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Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Just when I start to have faith in the intelligence of trainers and horsepeople, a reader question to Julie Goodnight on the category of horse behavior, on her website sets me back.

The questioner relates problems associated with a four-year-old draft mare in training under harness who is respectful to people but aggressive toward a pasturemate gelding.

Generally they get along fine. However, sometimes she just lays into him kicking, biting, running at him and charging him. Sometimes we are in the pasture with them when this behavior is going on. Needless to say, we are a bit nervous about getting caught in the crossfire.

Two questions for you:

1) Some of this is no doubt just normal horse behavior. Is there an underlying training issue though that we should be addressing with our mare?

2) She has never demonstrated any tendency at kicking towards us. We do recognize the risk to our safety when she is acting this way towards the gelding and we happen to be in the way. But is it likely that a horse acting this way with another horse will start getting that kicking tendency with humans?

Clearly, the questioner is new to horsekeeping. That’s not a problem. Everyone is new in the beginning. They depend on good, safe advice from those who have experience. One would think that well-known trainers like Goodnight would dispense sensible, time-tested advice on how to deal with such issues. This is the problem: wait until you read what Goodnight suggests as an alternative to learning about horse behavior and how to handle horses on the ground. I wonder if she gets a kickback from the manufacturers of the product she obliquely endorses.

While the behavior you describe could be chalked up to normal herd behavior, some horses can be classified as bullies. These horses are unnecessarily aggressive towards others. In other words, even after dominance has been fully established, they continue to attack other horses around them—seemingly for no good reason other than just to pick on them. If the gelding is not doing anything to deserve these attacks, then I’d say your mare is a bully.
There is one sure-fired method of curing aggressive horses and I have used it a few times for this purpose. It is a shock collar. It straps around the horse’s neck and is operated off a remote control, issuing a mild and brief shock when you push the button on the remote. Shocking her for her two or three times for her unwarranted and dangerous behavior would probably be all it would take to permanently resolve her of the aggressiveness.

The Vicebreaker

It is intended for use with extreme behavior that is harmful to horse, humans and/or property and it is highly effective. I’ve used it for stall and trailer kickers, for aggressive horses and for a tantrum throwing horse, who threw a wall-eyed destructive tantrum any time you’d take his buddy away. In most cases, one or two training sessions resolved the bad behavior; for the tantrum thrower, it took a few more.

Many people are initially turned off by this approach—I suppose thinking it is cruel or too harsh. But in my opinion, in certain circumstances, it is the most humane approach. I know of a horse who has now kicked and killed two horses by kicking them and breaking their legs. Then, take the case of a stall kicker—whose behavior can cause him serious injury and is destructive to property (and may result in him being evicted from a boarding barn). The most common training technique for this vice is to hang “kicking chains” on the horse’s hind legs which wrap him in the legs every time he kicks (and bumps his legs every time he moves). It will discourage him from kicking but you have to leave the chains on forever—not a very nice thing for the horse. Whereas one or two sessions with the shock collar would permanently cure him of stall kicking and prevent him from injury.

I would think it might have even more effects than that. Like shock collars for dogs, this seems to me to be a case of thoughtless overkill. The horse’s sense of touch is very keen. To assault him via this avenue strikes me as cruel and extreme. But maybe I’m being naive. There are situations in which horses can be even more dangerous than the horse the reader describes. This from Stopping Aggression Problems With an Equine Shock Collar from the AAEP Convention, 2004 by Stephanie L. Church:

Veterinary expense, property damage, loss of use of affected horses, and the emotional cost associated with the death of an animal if injured severely during an aggressive act all demand a reliable way to change this behavior in the horse. Kennedy has experienced success in using an equine electronic collar with a number of horses.
Aggressive behavior in horses results in a range of injuries that often must be attended to by a veterinarian, from minor cuts and bruises to career-ending or life-threatening injuries. These injuries are a direct result of being bitten or kicked, or chased through or over a fence.

We have all seen horses that have experienced these injuries. We have all pondered how to prevent them from happening. First step in prevention: veterinary examination to rule out health issues that might contribute to the dangerous behavior. Cryptorchidism, ovarian cysts, pain, conformational issues that negatively affect perception can all cause aggressive behavior. Stop right there if these and more are detected. You know what to do. But what if no possible medical cause is detected? The next step is determining how to stop the undesirable behavior.

