Mar 07 2009

Field notes from the Equine Behavioral Studies Dept.

Stella, genius

Stella, genius

My young grey mare Maypearl looks like a benevolent little porcelain unicorn, but she has fearsome intellective powers, which powers she unfortunately inclines toward the service of evil. Her practical jokes include bucking me off, terrorizing the other mares, throwing her rubber feed pan in the air, kicking down stall boards, and, the latest addition to her repertoire: refusing to be caught.

Yesterday when I went to get her, I was relieved when she came sauntering right up to the gate. I held out the halter. She accommodatingly stuck her nose right in. It wasn’t until I reached around to buckle it that I espied the red glint in her eye. I made haste, but it was too late; young Mape had executed an exquisite pirouette at the last possible moment and was galloping off, bucking and chuckling, before I even knew I’d been suckered.

As I jumped up and down on the halter that for the umpteenth time that week contained no gray mare, it began to dawn on me that Maypearl’s imp of the perverse had gone unchecked for far too long. Her idle genius had become a torment to all. She needed a little more stimulation in her life. OK, a lot more.

Toward this end I decided to teach her how to play catch, since she is obviously the sort of horse who can appreciate pure sport.

I’m big on operant conditioning to teach critters to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing on their own in a million years. Say I want the horse to “count” to 5 with her right front leg. I assume a neutral posture and wait around until she inadvertently performs the first part of the behavior — say, she stomps her foot to shake off a fly. The second she moves that leg — it doesn’t matter why she moves it, just that she moves it period — I make a little clicking noise. The noise “marks” the moment that the horse displays the desired behavior, and — this is the key part — signals that I will be producing a handful of food forthwith as a reward.

This noise/reward dealio motivates the animal to reproduce the precise marked behavior in future. The horse will be counting like mad in no time.

By stringing together incremental behaviors, I can get complex ones. I become a vending machine, wherein the coin of the realm is the desired behavior, and the reward is a handful of organic flax flakes. After the first phase of the behavior is 100% down, I add a new criterion, then another, until the horse is dancing the lambada on the head of a pin.

As an organic hippie dippie new age spinster aunt, I am fond of operant conditioning because it involves no force, no fear, no negative reinforcement of any kind. The only consequence of not doing it “right” is no handful of organic flax flakes. The horse can walk away any time she wants, game over.

Yesterday’s episode: I entered the paddock containing Maypearl and produced a soccer ball. Maypearl, who acutely perceived that I carried no halter, consented to wander over and eyeball the unfamiliar object. The moment she looked at the ball I made the noise that tells her she did something right, and she got a handful of organic flax flakes. Repeat. In a minute or two, Maypearl was associating the ball with the flakes.

So I upped the ante; now she had to take a step toward the soccer ball to get the flakes, which she figured out once I started rewarding her for inadvertently shifting her weight toward it. Then she had to bonk the soccer ball with her nose, then she had to roll it a foot, then two feet, etc, you get the picture, until we’re rolling it back and forth. It is enjoyable for both parties. It also draws a crowd, because horse people don’t train like this, and they come over to laugh at me, but they’re always amazed that a horse can be taught to toss you a soccer ball in 20 minutes flat.

This is no big whoop; you can teach any animal or human pretty much anything you want if you reward them with sufficient whatever-it-is-they-value: organic flax flakes, Porsches, bacon. I have a golden retriever who will do my taxes for a Cheeto.

Back in the paddock, my old mare Stella was loafing under a tree. I confess I had not fully appreciated Stella as a thinker prior to this episode. I had used operant conditioning to teach her not to kick me in the face when I clean her hind feet, but that’s as far as I’d taken it. She had certainly never seen a soccer ball before.

Anyway, I noticed that Stella had been observing with keen interest Maypearl and these strange soccer ball proceedings. Before long an interesting thing happened. After studying us for about 20 minutes, Stella strolled purposefully onto the field, pinned her ears at Maypearl to get her out of the way, bonked the ball with her nose for the first time in her life, and presented herself forthwith for her handful of flakes. Zounds! I said. Operant conditioning-by-proxy!

I don’t know if you have to be a horse person to understand how remarkable this is.

Probably you do.


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  1. Sandi LeoDog

    Twisty, this is stinking awesome. Way to go, Stella!!! Could you, would you post a wee video of the gals playing soccer & munching on organic flax flakes? If they wouldn’t mind, that is to say.

  2. orlando

    “Maypearl” – what a lovely, poetical name.
    You must go through a lot of flax.
    I’ve been told this method works for men, but I’ve never had the energy to try.

  3. Donna

    Aww- the best I can get with my scottie is to jump through hooped arms.

    Hehe, maybe you could get the horses playing for treats?!

  4. rootlesscosmo

    Isn’t “H & R” an awkward name for a golden retriever?

  5. Hedgepig

    One of my chooks is called Stella. Her photo caption would read: Stella, bit of a thickie.

  6. caitlinate

    This is awesome! Whilst appreciating the amazing-ness of teaching a horse to play ball in such a short time I’m also rolling around laughing at the image of a horse doing just that.

  7. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.

    Observational learning, a phenomenon much-studied and well-documented by psychologists, is well-known to work with children. With men, not so much. The trouble seems to be that they keep mimicking each other, thus perpetuating the patriarchy.

  8. humanbein

    Extremely cool story, in every way. Replace human beings with horses, Twisty with the dominant culture, and orgasms with flax flakes; and we have the methodology of indoctrinating misogyny, too.

  9. Comrade PhysioProf

    Yeah, seriously, please post Youtubes of this shit. Twisty The Horse Whisperer!!!

    I have a golden retriever who will do my taxes for a Cheeto.

