Negative and Positive FeedBack Control Systems
Many of you already know that I have an academic background in physiology. During my career in medical research I was required to teach a handful of courses to postgraduate science students as well as medical and veterinary students. One of the subjects I lectured on was control systems in physiology ie, how does the body keep itself working within normal parameters. By that I mean how does the body stay within a normal temperature range and regulate itself when the temperature is too high or too low. The same for heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, appetite, body fluid etc – virtually every function in the body is regulated by a control system that turns it on or turns it off.
Most control systems use negative feedback loops. For example, if your temperature gets too high your body sees this and activates functions like sweating and increasing blood flow to the skin in order to lose heat and cool the body down until the brain decides your body is back in a normal temperature range. Nearly all the body functions use a similar type of control system to keep them within a normal range.
But a small number of the bodies functions don’t use negative feedback loops, some use positive feedback. Positive feedback systems are potentially dangerous because the only limitation on their function is when a catastrophic event occurs. In a positive feedback system, one event leads to a slightly bigger event, which then leads to an even bigger event and this leads to a much bigger event. It’s like there is a cascade of events and causes one causes even more to happen, rather than less (as occurs with a negative feedback system).
When I was teaching, in order to wake the students up about this boring topic I would ask them, “As physiologists, what is the most exciting thing about an orgasm?” That would get their attention. But of course the answer is that it is one of the few examples of a positive feedback loop. It starts slow and accelerates into a system almost out of control until orgasm occurs (the catastrophic event). Another example is birth where it begins with a small event and accelerates rapidly until the expulsion of the baby ends it abruptly a few hours later.
Probably at this stage you guys are about to switch off and link to something more interesting on YouTube, but stay with me because I’m about to get to the horse part.
I got a phone call yesterday from a lady who was quite upset because her horse had bolted on her and ran through a fence and into a ditch where he somersaulted onto his back. She and the horse had minor injuries, but she was very shaken and I guess her confidence is badly bruised. She described her horse as normally a quiet and reliable type that responds to the aids very well. The bolt took place over about 100m and she tried everything to make him stop. She tried turning him, pulling with both reins – but he did not listen. The lady felt her horse did not even know the fence or the ditch were there when he hit them.
With a horse (and people too), the reaction to panic has 3 stages. The first is a rapidly rising response to fear. The second is when the fear response is no longer increasing, but is steady. The third stage is a diminishing response to fear. So the reaction to fear in a panic is bell-curved.
The first stage closely mimics a positive feedback loop. This stage can be quite brief or drawn out, but it always involves an increasing reaction. As it continues it usually accelerates until something happens to interrupt it. In the case of the ladies horse, it was going to take something huge to break the positive feedback cycle. The horse did not respond to the rider’s reins. It didn’t respond to the fence as a barrier. It didn’t even respond to seeing the ditch. It took being flipped over on it’s back to break the reaction. This is a true panic or bolt.
Many of us have ridden horses that we think have bolted in a panic, but they often stop when they are far enough away from the cause of the panic. This is not a true panic or bolt. It’s just a serious reaction to something fearful. The difference is that in a true panic or bolt the horse has no conscious control of his reaction. But in a non-panic situation the horse is choosing how to react. In a non-panic situation a horse can be trained to make other choices of behaviour. He doesn’t have that luxury in a true panic.
There would have been nothing the lady could do to stop her horse and keep them both safe. She either had to bail out or ride it out until either exhaustion or a catastrophic event decided the matter.
I have worked with a couple of horses in my time where I was sure they were in a true panic. In fact, one of them seemed prone to it because she would succumb once in awhile. She was scary to ride and in the end I decided she wasn’t safe. She was going to kill herself and a rider one day.
Most horse training works on a exploiting the negative feedback systems of a horse. In the 1950s, BF Skinner wrote about negative reinforcement as a training paradigm for many animals. In reality, Skinner theories were just putting a psychological twist on the well-known physiological phenomena of negative feedback. Both are systems for regulating the function of a biological system. With negative feedback you might regulate the body temperature, but with negative reinforcement you might regulate the stop/go behaviour. They are very similar in principle.
I’m sorry if this topic has been a bit too theoretical and academic. I find it interesting, but I imagine not too many others do. Next time I’ll try to write on a topic a little less theoretical.
Horse Recognition of People and Behaviours
A study was published recently by a group from the University of Renne, France to examine the importance of familiarity with both people and people’s behaviour in horses.
The study used 16 horses that had only been handled by 1 person since birth. At 2 years they were taught to stand still on a voice command. It took 5 days to ensure obedience to the voice command.
Two studies were conducted. The first was to have the person familiar to the horse appear and use the voice to command the horses to stand still. After that a person that was unfamiliar to the horses appeared and gave the command to stand still.
Although most of the horses obeyed the voice command irrespective of whether it came from the familiar person or the unfamiliar person, it was observed that the horses were much more focused in a wary manner on the unfamiliar person and less so on the familiar person.
The second part of the study was to repeat the first part, but the person was to offer different behaviours such as turning their back to the horses, looking at the ceiling, closing their eyes. The researchers observed that when the experimenter showed behaviours not familiar to the horses, the horses tended to fidget much more. This was particularly true when researchers closed their eyes.
