Did you see this good article, Positive Reinforcement: Where Does It Fit in Equine Training? about learning theory and horsemanship (with great comments on our own Shawna)?
I particularly like the graphic that Henderson used to illustrate the four quadrants of operant conditioning:
The Original Learning Quadrant
This is often known as the “learning quadrant” and I’m sure you’ll be familiar with it by now as you explore better ways to train your horse. But the question is, how useful is this approach when we get down to the nitty gritty of understanding learning for the purpose of training your horse? How easy is it to tell if you are using positive or negative reinforcement?
Have a look at this video of a very cute dog training her human to pet her and we’ll discuss this to help dissect the learning quadrant:
If we regard the dog as the trainer, then the human is the operator of the system, which is why we have the term “operant” learning (or conditioning). When you watch this video, you might want to ask: what kind of reinforcement is going on here? Is the dog using negative reinforcement to get the human to stroke…i.e. annoying with the pawing until the human does the right thing? Or is it reward-based training the dog is using? The pawing is a cue the human has learned and is rewarded for the behaviour by feeling happy.
But hang on…isn’t there some punishment going on too? Surely the human has to experience some positive punishment with the pawing in order to receive the reinforcement of the pawing stopping when she does the right thing?
The question is, is the dog using a positively learned cue, the pawing, to which the human responds with the wanted behaviour, because the human finds it rewarding. Or is the dog using pressure, an unwanted stimulus, and so the human strokes the dog to avoid the unpleasantness of the pawing?
Emotions and Relationship
As you can see, it all depends on how the human feels about the pawing. This is plainly an
interaction between two bonded animals. This is not a sole rat in an experimental box, with a non-emotional detached scientist standing by to take notes. And so we have to be careful when we use scientific principles which were developed in one scenario, such as with those poor lab rats, and then apply them to more complex situations, such as the interactions between bonded mammals.
Use Your Common-Sense!
From a common sense view of this video above rather than learning theory, we can say that the dog and her human are engaged in a mutually enjoyable interaction. We can tell that from observing their body language. We can also tell that because we are empathic mammals and we have a smile on our faces as we watch. (This will be culturally determined and individual too. If you come from a culture which views dogs differently, or personally dislike dogs and experience them as dirty, you will have an expression of dislike or disgust on your face.) Modern science completely supports this common sense view. For example, if we were to take blood samples from the pair, we would see rising oxytocin chemicals in both of them. They are “feeling the love”!
This viewpoint would not have been accepted by B.F. Skinner, from whose pioneering work models such as the learning quadrant have been derived. He said that “the ’emotions’ are excellent examples of the fictional causes to which we commonly attribute behavior”.
Modern neuroscience is supporting our more common-sense view and is clearly demonstrating that behaviour is caused by the emotional state of the brain. Behaviour does not happen in an unemotional vacuum at all.
So is it time to ditch such models as the learning quadrant? I don’t think so because people find it useful in thinking about training, especially when you begin to understand reward-based training and the fact that all the horsemanship you were previously taught was probably based on punishment. But we do need to understand how emotions work alongside behavioural contingencies so that we can be happy with how we work with our horses and be confident that our approach is both fair and effective.
Delving Deeper into the Emotional Brain
From my studies into the neuroscience of emotions, I have developed the learning quadrant model to take account of mammalian emotional brain systems. I have been studying the work of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp for the last few years and his brilliant work on the 7 emotional systems in the brain that all mammals share. I find this a really useful way to understand what is happening in our relationships with our horses and to help us to train most effectively. The seven emotional systems he has painstakingly uncovered are SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, PANIC/GRIEF, LUST, CARE and PLAY.
For more info on these emotional brain systems, check out this blog, “Phew, it’s ok to be anthropomorphic!“
The basic fact of how the brain learns is through punishment and reward. These emotional systems create the feeling of an event being good or bad, (or appetitive or aversive, to give it the technical terms). If a situation lights up the FEAR system, for example, it will feel aversive to the animal and it will learn to avoid that situation in the future to prevent feeling the fear again. If a situation lights up the PLAY system, by contrast, it feels appetitive and the animal will learn to recreate the situation in the future. The point of Panksepp and the many other neuroscientists work on emotions, is that our animals are feeling the pain or joy due to their brain emotional systems, which are the same as ours.