Isolate the horse?
Rehome the horse?
Euthanize the horse?

This article says,

some horses are emboldened by a barrier since they know the target horse will be less likely to show retribution since a fence is in the way. Not every horse owner is blessed with dead space between fence lines, and many boarding stables aren’t able to accommodate a horse requiring isolation. Isolation can lead to further behavioral problems. Then we reach our final option, which is to sell the aggressive horse. Many do not want to do this because the horse may be exceptional in every other way–they just have a hard time getting along with others.

What does the research say about the effectiveness of equine shock collars? Do they eliminate aggressive behavior in the short or long term?

One study looked at a group of 15 horses that were either aggressive toward a new horse in the pasture, aggressive toward a horse on the opposite side of a fence, or aggressive within an established herd.

About the collar used: The collar rests anywhere behind the throatlatch, and it does not matter where on the neck the receiver is touching the horse.

When you see the horse doing what he shouldn’t, you push the button. Start at the lowest (shock) level–I didn’t count horses that were just posturing with their ears back, I only corrected them when they made an aggressive move toward another horse,” she explained. On the transmitter, which has six levels of intensity, the required levels ranged from 2-5 to stop the aggression, with a mean of 4. One to four stimulations were used on each horse, but most only required two to change their behavior.

Aggressive mares in a pasture responded to stimulation when they were aggressive toward a new mare added to the pasture. Upon the first stimulation, aggressive mares would have instant posture changes. Those mares tended to follow the new mare around for a few minutes, apparently trying to figure out if the new mare was responsible for the shock. After the second shock, the aggressive mares apparently decided to befriend the new mares, seeking to graze next to them and accepting them as part of the group.

he total time before first and last stimulations required to change the behavior ranged from 10 minutes to 2 and a half days. Collars remained on the horses for one week, and aggressive behavior was monitored for a period of 30 days following the initial correction period. None of the horses exhibited aggressive behavior during that interval. The collar was determined to be extremely effective in deterring aggressive behavior.

The authors of the study say that the collar is effective because the correction is instantaneous and concurrent with the undesirable behavior, and invisible. There is no apparent agent of discipline. As such, they say, the collar can be used to deter aggressive behavior against humans, too.

Most issues are not mean horses. Usually it’s a lack of respect, and they know that they can dominate the owner and can avoid a whip. Most know it’s bad, but think they can get away with it. If the client can be consistent in observing the horse, the collar can work well for cribbing and stall walkers as well. These types of behaviors won’t be stopped by one or two sessions of use. However, many cribbers can become collar-wise and any time the horse is likely to crib, the owner needs to be present with the transmitter.


Group 1: Pasture Aggression (Six Mares)
Number of times stimulated: 1–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 10 minutes–1.5 hours
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 2: Aggression With Barrier (Three Stallions, Two Mares, and One Gelding)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 15 minutes–2 1/2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 3: Paddock Aggression (Two Geldings)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 1.5–2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 2–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

Group 4: Aggression Associated With Feeding (One Mare)
Number of times stimulated: 4
Time between first and last stimulation: 2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week
Levels used: 3–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

*Other observations that were made in the pasture and over fence groups were that the results, although long-lasting for that particular neighbor or new horse, did not extend to a new neighbor or additional new horse being introduced and the process had to be repeated.

I honestly believe that the same results can be achieved with less harmful and, if you’ll pardon the pun, shocking means. Training and companionship with humans along with other horses by professionals and well educated owners cannot be replaced by a torture device. If a horse has aggression issues, a lack of “respect” may be the result of many deeper causes. Only with time, patience and inquiry will these issues be discovered and resolved. A shock collar is a cruel bandaid.

I am appalled that Julie Goodnight would hawk such a contraption when her claim to fame is the training of horses. If we can’t trust the trainers who are supposed to teach us how, then who can we trust?

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Science Friday: Healthy Horse Moms Play More With Sons

Science Friday: Healthy Horse Moms Play More With Sons

Healthy moms play more with their kids. It has now been proven. Cracked out moms passed out on the couch clutching a liquor bottle and a box of kleenex and KOOLS aren’t as good at their jobs as those who take La Leche League classes and go to aerobics three times a week and eat an apple a day. An article in Discovery.com by Jennifer Viegas tells us that it’s the same for horses. More reason to keep that dam healthy after foaling. I have made some mistakes out of ignorance in this area, so it feels right to post this article entitled, Promoting Strong Sons . What’s different about horses is that dams show a clear preference for their sons over their daughters!

