Training Principles.

Pony Access Training for Safety.

I train ponies, and horses, for SAFE use, by novices, those with disabilities, and anyone else who wants a SAFE, equestrian activity.Risk Assessment.

When you learn to ride a bicycle, sail a dinghy, paddle a canoe, ski or climb, you accept that you may get a bruise or two, maybe a graze, but death, disability or disfigurement are not on the menu for beginners. With traditional equestrian activities, death is a realistic possibility, even for total beginners.

Kiss et al. (2008) noted that one quarter of all lethal sport injuries in children are caused by horse-riding.” The roles of equine ethology and applied learning theory in horse-related human injuries Lesley A. Hawson, Andrew N. McLean, Paul D. McGreevyJournal of Veterinary Behavior (2010) 5, 324-338

Pony Access is designed to be SAFE. We don’t intend to contribute any lethal injuries, in anyone, and to ensure that, we have to work on the basis that all injury is avoidable, and therefore to avoid it all. Pony Access does not involve riding at all. It involves working with ponies on the ground, and driving them in SAFE vehicles. The iBex with the Saddlechariot instant pony release system is currently the only SAFE vehicle system available, so Pony Access uses it.

When driving in the iBex, the driver and any passengers are SAFE. The only risk is to pony handlers and spectators, from a loose pony. The other risks are from handling the pony on the ground. These risks can be addressed by training and selection of the animal. The training theory I use is explained here. (For a full explanation of the rationale of the training theory, and all the safety issues, go here).

Pony Access Training Theory.

Ponies and horses, Equus caballus, are animals that have been domesticated. Their behaviour patterns will combine those of a truly wild animal and the modifications that have occurred throughout domestication. These behaviour patterns can be worked out logically. No mystic bond or inbred horse knowledge is required.

The fact that the behaviour patterns can be worked out logically, does not mean they will appear logical to the casual observer. Lions and crocodiles are not seen as problems to most UK residents, yet Obama, my pony, appears to be terrified of them see this article. Equus caballus evolved over millennia where lions and crocodiles were a major problem. Obama is terrified of lion shaped things, and looks on any water he can’t clearly see the bottom of, as loaded with crocodiles.

Immediately, I hear the cries of “prove it”. My article on English Lions suggests that I have some evidence, and it makes sense. If anyone can find a better explanation, fine. The crocodiles theory is an assumption. But migrating wildebeeste try to avoid being the first into the river because of crocodiles, so it makes sense that zebras, and probably horses, will have the same inherited fears.

This opens up another can of worms, which fears and behaviour patterns are inherited, which are learned? Science can answer these questions, and in time, will. For now I am making assumptions. If the evidence supports the assumptions I will stick with them, if not, I won’t. All assumptions have been tested by me, working with Obama and appear to hold good for those limited tests.

But we could be looking at the Clever Hans Effect. This phrase is used to describe the way that a horse called Clever Hans who was trained to answer mathematical and linguistic questions, fooled the great and good in the early 1900’s. Clever Hans had no mathematical skills but could answer correctly if he was asked to divide 56 by 7, or the give the square root of 36, as long as the questioner knew the answer, and was in the room.

Clever Hans tapped out the answer with his hoof, and could detect the unconscious signs in the questioner which showed he had tapped the right number of times, or more accurately, showed Clever Hans that he should stop tapping. To Hans it is almost certain that stopping tapping elicited the response of applause, not the number of times he tapped. He had learned to tap until the signals said, enough.

Modern scientific experimenters take enormous pains to exclude the Clever Hans Effect because animals will give the answers the scientist wants. I do the reverse. I don’t want scientific answers, I want a scientific training program that works. If the pony can identify when it has done the right thing, and stop at that point, in training terms, this is brilliant. I don’t have to work out how to communicate in horse language, I can let the horse read me, something they are demonstrably better at than we are.

Oscar Pfungst who discovered the mechanism by which Clever Hans had been fooling the great and the good, learned from Hans the horse, how to read people’s unconscious signals. Obama, my pony, is fully aware of all the ways he can wind me up, but when I want to put him in a vehicle, with a heavy wheelchair on board, and a nervous user, He co-operates in the process shuffling his bum across so everything lines up nicely. If I am trying to do a demonstration, showing off my skills, he does the opposite. He also plays the audience for laughs. But since it suits me to have an audience laughing, a scientist would say he is doing what I want, which is what I want. So the Clever Hans Effect is to be encouraged, not suppressed.

