JOY Full Horses: Part 1 Ch. 4: Inside The Trainer’s Brain

Recognizing Play

sindri fengur playing 3 photos

When they’re turned out together, our two Icelandics engage in mock battles. How do I know they are playing and not fighting for real?  Their drama is intense.  Both rear up and crash into one another.  One will come down over the neck of the other seemingly trying to bite the other horse through his thick mane.   They’ll spin apart and kick out, then race off at a gallop shouldering one another for an advantage in the turn.

To a causal observer it looks both very dramatic and very real, but these Iceys are good actors.  Their battles are all make believe.  They leave the “battle field” without a mark on them.  The kicks are all pulled punches and the bites nothing but pretend.  One moment they are body slamming into one another, the next they are standing side by side in their other favorite activity – social grooming.

After a good play session they come into the barn relaxed, refreshed, and always ready for more.  At twenty they play with the same vigor and intensity that they did when they were four.

When you watch your dogs or your cats wrestling together, you have no trouble recognizing this behavior as play.  You see the bites that aren’t bites, and the claws that don’t draw blood.  You see them taking turns.  First, one is on top pinning the other down, and then they’ll flip roles.  The stronger animal has learned that if he dominates the play, the other animal will quit.  I don’t know which of the Icelandics is the faster horse.  They always run together.  If Fengur has his nose out in front, it is only because Sindri, our stallion has let him, not because Sindri has fallen behind.

When Peregrine, my senior horse, was a two year old, he was chased by another horse through a fence.  I’ve seen what it looks like when these clashes are not play. It is terrifying to watch.  There is no mistaking the real thing for play.  When I see my cats confronting the neighborhood stray, it does not look in any way like the play they engage in together.  But that play between friends has prepared them well for the negotiations they are about to have.  All of us – cats, horses, people – know when the play has stopped, and we are now engaged in the real thing – a struggle for survival.

Part 1: Chapter 5: What is Play?

Defining Play
So we can recognize play.  But what is it?  Stuart Brown wrestled with this question in his book. He opened by saying he resisted giving play a definition for a number of reasons.  Play is so varied.  As he points out, an activity such as writing this chapter might seem like play to me, but it might be work to somebody else.  So we cannot define play simply through the activities we engage in.

For Brown play may be hard to pin down with a rigid definition, but at least in people, it does have very recognizable properties.  He would say:

* Play is done for it’s own sake.  Play has no direct survival value.
* It is voluntary.  You don’t “have to” play.
* Play is inherently reinforcing.  Play is fun so you want to play more.
* Play provides freedom from time.

This is the characteristic that most resonates with me.  I am constantly losing track of time.  I’ll be working with the horses, or working on this book, and suddenly realize that several hours have passed and I’m about to be late for an appointment.  I have been so absorbed in what I was doing, so in “the zone” in a PLAY state, that I have completely lost track of time.

At clinics I am constantly surprised that the hands on my watch have moved forward by several hours. “How can it be four o’clock?”, I’ll exclaim.  “It was just 12:30 the last time I looked.”  It is as though I’m surprised by the notion that time passes.  I know the hands on my watch will be progressing around the clock face, but in my PLAY state it truly does seem as though no time has passed.

* Play produces a diminished consciousness of self.

pool noodle GermanyWe stop worrying so much about how we look to others.  In imaginative play we may even become a different “self”.  When you’re trying to learn to ride and you have an instructor barking commands at you treating your lesson more like military boot camp than something you’ve chosen to do for fun, you’ll be a long way from a PLAY state.  Barked commands create FEAR and make the learner more self-conscious – not less.  To promote the best mental state for learning and retaining information, we want to be PLAY full.

When people are first learning clicker-compatible rope handling skills, I start them out without their horses.  At first, people may be thinking how silly they look practicing their technique with a rope tied to a door handle.  They’ll be terribly self-conscious.  Once I get them in a PLAY state, this kind of thinking disappears. They forget what it might look like to an outsider as they become fully engaged in the process.

* Play has improvisational potential.

When you play, you aren’t locked into a set way of doing things.  You can experiment and invent.  Many of the details that we now know make a huge difference to the horses were discovered during play sessions without any horses being involved.

People took turns being the handler and the “human horse”. They stepped outside of themselves and left behind their usual, I’m-an-adult-and-I don’t-play-silly-make-believe-games.  They let go of their self-conscious rigidity and let the act of playing take over.  The result was they saw things in a different way and with fresh insights.

Canine clicker trainer, Kay Laurence, often refers to a quote from Proust:

A journey of discovery comes not from a voyage into new landscapes but seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Over and over again, our animals show us the truth of this expression.  As each new layer of training is explored, we see our animals and all their brilliance with fresh eyes.

* Play provides a continuation desire.  You want to keep doing it.  Once the play stops, you want to do it again.  As Brown puts it: “Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.”++

++ The Properties of Play are from: “Play: How it Sharpens the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul”    Stuart Brown M.D. and Christopher Vaughan, The Penguin Group, NY New York 2009.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 6:  Being PLAY FULL

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: Why Play?

Joy Full Horses title page coverI’ve teased you with an introduction to this book, and with the Table of Contents.  Now finally here is Part 1: Why Play!

This is a short section – just to get your feet wet.  Enjoy!

 

 

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Part One: Why Play?

Panda scrabble - leaning against me

When science and art come together,
they become indistinguishable from play.

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Chapter 1: Mammals Play

Fengur Sindri rearing 5:19:13

 

Airplane Reading
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.

Stuart Brown book covers

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.

aa Iceys play in snow 3 pictures caption

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.

aa crackers basketball

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Part 1: Chapter 2:  Animal Emotions

aa crackers hit ball

Bob Viviano and Crackers – Great partners who knew how to play and to share their connection with others.

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.

Animal Wise
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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com