Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The "Poisoned Cue" and Questions About Miranda

Many, probably almost all, of us use some degree of negative reinforcement in training horses. Negative reinforcement can range all the way from the slightest pressure - of rein, leg or body language - to severe punishment, and anything in between. (Positive reinforcement is used by most of us too - strokes, rubs, soothing voice, and some of us use clicker training.) Golden the Pony Girl has done a very thoughtful post about "poisoned cues", which got me thinking some more about pressure and release. This is a subject I've been mulling over for a while - I did two posts just before I attended the Mark Rashid clinic in July, setting out where my thoughts were at the time:

And here's a paragraph from a post I did after the clinic:

One of my commentators on my posts on the Mark Rashid clinic asked what I was going to apply in my own horse world from my learning at the clinic. For me the biggest take-aways were first, the concept of finding the point of resistance and mentally softening into it, to avoid being part of a brace and to offer the horse a soft place to move into - see my post on horse #1 [see sidebar] for more about this. And second, the idea of leading your horse with your intent and thought (which is also there in the book about Harry Whitney I wrote about in an earlier post), with the objective of reducing aids to almost nothing or even eliminating them altogether so that you blend with the horse, thought and body, so that the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet your feet. I already had the second idea in mind in a less well formed way as a result of our earlier work with Mark, but it really snapped into focus for me.

Golden the Pony Girl raises the good point that, if we use pressure, no matter how subtle, and we don't time the release correctly - most of us, I think, err by waiting too long or not rewarding tries to build links in the chain - or punish the horse when it doesn't offer the behavior we want, that we can "poison the cue" - the horse now is anxious or confused (if we're inconsistent with the release either because we're not clear in our own minds exactly what we want or have poor timing) or anticipating punishment, rather than learning what we want the horse to learn. In my experience, to give releases with even a semblance of success requires relearning how to observe and feel, and at least while learning how to do it, really intense effort and concentration. I think a lot of the adverse behaviors horses learn - bucking, rearing, bolting, sometimes come from incorrectly used pressure and release, or plain confusion. Really close attention to the slightest things - a lean, a shift in weight, an ear flicker - is required, in my opinion. Read her post and think about it.

* * * * * *

I was able to remove Miranda's blanket in the stall last night without any problem. This morning when I fed I upped the ante a little. When I gave her her hay, I stayed in the stall and placed my hand on her neck. She pinned and I kept my hand there until her ears relaxed and then stepped away - for her removing yourself from her "bubble" is a release. While I was standing next to her, I kept the side of my body towards her and my eyes down to reduce the pressure. Then, when I was feeding her grain, I went into the stall and waited for the pinning to stop and the ears to flick forward for just a second before I fed her. Outside, when I brought her hay, again I didn't give it to her until she stopped pinning and glaring and the ears relaxed, and then I stood just at the edge of her bubble, again with my side to her, until she relaxed before I walked away. I try to never move away from her - which is what she wants me to do - while she's exhibiting any threatening behavior, which would give her a release for those behaviors. I think she's making excellent progress.

A couple of you asked some questions about Miranda. First, as to ulcer medicines, she did a full 30-day treatment with omeprazole, which inhibits the production of stomach acid and allows the ulcers to heal, and since then she's been on U-Gard pellets two times a day. Despite the residual food-related issues, her behavior is dramatically different - severe ulcers can literally drive a horse crazy, and then her behavior led to punishment, leading her to associate feeding, and people, with pain. She has gone from a horse that could not be touched anywhere on her body or handled, much less ridden, and could only be approached at significant personal risk, to one that is a pleasure under saddle and becoming more alive every day. She still strongly reacts to the vet and to chiropractic work (although she was a bit better at the last appointment), but is not at all cinchy - my daughter worked hard to find her a saddle that fit and her body sensitivity was related to the ulcers. I was asked about clicker training - using positive reinforcement would be a good thing, but I am hesitant to try it with a horse with residual food and physical aggression issues, which including biting in the past. If I were more experienced with clicker I might, and I may well use it later, but not yet.

