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#5: The Body, Brain and Emotions Are All Working Together

Emotional bonds ARE influenced by reinforcers. But behavior and emotions are a much bigger picture than a reinforcer. The oversimplification of behavior has obviously been a long standing issue. Behavior, emotions, brain and body are all related and affect one another. Many elements are at play and then, to take that a step further, every horse is an individual with their own experiences, genetics and reinforcement history. So there is no one size, fits all kind of training. There is no recipe book. 

Social interactions are vital for any social being. I think we all know that, yes?  Think about a newborn foal. Nursing is important for bonding and oxytocin. Oxytocin is developed though desirable experiences. This bond ensures the newborn’s safety. As the foal grows, survival moves to depending on the herd, working as a cohesive and cooperative unit. Still, the young horse has to learn how to be a member of a herd. Reinforcers (i.e. resources) are part of this process. 

The concept of reinforcement contingency, applies to both positive and negative reinforcement. Pressure/release, and displacement, are all R-, even at the most subtle level. This is also a reinforcement contingency. Reinforcers, both + and -,  strengthen and maintain behavior. They are occurring all of the time. This is how learning happens. As we step in and decide that we want to train our horse, or dolphin, to do something, we try to figure out about this particular species’ ethos and how they learn. The principles of behavior hold true regardless. They are happening without a human anywhere in sight. As humans took to training horses, we began to figure out how to create behavior.

Historically, pressure and release (R-) became the predominant way of training. Humans apply pressure, in the form of leg aids, bit/reins, spurs, whips, etc have been used under saddle. On the ground, halters/leadropes, ropes, and displacing them by stepping into their space or by blocking their path are some examples of how aversive pressure has been used from the ground. It is important to recognize that many things may be happening to influence behavior and it isn’t typically easy to put into a tidy little quadrant. Someone may not be able to detect which reinforcers are in action but behavior happens for a reason. Either seeking something they want or avoiding something they don’t want. Again, it may be a bit muddy since we never REALLY know what they are thinking. All we can do is see what is the resulting behavior. 

What the more recent advances in neurobiology (Jaak Panksepp, Robert Sapolsky) have taught us is that different types of reinforcers actually tend to activate different areas of the brain. When the learner is trying to avoid a stimulus, as in R-, it tends to activate the part of the brain that is responsible for fight or flight. However, when working to attain something that they want (R+), it tends to activate, what has been referred to as the seeking system. The predominant hormones and resulting emotions are different, depending on the type of reinforcer. The fight or flight area tends to produce a lot of cortisol (stress hormone) However, the seeking system tends to predominantly produce endorphins and dopamine’s (feel good hormones) Both areas of the brain are there to ensure survival. Seeking involves finding things want or need, like food, water and reproduction, for example. Fight or flight is activated and helps them to be able to assess potential danger. 

Reinforcers are primarily associated with learning and operant conditioning. That is the learning we all tend to think of, doing things like standing still for mounting, flying lead changes, standing to get their feet trimmed, etc. Operant conditioning also includes learning that happens in their natural environment without any human present. But learning and associations do not stop there. Actions become habits and the resulting emotions, that were a part of the learning, come forward when the behavior is repeated. Neural pathways are formed. Pretty soon we don’t have to sort through the whole step by step process of tying our shoes, we just know how to tie our shoes. 

In addition, there are both intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcers happening. We can’t necessarily pull them apart. The complexity of the brain and its many “moving parts” means that a myriad of factors are all working together.

The really important element, IMO, Is the emotional element. Knowing that their initial exposure to learning the behavior tends to reside, is important. As repetition happens, so does classic conditioning, it’s going on all of the time. Emotional associations are continuing. They create neural pathways and eventually become visceral, involuntary responses that are associated with different stimuli. 

Either reinforcer, + or -, used incorrectly can cause problems. Surely we have seen heavy handed R-, the result being a reactive or perhaps a shut down horse. These horses are clearly in a less than ideal emotional state. 

R+, food in particular, can also be done poorly and create an undesirable emotional state. Food can be perceived as a highly desirable commodity. In fact, it’s probably the most valuable reinforcer, from the horse’s perspective. Too much R- and too much R+, can both bring about too much adrenaline. One can cause fight/flight, the other too much seeking. Neither is an ideal emotional state for learning. As far as food goes, it may create too much motivation and can actually serve to distract. We conscientiously work on settling and relaxing with our horses, we also keep the resources available during training sessions. If they need to go eat, they can. It helps ensure that it isn’t all about the food. Withholding the food, in attempt to create motivation is highly unethical and does not get good results. With either reinforcer, we can get agitation or frustration. In the case of R+, this is typically a result of R+ being done poorly or without some experienced guidance. For emotional health we should be trying to minimize frustration every chance we get. Better yet, we should teach them to enjoy learning and free thinking. This becomes its own reward as we get into contra freeloading. That’s a whole other topic! 

Utilizing R+ takes skill and guidance, particularly in the early stages. It seems like a simple idea, just feed for good behavior, alas, it’s more complicated than that. Ultimately, as we work through the process, food becomes secondary to the other elements of the training. R+ works and creates amazing bonds and a fabulous partnership…when done in a thoughtful and educated way. If anyone says it doesn’t work, I know one of three things, they don’t truly know how it works or how to put it into practice, OR they have seen the results of someone who has done it poorly OR they have had instruction from someone who doesn’t truly understand how to work through the challenges. 

In addition, we shouldn’t only be doing training sessions with our horses. As we did with the marine mammals, we diversify our interactions. We also spend a lot of quiet times with our horses. It’s not all about training or some sort of activity. 

There is a lot to R +! It’s an effective tool and things go faster and faster as you move through the process. However, building the trust, safety and the incredible bond that results, takes some patience and time to permeate the layers. It is not all about what reinforcer we choose. Behavior and emotional balance are a giant subject.

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