Monday, February 2, 2015

Equine Enrichment in Winter- Keeping Horses Happily Busy




Ande grazing at 10 below zero in January

One of the newer concepts to come along in horse management is enrichment.  I first heard of enrichment as it relates to zoo animals.  Those who are responsible for animals which are meant to live in the wilds of the world and who are now kept in captivity have been working hard to come up with ways to provide stimulation.  Horses were also originally designed to live in the wild and while the majority of them could not survive in the wild today due to their breeding or upraising, they maintain many of the needs of their wild cousins living on the plains of the world. Enrichment is a way to provide for some of those needs. I have incorporated a few management practices toward this end.

Horses are grazers.  Grazing fulfills many equine requirements including nutrition, movement and entertainment. When we take away their ability to graze, either by confining them or keeping them in climates where grazing is not available, we take all of this away from them.  

I start my daily routine the night before, after my night barn check, when I throw a bale of hay out the loft window into the snow below.  From there, I load it onto a sled, and drag it to the fence closest to the house.  There it sits, until I go out in the morning.  In this way, I can put hay out for the horses without going into the barn and stirring everyone up.  I drag the sled as far as I can out into the pasture before cutting open the bale.  Then I drop one flake and slog at least 20-30 steps through the snow before dropping the next flake.  I continue in this way until the entire bale is spread across the field. 
If you look closely, you can see the dots of hay I have distributed in the distance


This gives the horses plenty of walking to do when I let them out (and has the added advantage of getting my own blood flowing so I get warmed up). They hike out to where the hay is and have plenty of walking and eating as they move from pile to pile cleaning up the hay. They make paths in the snow and the next day I use those paths to get started, but then push off further so they keep going new places, until we get another snowfall and start all over again. 

While eating hay off the ground mimics the position of a grazing horse, it is not the same as grazing.  Grazing involved tearing the grass from the ground with teeth and muscles. It involves using whiskers and muzzle to find the best parts. I have found my horses really enjoy the slow feeder nets I fill with hay for noon feeding because they get to do that combination of nibbling and biting and tearing. My own favorites are the Busy Horse nets  but there are several different brands.  The Busy Horse nets have no strings to get tangled up and since mine frequently manage to get them off their hooks with all the tugging they do, that is important to me. None of my horses wear shoes so I don't need to worry about a shoe getting caught in them.  As such, I hang them low, to keep chaff from getting into eyes and to better replicate the browsing of low bushes they would do in the wild. 
Early on this morning, Percy left the free hay on the ground in favor of wrestling with this slow feeder net.

One problem I have had is a certain large gray mare discovered she could just stuff her nose down into top making the "slow" part of the name irrelevant.  The only solution I could come up with is to weave the tops closed with baling twine which adds a time-consuming (and finger numbing on cold mornings) chore to the process. It's a bit dangerous as well since George, the barn cat, enjoys attacking the bale string as I weave it: cat enrichment. Putting the horses' noontime hay in these feeders makes the same amount of hay last several hours, as opposed to one hour. The guts stay occupied; the mouths stay occupied; the brains stay occupied. They are often just finishing it when I go out in the late afternoon to bring them in for the night. On days which I have to leave the farm, I can put the nets out in the morning in addition to their bale spread in the field and I know they have food and and are occupied for longer than they would otherwise.


 
Note- on windy days, all hay is fed in these nets to prevent it from blowing away before the horses can eat it!


Rumer happily munching on the Christmas tree
Another fun thing to chew on is tree bark. Please be careful to make sure you know your toxic plants in the area before offering your horses anything like this to chew on.  Our favorites are evergreens, including our Christmas tree when we're done with it, and poplar trees. The horses will strip the bark right off the poplars and make it look like a family of beavers has been through the paddock. If I get desperate toward the end of winter and have some apples which have gotten a little too soft for eating, I will sometimes adorn the poplar branches with apple chunks. 



I have one other enrichment activity that I do, but not daily.  I save it for a particularly cold day or one when I think they need a little something extra. I collect plastic bottles and put a couple handfuls of hay stretcher pellets in each. I don't know that horses ever have to work this hard to get their food in nature and interestingly, I found out that it can really bring out some aggressiveness in them as they resource guard the bottles.  So I wait until I have one for each horse and then I distribute them far apart so they each have one to work at and play with.  Each has his or her own style.  Percy uses his prehensile lips to maneuver and gracefully spin the bottle so the pellets spill out.  Ande paws at it with his feet.  Mariah bats it with her whole head. These are a one-use-only toy but they're free, and even easier to recycle after having been flattened. And amazingly, rarely do I find any pellets left in the bottles so they must get them out before really squashing them.


