Sharon Madere, CHBC on October 17, 2015
Date of first inquiry from owner: January 2014
Date of first in-person consultation: March 1, 2014
Aurorra II, “Shark”
Status: Gelding (castrated at age 6, never bred)
YOB & Age: June 2004, 9.5 yrs old
Height: 15.1 h
Equine Body Condition Score: 5
Primary Presenting Behavioral Complaint: Aggression towards people (including biting), especially around food (hence the nickname “Shark”)
Additional Behavioral Complaint(s): Striking, kicking and bolting when lunged; bucking and bolting under saddle
Owner: Candice Piraino
Address: Camden, SC (recently moved to Southern Pines, NC)
Acquisition Details: Purchased in March 2011, age 7
Purpose: Pleasure riding, dressage, companion
Current Environment: Small private boarding facility (NOTE: I later learned that Shark had been in at least four different boarding facilities over the past few years)
Stabling Facilities: Run-in shed in turn out paddock
Turn Out: 60m x 60m paddock, short dormant grass, 3 board fencing, 10 ft. gate, water trough, several trees; paddock opened into larger pasture (1+acre) with jumps, gate remained open for full access
Conspecifics: 5 geldings on property, visual & auditory contact when in nearby paddocks
Management Schedule: Turn out 24/7
Diet: Pasture grass short and dormant (non-sufficient), orchard/alfalfa hay, Coolstance Copra feed
Feeding Schedule: 2-3 flakes hay, 1 lb. Coolstsance 2x daily; 10:00 am & between 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Medical History: Treated for possible ulcers early 2013, 28 days Gastro Guard; 28 days again in summer 2013; behavior seemed to improve slightly after the first round of medication
Current Medications: Allergy shots
Farrier Concerns/Comments: none
Veterinarian Concerns/Comments: Current veterinarian confirmed treatment for suspicion of ulcers (owner opted not to scope), reported slight improvement in behavior (slightly reduced intensity of aggressive displays and “grumpiness”), but still felt behavior was of significant concern.
Owner’s Report of Primary Problem Behavior:
Description: Severe food aggression, jaws open, teeth bared, ears pinned, attempts to bite. Owner reports at least 5 people (including owner) bitten on multiple occasions, total of over 30 bites
Date and conditions of onset: Behavior exhibited from time of acquisition; got worse when in full-time training and stalled 18 hours a day
Frequency: Multiple times each day
Time of day and duration: Feeding times, whenever person goes into stall or field, when being tacked
Context: At feeding times, then seemed to have generalized to other times, including tacking up
Location: In stall, field, cross-ties, etc.
People: Behavior exhibited towards all handlers
Owner’s Report of Additional Problem Behaviors:
Description: Striking, kicking and bolting (when handler on ground), bucking and bolting (when being ridden)
- Owner – When feeding, she would try to place the feed down quickly and get out the way as fast as possible.
- Boarding Facility Staff – It was reported that the staff would try to make Shark move to the back of the stall or away from the fence by using voice, waving arms and/or ropes and/or whips; then they would set the food down and quickly leave the stall or paddock.
- Trainer 1 – “Natural Horsemanship” – Shark was sent to another facility for approximately three months in 2011. Training techniques included round penning (chasing), and long-lining. Owner reported that Shark grew dramatically worse, and came home “frustrated and angry.”
- Trainer 2 – Dressage trainer – Owner moved Shark to a new boarding and training facility, where he was in training for approximately 12 months in 2012-2013, during which time the owner also took lessons from time to time on Shark. The goal was to be able to compete in Training Level dressage. When Shark tried to bite staff while being bridled, he would occasionally be hit in the face – but the biting behavior continued. Despite gaining a basic foundation of walk/trot/canter, there was no significant improvement in Shark’s general rideability – he continued to buck with trainer and owner, unseating both on numerous occasions. As a result of some of the falls, the owner sustained mild concussions and fractured coccyx.