And I was asked how she is with other horses. This is pretty interesting - when my daughter first got her, before her issues were resolved, she was "pasture dead" - other horses could kick and bite her and she wouldn't really respond or even move away. She didn't interact with the other horses at all. I'd put this down to severe depression and being completely "shut down". Once a horse is this far gone, bringing them back takes extraordinary work (my daughter gets great credit in my mind for having gotten her this far). She now shows some interest in other horses, although not as much as a normal horse - which has the advantage that you can take her anywhere and she isn't herd-bound at all. She's low in the pecking order and fairly submissive with other horses. I think that if she continues to "wake up" and be able to interact with the world without pain or fear, that she may very well become more interactive with and interested in other horses. There was a corollary of this - when she got to the point that my daughter was doing ground work with her and then working under saddle, she was extremely dull and unresponsive to pressure. This has improved, and she is more "horselike" every day. Of course that means that horse behaviors like spooking are now reappearing, too! She's still relearning how to interact with both horses and people.

A side note on Fritz - he's doing much better but is still showing some mild anxiety. I'm doing some looking into the NSC (non-structural carbohydrate - the type that is easily absorbed) content of some feeds and will post about that at some point. NSC is a more important measure than total carbohydrates, and is sometimes a difficult number to find - I suspect some of the manufacturers don't really want you to know. Some of the senior and "safe" feeds are surprisingly high in NSCs. NSC isn't the only measure to be concerned about, particularly if you have a horse with a metabolic issue, but it's important.


  1. Excellent! Very good points about timing.
    I really appreciate your post and it is so nice to hear of the progress with the mare. I feel better for her !She has the best caretakers in you and your daughter.

  2. We have two horses that pin their ears when we feed grain and we have them "giving us their ears" by a voice command only before we dump their feed. We have bowls that we dump their feed in on the ground. Upon opening the stall door we ask for them to back up away from us a few steps....then ask for the ear....can be just one ear too! At first it was very subtle and the timing was critical to see the slightest flick of the ear but we did...and immediately rewarded this behavior. We have never put ourselves inside the stall or have to touch them in anyway. They need to figure it out on their own right or wrong answer (only punishment is no feed in the bowl until you see the ear) and if you keep asking and don't get impatient, it works great. Doesn't matter if they mean't to do it at first or not...could be just a lowering of the head trying to figure it out....give them the feed for the try....they figure it pretty quickly. Keeps you safe too. It also builds clear communication between you and the horse. For some reason unknown to us these are the only two in our barn that have shown more aggressive behavior (came from the same owner) such as ear pinning (never charging or biting during feeding time). However, one of them bit me while leading through a gate from the pasture when the pecking order in the herd changed. It really took some time (we started immediately when they arrive on our farm because it scared me) and now they will even look away while flicking their ear to submit which is nice. Then we give the feed immediately. I will say, I didn't like feeding them at all but it's so much better than it was before. I don't know how they were trained or untrained to feed but it has been obvious that no one took the time to see to it that the behavior was acceptable then became a bad habit. They too, are the most territorial in their stalls and pin ears sometimes when you walk by.....and they are also the worst chewers in barn. It is so much easier to curtail a bad behavior from the get go than having to do it later but too many people just do not know what they're doing and the lack of knowledge is a problem. I don't know if this will help anyone but it is what has worked for us. It's really fun to see them respond to it. Oh and I also say good boy or girl in a calming voice as I dump the fed. All I have to do is point to Romeo's bowl on the wall in the corner and he goes over to it and backs up so I can dump it but I noticed his ears are starting to be pinned back now so here we go with another lesson. He does not show aggression at all but I don't like it and will work with him the same way. Glad Miranda is doing better....good work Kate.

