Pure Gold

I feel like I’ve struck gold! I’ve always known that positive reinforcement training for horses is a simple and easy way to train. I have plenty of personal experience to know that it works wonders, but now I have science on my side to explain WHY it works so well.

In Dr. Temple Grandin’s book, Animals Make Us Human, she sites the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, author of the book Affective Neuroscience. In a nutshell, Dr. Panksepp has identified a core group of emotion systems through a type of brain mapping.

If the particular area of the brain, corresponding to the emotion, is electrically stimulated, it always generates the same response or behaviors in animals, and the same emotions in humans. The results are consistent and predictable. These core emotions are called blue ribbon emotions, referred to in all caps.

They are: (paraphrased from Animals Make Us Human, page 6)

SEEKING- which is the basic impulse to search, investigate and make sense of the environment. These are the emotions associated with looking forward to getting something that feels good or wanting something that brings good feelings.

The wanting part of the SEEKING system is fuel or energy for moving toward goals, which could be anything from food, shelter, a new car etc. The seeking system is engaged when a cat stalks a mouse. No doubt my SEEKING system in engaged during the Re-sell it Days at my local tack store where I routinely find new flymasks for $2, hay nets for fifty cents. The looking forward to part of the SEEKING system is the feeling children have when they see presents under the tree Christmas morning. It’s the anticipation of something wonderful coming down the pike, or the pursuit of that something wonderful.

Here’s why I feel like I’ve struck gold. In all my work with my horses my focus and mantra is:

Create a situation where the horse moves towards what feels good, not away from what feels bad.

Now I know why what I do works, it’s very clearly because I engage the horse’s SEEKING system. It appears that the crux of the SEEKING system is the desire to feel good. I’ve labeled my work Attraction based, rather than Clicker Training, or Positive Reinforcement training because I feel it more clearly describes the process. If an animal finds an outcome attractive, it will seek to recreate that experience.

From what I see, the main reason anyone wants or seeks anything is because they think it will make them feel better upon attaining it. It seems that for my horses, the subject of food goes into the category of things that make them feel good. This is why I predominantly use food as a reinforcer.

The distinction here is that food simply makes them feel good, they are attracted to food and seek food. I don’t have to make them feel bad first during a training session. This is the job of pressure and release. Pressure is applied so much so that the horse seeks the release. When the release is given the horse is supposed to view this as a reward. The horse is made to feel bad, or at least annoyed enough to react.

The difference I believe is that with attraction based work the SEEKING system is engaged because the animal is looking forward to something good happening. It may appear in pressure/release that the animal is seeking the release, but I believe the roots are not in SEEKING but, moving away from/escaping/avoiding pressure and that takes place in another system which I will describe next.

RAGE which is basically the feeling of being captured and held immobilized by a predator. A less extreme form of rage is frustration, usually brought on by mental restraint. (A horse being unable to escape in a round pen, a horse pulling back in cross ties.) RAGE is what fuels the animal to give one last burst of a defensive behavior to cause its attacker to release its grip. (A horse leaping out of a round pen, or breaking the cross ties)

This is the system that I think is activated during pressure/release work, especially if the pressure is excessive. It’s triggering the animal’s need to get away, to move away from an annoying stimulus, or fight to preserve its well being. I’ve seen and heard more than my share of horses pulling out their fancy defensive behaviors, kicking, rearing, striking when placed in a situation where they feel trapped physically or mentally. Think of how we feel stuck in a traffic jam.

Those feelings of being stuck, at least for me, remind me of my powerlessness to affect a change. If I’m in traffic there’s really nothing I can do to move the line of cars out of my way. I have to accept my position of being stuck. If I were less rational, I could leave my car parked and start walking.

Fortunately I can consider the possible outcomes of sitting in traffic, or leaving my car. I can weigh the advantages of waiting, or getting a hefty fine for abandoning my car. In that moment of deciding, I actually gave myself the power of choice, which lessened my frustration. I chose to pursue several possible outcomes which activated my SEEKING system and I felt better.

Then there’s FEAR. This is when an animal’s survival is threatened. I would think the high fear horses may bypass frustration or RAGE and go straight to FEAR.

Next is PANIC. This often occurs when young animals are separated from their mothers. It’s that tangible feeling of loss that registers as pain.

Here it is, the four core emotions. SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR and PANIC.

I’m struck by how only one emotion is positive, SEEKING. There are three more in this category that sound like a type of sub-emotion and these are, LUST, CARE and PLAY. These are not listed as the blue ribbon emotions as they are not always present and surface and different times in the animal’s life. The core emotions are ever present.

I wonder if the predominance of negative emotions is why it’s often difficult for humans to think positive and train positively, is because the bulk of our core emotions, although essential for survival, aren’t necessarily good feeling emotions.

With horses as a prey species and the need to flee their predators,with FEAR as their dominant way of being, it’s a no brainer to see how fear based training is effective. The problem is, that horses are easily scared into behaviors which I think is a poor foundation for a relationship. Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation, page 311, also writes of how easily high fear horse are traumatized by abuse, and trainers should work to prevent fear memories from forming.

My thought is that the behaviors that the horse learns with the SEEKING system engaged will be longer lasting, more predictable and build a much different rapport with it’s handler. Providing the horse a chance to SEEK I think gives the horse the power of choice, the option to decide how to best achieve the desired outcome for both parties.

With attraction based training, I create choices where the result I want, earns the horse what it wants or enjoys seeking, and usually that’s food, or a scritchy scratch in an itchy spot. I’ve found this significantly lowers a horse’s frustration and creates an interested attentive horse that wants to stay in communication with me.

Page 23 of Animals Make us Human, Temple Grandin writes:

Everyone who is responsible for animals – farmers, ranchers, zookeepers and pet – owners needs a set of simple, reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare that can be applied to any animal in any situation, and the best guidelines we have are the core emotion systems in the brain. The rule is simple: Don’t stimulate RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC if you can help it, and do stimulate SEEKING and also PLAY.

Again, I think this is pure gold. No doubt that animals all over the world with handlers who practice this, think so too.



2 thoughts on “Pure Gold

  1. Great post! I love Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human. I really enjoy how she breaks it down by species. The horse chapter is great, I remember really liking the pig chapter as well. I did a series of posts last spring with some of my thoughts and reactions to the book (http://stalecheerios.com/blog/tag/animals-make-us-human/ )

    One of my favorite parts (don’t know if you’re there yet) is her discussion of what makes something scary:
    “The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. They don’t want new things shoved into their faces, and people don’t either. But if you give animals and people a new thing and let them voluntarily decide how to explore it, they will.”

    I find this is so true with the animals I work with.


  2. YaY!!!!
    JUST what I wanted right now;-) Thank you! GOOD name for a NEW way of using the force of the treatbag…ie whitout force;-)
    WOnderful post!

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