I arrived on day 1, approximately 1 hour before afternoon feeding time. Shark was in turn out paddock, trying to nibble on what minimal grass was there (short and dormant, not a meaningful forage source). I toldthe horse owner I wanted to observe the normal feeding routine. Feeding was done by the barn manager, male aged 60+. As feeding time approached, Shark became mildly agitated and paced along the fence nearest to the barn. The manager carried shallow feeding pan with Coolstance along the fence line, then squeezed between the boards of the fence adjacent to the run-in shed, while holding the pan out in front of him and away from his body. Shark walked directly towards manager, neck & head stretched horizontally forward, ears pinned fully below topline of neck, eyes wide with whites showing, nostrils pulled back, lips open and teeth bared. Manager quickly placed the pan on the ground near the run in shed, then backed away and exited through the fence. Shark lowered his head and began to eat. While Shark was eating from the pan, the manager entered the paddock again carrying aprrox. 2 flakes of hay,
which he placed in the middle of the paddock (approx. 30 yards from Shark), then exited. When Shark finished eating the Coolstance, he walked immediately over to the hay and began eating at a rapid rate.
Immediate Antecedent: Person approaches with food
Behavior: Shark walks toward person with head and neck thrust forward, ears pinned and teeth bared
Consequence: Person sets down food and exits
Assessment: I felt there were numerous interwoven factors that most likely contributed to the initiation, maintenance and increasing intensity of this behavior. My hypothesis as to the development of the problem included:
- Extended periods of time without access to forage (both past and present) led to discomfort in the gut (and possibly painful ulcers), and overall emotional agitation due to feelings of hunger.
- As feeding times approached, anticipatory agitation would increase.
- When the person came to deliver the food, Shark’s hunger likely caused him to become pushy and/or grabby in attempts to get at the food.
- When Shark became pushy/grabby, the person would attempt to make him back away, most likely through swinging a hand, rope or whip towards him.
- Shark’s sense of deprivation would cause him to try harder to quickly get at the food.
- The person might become stronger in chasing or hitting to try to make Shark back off.
- The person might attempt to deliver the food faster.
- The combination of hunger, frustration, pain and fear led to an increase in the aggressive behaviors.
- The predictable and consistent delivery of food (positive reinforcement) was highly reinforcing and led to the maintenance of these behaviors.
- The predictable and consistent withdrawal of the human (negative reinforcement) most likely also played a role in maintaining the behaviors.
At the time of my first in-person consult (March 2014), it was apparent that Shark had strong negative emotions associated with the approach of a human, and especially one bringing food. Given that the food itself should produce positive emotions, it seemed to me that this set up a strong internal conflict. I determined the best approach would be a combination of:
- changes in management/feeding (free choice access to forage, 24/7)
- counter-conditioning (positive association of humans combined with the food)
- reinforcement of behavior and body language (possibly underlying emotion) incompatible with aggressive behaviors.
- The aggressive behavior had been ongoing for at least several years, and was reinforced daily each time Shark was fed
- The aggression had escalated to more than 30 actual bite incidents
- Prior attempts to address the problem seemed to have worsened both the behavior and the underlying emotional basis (misguided and ineffective attempts to punish using physical aversive such as hitting with hand or whip)
- The horse was at a boarding facility, which could make human compliance unreliable both in feeding and handling guidelines
- Long-standing history of forage deprivation contributed to generalized state of agitation
- Previous suspected ulcers could be again emerging
- The aggression occurred in multiple contexts, and also involved striking and kicking
- The owner was extremely committed and willing to make whatever changes were recommended for the welfare of her horse
Modification Plan & Training Day 1: After watching the feeding routine, I told the owner that we needed to give Shark at least 30 minutes to eat hay before beginning behavior modification. While we waited, I explained to her about the ethological and physiological needs of horses for forage, that the ideal would be 24/7 access, and how this would be one component to help address some of the underlying causes supporting the aggressive behavior (hunger, frustration, anticipation). She agreed to place several hay nets at various locations in the paddock, which would guarantee Shark unlimited access to forage. I also explained the process I would be using: positive reinforcement with a sound marker (tongue-click followed by piece of carrot) to help change the underlying emotions from unhappy to happy, and to shape and teach specific behaviors. I considered two possible options for the first intervention: 1) Using protective contact with a fence or other barrier between me and Shark; or 2) Working in the paddock with Shark at liberty. (I did not consider using a remote treat delivery device, as the only ones I am aware of are suitable for dogs or cats, but not adequate for horses.) I did have some concerns for my safety when considering going in to the paddock with Shark at liberty. However, after carefully observing Shark’s behavior before, during and after the barn manager brought in the pan of feed, I that working at liberty would yield better results than restricting him with a barrier, as that restriction might intensify his frustration.