    Former right-wing blogger who went Galt?

    Comrade PhysioProf

  10. zooeyibz

    I have equine envy.
    This also calls to mind a conversation I had with a jerk who told me that the only way to communicate with a horse was to ‘break them’ with whips and spurs. IBTP.

  11. Medstudent

    Twisty, I am a horse person (although currently horse-less due to the demands of school) and this is amazing.

    We had a burro who would get bored, pick up his grain bin until it flopped up over his head, then go running around blindly scaring the horses. Heh.

    Those mares are both beautiful. =) Made my day.

  12. Shelly

    It is pretty remarkable. That “learning by proxy” stuff is not limited to horses, either. Dogs are pretty adept at it, too. I expect that any social critter would be, as it surely would be a helpful survival tactic.

    And Stella is absolutely beautiful.

  13. Patricia

    Too freakin’ cool, Twisty! My father was a policeman for a while, and he took me for lessons at the home of his friends in the mounted police division. The horse on which I trained loved beer. He would do anything for beer. I prefer the idea of organic flax, but then I’m a raw food eating, yoga teaching, “weirdo” feminist, aren’t I?

  14. deja pseu

    Wow, that IS amazing. Though having spent considerable time around horses, it’s pretty obvious that they’re a LOT smarter than people think. But wow, I’m duly impressed. (We used to have a young gelding who loved playing tag.)

  15. VibratingLiz

    I used a clicker to teach my Doberman to do the hokey-pokey which is truly hilarious, but the poor guy still gets hung up on those damn itemized deductions.

    I’ve also used operant conditioning to help him get over his extreme antipathy to bicycles. We just sat on a bench near the main downtown street, and whenever a bicycle went by he automatically got a click and a treat, no matter how he reacted. After a few sessions he began to automatically associate the mere sight or sound of a bicycle with Truth, Beauty, and Instant Gratification, and instead of freaking out, barking and lunging at the bike, he would salivate happily and turn to me for a treat.

    One day we were going through this routine when a woman I didn’t know sat down on the bench next to us. After a while she asked me what we were doing, and I explained. She thought about it for a minute then said, “Huhn. Maybe if you give me an M&M every time a man walks by I would stop snarling at men.” I figured it might work, but after pondering the ethics of the situation, I declined. She probably has her reasons, and probably things ought to stay exactly the way they are. It is a powerful tool though, operant conditioning.

  16. Nolabelfits

    Stella has a dish in her face kinda like an arabian. So what’s her bloodline, I’m wondering.

  17. Lisa

    Wow! I loved the story, Twisty, thank you. Yes, a video or two would be great. Do you still have Stanley?

  18. yttik

    Animals are really interesting. I watch people try to assign them human emotions, as if they were people, just not quite as smart. But that’s not it at all, animals are operating on a different plane then we are, they’re speaking a completely different language. They have a thought process that is so foreign to us, we can hardly even comprehend it.

    The part that intrigues me is the way animals are constantly trying to adapt to us. It gets kind of fascinating if you watch pet owners that have neurotic pets. If you look hard enough you can see how the animal is just trying to fulfill the expectations of the person it’s with. They attempt to accommodate us, so a “poor, pitiful” little toy poodle who apparently needs lots of sympathy, will oblige and pee on the furniture legs. It’s got nothing to do with the dog, she’s just trying to be all that you appear to want her to be.

    There’s an invisible language being spoken here that I don’t think we can grasp very well. Sometimes we talk about how animals can smell your fear, but I suspect it may be even more involved then that. They can probably read us like a book and understand us better then we understand ourselves. I think when we give them treats, it’s not really us conditioning the animal, but the critter trying to teach us how to clarify our communication. People are confusing. We’ll smile and tell everyone we’re fine, when what’s really going on under the surface is anything but. So I think it could be a case of, put some darn oats in your hand, so I can figure out which of your multiple emotions and needs you are trying to get me to respond to!

  19. Ron Sullivan

    Gaw DAMN that was fun to read.

    Might be even more fun to read aloud. Flax flakes flax flakes flaxflakes flaxflakes flaxflakesflaxflakesflakesflaxflakes.


    Cool horses, too.

  20. Aunti Disestablishmentarian

    YTTIK: Excellent points.

    Have you read Animals in Translation? It’s written by Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science who is autistic. Her book is a rather off-the-cuff discussion of her observations of similarities between autistic thought process and animal thought process.

  21. Rozasharn

    Wow! That’s not just conditioning (to do something on cue without really being aware of why); that’s learning. Stella observed that you were offering a deal and decided to take you up on it. So yes, very smart horse.

  22. Sascha

    @Yttik: I watch people try to assign them human emotions, as if they were people, just not quite as smart. But that’s not it at all, animals are operating on a different plane then we are,

    It’s not just human emotions, it’s the whole male human paradigm we project onto them — and since Konrad Lorenz, a Nazi paradigm. See my site, button ‘Start Book’, then the button for chapter 10. If you’re interested in dogs, see also chapter 11. This isn’t an ad for my book (which won’t be out until about May this year), but just that my commentary on male human/Nazi projection is too long to repeat here. As you read (if you read it), never forget that the patriarchy also considers women to be a species of domestic animal — beast of burden, household pet.

    @Yttik: They can probably read us like a book and understand us better then we understand ourselves.

    Just as women will always know more about men than men know about themselves, because the oppressed class just simply has to.