Before
After
All these things help to keep everyone a little less bored through the long winter days as we wait, not so patiently, for Spring to return. 


video

Friday, January 23, 2015

Weary of Winter? Training Skills to Make It Easier



That's pretty wild.  I just uploaded this photo and the blogging program made it snow on it.  It was snowing when I took it.  Sometimes the internet is really creepy.  

It is appropriate since this post is about dealing with winter. Winter means different things to different people. Living close to the 45th parallel (amazing the things I learn while writing), and at an elevation of 1658 ft, this is about as harsh a winter as I ever want to deal with.  I know some have it harder, but this is enough for me.  It is beautiful, it is refreshing, it is a welcome break from all things hot and sticky (see previous blogpost for examples!). But it is enough.

Winter presents new management challenges: water freezes, grass disappears, many layers of clothes are required for outdoor activities. Last fall I thought it would be a good idea to write about some specific training goals to make winter more bearable.  Unfortunately, I did not get it written before hard winter hit, so if you find some of these things potentially useful, you can try working on them now (depending on the conditions you live in) or you can put them on the calendar to work on when it's warmer so you'll be well prepared when next winter comes.  I had some of these things trained already, but when I posted my proposal on my Facebook page, people had suggestions for other things which I'm working on this winter, when I can.  
Kizzy has frosted eyelashes at 9 below zero
Two things which I had trained for general purposes but which come in very handy in winter are following a fist target and backing at gates.  In the winter, a fist target becomes a glove or mitten target.  It seemed to be an easy transition for the horses, probably due to my body position (arm extended out to the side) being the real cue, and following whatever was held out is the behavior.  They have learned to follow target sticks, pinwheels, flapping tarps and other things I hold out, so a heavily mittened hand was not strange.  Why is this handy in the winter?  Because haltering is not easy in frigid temperatures.  My horses all "self halter"; I hold out a halter and they put their noses down into the noseband.  But then there are two options depending on how you maintain your halters.  I prefer leaving the crown piece done up so I just have to slip it over their ears.  Others prefer to leave the throat latch done up and do the buckle behind an ear each time.  Doing up buckles is not easy when you really don't want to take off gloves.  And if you do take your gloves off and your hands are the least bit damp, your fingers immediately freeze to the metal buckles.  ouch. 

Leaving the crown pieces buckled allows me to slip halters over ears but I have found that when ears are the least bit damp, they become more sensitive.  Individuals who have no problem with ear handling in mild weather will pull away.  That tells me that they probably feel the way my fingers do when they are cold: a lot less tolerant of manipulation or being bumped.  

In any case, one solution is to just avoid halters altogether and target horses where they need to go.  Paddock to pasture, pasture to stall, stall to paddock.  There aren't a lot of reasons to go elsewhere so they quickly learn the routine even without a target, unless I decide to swap something around and change the routine.  In that instance, a fist target is just as reliable as a halter.  

Backing up when I open a gate is just polite manners.  I don't need six equines crowding each other and trying to rush the opening to get inside for dinner.  In the summer, there is less pressure on the situation because they've been out in the sleepy sun grazing (unless of course they are desperate to get away from bugs).  When the temperature can't decide if it's above or below zero, the horses want to eat non-stop, they want to move to keep warm and they want to get into the barn out of the wind at the end of the day.  I make sure that my pockets are stuffed with hay stretcher pellets when it's time to turn them in.  Anyone who backs away from the gate or door gets a handful on the ground in front of them.  That both reinforces them for the backing and keeps them busy for a moment while I bring other horses in.  My over achiever then does not want to go in when I leave the door open.  He shows me he can wait until everyone else has gone in and then still stand waiting politely while I hold the door open. This is where the "walk on" cue comes in handy. I do not want to target him in because if I go inside, I let go of the door and the wind slams it on him.  So I need to get him to walk past me into his stall.

