JOY Full Horses: Part 1 Chapter 3: What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Play

aa Panda scrabble

The Archeological Dig Through The Brain
So far I’ve discussed:

SEEKING.  This is the “granddaddy” of all the systems. You have to find the resources needed for survival. This is why so many people love to shop.  The SEEKER circuit is being activated even if you are just window shopping. This system is also activated in conjunction with the other emotional systems so it is too simplistic to say the SEEKER circuit alone was activated.

RAGE: Someone wants to take your resources so you have RAGE.

FEAR: Other organisms want to eat you, so there’s FEAR.

LUST: You need to reproduce.  This leads to the evolution of the next system: CARE.

CARE: You need to care for offspring.

PANIC: The loss of your caregiver and protector triggers this system.

This leaves just one more system to talk about and that’s PLAY.  After I first heard Panksepp speak, I was trying to remember the seven systems so I could share his work with others.  I got six of them without any trouble.  What was the seventh?  I had a hard time remembering PLAY.  Somehow PLAY just seemed too frivolous and inconsequential to belong on this list, but then I started learning more about play and the key role it “plays” in brain development.

So here is the last of the seven systems:

PLAY: Animals need social engagement which is manifested in play. PLAY is the last system Panksepp lists, and he gives it special significance. It is through play that the neocortex becomes integrated.

Clicker Training and the Seven Affective Systems
For a clicker trainer, this list of the seven Affective Systems is of particular interest.  Consider what it means to use a marker signal and to pair it with things an animal wants.  The click becomes my “yes answer” signal.  For the horse it’s a predictor of good things.  My horse wants to get me to click so he can engage in activities he enjoys.  That means he’s going to be more likely to perform whatever behavior was occurring just as I clicked.  It’s a wonderfully reinforcing loop.  We’re both happy.  I’m getting more of the behavior I like, and my horse thinks he’s got me all figured out!  He knows how to make that magic click happen.

Clicker training is a fun, effective, horse-friendly way to train.  When I look at Panksepp’s list, I understand even more clearly why my horses and I enjoy it so very much.  Clicker training activates both the SEEKER and the PLAY systems.  I’m not relying on FEAR to move a horse out of my space.  In fact I actively work to avoid triggering FEAR, RAGE, or PANIC.

As a clicker trainer, I’ve learned how to trigger the SEEKER circuit and to turn training into play for both myself and my horses.  At any point where the training begins to feel like a chore, it’s time to rethink what I’m doing.  I want to come up with training solutions that don’t just manage my horse’s fear and anxiety.  I want to turn the trailer, the farrier, the scary end of the arena into a source of play and social engagement for my horse.  I want him actively seeking out opportunities to engage with me and the environment.

Part 1: Chapter 4:  Inside the Trainer’s Brain

The Neuroscience of Training
When I think about Panksepp’s list, I wonder what happens in the brain when different training methods are used. Two trainers could be working towards the same end goal behavior. On the outside you’d see the behavior emerging. But inside the brain – what is happening?

Clicker trainers talk about their horses being different. Panksepp’s work seems to support this. When we use clicker training, we’re very much activating the SEEKER circuit. We’re engaging our animals in PLAY, and we’re avoiding FEAR and PANIC.

You can train a horse with a whip and spurs followed by a pet on the neck.  Alternatively, you can take the threat away and train with a clicker and treats.  Panksepp’s work would suggest that very different systems are activated within the brain. And so, yes, when we say our clicker-trained horses are different – at the basic level of brain mechanisms, it turns out that they truly are.  So, if play is critical for integrating the neocortex, what is this saying about our animals? And what is the effect on us as we participate in the process? Anyone who clicker trains can easily answer that last question.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 4:  Recognizing PLAY

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY Full Horses: Part 1: Ch. 2 Animal Emotions con’t

Joy Full Horses title page coverIf you are new to this series, this article is part of a book which I am publishing here on this site.  I suggest you begin with the first article published on January 2, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/01/02/

Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions continued

In the previous section I introduced you to the work of the neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp.  Panksepp has identified seven affective emotional systems which are common to all mammals.  The first of these is the SEEKER System which I came to understand better through the actions of a courageous mouse.  In today’s article, we’ll look at five more of these systems, beginning with RAGE.