  3. Meaning to say unacceptable behavior above in my post!!

  4. I did a lot of research on NCSs, myself. The three big offenders that make grains very high in NSCs are oats, corn, and barley, so stay away from anything with those on the label (especially in the first 5 ingredients).
    Triple Crown actually posts the NSC ratings of all their feeds online. In my opinion, it's the best grain on the market, partly because they also have a consistent "recipe" that never changes (unlike other companies like Pruina and Nutrena).
    Even though Salem is only five, I have him on Triple Crown Senior because it is such a great feed. It has lots of good stuff like soybean hulls, alfalfa meal, beet pulp, rice bran, kelp, and probiotics -- plus, it has an NSC rating of 15, which is extremely low. It's a wonderful feed and Salem is really blossoming on it.

  5. Another very informative post. Miranda is a real work in progress and you are doing so well with her. Your daughter will see such a difference in her.

    There is so much to learn...things that the average Joe horse owner is not aware of. Thank you for educating us.

  6. Great post. Poisoned cues are so important to understand.

    No wonder our horses are sometimes hesitant to respond. I would be too, if I didn't know if my actions would be met with praise or more pressure.

    Alexandra Kurland has an awesome 3 hour DVD on poisoned cues, including some of the research at the University of North Texas on the effects of poisoned cues.


  7. Triple Crown puts the NSC content of their feed on their website and I believe Blue Seal does as well. The rest of the manufacturers make you call them to get that number.

    I agree that people in general get too hung up on NSC's, but if you have a metabolic horse then you need to be conscientious of it.

    Very interesting about Miranda with the other horses. She sure had a rough go of it in life for quite awhile.

  8. I think having to work on timing and feel is what makes us all human, it's certainly something I've really had to learn about!

    Thank you for the background on Miranda, much appreciated and food for thought :)

    Hope you can crack the feed issue for Fritz. I must admit I stay away from grains and commercial mixes and make up my own. Sugarbeet, linseed, unmollassed chop and Yea-sacc, I like to keep things simple!

  9. Miranda's story is really interesting.
    So nice to hear that she also adjusts well in new surroundings.
    Looking forward to hear more!

  10. Thanks Kate, I am glad you find it interesting, I find it mind numbing and a bit intimidating but I am enjoying learning about all this behavioral theory. I am glad you like it too! Miranda sounds like one lucky horse to be with you guys. What a turn around with just a little attention paid to what was really going on with her.

  11. Ah yes, the timing of a release is one of the most important skills to learn....and I'm still learning it.

    Miranda is making excellent progress. It is amazing how long a horse can hold on to a pain memory. That just goes so show how horrible ulcers must be for them.

  12. Great post a lot of useful information that we all relate to. I'm so glad Miranda's problems have been identified and her behaviors were related the pain. Sounds like she is coming around.

  13. Timing the release is so important and also hard to get just right. The least little try is sometimes hard to recognize and it's easy to miss that exact moment for the release. I'm glad you put this up and I will check out Golden's post too.

    I love that your daughter has been bringing Miranda back from wherever she was in her mind and body. All your work is certainly helping too. I think it's wonderful that she is being given a chance to show how great she can be after her previous life.

  14. What an incredible journey with Miranda.

    By the way, you can do clicker without food. You just have to find what the motivation is.

    We have a pinner in our barn. I'd like to figure out how better to work with him, I'm going to try some of this and see if, over time, we can make a change.

  15. Miranda sounds like an interesting case , also lucky to have you and your daughter to help her heal and become a horse again. Glad to read that Fritz is showing improvement as well.

  16. Another thought-provoking post, Kate. I hadn't heard the term "poisoned cue" before, but it is certainly apropos--we humans so often reinforce exactly the opposite of the behaviors that we desire.
    One quick technical point (from one well-practiced in psycho-speak): negative reinforcement is NOT the same as punishment. Both positive and negative reinforcement reward the desired behavior, one by the provision of a positive stimulus (a treat, a kind word, a rub), and one by the REMOVAL of a negative stimulus, (loosening the reins, backing away from Miranda when she puts her ears forward). Much of equine training is done with negative reinforcement, ie "release of pressure"! and it can be as effective, if not more so, than positive reinforcement, which requires proper identification and timing of the most effective motivating "reward."

  17. LuLo - thanks for the good ideas!

    EvenSong - thanks for the correction in terminology!


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.