I entered the paddock with a pouch full of small carrot pieces, and approached Shark from the front as he was standing over his hay. When I reached about 10 yards distance from him, he flattened his ears, snarled his nostrils, bared his teeth, and extended his head & neck horizontally towards me (threat display). However, he did not charge or move his feet towards me. I continued to walk slowly towards him, my left arm fully extended with a handful of carrot pieces. As I came within reach, Shark took one or two steps towards me, made a small thrusting gesture with his mouth open and teeth showing, and I immediately shoved the handful of carrots directly against his teeth. He pushed his teeth against my hand and roughly took the carrots, but did not actually bite me. As fast as he took the carrots, I used my right hand to place more pieces into the palm of my left hand, which I left directly under and next to Shark’s mouth so that he would not have to reach to have access to the carrots. My goal with this non-contingent feeding was to pair the unrestricted access to a high value food with my continued neutral presence, without reacting to his aggressive display – neither swinging/hitting at him, nor backing away.
I continued to “shovel” pieces of carrots for about 30 seconds, at which point there was a very slight softening of Shark’s ears. They were still pinned back, but no longer below the crest of his neck. He continued to roughly grab at the carrots that were continually offered, and though his teeth made contact with my palm each time, he still did not bite. After about 1 minute his ears flicked momentarily to a more neutral position, and his expression appeared to be one of slight curiosity (this was not what he expected). After another 30 seconds or so his expression continued to soften, and I began using a tongue-click immediately prior to placing carrot pieces in my palm for him to eat. I continued to use this 2-handed approach, quickly taking carrot pieces from the pouch with my right hand, clicking, and placing them on my left palm. This was because I wanted to keep the rate of reinforcement rapid (1 per second), with virtually no pauses in between and no withdrawal of my feeding hand, in order not to give Shark opportunity to lunge and bite at me.
His expression softened slightly more (though still showed moments of strong aggressive display). At one point he actually flicked his ears forward, and I ended this first mini-session with an especially big handful of carrots, then backed away keeping myself facing forward to watch him. He lowered his head and resumed eating his hay. Note that in this first mini-session, the delivery of carrots was completely non-contingent on Shark’s behavior. I continued to feed regardless of how much or little aggressive behavior was shown. When introducing the tongue click, I was simply using it prior to delivery of the carrot to form an association – the clicks were not contingent on any specific behavior.
The owner and her friend (a veterinary technician) were quite amazed at this first mini-session, and the owner had tears in her eyes – she said she had not believed anything like this could be possible.
After a several minute break, I returned to Shark. When I approached he again gave a threat display, though slightly less intense than before. I continued the rapid non-contingent feeding, pairing a tongue click with delivery of carrot. His expression moved slightly more towards neutral. After a couple minutes I took another break for a minute or so, then returned for another session. On the next session, he kept his ears forward as I approached. When I got within a few feet, I clicked (before his ears could go back) and offered the carrot in outstretched hand as I continued to walk towards him. I then began waiting for his ears to be in a neutral position before clicking, and reinforcing a gradually more relaxed expression. By the end of the fifth mini-session, he stood with ears softly forward for approximately 10 seconds, during which I continued to click and give carrots.
We ended the first day’s training, and placed enough hay in various places of the paddock to make sure Shark would have plenty of forage throughout the night and until we came back in the morning. That evening at dinner I gave Shark’s owner and the vet-tech a brief crash course in the basics of learning theory and behavior modification, with emphasis on the power of positive reinforcement.
Training Day 2: The goals for the second day were to continue reinforcing Shark for more relaxed body language while in proximity to a person with food,to teach him simple targeting behavior, and to coach the owner in the use of the techniques.