In addition to these two basics which my guys already know, I am working on two others this winter: walking behind me (as opposed to next to me) and standing for blanketing.  
Narrow paths through the snow. It doesn't look deep on either side, but trust me, step off that path and you're over your knees. 
I have a very strong preference for a horse who walks beside me when we are together.  For me, it is a safety issue. I do not want a horse behind me in case something startles him and he scoots forward.  Others think differently but this is my strong preference.  In the winter, it becomes a challenge when the horses have worn narrow paths through deep snow.  There isn't room for walking side by side.  Somebody has to wallow through the snow if you try.  In thinking about how to train this, I decided simple targeting, again, was the answer.  I have played with both Rumer and Percy with this.  Their initial confusion points out that my body position for following a target is the cue, rather than the fist itself.  When I tried to walk holding a fist behind me, they did not "see" it.  I had to introduce this position slowly.  I could have done it by gradually moving my hand from out to the side to a position further and further back until it was behind me.  That is what I would do if I was training it in the summer.  But I am training in the situation of narrow paths already existing.  Therefore, I changed my body position, rather than the arm and horse positions.  I stood sideways in the path and had the horse target my hand close to their nose.  Then I rotated slightly, facing further forward and repeated.  I proceeded this way until I was facing forward, with the horse/pony behind me, targeting my fist behind me. I did this all at a standstill. Then I took a step, click/treat.  Both Percy and Rumer took bigger steps than I did and were immediately breathing down my neck.  But this turned out to be a good thing because when I stopped, they stopped and had to back up to touch my fist and get the treat.  I decided this was a good lesson- to watch me and be ready to back up if I stop. If I take a header into the snow, I'd like to know the horse behind me is watching in case I stop and will be ready to stop and back up!  Once they are comfortable with this, I will decide what cue to put on it.  If I am carrying a hay net or water bucket, I cannot also hold a fist out behind me so there will need to be an alternate cue.

The last thing I am working on is holding still for blanketing.  You might think this would be easy and if you had asked me, I would have said so as well.  The problem I have is that I have trained each of mine to back up from a very light contact cue on the chest and/or when I face them and step close to the chest.  Well, guess what?  I do exactly those two things when doing up the chest buckles on a blanket. I face them, close to their chests and have hand contact as I fiddle with the buckles.  They back up. Because I don't blanket often, this isn't something that we practice much so with the recent cold biting wind, I've been thinking how to resolve this (the surcingles and leg straps and tail strap are not a problem- doing them up does not mimic any other cues).

My first thought was to have them target something with their nose and my second thought was to use the "stand" cue.  The problem with both of these is that while I know they would comply with those two requests, it remains that touching the chest and facing them would still be a cue to back up and in any other situation, I would expect them to move on to that next cue.  So they are doing exactly as trained.  I have also foolishly allowed them to back until they get to a wall, hoping that might stop them but they have each either learned how to back through a corner (to teach them to displace hips toward me) or learned to problem solve well enough that when cued to back when their butts are up against a wall, they adjust and find a way to keep backing. 

Right now I am thinking that the blanket itself needs to be the cue to stand, regardless of where I stand and what I do.  So I am training it from the start, recognizing that I will need to really micro shape and click often to catch them standing before they start to back.  Something I noticed the first couple times I tried, is that using food as a reinforcer also gets in the way of keeping them from backing, since I have trained a default of drawing back a bit after a click (as opposed to reaching toward me for the treat). 

My solution for this is to use scratching as a reinforcer.  There are many complicated ways to train secondary or alternative reinforcers but I took the direct and easy approach. Blanket wearing also causes the itchies.  So I touch a blanket buckle, and then scratch the chest (no click since for me click=food reinforcer).  Scratching the chest makes them want to lean in to me, rather than back away.  I pull out the end of the blanket strap or undo a snap and scratch again.  Any thought of backing away is negated by that scratch.  Slowly repeating this process has changed horses who want to back away, into horses who gladly stand for, what they think, is a chest scratching, but for me is an opportunity to do up or undo chest buckles.
Blankets piled on the door after being taken off for a sunny day.
Next topic- some simple ways I enrich my horses' winter days.
  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Gratitude

Earlier in the Fall, I mentioned I wanted to do some blog posts on how to make winter more bearable. I got some suggestions for topics (thank you!) which I will address in a future post on training for winter life.

But to get started, I thought it worthwhile to mention how grateful I am for winter. Sometimes it can be hard to remember why we live this far north and often I think it's because at least the summers up here are heavenly. But there are a lot of reasons to be grateful for winter itself.  

The first thing most people mention is: NO BUGS. That is indeed a reason to celebrate. My horses spend more time in the sheds in summer to escape from bugs than they do in winter to escape from weather. This summer I had my first experience with "sweet itch". Previously I had only heard of it in Thelwell cartoons but my poor Kizzy pony found it was nothing to joke about. She had enormous welts and was miserably itchy, all caused by tiny biting midges. Our days became a rotation of bathing, itching and trying to find ways to get the necessary medications into her. Neither of us was sad to see that come to an end and we've had a nice long reprieve. 

And speaking of parasites, the landscape above is not a friendly environment for any parasite which spends a portion of its lifecycle outside of the horse on the ground. They may awaken when it warms up again, but some must die or be weakened by extreme temperatures and conditions.


