Purchasing Bewilderment.

I love the word ‘bewilderment’. Mostly because it has ‘wild’ in it. It’s innocent, like wild horses. And like wild horses, it’s not considered cool to be bewildered by our industrialised, scientific, domesticated world.

Recently I was cruising the horse forums, as you do, picking up bits of wisdom and ideas and inspiration from the tribe of horse lovers out there. My attention got caught by a question. The scenario was; the lady had a herd, and when she has to move them from place A to place B they don’t always respond to her R+ preferred method. So she will drive them instead. Once moved, she then goes and gives them a treat. I’m wasn’t sure if her motivations there are along the lines of reinforcing their doing the right thing, or a ‘kiss and make up’ thing. Probably both. Whatever.

Her question was around a concern that the horses would associate the subsequent reward (Positive Reinforcement) with the original aversive of her Positive Punishment (applying an unpleasant aversive in the form of driving) and Negative Reinforcement (taking it away once the horses moved as required).

She got a lot of very good responses that ranged from the well informed to the downright geeky; which was very cool. However most of the answers were couched in scientific terms. Now that’s not a problem- I love jargon, and the clarity it can bring when you understand it.

However I do worry on a couple of counts.

Firstly, we the lay people put our own angles on everything we hear; we queer the pitch when we do not truly understand the context in which words are used scientifically- eg ‘negative means bad positive means good’; that’s a basic one and easily corrected, but there are a morass of other metaphorical tar pits to step into.

Secondly, that even when we understand the terms, we can get so steeped in the glamour of nerdy knowledge that we can get lost in the flatland of science. And believe me, alone, it is terrifyingly flat; black and white, no nuance or breadth or depth or heights anywhere. It’s just a process, right? It’s a way of looking at the world through the lens of absolute truth, the third person pronoun ‘it’, the effects of operant conditioning upon an organism and the bundles of conditioned reflexes that a scientist sees when he eyeballs his lab rats.

I honestly don’t dislike it. I know it’s necessary and it’s true. It’s also the process by which we describe truth. But everything we do, and are, is at least three dimensional. I don’t like reducing anything to one plane.

In medieval times they lived by the rule of the church, with its feet planted firmly in the singular rule of religion- which is the realm, however wisely or unwisely interpreted, of Morals. Looking back we know that was the flatland of Morals, and Truth, or Science, had no look in- you got hung, burned or locked in a tower for suggested such heresy. Wearing our smug retrospectacles, we call those days ‘the dark ages’.

We are currently living in a similarly flat paradigm now; that of scientific materialism. Truth is everything, and anything else is a mere epiphenomenem of the physical reality. And that can be just as horrible as the dark ages. No morals, all science? Hello nazi doctors, and animal vivisection.

I don’t think we’ve had an age of Art yet; that of the purely subjective, but I don’t doubt we will manage that faux pas as well if we survive this one.

But really, it’s all three, and who knows, possibly more.

I replied to the query post as per below. I padded it out a bit for the blog, because I can.

We are surrounded by operant conditioning all the time. If your horses aren’t motivated to go back in their paddock it’s because (as I’m sure you know) that not being in there is more reinforcing than your goody bag is, in that moment. You using P+/R- made it more motivating to move; job done. You going in and giving treats after the fact then made it more motivating to be with you in the paddock ‘now’; provided there is a gap of time – at the very least 10 seconds, but better 30- between the two. Unless you’re Quantum Woman, capable of being in two places at the same time, realistically you’re not likely to be confusing the two for your horses in this scenario, so don’t worry too much about it.

I honestly think we overanalyse all this stuff. There is a reason not to blur the edges, and that reason is ‘not blurring the edges’. It’s not clear or consistent, and that is not only potentially confusing for your horse, but it weakens the strength of your cues.

Here’s how I see it.

Basically when we give a horse a treat for ‘doing the right thing’ directly after giving a cue using pressure/release, you are weakening your R- cue. The horse will start to eventually link the two events and you will accidentally ‘charm’ the P+/R- (positive punishment /negative reinforcement) cue to ‘go away’ and cause an expectation of a treat. In other words, it stops being a powerful message to move away, and will become an indicator that a treat is coming instead, which means maybe he’s better to stay close in anticipation…and if you don’t have that treat that will also cause frustration (P-) which will destroy the moment completely in terms of clarity of intention and a clear release from pressure. All the quadrants come crashing in together and the intention you have gets crushed in the mayhem.

Scientists have proven this association with rats. Basically they ‘charmed’ rats into accepting an electric shock as a precedent to a reward. They started craving the shock (this is the power of conditioning) which weakened the aversive effect of the shock.

(I won’t go into what I think of the moral aspects of using animals for experimentation – that right there is a great example of what happens in a scientific flatland; the clash of the moral and scientific world views.)

On the other hand, you can also ‘poison’ the cue if you are a clicker trainer and you bring an aversive to play if the horse says ‘no’. Suddenly you are confusing matters, and the horse, and the horse will associate the cue with P+ (positive punishment). The only reason positive reinforcement works is the contrast between the negative punishment- which is withholding something he wants and can only get through you- and the anticipation that he will have his reward if he does what you want.