Putting the two systems of thought together, I have created a new model of the behavioural contingencies (“learning quadrant”) with the emotional systems overlaid:
The Emotional Learning Quadrant
This model clearly shows that in training our horses using rewards, we are operating within the good feeling emotions of SEEKING, CARE and PLAY (I have omitted LUST from the diagram as we don’t want that emotional system in a horse-human interaction!). The SEEKING system is the default for the horse to even engage with the process. It is the emotional system which is characterised by enthusiasm and exploration. CARE is the bonding system, which is very strong in horses as herd-based mammals. We need to be in CARE mode with scared horses and help them to bond with us in their CARE systems and to feel trust in us. Once a good calm CARE state is the default, along with the SEEKING, we can move into PLAY and really help these anxious horses to enjoy their training. On the other hand, you may start with a very confident horse where you build your interactions through PLAY and develop the CARE system bond more slowly, possibly needing to teach the horse to be calm and relaxed at a distance before you invite him closer into your space in a trusting relationship. It will depend on your horse but the important point is that it is all rewarding.
However, it’s important to know that all systems will probably be in play at some time, even if we aim to stay in the green zone. The main reasons for this are that the horse gets frustrated simply by the learning process; where we are counter-conditioning situations where there is existing FEAR or PANIC ; or because something happens in the environment to cause these negative emotions. However, if you work to make the training stay in the green zone, these emotions will be fleeting.
The Important Question: How Does My Horse Feel About This?
The learning quadrant model has been really useful to help us to think about our training and to ask the question “Am I using reward or punishment to teach here?” But that can be a difficult question to answer and can cause us to feel anxious and inhibited if we feel we shouldn’t use punishment and maybe that it should all be positive. Adding in the emotional systems helps us to ask a different question “How does my horse feel about this?” Does my horse look enthusiastic, eager to try and so is in the SEEKING system? Or maybe he swished his tail as he performed the behaviour, so is in his RAGE system, but at a low level of stimulation. Perhaps she’s feeling hesitant and has dropped a poo beside the trailer ramp so I know she’s in a state of FEAR even though she is trying and is taking the treats. The point is that a horse is a complex mammal and for a rich and full life, needs to experience all the emotions.
What About the Old Stuff?
Often when we start reward-based training we will still be using training that our horses learned through more conventional or natural systems, which we now understand to be based on punishment rather than reward. This can cause us some anxiety and distress and we get many students asking what they should do. For example, should they keep riding in the old way or stop everything and retrain it positively? The answer, of course, is “it depends” and we are very good at Connection Training in helping you to work out the best approach for you and your horse. We don’t have set programmes to follow, simply lots of resources and support to help you work in the best way for you. For example, even if a behaviour was originally taught using negative reinforcement, the question is “how does your horse feel about it now?”
Let’s take riding out on the trail as our example here. This activity puts your horse into his SEEKING system and is an important basic behaviour for horses to get out and explore their environments. If your horse is comfortable with being ridden then it will be more rewarding for your horse for you to keep riding the old way rather than have to stay at home and have this limitation until you have completely retrained it the new way. And the amazing thing is, as you bring in new rewarding behaviours outside of riding then one of two things will happen. Either your horse has got hidden issues about riding and, as you train other things positively, you will start to notice that your horse feels less good about the riding than he does about the other stuff. This will cause you to stop and ask what is happening and to make the riding more rewarding too. Or you’ll find that your horse is truly happy with the riding and it continues to feel good and happy and you can carry on as before but with more confidence.
It is truly win-win when you simply keep asking “how does my horse feel about this?” rather than worrying that you may have taught this with pressure and that is wrong and “oh god, I’m an awful human being.” Think back to the dog and her human video at the start of this blog and remember that that is what you are looking for with your horse…a happy connection where you are both feeling good and rewarded in your relationship.
Forget about the labels and focus on the feelings and all will be well.
In my next blog I’ll develop the model further to look at arousal states and whether it’s ever OK to train using punishment… in other words, to engage the emotional systems of FEAR, RAGE or PANIC.
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