Winter offers interesting training opportunities, not the least of which is a break.  I can be thankful I don't have access to an indoor (ok, I really had to stretch for that one). My horses get very different training experiences in the winter and that will be the topic for another day, but at least it's a variety. We kept working as long as we could into the early snows but the footing has now put an end to that, even when the temperatures are mild. We may get opportunities here and there, depending on the winter, but for now, we'll focus on things we can work on inside, in a stall or the barn aisle: things which get neglected during the sunny days of summer when we want to be outdoors and taking advantage of the warmth and sun.

There are physical advantages for health when the snows come. Mariah came in with a small cut on her pastern the other day, but I did not need to worry about bugs irritating it, dirt getting into it, or swelling.  The cold and snow take care of all three of those things! My hoof trimmer also mentioned how much she loves the way the snow packs nicely into hooves to stimulate the frog and sole with every step. 

Finally, I love the silence of winter. We live in a quiet and remote place, but even here in the summer there are sounds of distant neighbors, cars passing on the road and again, those darn bugs buzzing around. The snow not only cuts down on noisy outdoor activities, but it muffles the world.  Each morning, the barn cat, George, and I spend a few minutes leaning on a dutch door, admiring the scenery and discussing things. The only sound is his purr and I love it.

Bookends Farm wishes you peace, happiness, love and gratitude in the coming year~




Friday, November 21, 2014

When Can I Stop Clicking and Feeding? Building Chains and Sequences

A quiet and attentive Percy
I think everyone who has ever looked into Clicker Training has asked the question, "When can I stop clicking and treating?"  I know as a trainer, I have heard it more times than I can count and I also know I used to ask that same question myself.  I have heard, and given, many responses. Last week I had the opportunity to ask Percy that question. One of Alexandra Kurland's expressions is, "Go to people for opinions and horses for answers".  

Percy has learned everything in life with clicker training.  He learned how to lead, how to stand for grooming, how to get on a trailer, how to wear a saddle, how to take a bit- everything has been trained with clicker training.  Furthermore, everything has been maintained, at times, with the clicker.  I did not train him to stay by my side with a lead on and then stop using the clicker and treats for leading.  I know that behavior which is reinforced is more likely to be repeated.  I knew that if I was leading him out to the pasture, he was being reinforced by being turned out- no click and treat necessary for going forward with me.  There was, however, the occasional need for walking politely next to me rather than pulling ahead to get turned loose sooner.  If we are going somewhere new, or close to something which is scary looking, I click and treat steps forward- that's a more difficult behavior than walking with me to the pasture. I continue to refine all behaviors and that's one reason to keep clicking and treating.

I knew that by starting all grooming experiences with a clicker and treats had turned him into a horse who enjoys being groomed and so lots of times I groom him from forelock to hoof with no clicks or treats. I make sure the tools I use and the way I use them are reinforcing and so I do not need anything else.  On those days, the experience of being groomed even reinforces standing still on the cross ties.

Other days it is windy and there are noises which concern him.  Those days I click and reinforce head height as that is an indicator of his comfort level and I want him to learn that it's reinforcing to work toward relaxation.  I click and treat a slight drop of his head, then another.  I proceed to groom and watch his head.  Soon he relaxes, the grooming reinforcement kicks in, adds to the clicks and treats and he is calmly standing to enjoy his massage.  

Now it is winter.  It is cold and muscles are tight.  It's hard to stand still and he wants to move to stay warm.  There's a reason massage therapists have warm rooms and heated blankets on their tables.  It helps people to relax so they can enjoy the massage.  I do not have a heated barn aisle.  In the winter I use clicks and treats more to help him relax while I groom him.

But what about arena work?  What about ridden work? After people settle in their minds that yes, we do click and treat from the saddle, they fear they will never be able to just ride without constantly stopping to click and treat every step of the way.  When can we stop clicking and treating so often?  This is the question I asked Percy last week.  

I know I can reinforce one behavior by asking for another behavior that he enjoys doing- that's why I was able to reinforce walking with me to the pasture by releasing him to go play and graze.  One way I have ensured that I have lots of behaviors he enjoys doing, is by training them with positive reinforcement.  He likes to respond to my cues- he has had fun learning them and has gotten lots of reinforcement for performing them. This would not be so if he'd been forced, with pressure or equipment or fear.  That's why clicker trained horses offer behaviors- they like to do them, plain and simple.  

