Willies and Nickers

A very well known issue almost exclusively seen in horses trained using Positive Reinforcement is the states of over arousal or over relaxation that lead to willy dropping, willy erections and in mares the intensely deep whickering sounds, postural changes and vulva winking.

Many training solutions are available to reduce or try to prevent this, some ideas for this are better than others – but I am more interested here in discussing the cause. Currently there has been no research carried out to take blood samples before and after training when this behaviour typically occurs. Very few research projects and empirical studies have been carried out on this at all (possibly due to a very poor possibility for funding as outcome is unlikely to lead to a produce to market) and they are typically conducted with too few horses and too few variables of breed and locations, and a large proportion of “understanding” about this phenomena is purely anecdotal. Dopamine releases are often cited to be the reason for this behavioural response to the horses experience of Positive Reinforcement training, which I am sure is the case, but there are probably also many other components to this.

Having personally trained 100s of students horses using R+ over the last 20 years, I feel I can see a pattern has emerging in the horses who show this response, but the following written here is purely anecdotal.

The horses I have been being asked to re-train using R+ often have a previous history of being trained using high levels of R- as is commonly the case in the many forms of Natural Horsemanship and Traditional Horsemanshipor and some have had a history of P+. A horse may be 20 years old and have belonged to an experienced and competent R+ trainer since he was 2, but if his or her very early experiences as a naive young foal or impressionable young horse included contacts with humans which made him feel afraid, feel punished or forced to comply, I suspect these will live in the horses memory for ever. It is well documented that fear memories are never erased, they are merely buried. We are all hard wired to have negative bias – that is to say that we remember the bad things that happen to us more readily than we remember the good things – and this is a good survival strategy that has been very effective at causing the individual to avoid taking the risk a second time if the first time was not such a great experience. Of course, many horses have to just “get on with it” and do as they are told.

So, I believe that horses who drop their willies while training, or even worse, have full erections and mares who nicker in an over enthusiastic manner or show other hormonally driven behaviours like winking while training, could be experiencing a huge emotional “high” which I believe could be being caused by the extreme joy of relief felt in stark contrast to their memories of human horse interactions from their previous history. Horses who are dropping while grooming are more likely to be showing true relaxation and this is not what I am discussing here.

Even if the horse has experienced nothing but highly competent R+ for 20 or more years, but previously has experienced too strong R- or even P+ in the first years of their lives. These first years are the horses formative years and they are the most important years in all mammals lives. The first few months are the most important of all of these and foal handling (which should always be kept to an absolute minimum but maybe necessary) is of critical importance. Furthermore, I believe that the more sweet natured, gentle and kind the horse is naturally, the more likely the horse is to experience an extreme comparison response when trained using R+ if they have previously been trained using too much strong R- or P+ as defined by that horse.

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