  23. denelian

    i confess that, other than a few basic riding lessons as a treat after a three-month hospital stay, i do *not* know horses first hand.

    but i read Mercedes Lackey. do you? leaving aside “Companions”, she talks a LOT about horses in her “Valdemar” series. she even has a short story devoted to the story of two “Horse Whisper” types who come into a keep that mostly has un-trained, totally spoiled war-horses. they have the horses happily plowing the fields in less than a month. and, so far as i can tell with research, every bit of it is totally true methodology. no magic, just knowing how to read and respond to a horse.

    i’m sorry, i can’t remember the name of the short story, but i am 95% sure it is one of the first two Valdemar Anthologies.

  24. Christina

    Huh. So much for being told that horses are 1500 lbs of stupid, eh?

    This is just awesome.

  25. Serene Wright

    I am a horse person and tonight, at dinner with a new associate, proceeded to have to tactfully avoid arguing with him about horse intelligence. He was telling me how horses are really quite stupid, that they’re trained through repetition only and are clueless. So, I am chuckling over your story. We horse people know just how truly present horses actually are.

    When I was in my twenties, I had turned my horse out in a big field, only to see him come running at me. I thought I was done for. At the last second, he ducked to the right. He had decided to play chicken with me! So, after than, we played chicken when he was turned out.

    I think acquiring the ability to communicate to such sensitive creatures in a difficult language to accomplish thrilling manuevers (I jump.) is what makes riding so thrilling. Horses know when they’ve been good and appreciate praise and goodies, both.

  26. angela

    He passed away two years ago, but I used to live with an awesome smart cat who would play hide-and-go-seek-tag with me or friends. Who between us came up with the game is hard to say.
    Our apartment rooftop had piles of refuse big enough for human people to hide behind, and a convenient L-shape allowing for enough time out of sight to be truly hidden if you ran fast enough.
    It was a bit nerve wracking, because when he found us Kitty would leap out from around the pile as if we were mice–and his personal prey. But the best part was watching him stalk around pile after pile looking for my friend, like: LEAP! Oh, nobody here. [nonchalant lick to the shoulder] LEAP! Rinse, repeat. And then: LEAP! My friend giving a little shriek, and Kitty running hell bent for leather to his next hiding place. Oh, lard. The best entertainment for miles around.

  27. gare

    Flax? Horses should be on the board of Domino Sugar for all the P induced abuse they’ve been made to suffer throughout our history! Think Cowboys and Native Americans … the Uncivil War… the horses were getting wasted on both sides! Who doesn’t hate cars, but at least Henry F. (with no command of the alphabet, releasing Model T before A) gave them some relief! And where would Nascar be without Nashorse? They even get short shrift (how short IS that?) in country music .. whiskey for my friends. BEER for my horses .. WWMES? (what would Mr. Ed say?)

  28. speedbudget

    Oh, Twisty, how I’ve missed your blogging about your animals.

    And that horse, I tell you wut, is a damn genius. I’m not a “horse person” per se, but I’ve been around them and the people who are horse people enough to know the stereotypes. I’ve always suspected they were wrong.

    Please tell me the naysayers saw Stella get her groove on.

  29. Helen

    Stella is even more beautiful than Maypearl, I reckon.

  30. meerkat

    Stella disproves people who think horses are stupid. Go Stella!

  31. Greenconsciousness


    Animals thought processes are really not inscrutable. They communicate telepathically in pictures and they learn by observation. And they remember as the older horse did about her previous lessons. They are often governed by instinct rather than reason but so are we, much more than we acknowledge or maybe even know.

    Twisty, you can speed up the teaching by having pictures of the horse doing what you want her to do in your mind and projecting them to her. Picture her doing the task as you want her to do it. Project that picture to her. You will be surprised at the results. This is how we can talk to animals.

    Anyway, this thing was beautiful, and the old horse also was reminding you, Twisty, of your bonding. Thank you for writing about this.

    I came to ask you to be aware of something Phyllis Chesler is writing about on Chesler’s Chronicles. Today, on International Women’s Day, people in London and Wash DC are marching against Islam’s treatment of women. You can read more on Chesler’s Chronicles.They are circulating a petition I am helping to publicize.

    As BO vows to reach out to Muslim countries in his first 100 days the petition seeks to remind him that women are held in slavery in these countries and US foreign policy should support those women who are seeking equality and being killed for their bravery.

    Please sign the petition today on International Women’s Day in solidarity with our caste sisters.


    Phyllis Chesler is writing that there will be groups marching in London and Wash DC in support of this petition, on March 8th, IWD and where to meet up with them.

    Women must recognize our caste status. While women like Rhianna go back there are other women here and in Afghanistan and Iran dying to get out.

    What hurts women anywhere, hurts women everywhere. So help your caste sisters and sign the petition today on International Women’s Day.


  32. Lovepug

    Horses have not managed to survive thousands of years living in open places without much shelter by being dummies. Particularly mares.

    I’m hoping that someday the Spinster Aunt will add a mule to the mix cuz those guys have some mad reasoning skills. I have no firsthand knowledge but have heard tales that training a mule is NOTHING like training a horse.

    As is says on the one and only article of clothing I allowed my daughter to buy for the pug (because pug costuming can get really, really out of hand):

    I Did It For The Cookie

  33. Sev

    All this talk about horses has me wondering: why are women and horses traditionally associated with each other in the western world? We have unicorns, My Little Pony, and little girls that want a real pony for a present. Some people even refer to women that don’t look pornulated as “horse faced.”

    Followers of that little perv Freud link it to some crypto-longing for sex with dudes (or as they put, girls like horses for their “sexual majesty”). Of course, horses could also be a symbol for escape…

  34. Lexie

    You just described my entire graduate program in one post. (Special Ed of kids with “severe and profound!!” disabilities). Although I have to say that the ABA crap they pull with some autistic kids rubs me the wrong way. applied behavior analysis can serve its purpose, but I don’t think every time a kid blinks an eye it should be charted on a sticker chart.