It is confusing to wrap the brain around, and if that makes your head hurt, don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it, just always put a gap between the two.

Knowing the science is helpful, but that’s only one facet of anything, horsemanship included. We are smart people and we love analysing things. However, science is only a process, and the descriptions of process; it’s a great way to think of that’s your thing, but trying on a different lens can help too if you really like to think about it holistically or if the jargon baffles you.

How about the Art of Horsemanship? The wonder of literally doing as little as possible, but being as consistent as a metronome in your timing and follow up? The astonishing beauty of getting the timing just right, the way a horse does, and starting so lightly that other people watching can’t even see your pinned ears, but the horses see them coming and say ‘sure, great idea, I’m going’. Lots of people do this without knowing the science behind it, through their feel and timing.

And yes, timing, that’s a science too, but you need to develop ‘Feel’ to use Timing, and to develop Feel you first need the ability to bring Focus; which is observation and interpretation of the whole picture in front of you…and that is undeniably a subjective process (an art) as well as an objective one (science) . Who is doing the observing? We can’t take ourselves out of the equation, and we will colour it with our own filters.

What about the lens of Morals? Should we be herding horses at all? Well probably, yes, if that’s what is required to move them, and if the consequences of not moving them means they stay in a place that’s not safe or healthy for them. Should we feel guilty for that?

I’m a philosopher, and I’m subsequently a mixed methodologist -after my own fair share of furious agonising, believe me. You can probably tell.

I asked my horses; and here’s the deal according to them.

There’s self motivation (intrinsic- doing what they want when they want) and there’s other stuff motivation (someone else making them move by using pressure/release or desire/reward- both in my books ‘dominant’ by definition; which is to use your power and influence over others).

Ultimately a being wants what he wants when he wants it.

Watch horses together. They move each other around a lot.

Yes there is passive leadership; usually preceded by a lot of trust building in the form of hanging out and taking turns and realising that this individual makes good choices, is charismatic to you, and is worth following. This leader watches the environment, keeps an eye on the herd, is brave and wise. Without even trying to make you do anything, you’re drawn to her like a magnet and follow her everywhere. If you want to be that leader for your horse it’s possible; but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it, and that costs a lot of time and proving yourself without imposing any direction at all. Most people don’t do that.

Then there’s that horse that no one crosses. He’s a bit of a bully, he does herd you a lot, and has no compunction about moving your feet by aiming his own, or denying you access to the trough, just because. He’s rude and violent. You gotta get out his way and hustle.

Look at it from his POV. He doesn’t have other things going for him so he uses what he’s got to get what he wants. Maybe when he calms down a bit and gets some more trusting relationships, he’ll change his tune. Maybe he’ll learn that he doesn’t have to always follow through if the herd are already hustling. That’s his learning curve.

Both examples are extremes. Extremes are not usually that common (though I do think that passive leadership is a staple in herd dynamics that most herds will tend towards when we don’t interfere with them). Herding your horses doesn’t have to be an extreme act of bullying, and I’m sure that in most cases, it isn’t.

Most often in settled herds you see assertive leadership; a good leader who knows the answer is going to be ‘yes’ before he suggests it, and it’s such a subtle suggestion that usually we humans don’t even get to see it. That’s the peace we all crave; safety in a good leader and the friendship of a trusting herd. That is probably what most people see as the type of leadership that is acceptably PC for our postmodern worldview; a compliance so natural and easy that it obscures the orders issued to obtain it.

Here’s a secret- that sort of leadership doesn’t ever magically happen by itself. It has to come from either real passive leadership, or actual dominant leadership first; otherwise there is no reason to say ‘yes’ and follow.

Even in settled herds there are occasional flashes of overt ‘aversives’, occasional challenges and minor eruptions of dissent, and realistically, most domestic herds don’t even get to be ‘settled’ because of our selfishly human need to keep changing them/selling them/disrupting them to suit our wants.

However the horses don’t hold grudges against dominant leaders (and by dominant I reiterate I mean anyone who uses their influence to motivate someone else to do their will- including P+/R-, or P-/R+) they just read the moment, respond, and move on.

If we emulate the horses, we find a lot of the old sayings from wise horsemen popping up. ‘Do as little as possible and as much as necessary’ is one that gets distorted a lot- many people can only see either the first part or the second, not the whole sentence.

What exactly are we actually worrying about? When we say ‘will he associate the aversive with the reward’ is that a scientific enquiry (which is considered deeply cool) or are we asking ‘what if he doesn’t love me any more?’ (Not considered cool at all, but at best naive, but still a genuine concern for many.)

All we need to remember is to leave a wee gap between the two. And try not to be the bully- that’s the nod in the direction of morality in all this.

Most of our perceptions are way slower than a horse’s anyway- basing that claim upon the scientifically proven fact that they have the fastest reflexes in the mammalian kingdom..and my personal experiences and subsequent bruises.

Im going to choose an Art lens today and quote a Rumi poem.

‘Sell your cleverness, and purchase Bewilderment’.

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