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Pleasure

It seems as if touch doesn’t merely increase your good feelings, but it also decreases your bad feelings.

For many years, researchers believed that the nerves of our skin could recognize just four kinds of stimulation: touch, heat, pain and itch. But there is growing evidence that cutaneous senses include another one that conveys information not just about touch, but about the pleasant properties of touch.

Animals that are social by nature, such as many birds and mammals, have areas that can’t be reached by their own design and must be addressed either by rubbing against objects or by grooming by others. These areas — largely the head and neck — appear to be endowed with extra nerves that feel good when stimulated.

Pain

If you go down to the river, you may see a fisherman. Ask him — they are almost always hims — whether a hook in a fish’s mouth hurts the fish, and you’ll hear what I always hear: “No. Fish don’t have any feelings. They don’t feel pain. A hook doesn’t hurt them.” If you go down to the stable, you may see a rider. Ask her — they are almost always hers — whether a bit in a horse’s mouth hurts the horse, and you’ll hear what I hear: “No. Even a very severe bit, in the right hands, can transmit extremely subtle, nuanced signals that cause no pain to the horse.”

Logic tells me that this can’t be true.

Learning

Horse training approaches should involve the principles of learning theory (the principles of how all organisms learn), and consider motivation, associative learning, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and habituation. In addition, horse training should consider equine ethology (the study of the horse’s natural behavior), so that we use stimuli similar to those that horses naturally respond to, and reinforcers that they find reinforcing. This seems needlessly complicated, but that’s how the world works. In fact, basing our training on learning theory and ethology simplifies everything. Without understanding these fundamentals, we enter a world of accidental results and mythological explanations of those results. And that is today’s world of equestrian coaching.

Carrots and Sticks

Natural horsemanship favors the use of reward in daily interactions with your horse. Traditional horsemanship is more prone to using aversive influences, such as bits, spurs, and whips, but tries to disguise them as “aids”, “moving away from pressure”, etc. Is one approach better than the other? The answer to this question might hinge on the training techniques used, not the language we use. Your horse would choose to live in a world in which positive reinforcement was the norm. So would you. But would he learn better with positive reinforcement than with the other options? Positive and negative feedback have somewhat different roles. Both improve performance, but positive feedback is important to maintain a desired behavior, while negative feedback is most useful in adjusting current behavior.

Mood and Emotion

I believe that all animals have moods. Sy Montgomery writes “hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemicals associated with human desire, fear, love, joy, and sadness, are highly conserved across taxa… This means that whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions (moods) appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we to be accosted by a mugger.”