In brief, the conclusions were that horses were more wary of strangers and even if the person was familiar to the horses the horses were less comfortable when the person exhibited unexpected behaviour such as closing their eyes. You can click here for the full study.
I think this confirms that horses are more comfortable with return and familiarity. I doubt this is a big surprise to anyone.
But I think it explains the concept that with horses it can be “darkest before the dawn” or “things will get worse before they get better” or whatever cliché you wish to use. It is often true that when a horse comes for training, all sorts of behaviours come out that owners had never seen before. I can’t tell you how many times a horse starts out difficult to catch and the owners tell me that Fluffy never does that at home.
When a horse goes for training it is taken to unfamiliar surroundings and put in a paddock with horses he doesn’t know and handled by a person he doesn’t know and exposed to all sorts of strange and unfamiliar rituals in an arena or round yard. It is not surprising that their life is turned upside down for a week or two. No wonder a horse can become reactive or harder to catch or off his feed or pace a fence line. It’s a terrible stress on a horse.
And people are no different. We are just as comfortable with horses we know well and in surroundings we know well. If we are asked to ride a new horse, our heart rate creeps up initially. When we take Fluffy to his first show, our palms can get a little sweaty and we don’t sleep well the night before.
I was once asked to ride a horse that was very reluctant to go forward. The horse had been broken in by the owner and had never been ridden out of the round yard in 3 years. The owner was too worried about losing control away from the safety of the round yard. In trying to satisfy his own need to familiarity and safety the owner had turned the horse into a shut down and confused animal. After about 3 weeks the horse was cantering all over the open spaces and even moving cattle around. Sadly, when the horse went home it went back to being ridden in the round yard again.
So people are as much a victim of the need for familiarity and predictability as horses. But it is important to break away from the comfort zone to be the best horse person riding the best horse than either of you can be. The more exposure to unfamiliar settings and the less predictable and routine life can be the better. Living life in a cocoon gets people and horses hurt. Sometimes, stretching a comfort zone can initially be difficult and cause trouble, but the long-term gains far outweigh the short-term comfort.
How To Turn Enemies Into Friends
I’m hoping you can help me with my problem. I have just bought a new horse. He is very lovely. Due to circumstances, I agist him and my old horse on a nearby agistment property. They are in the same paddock, but they don’t get along. My old horse chases him around a lot for no reason. The new horse is getting picked on all the time and I can’t afford to pay for separate paddocks. I’m afraid he is going to get hurt. Is there anything I can do about it?
You don’t say how long you’ve had the new horse, so I don’t know if it will settle down or not. Nevertheless, it is the case that some horses just don’t like each other.
If they are only been together a week or two, I would probably give it a bit more time to sort out. Alternatively, you can put a third horse in the paddock. This will have the effect of dividing loyalties. Either the new horse will buddy up with the third horse or the old horse will buddy up with it. Which ever it is, it is likely there will be a decrease in the amount of bullying by your older horse.
If that’s not feasible there is a way that I have known to turn enemies into lovers. Put the new horse and the old horse into a float together and take them somewhere unfamiliar. Make sure the trip is at least 20-30 minutes long (or even longer). When you get there, let them out. Maybe work one of both of them or not. After a time, put them back in the float and take them home. When you let them back into their paddock things will probably have changed for the better. I have seen this work in every case, but sometimes you might have to repeat the exercise a couple of times – always take them somewhere unfamiliar to either of the horses.
The one problem that can result (but not usually) is that it works so well that now your horses suffer separation anxiety and can’t bear to be separated. You can substitute one problem for another. But that’s relatively rare.
I hope it works for you.
The Carolyn Resnick Video
Thank you again for running a great site, what fun to have a horse related place to go that makes me think but doesn't overwhelm me. with details I can't achieve.
FYI, the post you had the other day hit straight home for me. I've struggled for years wondering why the Timing Feel and Balance Fairy seems to have passed me by. Maybe she hasn't.
Consistency... that's a concept I can focus on, and that's something for which I can judge my own progress. It's hard (although not impossible) to lie to yourself. Thanks for the inner tube to help me float down this river of horsemanship. Maybe the timing feel and balance will start improving if I can get consistency working better.
As for the video. I don't know Carolyn Resnick from Eve, but that is a reflection of me, not her. Certainly there is a lot to be gained from learning to live in the moment. My old TB is having a tough time with heat and has abscessed to boot. I've enjoyed spending time visiting him and the herd of geriatric horses in the retirement village. All good kind old horses, happy to see your, and happy to see you walk away. Fun to watch them interact. My old boy was so sore he just stood outside the herd with his bestest friend in the world, an old chestnut mare. He wanted a drink at one point but told me he couldn't because one of the geldings was in his way. I led the gelding away from the tank, and he hobbled up. A few days and a set of shoes later, and now he can chase that gelding off on his own. (whew! hate to see the old guy sore). Point is, I don't often take the time to just enjoy him or his friends. I think that is one message from the video.