Healthy wild horses show marked preference for investing time and energy in their sons.

A colt and young mare rub noses, in Montana. Scientists have discovered that healthier mares invest more in sons over daughters, with the investment consisting of more milk, protection and direct contact. These sons then played more, even at the expense of the moms, who temporarily lost weight and strength taking care of their boys. | image courtesy http://dsc.discovery.com

Evidence from this study on horseplay suggests that the equine findings could carry over to other polygynous animals, including humans. The term, polygynous describes species with males that can mate with more than one female over a relatively short period of time, with the pairings all possibly resulting in pregnancies.

Mothers are advantaged differently by investing in sons or daughters in relation to their own condition and the future reproduction of their offspring. Sons have the highest potential payoff, as sons can leave you many more grand-offspring than daughters can.

This from Elissa Cameron, director of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She and her colleagues studied wild horses in New Zealand known as Kaimanawa. These horses live in year-round bands consisting of multiple mares, at least one stallion and their foals. Cameron and her team focused on the interactions between mothers and their young, and particularly on the foals’ play behavior. Horses play by manipulating objects, simulating courtship and mounting, running alone or with a partner, and by play fighting.

The scientists discovered that healthier mothers invested more in sons over daughters, with the investment consisting of more milk, more vigilant protection and increased direct contact. These sons then played more, even at the expense of the moms, who temporarily lost weight and strength taking care of their boys.

Mothers in overall poor condition, however, invested more time and resources in their daughters.

Cameron explained that while males in general breed more, not all male horses will turn out to be busy breeders, whereas almost all female horses that reach adulthood will breed at least once.

Therefore, if you have a lot of extra resources and can turn your son into a highly competitive male, he will leave you more grand-offspring. Alternatively, if you have few resources to invest, a son would be unlikely to ever breed, whereas your daughter would probably breed, thereby leaving you more grand-offspring.

Cameron added that sires might affect the process to some degree, as they occasionally groom and play with their foals, but the bulk of the parental care falls on mothers. The process results in a domino effect that influences the rest of the horse’s life. A horse that receives more care from its mother tends to play more. Since playtime appears to enhance both physical and mental health, playful individuals tend to grow into healthier adults, which then start the process all over again. The health of the mother may even predict the gender of the foal she will give birth to in the first place.

A separate study on 740 first-time pregnant human moms led by the University of Exeter’s Fiona Mathews found that mothers who ate a high-energy diet at the time of conception produced sons more often than moms who took in less nutrition before conceiving.

Here we have evidence of a ‘natural’ mechanism that means that women appear to be already controlling the sex of their offspring by their diet. This research may help to explain why in developed countries, where many young women choose to have low-calorie diets, the proportion of boys born is falling.

Jennifer Viegas writes, “While genetics also help to determine an individual’s sex, health, playfulness and more, the two studies reveal how mothers can play a major role in controlling the destinies of their children.”

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Science Friday: Posture, Behaviors Indicate Horse Well-Being

Science Friday: Posture, Behaviors Indicate Horse Well-Being

Another in the long line of “duh, we already knew that” articles, this time out of the University of Rennes in France.

Why Does My Horse Do That?

If a horse spends most of his time standing in the same position in his stall, would you say he’s just bored? And what about a mare that threatens to bite when you approach her stall–is she vicious?

The latest behavior research coming out of the University of Rennes suggests that these behaviors are not the result of viciousness or boredom as one might think. They have cottoned on to the fact that, chances are these actions indicate that something is not right with the horse.

snaffled with gratitude from www.regardinghorses.com

Equine behaviorist Carole Furieux, PhD of Univ. Rennes studies 59 horses in three equestrian centers In a study of 59 horses in three equestrian centers. Furieux and her team hoped to define the criteria for the evaluation of a very amorphous state, “well-being,” in the domestic horse.

Furieux et. al. discovered from this very small sample that certain posture positions and behavioral habits directly mirrored health problems such as back pain or abnormal blood parameters.

It turns out that the horses who aren’t feeling well physically or mentally are more likely to spend the majority of their stall time in particular positions.

