the horse, put a hot potato under his sleeve and made it easy for the horse to bite the potato instead of his arm.  One-trial learning occurred.  Of course, that's a novel, not reality.  But in theory it made sense. So I started carrying a crop when I lead my boy.  I didn't hit him with it.  I held it straight out to the side so he couldn't close the gap without running into it.  This translated at shows into my elbow sticking slightly out to the side, but at home the crop did wonders.  In no time he'd figured out where he needed to be, and behavior modification was achieved.

Regular readers are probably tired of hearing me say that using only positive reinforcement is lovely, but it makes for a very loooooong learning curve as the animal can exhibit  hundreds of behaviors before he accidentally hits on the one you want and you reward him for it.  Then there's the process of narrowing down the options because even though you think you rewarded him for, say, taking a step to the right, at the same time he did that he was also looking at a leaf, twitching his nose, swishing his tail, thinking about dinner, and so on.  He has no clue which of those things you rewarded unless you used a clicker to pinpoint the moment.  Even then there's a small curve, but it's easily mastered.  Negative reinforcement combined with positive and negative punishment in small, reasonable doses serves to clarifies the requested behavior for a critter who doesn't share our language.

Getting to positive is the goal.  When there are 100% replications of the desired behavior, then there are no stressful negatives involved, and everyone goes home a winner.  Cutting to the chase using the most efficient methods makes that journey a happy one.