    Tip! After the desired behavior is learned, the best way to make the desired behavior last is intermittent reinforcement. You stop the rewards altogether, they stop caring (unless said genius horse finds that she loves playing catch for its own reward. Very possible! But the counting thing? Not so much perhaps.) You give them a reward every time and the reward loses its reward-y-ness. You have to reward intermittently and totally at random.

    It is what the gambling industry, and the patriarchy for that matter, is based upon.

  35. Serene Wright

    We love them merely because they’re fun! WHAT A CONCEPT.

  36. Serene Wright

    Another time, when my horse was turned out in an indoor arena, I was talking to someone and crying. My horse came over and put his head and neck on me to console me, something he had never done before as I had never cried around him before. So, tell me how stoopid horses are, I double dare ya.

  37. Emotionally Overtaxed

    Here’s a trade; Instead of a cheeto, I will personally do the 2008 taxes of anyone who will come over and teach my 4-year-old Future Patriarch to stop saying “shake my booty” and telling fart jokes all the time.

  38. mir

    I’m not much of a horse person either (their teeth are so very LARGE) but I could read about your horses all day, Twisty.

  39. K

    That story made me so happy! Thank you. Question: does she actually *throw* the ball? How does she get enough of a grip to do that?

  40. TheOtherDelphyne

    What a beautiful story! These non human animals are so much more intelligent than the human ones – it’s a gift to be able to mingle with them.

  41. Jezebella

    I’m trying to figure out if operant conditioning works on cats, and if so, what should I teach mine?

  42. Ayezur

    I have unfortunately never been able to spend as much time with horses as I would’ve liked to, but they are certainly highly intelligent. And unfortunately quite easy to fuck up good if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    I’ve never understood the whole contempt for animals from which abusive behaviors spring. All questions of intelligence aside – they’re ours. We take wild things and mold them into something humans can use for food and service and companionship. Therefore it is our obligation to treat them with kindness and respect. As they honor us, we honor them. I’m not sure why this is a difficult concept.

  43. chimara

    >>All this talk about horses has me wondering: why are women and horses traditionally associated with each other in the western world?

    I don’t know–because “trucks are for boys,” maybe? Because (with some exceptions), liking animals in general is supposed to be a girl/woman thing? Probably because empathizing with animals is for chicks, like how no real man is a vegetarian (cough!). Maybe it was different when cowboys were a bit more of an icon than they are now.

    Anecdotally, one summer when I was an older teenager, my kid sister and I took some riding lessons taught by a middle aged guy. I mentioned that my brother and I had both used to ride a little as kids but that he was too busy that summer to come with us. Riding instructor guy replied that in his experience, unless they had been doing it since they were quite small, older boys didn’t take to riding as well as girls the same age. “They try to do it like driving a car,” was about what he said (imagine it with a slightly regretful, mostly dismissive little head shake).

    I didn’t have a big enough sample size to make anything of this. Horsey people? Was this guy stereotyping or being accurate? Either way, IBTP.

  44. truffula

    I find this business of judging the “intelligence” of other creatures using human metrics uncomfortable. Horses think in horse ways, crows think in crow ways. They evaluate the world around them, make choices, and act accordingly. The clever/smart/whatever ones get ahead, eat more or tastier food, build fancier nests, what have you. Whether or not I can understand any of that says something about me, not about them.

  45. Donna

    Ayezur, a difficult concept for those enforcing the patriarchy?? The entire beauty of a world and its creatures such as Stella are being lost because of men oppressing everything beautiful and natural, just so they can continue to get by on a ghetto pass.

    In my (hopefully short) time on this Earth I’m just here to appreciate nature and remove myself, within reason and with my friends, as much as possible from the patriarchy.

  46. scatterplot

    A fantastic description of successive approximation and very enjoyable read!
    @Rozasharn you are thinking of Classical (or Pavlovian or respondent) conditioning. The way you are using the word, operant conditioning and learning are more-or-less synonymous. The obnoxious pedant in me would also point out that negative reinforcement is a kind of operant conditioning, just like the positive conditioned reinforcement of clicker training.

  47. PhoenixRising

    Stella is lovely and I’m not at all surprised that she was able to learn to play catch secondhand. As Yogi Berra once said, ‘You can observe a lot by watching’.

    My kid’s first horse, who is older than Stanley, Maypearl and Stella put together, has developed a set of tricks that he performs anytime she takes out the flashy 4 year old mare. The kid and the mare canter and jump and trot and canter and jump, etc…and the old horse acts like a colt with a belly full of organic flax meth.

    He runs his fastest times ever from one end of turnout to the other, bucking and kicking, rolling and leaping, chasing the Big Ass Jumper who is his best friend. At all other times they two of them graze quietly, but if he sees His Girl getting on That Mare, his agenda changes. The most important thing in the world is putting on a show of being the largest, quickest and most athletic animal on the place. His point is clearly, “I am the bestest horse here, and that silly little mare is barely capable of following the simplest directions”.

    Then he sleeps standing up until someone human wakes him up, halters him and carries him to his stall. It’s exhausting but apparently worthwhile, as it’s a weekly occurrence. His communication skills are excellent.

  48. Comrade PhysioProf

    I’m trying to figure out if operant conditioning works on cats, and if so, what should I teach mine?

    I think you’ve got that backwards. Cats use operant conditioning on human beings. They give us rewards when we do what they want, and they punish us when we do not.

  49. Jezebella

    Comrade, you are most certainly correct.

    I have, for example, been thoroughly trained to clean the litterboxes once every 24 hours. If not, negative results ensue. VERY negative, poopy results.

