This is a short section – just to get your feet wet. Enjoy!
Part One: Why Play?
When science and art come together,
they become indistinguishable from play.
Chapter 1: Mammals Play
When you travel by plane as often as I do, you begin to know all the major airports in the country. I can tell you which ones have free internet access and electrical outlets at your seat, and which ones force you to sit on the floor to recharge your computer. I can tell you which airports have decent food and which ones assume that the entire traveling public wants to eat junk food. I can also tell you where all the good bookstores are. I enjoy browsing through airport bookstores. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by an overabundance of choice in the mega bookstores, the airport bookstores are confined to cubbyhole spaces. They give you just a small sampling of what is current and popular.
What I want for traveling is what I call airplane reading – nothing too heavy. I mean that both physically – I may have a long walk between gates and my backpack is already weighed down with my computer and camera equipment. And I also want something that’s light enough reading to let me dip in and out as I nap on the plane.
I often check out the business and science sections where I’ll find titles that might not otherwise have crossed my radar. That’s how I spotted a book on play, called appropriately enough “Play”. For a long time, whenever I referred to this book, I could never remember the author’s name. I finally tracked down my copy for the express purpose of being able to reference the author in a talk I was preparing. It was written by Stuart Brown.
Stuart Brown. How was I going to remember that?
Stuart is easy. Stuart is Stuart Little from E.B. White’s charming children’s book. And if we are thinking about children’s books, then, of course, we have Paddington Bear, and that gives you the author’s name. Not sure of the connection? Paddington Bear lived with the Browns. Hence Stuart Brown.
That’s a playful way to remember the author of a book on Play.
Why Do Animals Play?
Stuart Brown is an M.D. who has studied play. In his book he posed an interesting question. Play carries with it enormous metabolic costs and genetic risks. Two horses playing mock stallion battles are not only expending a great deal of energy, they are exposing themselves to possible injury. In the wild if they miscalculate and one of them is injured, that horse could very quickly be out of the gene pool. So given this, why is play so prevalent? It’s not just people and puppies who play. You’ll find play behavior across all species of mammals.
It’s not my intention here to give a detailed review of Brown’s book. The main point he was making is that regardless of the evolutionary forces that led to the prevalence of play, what we are left with is this conclusion: play is important for the development of healthy brains.
When you compare brain scans of individuals who have been play deprived with those who are living in enriched environments with many opportunities for play, you see a marked difference. Should you wish to, I’ll leave it to you to explore this in more detail. You can begin with the lighter read of Brown’s book and then move on to the work of neuroscientist and play specialist, Jaak Panksepp. And if you want even more, their books will give you plenty of additional references to explore.
The launching point for what I’ll be covering is this basic premise: play is important for healthy brains. That means it is important for our horses, and, equally, it is important for us. As I explore what play means in the context of training, I will be focusing my attention on both ends of the lead rope. I’ll be looking at what it means for both the horse and the handler to be engaging in play.
Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions
Is Your Training Fun?
When we think about clicker training, we often think about play. After all, we’re often using clicker training to teach some very playful behaviors. But just because you are having your horse kick a beach ball, doesn’t necessarily mean either one of you is having fun. If you’re so caught up in the science behind the training, if you’re thinking about what the discriminative stimulus is for kicking the ball and whether you should be using a least reinforcing stimulus after that last miss, your brain may be processing the interaction in a way that’s a long way away from play.
If you’re concentrating on your handling skills, if you’re thinking about the timing of your click, and whether your hand is staying out of the treat pouch between clicks, again you may be a long way away from play. It’s easy to get so caught up in “getting things right” that play drops out of the equation. The function of these articles is to remind you that we need to keep bringing play back to the forefront of our training.
I mentioned Jaak Panksepp earlier. His work is getting a great deal of attention at the moment within the clicker community. Karen Pryor gets the credit for this. Karen Pryor is one of the very early pioneers in clicker training. Her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” has introduced thousands of people to this modern form of animal training. Karen wanted to know what the neuroscientists could tell us about how the click is processed in the brain. In her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind” she talked about the SEEKER system, one of the seven primary emotional states Panksepp has identified. It is the SEEKER system that Pryor attributes to the enthusiasm and – dare I say it – joy we see in our clicker-trained animals.
Panksepp has been studying what was once a forbidden area in science – emotions in animals. Here’s another “airplane” book I’ll recommend, Animal Wise by Virginia Morell. Morrell begins her book with the following:
“Animals have minds. They have brains, and use them, as we do: for experiencing the world, for thinking and feeling, and for solving the problems of life every creature faces. Like us, they have personalities, moods, and emotions; they laugh and they play. Some show grief and empathy and are self-aware and very likely conscious of their actions and intents.
Not so long ago, I would have hedged these statement, because the prevailing notion held that animals are more like robotic machines, capable of responding with only simple, reflexive behaviors. And indeed there are still researchers who insist that animals are moving through life like the half dead, but those researchers are so 1950s. They’ve been left behind as a flood of new research from biologists, animal behaviorists, evolutionary and ecological biologists, comparative psychologists, cognitive ethologists, and neuroscientists sweeps away old ideas that block the exploration of animal minds. The question is now not “Do animals think?” It’s “How and what do they think?”
Hurray! Finally people are coming around to my view of animals as intelligent, very aware beings with rich emotional lives. I know this goes against strong cultural biases. But where did this notion that animals do not think come from? Why do scientists have such a horror of being accused of being anthropomorphic (attributing human mental abilities to an animal)? How can we deny the evidence we see in every interaction we have with our horses, with our cats and dogs?
Outdated Belief Systems
Morrell points out in her introduction that this idea that animals do not think or have emotions as we know them is an old one. Aristotle did not believe that animals could think rationally, but he did at least grant that they experienced physical sensations such as hunger and pain, and they could be angry.
It turns out that Aristotle represented an “enlightened” view of animals – even with all of it’s limitations. Later philosophers denied that “animals had any thoughts, emotions, or sensations and therefore we did not need to extend any moral consideration to them.” (Morrell)
Belief systems are a curious thing. There’s that wonderful line that crops up during political discussions: you wouldn’t want a little thing like facts to get in the way of a good argument. It applies here, as well. Belief systems become self supporting. We tend to attract experiences that support our belief systems. I find it beyond comprehension that anyone could deny the emotionally rich life that animals have. You have only to sit on a panicked horse who has been separated from his herd to know very directly the emotions he’s feeling!
But I suppose there will be those who would say I’m just delusional. I’m the one attracting evidence to support a faulty belief system. Perhaps. But I am no longer alone. If you want a good read, add Animal Wise to your list. Morrell has been visiting with scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition. That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.
Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions: Affective Neuroscience
I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends. But please remember this is copyrighted material. All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra Kurland, via theclickercenter.com
Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: