Tuesdays with Tony

 In case you missed my fabulous See Tony event last week, I will generously give you a recap. Dr. Wickens did a wonderful job summarizing all things Behavior for you horse-crazy humans. Also, I learned that horses like banana flavor 😳.

Biology: Horses are prey animals

Horses have a keen fight-or-flight instinct. That’s because they had to escape predators in order to survive, and only the ones that got away lived to reproduce! Everything from the position of horses eyes on their face to their tendency to fling their head in the air when anything comes toward them is all intended to enhance this fight-or-flight thing. Horse eyes are pretty weird if you ask me. Their pupils are the wrong shape and go the wrong direction. My pupils are vertically oriented, while horses pupils sit horizontal. Supposedly this allows them to scan the horizon while eating. I can see where that would be useful. Sometimes Teannie tries for the sneak attack while I’m eating and it would be nice to be able to see her! Speaking of which, those horizontal, bug eyes on the side of their head mean they can see nearly all the way around their body. Dr. Wickens also talked about the myth that horses can’t see color. Turns out they can see color, but it’s more like a red-green colorblind person sees color. I can attest to the extreme usefulness of ears that move. I don’t know how you humans survive without swiveling ears. Both horses and cats can move their ears to hear waaay better than humans. That’s why you think we freak out about nothing. It’s not nothing, you just can’t see or hear it! Dr. Wickens also talked about the importance of smell and touch to horses understanding of their environment. I will say cats and horses share the desire to get more information about something with all their senses. Dr. Wickens said horses will often change their body position to try to see better what they can hear, touch what they can see and hear, and taste what they touch. When that information conflicts or they don’t understand it they can go to flight status VERY quickly!!!

Science: Horses have brains

Anyone who has tried to teach a horse something will realize that they are thinkers. Like us, they learn by positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is like giving a treat when your horse touches a jolly ball. Negative reinforcement is like taking your leg pressure off when your horse moves forward (the most common type of training used in horses). True positive punishment would be like hitting your horse with a crop continuously until he stops bucking. Negative punishment would be like taking away his dinner when he pins his ears at other horses. Each of these has a place in the training of horses (and I use them regularly to train humans). Dr. Wickens said reinforcement-based training is generally the most effective. Punishment-based training can easily be done incorrectly! She talked about the example of the bucking horse. Seems you humans often experience a scenario like this: your horse bucks, you give him a whack with a crop to let him know that was wrong, except you do this after the buck has happened, another buck occurs, and another whack happens afterwards. You end up punishing the wrong behavior! I learned I need to be very careful to reward or punish at the correct moment to teach the humans around here more effectively.

Training: Horses are smart

To help all of us see the proper way to do all this positive/negative stuff we moved on to my favorite part of Dr. Wickens’ presentation: she clicker-trained Dr. Lacher’s horse to touch a jolly ball! It was incredible how quickly Gigi learned to associate the click with a treat. Of course, it helps when you have an extremely food-motivated horse like Gigi! You can use clicker training, and target training (like with the jolly ball) to teach your horse to do (or not do) just about anything. Dr. Wickens showed us versions of these training principles that got horses to accept clippers, needles, and stop bad behaviors. Want to see more of the amazing Dr. Wickens? Watch the Facebook Live of this fantastic seminar!!
Until next week,
~Tony

Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Office Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!

Tuesdays with Tony

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