Start Blog - Sorraia Mustangs 31.3.13: Bribery and reinforcement
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31.3.13: Bribery and reinforcement


Progress continues with Alegria and the road to haltering, despite the fact it is snowing, again. Happy Christmas Easter!


Between snow flurries and in lulls in the east wind that carries a chill factor somewhere over -15°C, I've continued with the hoop, and I can now put it over Alegria's nose and up to ears, and touch her shoulders with it, though she scampers off if it touches her back. I can also loop the rope around her nose, and she will stand there for as long as I want - but she's still skittish about it touching her neck. However, Rome wasn't built in a day - especially not a cold, snowy one, and we are making progress!


Following last week's post on haltering, I received an e-mail from Lynne Gerard at Ravenseyrie where Levada (Alegria's mum)and Tocara were born. She made some very kind comments about the blog and the work I am doing with the Sorraia Mustangs, but she queried some of the words I used, and it raised some interesting points.


Firstly, I mentioned "bribing" Alegria, by offering her a carrot to encourage her to put her head through the hoop. I used "bribery" rather tongue in cheek, as is has moral connotations in the human sense that simply don't apply to horses. What I meant was that I used the carrot as an incentive, or motivator, looking for the point at which her desire for the carrot would be greater than her distrust of the hoop.  Whatever you call it (bribe, incentive, motivator) the very important distinction here is between using the carrot in this way to elicit an action, and using it as a reinforcer, to reward her after an action.


The carrot as an incentive or "bribe". Alegria has to overcome her fear of the hoop to reach the carrot.


Offering the carrot on the other side of the hoop to get her to put her nose through = motivator (bribe)


Giving her a carrot after she has accepted me putting the hoop over her head = reinforcement (reward)


Yesterday, I started using the carrot as a motivator then, when she was quiet and comfortable with that, I switched to using it as a reinforcer. This represents a big step, as it's not just the timing of the carrot that changes, but now the hoop approacher her, rather than her approaching the hoop. She did very well indeed, and after backing off a couple of times, she was able to stand there while I approached and retreated with the hoop, and then she waited quietly for a carrot and a scratch. 


As we go on, I will aim to use more scratch and less carrot - but in this case carrots are proving very helpful to get things going!



Fears and phobias 


Lynne also questioned my use of "phobia" to describe Alegria's extreme fear of the rope, pointing out, quite rightly, that it is not the rope as such that Alegria is afraid of, but rather what the rope might be used for. I think "phobia" is appropriate - we talk about people having a phobia about flying, when it isn't flying they are afraid of but crashing. However, Lynne's point is excellent. Horses read INTENT with incredible accuracy, and it's almost impossible to fool them. Ask any horse vet, if you don't believe me! Alegria's fear of the rope is to do with her ability to flee being compromised, and she will need to overcome that fear before she can be safely haltered and led.


It's important to mention here that Alegria has never had any bad experiences. In a domestic horse, the behaviour she shows could be indicative of rough handling or bad experiences - but in this case it is quite simply the heightened instincts of a wild horse. She was born at Aktivstall Mauerbach, in a domestic setting, and great care was taken to ensure that her experiences of humans were positive. However, right from the beginning she showed a defensive attitude which, I believe, is a highlighted version of the caution we see in domestic horses.


Alegria is becoming more and more confident with the rope around her nose. I no longer need carrots, and can just stroke her forehead to reassure her.

 Most domestic foals don't have much issue with the halter - it's when you start to lead them that the troubles start. It will be very interesting to see whether, once she is prepared to accept the halter, Alegria will then be OK with everything that goes with it and leading will be less of an issue. Tocara is already good with both haltering and leading, but she is the one who had more human contact before going into the group. Alegria's mum, Levada, was good with haltering, but reluctant to lead when I first met her, but she proved a very quick and willing learner.


Please feel free to post your thoughts or comments on the Thinking Horse Facebook page!  


Thanks again to Elfriede for the photos! 


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