Furieux said, adding that more precise descriptions of these positions will be released soon. “Researchers have already defined specific positions that reflect acute (immediate) stress, but it now appears that these can indicate chronic stress or pain as well.”

This might be useful as a glossy wall-hanging in a barn of novice horse owners. For anyone who has been around horses for 6 months, I suggest contacting Furieux with an offer to describe and illustrate the positions of distress, both acute and chronic.

Furieux also said that certain postures also appear to give insight into well-being, according to ongoing studies. Laboratory testing of stress hormone levels and other parameters are still underway.

The behavior and posture indicators we’ve discovered so far offer a reliable method to evaluate well-being. If a high percentage of horses in the same equestrian center are positive for these indicators, that should signal an alert about the level of living conditions being offered to these animals.

Furieux and her team plan to expand their research to greater numbers of horses and equestrian centers. Those results should lead to practical definitions and guidelines for evaluating equine well-being in the near future.

This is the foundational tenet of Tellington TTouch. Undesirable behavior is the result of pain, fear of pain or discomfort caused by health issues we may not have noticed. Add to that oversights in horsekeeping and the common horse sense that only develops over time, and you get a host of observable horsey behaviors or even non-behaviors, each with its own cause.

The key is keeping your eyes open and learning how to look, with eyes unclouded by preconceived notions of why a horse’s behavior should be a certain way, and what we should do if it’s not. The human brain organizes the world in such a way that we see what we expect to see, and we attribute to that the reasons we are accustomed to attributing. Truly open eyes, open mind, open heart–these things take a lot of work and some risk.

Could it be that your horse does that because you have neglected something in his horsekeeping?

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Science Friday: It Turns Out Having Girlfriends Is Good for Your Fertility!

An article entitled, the Neigh-Neigh Sisterhood in Natural History magazine explains how female friendships help wild mares cope.

Writer Stephan Reebs says,

Wild mares that form strong social bonds with other mares produce more foals than those that don’t, researchers have found, in what may be the first documented link between “friendship” and reproductive success outside of primates.

The three-year study followed several bands of feral horses in the Kaimanawa Mountains of New Zealand. Elissa Z. Cameron, now at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and two colleagues computed sociality scores for fifty-six mares.

Sociality? How is this measured? They chose parameters such as the proportion of time each animal spent near other mares and the amount of social grooming she did. Cameron et.al. found that the scores correlated well with foaling rate: more sociable mares had more foals and also suffered slightly less harassment by the bands’ few males.

Correlational studies are difficult to interpret, and do not prove cause and effect, but they are a start. These data are consistent with the idea that bonds between females—even unrelated ones, as in horse bands—help them fend off pestering males, thus reducing stress and promoting healthy pregnancies.

Note: They shouldn’t need a study of horses to know that bonds between females help them fend off pestering males! Ever been to a club or bar?

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Science Friday: Mirror Neurons Support Need for Compassionate Horsemanship

From the Metta Center, a statement by my favorite neuroscientist and all-around Renaissance man, V.S. Ramachandran,

There is no real independent self aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world and inspecting other people; you are in fact connected…quite literally connected by your neurons…and there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from someone else’s consciousness. This emerges from an understanding of basic neuroscience.

Harm or violence can be defined as “coercive action based on an illusion of separateness, or the inability to recognize oneself in the other.”

How much of horse training and horseback riding involves coercive action, albeit what we think of as kind coercion? You can’t do much with a horse without, well, getting him to do something you want him to do. Whether or not you “make it his idea,” it’s coercion. I’m not equating coercion in horsemanship with violence and harm, though it seems that way from what I’ve written thus far.

I’m trying to delineate those two ideas, if possible. Radical animal rights activists will say that no delineation is possible. these are the people who advocate not keeping pets, etc. because it’s demeaning and abusive to them and an unnatural state. I see their point, but in my humble opinion, it’s not realistic in today’s world. If you choose not to have a pet based on this assumption, that’s great. It does not solve the companion animal population crisis overnight, nor does it address the issue of where the breeds came from in the first place. They are here to stay unless there’s a mass extermination, and I don’t think they want that. I merely want to think about the ways in which we interact with these animals, and to examine the core principles that inform our common activities.