However.... I thought I was laid back but the women in the video makes me look like I just drank a gallon of coffee.
The horses tolerate her, seem to be fine with her presence but I didn't see a huge amount of interaction. Not much more than I was visiting with the old retired horses. It's great that the horses are not threatened by her, but I also didn't see that they were paying much attention to her. The old retired horses are just fine with me too, I also know that might change if I wanted to do something they weren't cracked on. I don't think they would be violent, they just probably wouldn't. I don't know enough about this trainer to know if she can ask horses to do things for her.
No doubt I've missed something vital. I will be looking forward to hearing your thoughts and that of others.
The video is of one of Carolyn's students and her horse. I've never seen Carolyn Resnick in person and have only watched some videos, read her web site and talked to folks who have been to clinics.
I guess I just don't get what Carolyn does for horses. The waterhole ritual seems to be all about people hanging out with horses. It is about helping people feel good about themselves because the horses accept them. But what does it do for the horses? I enjoy being in the paddock surrounded by my horses as I sip a cup of tea or giving each a scratch on their favourite itchy spot. It's very peaceful and enjoyable. But it does nothing for my relationship with my horses if when I saddle and ride them they are miserable. It's not hard to have a horse feel okay if you never ask anything of them. But few of us are in a position that we don't ever have to direct a horse to do something they don't want to do. Even if you don't ride, a horse still needs hoof trimming, dentist, vet care, worming pasting etc. All things that most horses would not choose to have done themselves.
I have seen videos of Carolyn riding horses and they all seem not very happy. Even in the videos where the horses are not ridden, I see horses that tolerate people but not actually enjoying the company of people - like they might enjoy another horse. So I don't get it.
There is nothing wrong with people getting pleasure from hanging out with horses, but do we need trainers, clinics, books and videos to tell us how to do that. Shouldn't that be just a normal part of owning a horse?
Maybe I'm missing something. I was hoping a student or two would write and explain it to me, but I until then the meaning of it eludes me.
Nurturing The Worry
Hey Ross, Well the rain has stopped for a while and Jess and myself finally got our for a ride today.. We were riding in the pines and as usual people mistake our lovely forest for the tip and dump heaps or rubbish on the sides of the track and as usual the horses think this rubbish has eaten several horses previously and are not going anywhere near that stuff.
As per usual we started to walk the horses tentatively up to the scary things reassuring them and patting them and telling them that it is ok. I wondered if our behaviour was nurturing the worry they had in these things and confirming that they should be worried. So the next pile of crap came along and I felt her start to tense up shorten her stride and get all hollow, so I just worked on her walk, I wanted the nice walk I just had and kept working on that. So before we got to close to the scary things she didn't get as hollow and tense as the time before, and got a bit better the next pile. We spend a lot of time reassuring our horses, but are we inadvertently nurturing the worry?
Kind Regards Kerryn
You are right that we are sometimes guilty of enabling the type of behaviour you describe. It's easy for a horse to show a little concern over something new even though it maybe a minor thing. This is the point when we can either help a horse gain more confidence or reinforce the notion that he has good reason to be worried.
There are times when we need to reassure a horse that he will survive and take the time to get him less worried. And there are times when the best help you can give a horse is to tell him to get over it and move on to push past the worry spot.
The question most people struggle with is to know when to push a horse through the trouble and when to back off and let the horse sort it out. As a general rule (not a golden rule) I have found that if a horse is genuinely worried about something and truly feels his safety is in jeopardy, that is the time to let the horse work out the problem for himself. There is always a line where the horse will go no closer without losing the plot. Don't ask him to go past that line. Give him time to try it for himself. If you try to push a horse over that line before he is ready you risk triggering a dangerous behaviour such as rearing, bolting or bucking.
How do you know if your horse is truly scared or not? In the case of most horses, if they are genuinely frightened of an object, other things will not distract them. They will become focused on the scary object. But if the horse perceives the object is not life threatening, they tend to stare and snort at it for a little while and then look at something else that draws their attention for a few seconds. Then back to the scary object and then have their attention moved to something like a bird in a tree or another horse calling or whatever. You often find the horse gets more focused on the object when you try to push him forward and then lose that focus when you stop pushing.
In cases like this, I will often push a horse past the worry spot. I don't care if he scoots around the object in a wide arc. I just ride forward as if nothing was there and I didn't even notice the horse being crooked. You have to ride with confidence.
A really common example of where this happens a lot is in the arena. Almost every arena has a scary spot. Often it's in a corner where there are bushes or shed or something. No matter how many times a horse has been in the arena they will shy at that spot the first couple of laps of every ride. In this sort of case, just ride past it - push the horse on if he tries to stop or slow down.
But you have to be careful. There is always the possibility that a horse can flip from being only slightly worried to really scared in a flash and before you know it you're riding a horse with it's front feet off the ground.
I think the biggest thing is to exude confidence in what you are asking of your horse. If you ride timidly, it can only confirm to the horse that he can't trust you because your intent is not clear. When I've taught riders jumping and it was almost always the nervous ones who rode horses that stopped in front of the jumps.