This example defines the principles of Pony Access training. If there is an easy way, use it. Work with the pony’s natural behaviour patterns, not against them and use Science to suggest methods and to check whether the system works for the reasons you think it works. But what matters is that the users of the Pony Access trained ponies, are SAFE. We need to know it works, and as far as possible, to know how and why it works. But if I can prove it is SAFE by testing every scenario, and showing that it works safely, this is scientific. The fact that I may not know every mechanism, every instinct, is irrelevant to using the system now. With time, we will learn more. Maybe the hypothesis was right, maybe wrong. But if the hypothesis works, to produce SAFETY we will continue to use it while continuing to look for the real reasons why, and how, it works.

Pony Access Methods

The Clever Hans Effect as discussed above is one method for training a pony but it seems to work best as part of a generalised training policy. I discovered that Obama was doing what I wanted when working under stress. Trying to convert a two wheel chariot into a logging rig, while learning about horse logging on the job, training Obama about horse logging, and trying to sort out some really tangled felled larches, is stress. Obama started shuffling into position once he worked out what the hell I thought I was doing.

Pressure Release is a simple and well known training method. I use it with a basic halter to teach the animal to follow. You start moving in the desired direction and pressure is applied to the pony through the halter. If they move, you release the halter, removing the pressure. They learn that following you is more comfortable than not. I do very little else with Pressure Release, but teaching them to follow is really useful.

Leadership is absolutely central to Pony Access training. Leadership is NOT about domination or hierarchy. Leadership is positional. You can do lots of things from behind, on top, or off to the side, leadership doesn’t happen to be one of them. You lead from in front.

As a teaching system, leadership is brilliant which is why the word education is derived from the Latin, ex ducere to lead out. We will look at the logic of leadership first.

Equus cabllus is a prey species, a herd animal and nomadic.

As a prey species, survival, in any area where food is present, is about avoiding predation. (I am talking about the factors affecting survival over which the animal has conscious or unconscious control. Drought,global warming or meteorites all affect survival but the animal’s behaviour, unless the animal is Homo sapiens, has no bearing on the issue.)

A herd animal gets safety from numbers. This comes from increased security with more watchers , listeners and scenters allowing safe resting. A herd also appears more threatening to a predator than an individual. But the most important factor is probably maths. In a herd of 100, you have a 1% chance of being the prey in any one successful predation event. If you are on your own, it isn’t a chance, it is a certainty. A companion halves the risk from certainty to 50%. Hey, I like company! I want to be with you!

A nomadic animal roams over a territory rather than returning to a cave or nest or burrow for safety. Every dawn sees a new horizon. (see here) so safety is determined by looking ahead for anything that might be lying in wait, and looking behind for anything following. Wide open spaces are obviously safe as nothing can hide. But England is short on wide open spaces, and Pony Access works in urban areas. The risk of something lying in wait is vastly greater when there is only one narrow route available, so the fear level increases. The danger is to the first one through the gap, ie the leader. If the leader survives, great, if he is attacked, go the other way.

By going first, the leader takes all the risks. If you want a pony to go somewhere, lead the way. This is effective because the pony doesn’t want to be left on his own which is inherently dangerous, and doesn’t want to be the first into new danger. By following you, he sorts both issues.

If you lead your pony into new and different areas, this applies stress because new has to be seen as a threat. Because you are there, you become security. There is a 50/50 chance the lion eats you. By going first into “danger” the pony learns to follow, and learns that you take him to safe places. Scary maybe, but they turn out to be safe. The pony has been educated, you have led him out, ex ducere.

The Godmother Principle. This is two rather odd ideas combined.

Lots of people are trying to talk horse language to their horses, and I wish them all the best. However, to the horse, the shortage of legs, totally inadequate ears, wrong smells and sounds must at least make it difficult for the horse to understand. I am not even convinced they know we are trying to talk horse. Pretending to be a horse is difficult at best, and possibly impossible.