  50. Katipo

    “Operant conditioning-by-proxy” is how I trained my dogs.
    Really, I just trained one dog, and she trained the next.

  51. Larkspur

    Ooh, I just spent part of the afternoon sitting in the sun with a golden retriever and reading Temple Grandin’s newest book, Animals Make Us Human. (Only I was reading. The dog was napping. But it has nothing to do with intelligence with regard to either of us.) She talks about how amazing clicker training can be with both dogs and horses. She has a lot of respect for the curiosity of animals.

    Jezebella, only the one time in 24 hours? I’m going to have to talk to a particular kitty I know who expects the litterbox to be tended after each event. (Her people manage by having three separate litterboxes.)

  52. enkagi

    denelian, the book you are thinking about is Oathblood. I actually read it two weekends ago. It’s the Tarma and Kethry short story anthology. Lackey has good stories, even if they are a bit funfeminist.

  53. denelian

    thank you enkagi!

    hrm. i just saw that book, when i was sorting my books. i have it; i should read it again.
    yeah, its a little funfeminist, but she also has kick ass women and gay characters. who are competent – not just flashy or powerful, but COMPETENT. thats hard to pull off, i haven’t managed to write it well yet.

  54. Paris

    If Stella is mostly (if not entirely) Arab, as she appears to be from that photo, I am not surprised at all. Arabs are wicked smart.

  55. Crowfoot

    Sev, I’m not entirely sure why women and horses seem so closely linked in our society. It may simply be that up until 100 years ago the most prized possession most men could have apart from their horse would have been a beautiful woman? I wonder if there’s a perceptual connection there between the domesticated horse and the domesticated woman. Also, women have historically been considered “closer” to nature, more beast-like (base) so perhaps it makes some patriarchal sense to have legends where they speak to each other.

    Or, perhaps a vestige of the Celtic horse goddess Epona? With regards to current human girls and horses, I wrote a post about it a little while ago. I think it has to do with access to freedom, and perhaps, a perceptual understanding how we are both domesticated? Worth pondering more, methinks.

    *crosses fingers that html is done correctly*

  56. Crowfoot

    “html is done correctly.”

    Was done correctly. Sorry, it’s clearly bedtime.

  57. sevanetta

    Twisty I loved this story! Beautiful. I’m not a horse person but a dog person. Love the image of your golden retriever doing the taxes for a Cheeto. It’s so true.

  58. CLD

    Fantastic! This is such an outstanding way to train an animal. I’m taking notes to use for when I get my dogs. Maybe I can train just one and the other will learn by proxy as well. Maybe pigs will fly; you never know!

  59. MaryK

    Fucking badass. That’s all there is to say about that.

  60. Lily Underwood


  61. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    I gotta try this with my dog, who freaks out every time she sees another dog. She’s real good with people and kids, but not other dogs.

  62. rubysecret

    Amazing timing on this post, as my daughter and I spent the afternoon at a ranch that works with horses in exactly the same way. There were demonstrations of: horses playing soccer, horse riding calmly on a 3 sq ft platform pulled by a tractor, backing up voluntarily into a trailer, horse doing an obstacle course with no halter or any physical contact from their human, and our favorite, a horse and rider doing a jumps course, the rider equipped only with a helmet and crop. No saddle or blanket, no bridle or halter, just a handful of mane. It was a beautiful thing.

  63. Greenconsciousness


    What You Might Learn from a Rock Throwing Chimp
    March 9, 2009
    Santino, a 30-year old chimp who lives at a Swedish zoo, hates gawkers. So in his spare time, when the zoo his closed, he methodically gathers rocks from the moat in his enclosure. When the zoo opens, he becomes enraged and throws the rocks at the visitors.

    Scientists are calling this the first proof of an animal planning for a future event (the arrival of zoo visitors). Of course, the obvious plain-as-day observation here is that perhaps Santino’s behavior indicates that it’s inhumane to keep chimps in zoos. But somehow that insight appears to have eluded the researchers and journalists who’ve written about Santino. Link.

  64. Interrobang

    I used to have a very smart gelding named Papillon (after the character that no prison could hold). On show days, he liked to stand in the cross-ties with his neck arched and his back straight, feet four-square and tail slightly raised, just to give the best possible impression to his adoring public, of course.

    In his later years, he was adopted by a very small cat, who would ride around on his back all day, curled up and sleeping on his wide, flat rump. (That had to have been nice and warm, since Pap had the sort of coat where he liked standing outside in snowstorms, and snow would accumulate on his back and rump.)

  65. slade

    Animals are much smarter than us. I know my cat has me well trained.

    Horses are magnificent beings.

  66. Nina

    Twisty-That was really interesting to read! I shared it with my sister, who is a serious horse person, and she wants to try operant conditioning when she is finally able to have horses.

    Jezebella-Supposedly, operant conditioning works on cats. My cat’s vet actually recommended it last time we took him in, so we’re working on it now. Progress is slow (partly I think because he is just not much of a treat-monger), but we’re making progress. The vet explained that she taught her cat to play piano (or at least look like she’s playing piano) with this method.

  67. Linda Atkins

    That is a charming tale; thank you.

  68. Narya

    A friend of mine had a cat who liked to play a combo of catch/hockey with my friend (with a cat-sized ball, rather than a puck), and the cat apparently really liked watching hockey on TV, too. Also? My friend had a bottle opener that played Homer Simpson doing the “mmmmm . . . . beer *glugging noise*” thing, and the first time he used it, the cat came running. My friend promptly decided to reinforce this behavior with treats, an effort that was successful. It was more than a little amusing.