We began in the morning, and Shark appeared to be less agitated than he had been the prior afternoon. I attributed this to him having had access to hay throughout the night. Over the course of the morning I worked directly with Shark, then coached his owner in various observation and handling skills. I used short sessions (1 – 3 minutes) with brief breaks between (30 seconds to several minutes). I also took occasional longer breaks to allow Shark to eat hay, and to discuss the process with the owner. The majority of sessions were conducted with Shark at liberty in his paddock (no halter or rope). Later in the morning we brought Shark into the barn (using halter and rope) for additional husbandry training (primarily cooperative hoof handling).
In the first session I began with non-contingent feeding. In subsequent sessions I used tongue-click sound followed by carrot pieces to mark and reinforce softer body language (ears, eyes, nostrils, lips, etc.), and later to shape specific behaviors.
Progression of reinforcement:
1) Softening of various aspects of body language while standing next to or in front of me
2) Softening of various aspects of body language while being approached by me
3) Softening of various aspects of body language while walking towards me
4) Targeting object with nose
In the first sessions Shark again showed clear aggressive body language (ears back, bared teeth, etc), though it was markedly reduced in intensity and in duration as compared to the first day. By the 5th or 6th mini-session he was showing a significant decrease in aggressive displays and increase in calm body language.
Because I knew I would be leaving that afternoon and would not be able to return for at least a month, I intentionally structured some of the sessions to test the limits of his threshold – i.e, what aspects of poor timing, missed reinforcement opportunities, erratic movements, etc. might re-trigger the aggression and potential biting. I felt this was ethically required, because I needed to be able to caution the owner about her interactions with Shark in my absence.
One interesting item of concern became apparent about mid-morning: I was working in the paddock, with Shark at liberty, standing about 15 feet from the perimeter fence. I had just finished a mini-session, and turned to walk towards the fence in order to exit. Shark walked quickly beside and then in front of me to block my access to the fence/exit. His expression was not that of the previous extreme aggression, but was consistent with body language associated with moderate resource guarding. I pointed this out to the owner, and immediately initiated a different “exiting” protocol to insure safety. This included working much closer to the point of exit, and ending the session by placing a large handful of carrots on the ground away from the direction of exit.This approach proved successful, and there were no further blocking incidents that day. During extended break periods in my sessions with Shark, I spent time working with the owner on basic mechanical skills, observation and timing exercises WITHOUT the horse. After the owner demonstrated sufficient proficiency, we then brought her into the paddock and repeated the above progression of reinforcement with Shark.
Initially I had the owner begin with non-contingent feeding. Then I had her perform only one aspect of the training components:
- I would observe Shark’s body language & click, then the owner would give the carrot (at first I would guide her hand)
- Owner would present the target (at first I would guide her hand), I would observe, click and give the carrot.
- I would present the target, owner would observe & click (I would also click so that she could compare her timing with mine, and also so that we could be careful not to frustrate Shark), I would give the carrot.
Fortunately, this owner demonstrated exceptional aptitude, and achieved a functional level of skill in a very short period of time. By the end of the morning the owner was able to successfully perform all aspects of the cue-observe-click-reinforce sequence. In this particular case it was imperative to have the owner work with the horse that day, since I was located 7 hours away and she would need to take over the process immediately. However, even if I had been available to work with this horse for several days or weeks, I believe it would have been important to involve the owner as soon as possible, as this helps the horse to more effectively generalize the new relaxed behavior with multiple people.
Later in the barn with Shark wearing a halter we worked on:
- Calm acceptance of touching/handling various body parts
- Lifting of hooves for cleaning
We continued to use the sound marker and carrots as reinforcement for calm cooperation.
At the close of our training time on Day 2, Shark’s general demeanor was greatly improved, with increased relaxation and acceptance, and minimal signs of mild aggression.
I provided the owner with specific instructions for daily routine, including 24/7 access to suitable forage, continued use of the sound marker/carrots to reinforce calm and pleasant behavior. I also cautioned her to cease any attempts at lunging or riding for at least one month until I could return and re-assess the situation.
I spoke via phone with the owner daily for the next week, asking for descriptions of Shark’s behavior each day, answering her questions, and offering suggestions for minor adjustments to the routine. Following this I remained available to answer questions via phone or email as needed for the next several weeks.