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RAGE
Once a mouse finds the resources it needs, it must then protect them.  So another primary system is RAGE.  With our wonderful modern technology we can hide remote cameras in all sorts of unlikely places, including hollowed out tree stumps in which a scientist has cached nuts and grains.  If you want drama, just wait until a shrew, a mouse, and a vole happen upon the stash at the same time.  Prize fighters in a boxing ring would be hard pressed to put on such a show!

For a ring-side view of this epic drama, use your SEEKER system to hunt up on some past episodes of the BBC’s “Spring Watch” series. You’ll find them on youtube.  The “boxing match” was high drama for a series that takes you into the English countryside to watch over bird nests and spring lambing.

FEAR

aa mouse

Mice SEEK, but there are others who are SEEKING them. So one of the other deep archaeological layers of the mind reveals the FEAR system. Those of us who work with horses know this one well.  Sit on a horse who hears an unfamiliar sound, and you will feel his heart pound in a sudden adrenaline rush of FEAR.

LUST, CARE, and PANIC
Or if you are on a stallion, perhaps it is another system that distant sound has just activated: LUST.

LUST leads to reproduction which leads in mammals to the CARE system.  This is obviously especially strong in females.  I wonder if this explains in part why so many more women than men are drawn in these modern times to horses.  Horses certainly require a great deal of care and nurturing.

Mammalian babies are dependent upon their mothers for survival so the sixth ancient system is PANIC.  The loss of your caregiver triggers this system.

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When I first heard Panksepp give a basic lecture on the seven systems, he made an interesting observation.  When a young animal is afraid, it is silent.  When it is separated from it’s caregiver, it cries out.  FEAR and PANIC are different systems.

Here’s another interesting observation from Panksepp: in the brain the areas that are activated when an individual is physically hurt and when they are separated from their social group are very close together.  This may be why we experience separation as “painful”.

How does this relate to horse training?  We often refer to a horse being in a panic.  If we are following Panksepp’s terminology, what we may really mean is he’s afraid.  When our horse sees a herd of cows and bolts out from under us, how do we describe the event to our friends?  As we relate the tale later (hopefully not from a hospital bed.), we may say he panicked   The question is: was that really PANIC or was it FEAR?   We may think they look the same, but the underlying emotional systems are very different.

aa trailer loading Robin.pngHere’s another example: Your horse doesn’t want anything to do with the shiny new trailer you’ve just bought for him.  You picked it out especially with his comfort in mind. It’s an inviting space with lots of windows, and a bright interior. He’s always been good going up over platforms and onto the wooden bridges you’ve built for him.  But now he’s got his feet planted at the foot of the trailer ramp, and he’s refusing to go another inch forward.  Anytime you’ve gotten him to move, it’s been over the top of you trying to get back to his pasture mates.

So here’s the question: Is your horse afraid or is he in a panic? The answer matters because it will help determine the most effective course of action you can take to get him to walk willingly and easily onto the trailer.

So what is the difference?  We often use the words interchangeably. You’ve gone to a friend’s barn for a weekend trail ride, and your horse all but runs over the top of you trying to get away from the llama he’s seeing for the first time.  Later when you’re telling the story, you say he was in a panic.  But again, if we think about Panksepp’s discriminations, is that a correct use of the term?

If you know which emotional system is being triggered, you can come up with a more effective training solution. If you think just about the difference between FEAR and PANIC, you may find that it very much effects the training choices you make.  Consider the horse who doesn’t want to go on your new trailer. Is he fretting because he’s being separated from his pasture mates?  Or is he uncertain about the strange smell of the new rubber mats on the trailer floor?  Can you see that these call for different training solutions?

If you think the issue is fear of the trailer when really you’re dealing with separation anxiety, you could be spending a lot of time getting your horse used to walking through narrow chutes, and stepping up onto ramps, and you’d still have issues getting him on a trailer.  If he’s worried about his friends on the other side of the fence, making him go onto a trailer could end up “electrifying” it in his mind – making it a much more terrifying place than it ever would have been if his friends had been with him when he first went on it.  You may have begun with only PANIC, but now you’ve got FEAR layered on top, making the whole training situation that much more difficult.

Before you begin any training plan, it’s worth considering what the underlying emotions are that you’re dealing with.  Does your horse fret over having his feet worked on by the farrier because he’s in the barn by himself and he wants to get back to his herd?  Or is he afraid of the farrier because he’s not very well balanced and the farrier has hit him – hard – when he’s shifted around? For your training to be most effective and efficient you want to choose a training solution that fits the emotional system that is being triggered.

To be continued . . .

Next up: Part 1 Chapter  3: What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Play

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com