When I completed my training to earn my KPA CTP (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner), one of the things we had to do for graduation was demonstrate this by having our dogs perform 10 behaviors in a row, with each one acting as a reinforcer for the previous one- one click and treat at the end of all ten.  The key to doing this is to cue the next behavior at the moment you would have clicked the previous one.  What this meant was these 10 behaviors were completed in about 30 seconds!  I can't remember the exact behaviors I used for Eloise but as an example, if I cued "sit", then as soon as her fuzzy butt hit the floor, I'd cue "pop" for her to leap off the ground and as soon as her feet left the ground for that leap, I'd cue "down" so she'd land and lie down immediately and as soon as her fuzzy tummy hit the ground, I'd cue something else.  You get the picture. It was fast! But I got ten behaviors, all for one click and treat.

When we received this assignment and understood it, I couldn't wait to bring it home to Percy.  And I was thrilled to be able to come up with ten behaviors I could use, and even more thrilled when I tried it and he was successful.  Those behaviors included Alex's Foundation Lessons such as head down, following a target, stand on a mat, and Grownups, in addition to a "wait" and recall I had taught him.  

But still- what about riding?  How am I going to maintain a gait around and around the arena?  One step at a time.  I had built a quiet walking next to me behavior one step at a time. Then we'd go a few more steps before a click and treat. In working with him in the arena, I have defined the "walk on" behavior by using the criteria of ten steps.  I cued a verbal "walk on", and after ten steps, I clicked and treated.  But then I linked those tens together, so that instead of clicking after ten steps, I verbally cued "walk on" so he would walk another ten steps.  Then I clicked and treated.  He was fine with that. Remember, this is a busy boy who is not just going to walk around with me ad nauseum because I say so.  He's perfectly capable of creating his own entertainment (grabbing a bite of grass, touching the electric rope with his nose just to show me he knows the part around the arena is not on, stopping to dig in the sand and roll…these are all things he likes to do and will do if I'm not clear about what it is which will earn reinforcement).  Creating his own entertainment is highly reinforcing. I don't stop behaviors or punish behaviors.  I avoid unwanted behaviors,  by being clear with my cues about precisely what they mean.  And reinforcing them when executed correctly.  

It was quite clear he understood the ten steps.  And quite clear he was comfortable with my cueing another ten.  So I added a third ten.  Not a problem, not a bobble.  No grass grabbing, no fence poking, just quiet steps.  I added other behaviors he likes.  We'd go ten steps and then do "Grownups", standing quietly at my side when I fold my hands at my waist.  We'd do that and then do another ten steps.  We'd go ten steps and then another ten and then step over a rail on the ground.  I mixed things up but stuck to clear and happily performed behaviors.  I began to build a 30 step unit of steps by leaving out one of the cues, and then another.  He did not get frustrated or impatient or bored.  He stayed mentally connected with me so that when I cued something different, he was right there to respond to a verbal or hand or body cue.  If he had not responded promptly, I would have known that behavior did not meet criteria and I would have needed to go back and do a better job of training it. 

At the end of our session that day, I had chained 6 behaviors.  Because one behavior could now be defined as 30 steps or a duration of standing quietly, it really could be several minutes between clicks.  I plan to keep building on this, working on the individual behaviors, keeping them clean, chaining more together and defining some by location rather than just duration, so we can go for longer and longer periods of time without a click and treat- but there will still be lots of reinforcement.  
Percy creating his own entertainment by stealing the fencing mallet.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Treat Values for Horses and Dogs

A recent conversation on Facebook sparked some conversation regarding using varied reinforcers with horses and I mentioned that I had my own theories.  Theories is probably the wrong word and I should have said "thoughts".  A couple people asked me to expand so here it is.

I believe Dr Jesús Rosales-Ruiz  did research showing that "jackpots" (for any species?) interrupted the flow of learning.  I'm not sure how the research was done, nor what was defined as a jackpot. A fellow trainer whom I highly respect, Amanda Martin, says she took the question to her horses and they told her the same.  So there are two camps that would seem to indicate that.

When I train dogs and help clients with their dogs, I do carefully use different values of reinforcers.  Following Susan Garrett's model, I make sure we have a careful ranking of reinforcers- at least ten. This list will be different for each animal, including those dogs who prefer play (or work) to food. When I ask for responses to cues in a distracting environment, I use higher value reinforcers: more difficult for the dog to do, therefore it pays better. I stock my treat pouch with higher quality treats so that every effort while working on that skill is rewarded with a high value reinforcer.  To me, that conditions that behavior more strongly with positive associations than if I used a lower value reinforcer.  Later, when the behavior is better known or easier for any reason, I start using lower value reinforcers and the higher value ones get put away for a time when they are needed.
I used to use three different levels of treat with my horses: hay stretcher pellets, peppermint flavored horse treats and wrapped people peppermints.  They were enjoyed by my horses in that order.  I never noticed a change in the training flow but I never actually documented time or any other way of assessing whether there might be an interruption.  I could easily see that the time it took to unwrap a peppermint slowed things down, and they probably did take longer to eat since the horses savored them.  What I don't know is if that slowed or in any other way negatively affected the training or whether the speed was made up for by the increased value of the peppermint once the horse got the treat.