Return Visit 1
I returned approximately one month later. The owner had relocated, renting a property where she could live and have facilities to care for Shark herself. She also had two miniature-horse mares on site, pastured in an adjacent field. I was delighted to find that the owner had done a very good job implementing all aspects of the feeding, management and behavior modification protocol, and Shark’s aggressive behavior was virtually non-existent in the new routine. The change of location most likely also played a role, in that there were no bad associations for him in the new environment. The protocol I had advised was focused on improving the trust and pleasant interactions between Shark and his owner, and thus specifically avoided asking Shark to do anything beyond the bare minimum that one would expect of a pasture horse.
Therefore when I returned I wanted to press Shark a little bit to find the thresholds that might begin to re-trigger any aggressive behavior. Again, I felt this to be vitally important in order to be able to advise the owner about safety concerns. For example, during this visit I attempted to cue Shark to back-up with a very light touch/pressure of the palm of my hand on the point of his shoulder – at which point he attempted to strike me with his near foreleg. My response was to leave the paddock for a few moments, then return and ask for an easier, recently reinforced behavior (targeting). Shark was successful and displayed no additional aggression. I again attempted to cue backing, this time with slight pressure on the lead-rope/halter. Shark did not strike, but was resistant and did not back up, so I discontinued these attempts and returned to asking for the easily reinforced behavior of targeting.
Mid-way through our work in this new paddock, Shark again attempted to block my exit at the end of one of our mini-sessions. Unfortunately I had forgotten the previous “exiting” protocol from my initial visit. I asked the owner if she had experienced this with him, and she replied that she had not had this problem, despite the fact that she, too, had not been consistent in the exiting protocol. My theory is that Shark may have found my interactions with him more intensely reinforcing vs. his interactions with the owner – possibly a combination of my very high rate of reinforcement and no prior history of aversive experiences with me? I immediately went back to the exiting protocol, and advised the owner to do the same each time in order to prevent the possible reoccurrence or escalation of this blocking behavior.
(TO BE CONTINUED –
I continued to return for follow up consultations and training, reintroducing Shark and his owner to lunge work and riding. The intervention and outcome was highly successful, and the details of the issues and problem-solving techniques to come in future installments.)
Status and/or Resolution I was able to return several more times in the following months, always delighted to see the great progress of Shark and his owner. The owner decided to host a full-day Equine Behavior and Positive Reinforcement Training Workshop, and thus was able to advance her own learning and understanding of the science. She was so encouraged with Shark’s progress that she wanted to bring him to an event at the end of the summer, and I offered to
advise and coach her participation in The Baroque Equestrian Games. The transformation of trust and mutual enjoyment in their relationship was profound – so much so that within 3 months of re-establishing saddle work through the use of positive reinforcement, Shark and his owner WON the Musical Presentation (Initiate) Section! (This in a class of seven competitors, three of whom were full-time professional trainers/instructors.)
There are still challenges ahead – specifically in canter work – but with her growing understanding of the science of learning and positive reinforcement techniques, as well as more exposure to correct Classical riding principles, this owner and her horse are headed for a very happy ending.
As previously stated, this owner was exceptional, and eagerly followed all suggestions and instructions. Although she was new to the concepts and techniques of positive reinforcement training, she did have a good basic
understanding and experience level in general horsemanship.
Shark’s aggression issues around food are a great example of how a lack of understanding of the basic ethological and physiological needs of the horse, combined with escalating yet ineffective use of aversives (positive punishment and negative reinforcement), can backfire in a big, BIG way. His problems on the lunge line can be directly attributed to the pseudo-science of popular “natural horsemanship” mythology. His dangerous behavior under saddle was a clear response to less-than-enlightened and/or improperly implemented modern dressage training philosophies which all too often put the horse in conflict and works against his natural bio-mechanics.
- American Association of Equine Practitioners, Body Condition Scoring System
- de la Gueriniere, Francois Robichon (1730) Ecole de Cavalerie (School of Horsemanship)
- Foley, Sharon (2007) Getting to Yes: Clicker Training for Improved Horsemanship
- Gonzalez, Bruno – Personal conversations, demonstrations and training with Classical cavesson
- McGreevy, Paul (2012) Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists
- Pryor, Karen (2006) Don’t Shoot the Dog (revised)
- Ramirez, Ken (1999) Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement