Question from Christine (Schierensee – Germany)

“If I apply two aids at once am I ‘flooding’ my horse?”

“For instance one of my coaches used to say ‘Inside leg to outside rein’…”

Short Answer:

A brilliant question and one that initially had me a little stumped as I was like ‘No… but maybe Yes… let me get back to you!’

So lets firstly define Flooding…

‘Flooding’ is the forced exposure to noxious situation or objects for an extended length of time without an opportunity to escape…

(McGreevy P, McLean A (2010) Equitation Science. United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell)

So really it is a ‘Maybe Yes, maybe No’ answer.

If your horse finds the two aids ‘noxious’ enough and you sustain their application long enough definitely yes you could be ‘flooding’ your horse

Alternately…

If your horse finds the two aids only mildly aversive then no you are not ‘flooding’ your horse BUT in a way that is be equally as problematic you could ‘habituate’ your horse too one or BOTH of these aids…


Longer Answer:

‘Habituation’ is the waning of a response to a repeated stimulus as a result of frequent exposure (not fatigue)

(McGreevy P, McLean A (2010) Equitation Science. United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell)

Habitation is achieved through a process called desensitisation. Desensitisation is frequently used in order to diffuse the horses natural reactions to the things our horses find naturally aversive.

Keep in mind EVERYTHING we do with our horses is actually aversive to them…

You may suggest that ‘No my horse likes his ears scratched’… yes he does, but only as he has habituated to human touch and therefore can now find pleasure in your scratch rather than fear from your touch…

Remember horses are innately neophobic (fearful of the new/unfamiliar) 

and… horses do not naturally co-habituate with other species, so our relationship is outside of his natural state… period.

Habitation and Desensitisation

Consciously and unconsciously we use the methods of desensitisation all the time. Systematic desensitisation, approach conditioning, overshadowing and counter-conditioning are some methods of desensitisation. It is thought one of the primary ways that we have selected the horses we ride and enjoy today was based upon the ability of their wild horse ancestors to habituate to humans and novel environments rapidly.

In relation to the question directly asked this is what most commonly happens by applying two aids at once repeatedly: systematic desensitisation or overshadowing… both of these techniques are used in order to delete a behavioural response to stimulus. Something I’m sure you don’t actually want to happen if your ‘stimulus’ is actually a communication aid!!!

Systematic Desensitisation:

This is the most common example of habituation and what most people understand about desensitisation. It works by exposing a horse to something offensive over a long period of time and eventually he learns to ignore it. Think about horses placed in a paddock beside a train line (assuming the horses have never seen a train before), the first time the train approached you would see all flight responses in action… fast forward 12 months and if you are lucky they might flick an ear or raise their head…

A key to this technique being effective however is to limit the opportunity for the horse to move away from the aversive stimulus. So the horses living next to the train line for the first time? The ones in a 1 acre paddock will habituate more rapidly than the ones in a 100 acre paddock…

So in the ‘Inside leg to outside rein’ moment, you are limiting the opportunity for the horse to move away from the leg aid by applying the rein aid, and visa versa… hence over time you may get moderate to high desensitisation to both aids. Also worth noting is he will also go though a period of conflict as you are asking him to offer two responses at once… not even humans can do that…

Overshadowing:

I personally loved learning and understanding overshadowing, as it is also a very very commonly used desensitisation technique, but one very misunderstood. It’s often the technique of choice to implement on horses that spook and shy… ‘If he is looking ride shoulder in, or ride circles gradually approaching the scary object, give him something to think about’. I would say pre-ESI I had a reasonable amount of success employing it, however post-ESI I now know when I do want to implement it and when I don’t.

I now implement it a lot LESS in a ridden context than I previously did… and I would say I have a 99% success rate retraining spooky horses plus I can train my amateur rider students to retrain their spooky horses… they can do the job themselves and don’t have to pay me for months of ‘retraining’ that was not really successful for me and therefore often even less successful for them once they got the horses home…

So back to the topic… Overshadowing is the process where two stimuli are competing for a response from the horse, one signal will out-compete the other less salient stimulus. The cause (think ‘aid’ in the context of this question) of the stimulation of the ‘winning’ response achieves salience while the other cause (think ‘aid’ in the context of this question) becomes habituated.

So in the ‘Inside leg to outside rein’ example. You may end up with a horse that over time continue’s to offer you the responses from you leg aids but becomes increasingly unresponsive to your rein aids… so this horse finds thorax pressure more stimulating than bit pressure. Or you may end up with a horse that over time continues to offer you responses from the rein aids but becomes increasingly unresponsive to your leg aids… this horse finds thorax pressure less stimulating than bit pressure…

One last comment on flooding.

I have seen flooding in action numerous times in many many dressage stables… I’ve mostly seen it when trainers are trying to train piaffe and passage… the horses are caught between the leg and the hand and you see high levels of conflict behaviour; teeth grinding, mouth opening, tail switching, rearing, head tossing, profuse sweating etc.

I also see it in a lot of natural horsemanship techniques… especially those that involve riding a previously un-ridden horse in a matter of days or even in some cases hour’s…

When a horse experiences a ‘flooding’ event he will show a period of high conflict and try to escape, if he is unable to escape (due to the human applied processes) very often he will exhibit behaviour most commonly described as ‘compliance’ or ‘acceptance’. Most frequently this is not compliance or acceptance but actually the horse sliding into or towards the chute of ‘Learned Helplessness’.

Learning that there is no escape from high levels of aversive stimulation differs from habituation as when animals learn that resistance is futile they typically become apathetic… something that many of us have ‘read’ as ‘compliance’, ‘acceptance’ or ‘learning’ in our horses…


 

If I have done my job you should be able to tell that this topic this is a very large one with many off shoots of thought and learning opportunities. For me personally it reminds me to underpin the horses relaxation as the most important barometer of the speed and application of my training schedule. If I am constantly sampling my horses responses to each individual signal and monitoring arousal levels I should be able to remain out of the slippery slope of unwanted desensitisation, flooding and the possibility of triggering learned helplessness in my horses.