I think many years ago I kept all three treats in my pocket and would give the horse a specific treat dependent on the quality or effort they put in each offered behavior. Now I think that is the purpose of a shaping plan; once you get the behavior, you carefully shape such that you only click the efforts which are "average or better" (another technique learned from Susan Garrett)- the treat can remain the same.  It's the clicks which pinpoint the quality. And it's my job to set the animal up so that he knows what "better" is.  I don't want a frustrated learner who does not get clicked- I need to keep the ratio of clicked efforts to unclicked efforts very high.

When the research came out saying that jackpots interrupted the flow of learning, I faded the high quality treats myself for horses and almost exclusively use hay stretcher pellets now.  
However, I do wonder, looking back, if my higher value treats with the horses were helpful.  One thing I used the wrapped peppermints for was training Percy's recall and that is still an amazingly strong behavior for him.  I also used to use it to end a session, and that did not work terribly well since it made him want more.  Now I use a handful of hay stretcher pellets on the floor as an end of session indicator.  Interestingly, emergency recalls are one place I still use high value treats with my own dogs.  As I explain it to clients, I want that dog to hear my emergency recall cue and come FLYING to me IMMEDIATELY.  I have several conversational recalls I use which mean anything from "hey, when you're done sniffing there, I really would like to continue walking" to "Hurry up, it's bloody cold out and I want to open the house door and go in".  My emergency recall is for times such as the UPS truck is coming in the driveway at about 70 miles per hour and I want you all right here by my feet right now.  Or they've disappeared into the woods after a sniff and I'm starting to worry so please return right now. For those times, my cue is a whistle and the dogs (those which can still hear) come racing back.  For that, they get the best I have to offer- I usually try to keep string cheese in my pocket but if I've got steak fat trimmings or anything better, that's what they get.  
I really do want that same reaction from my horses.  One thing I love about clicker trained horses is the ability to recall them.  I rarely use it to get them to come in for a training session.  For one thing I only want one horse at a time and it seems more polite to go get that one than to have all six come running and then only work with one, even if I did reinforce each for coming.  What they want is a training session.  But in a pinch- a gate left open by mistake for instance, or foul weather when I really do want all of them to come in, I love to be able to recall and get an immediate response.  So I think that wrapped peppermints are a legitimate reinforcer in that situation.  I'm not in a training session where I need to keep the flow going.  It's a one time "thank you!" which should reinforce that recall for the next time they hear it. 
Grass is a very high value reinforcer for horses
The other thing we have to realize is that if we get beyond simple training to secondary reinforcers, Premack and more advanced skills, we are using different value reinforcers with our horses.  Any chains we build utilizing cued behaviors as reinforcers, using grazing as a reinforcer, etc all are examples of varying the strength, variety and amount of reinforcer. We have to decide on the appropriate reinforcer for the behavior if we want to use these tools well.  
The last thing I want to mention is something fascinating which has happened with Percy.  Percy isn't what I'd call a terribly food motivated individual.  When he goes into his stall at night, he is more interested in what people and other horses are doing than his dinner.  He may take a bite of hay and walk to the aisle window to look around while he chews it.  He may stick his nose in the grain and shuffle around a bit.  He always cleans up his hay eventually but he doesn't always eat all his grain.  But he LOVES hay stretcher pellets.  Ab-so-lutely goes bonkers for them.  I have come to believe that the training process has given value to the hay stretcher pellets, as opposed to the opposite.  If he hears me scooping handfuls of hay stretcher pellets into my treat pouch, he just about climbs in the barn window.  So while I have always said I "just use plain old hay stretcher pellets" for training, in fact they could be a very high value treat for him, regardless of my opinion.  
One of MY favorite reinforcers.





Friday, April 4, 2014

Citizen Science- Why Do Clicker Trained Horses Drop?