  69. butterflywings

    Cool story.
    Cats rule. That is all.
    Narya – ha – do you think it sounded like cat food being put out?! My cats sure come running when they hear that sound!

  70. Rebekka

    Lexie “Although I have to say that the ABA crap they pull with some autistic kids rubs me the wrong way. applied behavior analysis can serve its purpose, but I don’t think every time a kid blinks an eye it should be charted on a sticker chart.”

    ABA taught my severely autistic nephew to talk. Without it, he’d be living a horrendously frustrating life. You might not like it, but it’s extremely effective (and didn’t actually involve sticker charts).

    Lovepug, our pug has a superpug outfit, with a cape. In my defence, we adopted him when his previous owner died, and he came with the outfit (he was also so fat that it didn’t fit round his tummy, but it fits now).

  71. Other Liz

    Perhaps you could offer your computer a few handfuls of flax flakes to fix the website glitches.

  72. Cimorene

    Oh man, that’s an awesome story. And it makes me mad jealous.

    My Doggie, who is the best dog in the world, and also the most beautiful and smart and emotionally complex, belonged to an Evil Person who totally made him crazy. And now he hates anything that comes near me and him when we’re walking. And I tried the positive conditioning, the “give you a treat every time we see anything you want to kill–to protect me, of course–on our walks” for weeks. And it just kept getting worse and worse, and then a Large Man bumped into my arm while walking, and my Doggie bit that man’s behind and wouldn’t let go.

    Granted, the man should have made room for me on the empty crosswalk, but biting of asses is never a strategy for keeping your dog away from the authorities, who frown upon it. Besides which, I can’t actually keep all interactions just positive, because when he sees something (squirrel, other dog, jogger, biker, toddler, plastic bag in the wind) he gets angry and protective and lunges, which only ends up choking him, and leaves him gasping for air. Also, he has panic attacks when this happens, because he hurts himself and, I think, he starts thinking I’m going to hit him or something, like the Evil Person that had him before me. (actually, he just had one, mid-internet-post, from just lying on the ground next to me. Solution = on the couch with me, blaming the patriarchy by proxy.)

    I’m not giving up, though. I still walk him when I’l probably see other dogs at least once a day, but for the most part we walk when there’s nobody else around to bother him. And this summer we’re going to spend lots of time in parks, watching other dogs from far away so he understands that they won’t eat me, and that I won’t trade him in for one of them.

    It sucks so much when people treat animals so badly that they end up hurting themselves out of confusion and shit-head conditioning. Stories like this warm my heart, and then immediately turn it to burning rage, reminding me of the idiocy of people who DON’T train animals in a nice way, choosing the a Rat Bastard way and making my Bubba confused all the time.

  73. Hedgepig

    Cimorene: is your dog called Bubba? One of my dogs is called Bubba and he doesn’t like men either. He thinks they’re loud and raucous and up-to-no-good-most-likely. (Loves women). So I know how terrifying it is to know that if your dog did decide to bite a man, it would be assumed he was in the wrong and would be in danger from the authorities. Even though it’s not his fault. Unfortunately I don’t actually have any ideas for improving matters, just thought I’d share a bit of fellow feeling.

  74. Narya

    butterflywings, no, the cats in that house get food that comes out of containers that sound nothing like Homer, and the cat ONLY did this for that particular sound, not for anything else. according to my friend, Joe did this the very first time he heard it, and my friend got Joe when he (Joe) was tiny, so I guess he just had a visceral response to Homer! who knew.

  75. gare

    You know, Twisticilous could easily run a blog based on more feelgood subjects than how the PIRS just screwed me out of 525 on my tax return.. OH YES. But bringing down the P without bloodletting is the goal I assume .. you kill Rush, another will pop up .. see what I’m sayin

    But horses! Horses are an incredibly feelgood area that also demonstrates incredible P induced slavery. Horses are abused. You are not so certain? Does Amy Winehouse have tatoos? Will bobby no sorry chris brown hit Rhihanna agin? Its obvious. Horses, while admitted are only 1 horsepower… are abused. I want a horse. You want a horse. Twisty has horses. She is privileged in this area huh? Huh? But the P should set horses free. I mean, even the game of Kings .. Queens … Chess… gives horses the ability to move in something other than a straight line. Horses are sacred, yet the most abused animal on the planet. People. Pour some sugar on it.

  76. Greenconsciousness


    Animals thought processes are really not inscrutable. They communicate telepathically in pictures and they learn by observation. And they remember as the older horse did about her previous lessons. They are often governed by instinct rather than reason but so are we, much more than we acknowledge or maybe even know.

    Twisty, you can speed up the teaching by having pictures of the horse doing what you want her to do in your mind and projecting them to her. Picture her doing the task as you want her to do it. Project that picture to her. You will be surprised at the results. This is how we can talk to animals.

    Anyway, this thing was beautiful, and the old horse also was reminding you, Twisty, of your bonding. Thank you for writing about this.

  77. Stella

    Good name.

  78. Felicity

    @ Gare

    Actually I love the sense of community here, we could potentially discuss feelgood crap. Nature is always feelgood! But then we wouldn’t be the same people able to combine wit and irony to pat ourselves to sleep about the dim realities.

    When I dream I’m in a world with my family and friends I haven’t seen in ages, in a world where I’m not continually challenged because of my gender and I don’t have to hide from a mass media which is gobsmackingly intrusive here in England… Nobody oppresses anybody else, or any creature.

    Anyway just to share with everyone, in the UK, a woman named Jacqui Smith is doing something brilliant about domestic violence against women. I came home from uni to hear there’s been a load of proposals to raise awareness –


    This is one of many signs I’m seeing of good things to come!

  79. LilliEve

    The other day at the park, a previously unknown cat spontaneously joined in our soccer game. More stalk and chase the ball than kick it around, though. This has also happened with a different cat at a different park. So Jezebella – I’d give soccer a go.

  80. birkwearingblamer

    I saw a dot at the dog park playing soccer this weekend. I imagine that horses playing soccer is much more impressive. Congrats to you!

  81. Rumblelizard

    Could you use operant conditioning to train Maypearl to let you put her halter on?

  82. TheLady

    @ Felicity – I think you’re being very naive there.

    The blurb on the Home Office pages is all very well, and any kind of intiative to tackle violence against women is better than none.

    But on the subject of rape, Jacqui Smith (who is the Home Secretary, for you furryners) also said she was “concerned about clothes that were inappropriate for young girls”, and linked that to abuse and violence against women and girls.

    Basically, the woman in charge of law, order and civic decency in this country has just used the “she was asking for it” argument – which reflects public attitudes in the UK exactly (25% of Britons believe a woman should be held partly accountable for being raped is she had been “flirting”) – but is not exactly “wonderful things”.

    I think if anything the results of this new initiative are going to be retrograde, like all of the recent Labour policies towards women. I’m deeply shocked that the Home Secretary would, so early in the process, shift the debate against the dreadful license men have to freely abuse and brutalise women in this cuontry, and onto Playboy t-shirts and “inappropriate” clothing.

    Link, if you’re interested: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/mar/09/jacqui-smith-sexualisation-teenagers

  83. tuckova

    I’m not a horse person, and so perhaps I have entirely missed the awesomeness of this post, but what it mainly left me wondering is if you were planning to teach Maypearl to pole dance, and wondering in parallel if that was your point (the “Porsche and bacon” sort of implies it was). Was it? Or am I a non-animal-understanding ass?

  84. Casta S.

    New Olympic category: equine pole dancing!

  85. felicity

    The Lady –

    But don’t you think a male culture is bound to point out anything she says? It’s just dying to prove her not a perfect feminist. She’s doing something great, and already male media is trying to turn that against her. As if the media has only every wanted women’s rights. If the media reflects women’s stance on things, I wouldn’t give a shit. It completely ruined everything for feminism before with misandry in ads etc, and that was blamed on feminism.

    I hate anything produced by the great media snitch; her words were probably taken out of context. Can’t you imagine some dick swinging editor just waiting to turn feminists against this woman?

  86. slythwolf

    One of the things I find most disturbing about Felicity’s link is that it talks about making women “feel” safer, as if that solves anything, and that it discusses women’s fear as “disproportionate”, as if that makes any sense in light of the number of women and girls whom men are actually out there attacking. Women’s fear is not disproportionate, and the only real consequence of making us “feel” safer will be to shut us up. I would like to be safer. In fact, I would not just like to be safer, I would like to be safe. I would like men to stop attacking people for existing while female.

  87. slythwolf

    Can’t you imagine some dick swinging editor just waiting to turn feminists against this woman?

    Frankly, I can’t imagine some dick-swinging editor knowing how.

  88. TheLady

    @ Felicity, you said:

    She’s doing something great, and already male media is trying to turn that against her. […] Can’t you imagine some dick swinging editor just waiting to turn feminists against this woman?

    There are a few assumptions implicit in your plea which are not, in my opinion, safe to make:

    The media are attacking Smith over this announcement, trying to “turn it against her” – not true, all of the reporting I’ve seen has been quite positive. Reason? Her proposals are entirely normative and within the boundaries of what society deems acceptable treatment of women, hence not representing the kind of substantive change that would threaten the establishment.

    The media care about what feminists think, and are trying to manipulate their opinions against Smith – er, no. Feminists are a deried minority in the UK, a figure of fun and a byword for irrationality. If the media really wanted to attack Smith, they would paint her as a feminist, the same way they did Margaret Beckett over those motor show ads a few years ago; after enough vilification of the unmarried, stern, somewhat authoritarian Beckett as a “radical feminist”, her political career has stalled.

    Jacqui Smith is “doing something great” – she’s having a consultation. She’s not actually doing anythign yet. The policies that will come out of this cosultation are anyone’s guess, but based on past experience my hopes are not high. The last time this government tried to do something for women, they amde staying home with a newborn mandatory for a year if you wanted the father to be “allowed” any time to take an active hand in the child’s primary care. Charming. So far, all she’s actually done is comission the poll, then rather than going on record to say that the results are despicable and unacceptable, she goes the route of the burqa to “pretect” women. Hah.

  89. TheLady

    Apologies for the rubbishy formatting of that last paragraph. My italicised passions ran away with me and a slash fell victim to my haste.

  90. Intransigentia

    I think the difficulty for humans trying operant conditioning on cats is that cats don’t seem to have guaranteed reinforcers like dogs, horses, and humans. Cats sometimes want certain treats, sometimes want to be scritched in a particular way, but enough to do something they weren’t already planning on doing anyway – not so likely. On the other hand, humans who like cats will do just about anything for an expression of pleasure or approval from a cat, so it’s very easy for them to train us.

  91. Felicity

    TheLady –

    I entirely see your viewpoint but I was simply happy about the way things are ‘looking’. MPs are talking about adverts objectifying women and how bad this is. How they’re tackling the problem and if this is even possible now is beyond me. Culture seems more out of the government’s hands than it’s ever been.

    Basically I was being optimistic, because like you said, it’s better than nothing.

    I don’t understand your first highlighted point though – in what way do her proposals threaten the establishment?

  92. TheLady

    Sorry Felicity, I haven’t made myself clear: her actions/words do not threaten teh establishment, because they don’t substantively shift the responsibility away from the victim and onto the perpetrator; the presumption is that the onus is on women to avoid male vilence (rape victims should dress more modestly, violence victims should leave/submit etc.) rahter than on men to stop being violent.

    That’s exactly why the papers are cosying up to the HS right now. If they were vilifying her and cursing her for an authoritarian feminazi run mad, I’d be way more optimistic about the efficacy of her proposed policies.

  93. Twisty

    “Could you use operant conditioning to train Maypearl to let you put her halter on?”

    Yes, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. But she’s so weird, I figured soccer would be an easier and funner intro to this whole technique than anything remotely resembling restraint (such as a halter). Once she learns to trust absolutely that I am a vending machine, all will be well.

  94. Felicity

    Hm we’ll have to agree to disagree on that last bit. A sign of good times they’re not calling her a crazy feminist in my opinion. I’ve just developed a general distrust of the papers though, they reflect popular opinion like a big- mouthed snitch; and as that’s often male orientated they can be very sexist peices of shit.

  95. Twisty

    I am confused by this non-horse-related talk on my horse post. She said as gently as possible.

  96. Barn Owl

    My horses used to be difficult to catch, and then I bought breakaway halters for them. You know, the kind with the thin leather “fuses”. Our hypothesis at the ranch is that a horse with a halter thinks it is already caught, and will therefore walk right up to the two-legged paddock intruder, to patiently accept the clipping on of the lead rope. I no longer have to chase my horses around the paddock (a futile exercise in any case), nor do I have to use bribes of sweet feed or range cubes. I also live in the Hill Country, so the paddock is as prickly and thorny with cactus and mesquite, as yours probably is, Twisty. Not a problem with the breakaway halters (just with tails and manes, of course).

  97. CunningAllusionment?

    This reminds me of an experiment of sorts at an elephant preserve in Thailand, where elephants were taught to play elephantine versions of traditional Thai instruments. What was interesting was how different elephants became particularly interested in different instruments that proceeded to carry around the preserve with them, playing where ever they went. Elephants would spontaneously gather to “jam” together, even began teaching the techniques to their young. The juveniles then innovated new playing techniques that the handlers hadn’t thought of, which were then picked up by the elephants.

    Human intelligence is not only highly overrated, it’s also far less unique than we’re accustomed to supposing.

  98. kristin

    “I’m trying to figure out if operant conditioning works on cats, and if so, what should I teach mine?”

    Oh, it certainly does. My little guy learned to come when he was called in the space of about 10 minutes. I used his breakfast, doled out in wee bites, and a clicker.

    Another breakfast, I taught him to sit up and “beg”. Next, I think I’ll teach him to run around in a circle like chasing his tail.

    He also loves to play fetch. Training him to do that wasn’t as structured as the other things. He just really loved it when I flicked his little toys so they jumped for him to catch, and cottoned on quick that if they were right by my hand I was way more likely to flick them. The flying toy was his reinforcement when he got it “right”. He’s the second fetching cat I’ve had, by the way, and the other one learned the same way.

    He’s a bright little guy, gets into lots of trouble (like Maypearl) if I don’t keep him busy, but he’s definitely not some aberrant genius supercat.

    “I think the difficulty for humans trying operant conditioning on cats is that cats don’t seem to have guaranteed reinforcers like dogs, horses, and humans.”

    Nonsense. Different cats want different things, but once you get to know a cat it’s easy to predict what they’ll work for. They’re exactly as trainable as any other social, intelligent animal. Youtube “clicker cat” or some variation on that.

  99. Jezebella

    Well, come to think of it, my two semi-Siamese cats taught *me* to play fetch with them. The older one isn’t interested any more, but the younger will play for hours. I just can’t think of anything I particularly want to teach the cats, since they do not have opposable thumbs and therefore cannot clean their own litterboxes.

  100. kristin

    I for one would *love* to teach all of mine to go in the toilet and bypass the litterbox entirely.

  101. joy

    Old post, but this topic is excellent.

    Peter, my gelding, was born prematurely and his mother never really took to him. Thus, he bonded most closely with human beings.

    His conditioning reinforcing, which non-horsepeople and a lot of horsepeople can never believe, is human affection. Specifically, my affection. He will do any number of spooky, terrible things (walk past a garbage can or mailbox or barking dog, jump a water-filled ditch, climb into the trailer, wear a plastic tarp as a cape) if he knows I will pet his ears or give him a hug. The main stopping block in his training wasn’t convincing him to stop bucking or running away — it was convincing him to stop coming to me every fifteen minutes for a hug.

    The love-based training has resulted in a horse who will stand stock still in the pasture and let me use him as the goal in a soccer game; allows me and a friend to play ‘tennis’ (catch) with him as the net; will simply cock an ear while I go ‘bowling’ (again with a soft ball) between his hooves; plants his feet and sighs when I throw a plastic tarp or a sheet over his entire head and body; jumps anything if I just stand still and point at it … freezes and wait for me to reassure him instead of simply bolting when he gets spooked.

    He learns tasks by watching, and will do them seemingly to entertain me with no other reward. He will attempt to ‘put away’ jumps, typically just knocking the rails out of the jump cups, after we ride. He knows how to turn on water spigots. He can open his own stall door, take himself out to the pasture, and close the gate behind himself if he wants to graze.

    It’s baffling to me why people think horses are stupid. Maybe men just can’t understand anything they can’t control.

  102. joy

    (Nooo! I left an ellipsis in there! In the wrong place! It was supposed to go at the end, to indicate ‘and so on, as per the readers’ imaginations.’ Editing fail.)

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