If our core value is not compassion, loving kindness, and the will to do no harm (in short–met(t)a horsemanship), then we delude ourselves. Minute failures in metta, coercion without kindness, amount to violence against our horses. When we do violence to another, we do violence to ourselves. As V.S. Ramachandran states above, there is no duality–the Golden Rule, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You–is not just an aphorism, but a necessity for living as a human being. We are all one being.

To go one step further, watching another doing violence (read: in the media, TV, video games, in our family relationships and in our relations to animals), we also experience that violence ourselves. Remember how you felt the last time you witness something unpleasant occur between two beings. See what I mean? Mirror Neurons virtually guarnatee that we experience this kind of empathetic response, because violence is based on an illusion of our separateness. Itt affects us all as interconnected beings.

Unfortunately, we can raise our tolerance to violence and even our ignorance of its existence by taking more of it in. You’ve watched horse training videos or presentations in which there was great violence against the horse, cloaked in modern training-speak and perpetrated by charming media-savvy stars. I’m willing to bet that, like me, you’ve come to realize that methods you accepted in the past are not compassionate, as and such do not recognize the inherent oneness of the human and horse. You have resolved to find a better way.

Nonviolence is a force that reveals itself via an ability to see ourselves in the other, a realization of the non-separation between ourselves and those around us. Research on mirror neurons … can help us to begin to understand the science behind this interrelationship between ourselves, other beings, violence, and nonviolence. This video, and the scientific paradigm of which it is a part, is worth watching, and worth developing.

I’m curious to know what you think. What are your opinions on the subject? With posts like this, have I gone off the deep end? Addressing the foundations of horsemanship or strayed too far?

See also, Sage by Nature: Horses Drawing Out Our Goddess Force

We really are all ONE.

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Science Friday: Evaluating Addition of Positive Reinforcement to Learning Frightening Tasks

science friday

Much of traditional horse training relies on negative reinforcement. I know I’m going to take some heat on that statement, but, well, come get me. The term, negative reinforcement does not by definition indicate dominance or stressful training. There, I’m covered. However, many trainers and riders intuitively feel that negative reinforcement can elicit dominance behaviors in trainers and induce stress in horses. They choose eliminate it from their programs, opting instead for positive reinforcement programs like Clicker Training.

We teach our horses a variety of tasks to gain their attention and trust and to teach them what they need to know to be our ideal partners. In natural horsemanship training circles, the ability to get your horse to walk calmly over a rippling, crinkly tarp is be a bomb-proofing feather in your horsemanship hat.

Heleski, Bauson, and Bello of the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University in East Lansing did a study* to see whether the positive reinforcement people are wasting their time and the NH folks’ often more expedient methods work just as well.

This study tested the hypothesis that adding positive reinforcement (PR) to negative reinforcement (NR) would enhance learning in horses (n = 34) being taught to walk over a tarp (novel/typically frightening task).

Subjects were Arabians, and the same person handled all of them. This person handled half “traditionally” (NR only)–that is, halter/lead were pulled; when horse stepped forward, pressure was released; process repeated until criterion met (horse crossed the tarp with little/no obvious anxiety).

The same person handled the other half traditionally–but with addition of PR (NR + PR).

Subjects “failed” the task if they refused to walk onto the tarp after 10 min.

Nine horses failed; 6 of 9 failures were from NR only–no significant difference detected (p = .41). The study detected no difference in time to first crossing of the tarp (p = .30) or total time to achieve calmness criterion (p = .67). Overall, adding PR did not significantly enhance learning this task. However, there were practical implications–adding PR made the task safer/less fatiguing for the handler.

PubMed Abstract PMID: 18569217, indexed for MEDLINE, authored by Heleski C, Bauson L, Bello N.

These studies always seem to leave too may variables flapping in the breeze like tarps with blown grommets. The authors cite a single practical implication in favor of positive reinforcement: handler safety!

I’d like to know:
What was the positive reinforcement?
How the numbers would look if

a) a study’s standard of success were measured by some other parameter than initial learning speed; and
b) a study examined the effects of positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement rather than as an additive technique.

What else have I missed?

Related Post: If Scientists Use Positive Reinforcement Strategies to Study and Measure Equine Learning, Why Do Most Horsepeople Use Negative Reinforcement?

© 2009 enlightened horsemanship through touch and Kim Cox Carneal

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