The guest speaker at Clicker Expo was biopsychologist Susan Schneider, author of The Science of Consequences. In her closing talk, she stressed the opportunity we all have in this day and age to participate in Citizen Science.  Citizen Science is defined by Wikipedia as "scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowd sourcing and crowd funding."
An example Dr. Schneider used is the Christmas Bird Count each year, where volunteers from around the country help do a bird census.  An experienced naturalist, she encouraged participants to observe the world around them and then share their findings with others via blog posts or letters to researchers or universities or any way one can think of to communicate and collaborate.


It occurred to me that an issue which would benefit from this sort of collaboration is that of dropping penises.  Many people find that having a horse going around with his penis dangling is a bit embarrassing.  And yet many male horses being clicker trained do this.  There are many guesses as to the reasons for this occurring, what to do about it and what it implies.

The important word in the previous sentence is "guesses".  They certainly aren't theories, which require a tested, well-substantiated and unifying explanation.  It would even be a stretch to call them hypotheses, since those are educated guesses and these guesses run the gamut on how educated they are.  

Some people warn that a dropping penis indicates Dominance.  The D word  has caused more trouble in animal training than any other I can think of.  I cannot follow the twisted logic that uses dominance to describe each problem every dog, horse or other animal exhibits.  I certainly cannot figure out any reasoned argument where it would apply to this situation.   

Other people think that there is a sexual component to it.  Perhaps the horse is too excited, over threshold, over stimulated by food.  Again, how does this line of reasoning proceed?  Where is the connection between food, excitement and the horse dropping his penis?  If there is a sexual component to it, why do so many the geldings do it?  I agree with those that say some real brain studies would need to be done to make this connection.  

I have also heard that somehow lateral steps initiate this and that race stables use stepping laterally to encourage a horse to urinate for a drug sample.  Others say their clicker trained  horses can do lateral work for a long time while keeping everything tucked away but this same horse will drop while being clicked for going straight.  And where is the connection between stepping laterally and urinating (and they don't always drop to urinate)?  

The time which I am most familiar with geldings dropping is when they are sedated.  They are relaxed, their heads drop, their eyes droop and their penises drop.  I would guess that this is due to loss of muscle tension.  Yet while clicker training can really help a horse relax, it also frequently perks them up and engages their minds.

Here is an interesting series of photos I just grabbed from a 55 second video I took of Alexandra Kurland working with my young horse Percy.  We had traveled to Alex's Clicker Center a year ago, fall.  Percy was very vigilant in his new surroundings- (I wrote several posts about this trip which you can read here if you like).  He looked, he paced, he worked himself into a sweat trotting back and forth, he didn't want to eat, etc.  At one point, Alex did some body work on him.  There was no special modality, just Alex doing what she felt Percy needed- and wow did it work.  As you can see in these photos, he completely relaxed- to the point of head hanging, yawning (photo 2) and finally dropping (photo 3).  There were no drugs involved, there was clicking and treating, he was free to express his opinion of the process, but he was soooo sleepy by the time she was done.  There were no lateral steps, no overstimulation from food and uh, no dominance.  
  

Percy being lulled into nap time by Alexandra Kurland.

I hope it's obvious I have no clue as to the cause of this issue.  But speaking with Alex about it, she brought up a very pertinent point in my opinion.  Lots of geldings who drop get punished for it.  Whether it's on the cross ties, working in hand or anywhere else, I've seen some pretty harsh punishment doled out.  So perhaps it isn't that clicker trained horses drop, but rather that all horses do, and we clicker trainers just don't punish, so the behavior persists, for whatever the antecedent and consequence naturally.


Bringing Citizen Science to this issue would include bringing the subject out of the closet.  We need to replace the embarrassment with curiosity, data collection, and sharing of our experiences and results.   I invite everyone to jump on this project.  I am going to create a table I can fill in quickly and easily when I observe this.  Horse, conditions (on cross ties, work in hand, being groomed?), any antecedents or consequences I can observe (what happened right before the dropping which might have triggered it?  What happened afterward that is reinforcing this?  Did the horse remain dropped or did something trigger him to pull it up again?).  And certainly note any erect component.  This is not as common but certainly does happen.

If anyone knows a graduate student looking for a thesis project, let's send them all our data and encourage them to research this!




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Free Food and No Food- occasional training without the clicker

If you look closely, you can see that the fence is at fetlock height…an indication of the depth of the snow.
This winter has been long and cold in many places and this is one of them.  Now that March is officially over, they found that it was the second coldest Vermont March in history- the coldest one being in 1900.  All I know is that we still have feet of snow on the ground and it seems like a long time since I've done much training.  When the days don't get above zero, my hands don't last long out of mittens so clickers and treats are hard to navigate. 

Coincidentally or possibly not, I found myself working on two little training projects that didn't require the clicker, and one didn't even require treats. One was dealing with horses crowding at the gate to come in and the other was Percy's general attitude about people in his space.