Gods on the other hand have it easy. Gods aren’t like us. That’s rather the point, they aren’t Joe Bloggs from down the road. Gods are allowed pretty much unlimited limbs, random heads and some very odd behaviour patterns and people believe in them.

It is so much easier to persuade a horse that we are a God, (maybe not as easy as teaching people to believe in a God), than to persuade them we are Equus caballus.

The second element is feeding treats. For some reason the traditional equestrian trainers are terribly anti treats which they see as bribes, corrupting innocent animals. When you ask if they report their employers to the police for attempting to bribe them on a regular basis with a pay cheque, they go silent.

I started using treats with Obama on a journey from Brecon in Wales to Birmingham. He was being perfectly bloody, refusing to move, he was knackered, I was knackered, the light was failing and we had two more miles on dangerous roads to reach safety. If I had had a whip I would have thrashed him. But I remembered I had some carrots, so rather than stick, I used carrot, and it worked.

People say that horses don’t naturally give food to other horses. True for the vast majority of horse/horse relations, but every single horse has at some time been fed by another horse, its mother. I discuss this in more detail here.

If pretending to be a horse is hard, pretending to be a horse’s mummy, is harder, but feeding treats is easy. I found that if you feed the treats from close to your body, the animals head curls round like a suckling foal. When stressed Obama feeds, almost angrily, and very fast. I observed the same with Winston, a very scared mule. As they relax, they will accept scratches instead of treats and eventually walk off and eat grass, but as the stress level builds the more they want to be close, curled round you, eating treats. I can’t be mummy, but maybe I can be a GodMother. This is the GodMother concept which I discuss in greater detail here.

You use treats to build a relationship where you are seen as the source of safety, scratches and treats. With that sort of relationship, who needs domination, power or authority.

Model/Rival. Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with the African grey parrot Alex is another important building block. She developed the model/rival training system when she discovered that Alex didn’t respond to operant conditioning. Temple Grandin points out that prey species don’t learn about predators through trial and error. They observe the way adults behave around predators and mimic them. If they just walked up until they discovered by trial and error that they were too close, they wouldn’t learn much more.

I believe that Obama watches what I do, and to a certain extent mimics my behaviour, but I know that when I train one pony to use a saddlechariot, if it has a buddy, the buddy will be fighting to get in. One reason that horses could cope with so much in the past, in urban, industrail and agricultural environments, was that they were surrounded by other horses who were performing similar actions.

Operant Conditioning. Clicker training in all its variations seems to be the new miracle training method. I think it is a very effective tool, but I don’t think it has all the answers, certainly not for Pony Access, but I am happy to be proved wrong. It seems to require a high level of judgement, fast reactions and good timing. I want a system that will work with complete novices, those with learning difficulties and mental health issues including alcoholism and drug addiction. If I have to start by teaching a powerful training system, which requires a skill set that I don’t have, the project won’t work.
I think we can explore it, and maybe use it to sort out problems with ponies away from the Pony Access work environment, but as a day to day tool, it will end up excluding the people I want to work with. I went the no whips route because I couldn’t see a way of producing an inclusive activity where some could use whips and some couldn’t. “I can use a whip because I am horsey. You can’t because you are common” seemed an unlikely basis for a good working relationship. No whips is easy, and most importantly, it clearly works for me, and for everyone I work with.

Reverse Clicker. This is my own variation on clicker training. I give Obama treats when I am in a good mood. It is up to Obama to get all the timing right, and to perform all the right actions at exactly the right time to keep me in a good mood. From the Clever Hans Effect, it is clear that Equus caballus has the innate ability to do this, so my attitude is, I will provide the treats, let them do the tricky stuff if they are so damn clever.

Learned Helplessness is NOT a Pony Access method, but we must be aware that it does not become one. It is defined as Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards. Abusive and intensive training methods can produce learned helplessness and we must ensure that Pony Access does not allow to to happen. Further discussion is here.

This is not a definitive list, by definition it can’t be. We will learn as the project expands in size and duration. Since we are committed to the scientific method, if evidence shows we are wrong, or that there is a safer, kinder way, we will change. We won’t ONLY do things that have been scientifically proven right, but we will avoid methods and systems that science shows are wrong.

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