While I love having multiple horses out together to be social here (at our previous farm they were more separated due to space limitations), it has meant that everybody wants to come in at once.  Having very friendly youngsters and not wanting to use pressure to back others off, I considered working on teaching them to "station" in different places (standing at a specific target away from me) but a) that meant spending time preparing that training and it was too cold for that and b) I have trouble with stations when anything put on the ground just gets covered with snow and electric fence doesn't really have rugged enough posts to hang targets on.  

Instead, I did the following.  Entering the paddock, I put a halter on the horse or pony closest to the gate, and then asked the next in line to back up a step (a known behavior for all).  I gave a tongue click and dropped a handful of hay stretcher pellets on the ground to keep him busy and back while I scooted the first horse through the gate and shut it behind us.  Then I would repeat with the next horse, and so on.  This quickly developed into a routine which the horses anticipated.  While I was putting the halter on the closest one, the next one would voluntarily back up and wait for me to come and drop treats at his feet (nothing like fresh snow, frozen hard every day to have a nice clean place to drop treats on the ground).  Since that is now being offered, I should probably put it on cue somehow…maybe a "wait" cue which Percy knows but the others don't.  In any case, it has made bringing horses in quite pleasant and calm.

The other issue was that Percy was getting quite cranky with people entering his stall.  I think partly it was the cold- everybody was cranky.  Another part was that he didn't like people moving quickly. Lastly- this is the first winter he's been locked in a stall.  Previously he could get in a stall but was not locked in, so he may have been feeling somewhat trapped and defensive.  And of course, he likes to be working all the time.  He got angry when someone just went in his stall to fill a water bucket and didn't ask him to do something that he could earn treats for.

I decided to initiate a new little ritual which did not involve any clicks or food.  I've done bits in the past of explaining to him that there won't always be treats when I show up, but this was a new situation and I wanted to be methodical about it.  If I approached his stall and his ears went back, I'd stop until the ears came up again.  I know him well enough to know that he didn't want me to leave- he just wanted to know what was going on.  But I also didn't want ear pinning to become the norm.  I needed a consistent approach that he could rely on.   Once his ears were relaxed again (usually pricked up to see me), I opened his stall door, which he knows as a cue to back up so he did.  Rather than click and treat that, I just reached out to rub his face gently.  Sometimes that irritated him so I'd freeze again until the ears relaxed.  At first I'd just barely graze his face and then proceed to fill his water bucket or pick his stall.  Any time he got cranky, I would stop all movement again until he relaxed.  

This has evolved into a new nighttime routine.  I approach his stall, he backs to let me in and then when I approach, he buries his head in my chest while I rub his face, play with his ears and stroke the sides of his neck.  He loves to lick the front of my coat while I do this…that could get soggy when I'm only wearing one layer of clothing this summer. 

While I did not use formal "clicker training" for these little projects, my knowledge of the rules of Operant Conditioning, as well as observation skills, did allow me to be successful.  

  • Animals will repeat what is reinforced. 
  • Use reinforcers the animal chooses
  • Break the training down into manageable pieces so the animal can be successful
  • Observe the emotions carefully
For the gate manners, the horses already knew the backing behavior and it was on cue and reliable.  All I had to do was ask for it.  They each love hay stretcher pellets so that was an effective reinforcer- a full handful was a jackpot.  Jackpots are currently believed by many to be an interruption in the training, but I was not in a training session, simply reinforcing heavily.  This, in technical speak, is a DRI...a Differential Reinforcer of Incompatible behavior.  If the horse was backing away from me, he could not also be crowding at the gate.   Thus, I could reinforce an incompatible behavior, rather than trying to stop the unwanted behavior of pushiness. 

The crankiness is a little harder to parse.  While there was no food reinforcer, there was the reinforcer of attention.  I had to know Percy to know that was reinforcing to him.  There was a bit of Negative Punishment going on as well as Positive Reinforcement. (my cheat sheet for those definitions are think math for Positive and Negative- one takes something away, one adds something.  Reinforcement makes something more likely to happen again, while punishment makes it less likely).  So when I froze my movements when his ears went back, I was removing something- the attention- to make it less likely he pinned them in the future- punishment.  When his ears came up again, I continued my approach, adding the attention (positive) to make it more likely he'd keep his ears up in the future (reinforcement).  

I certainly could have clicked and reinforced him for ears up on my approach…but that would have required removing my mitten to dig out treats.  Brr!

It was above 40 today and I have just returned from Clicker Expo- more stories to come.