Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Popularity of Positive Reinforcement

Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement methods are in an interesting place right now and I have to be honest and say it's a little scary. Its successes are attracting attention and getting press. There has been a 2 series article in "Practical Horseman" magazine recently as well as mention of it in a feature article on the jumper stallion Judgment in "The Chronicle of the Horse". So it's getting out there to the masses which is a good thing.

But along with the popularity comes a lot of misunderstanding and that's what worries me. People try to simplify it into an easy recipe: "just reward your horse when he does something right". Yeah, well, sorta. Or they think pressure and release is positive reinforcement (it's not- it's negative reinforcement). Or they feed their horses sugar cubes, thinking they are doing some good when their timing is such that if the horse learns anything from it, it's not what the people intended. Or they refuse to "bribe" their horses with food (clicker training is not bribery).

When it comes to teaching other humans, people fall into the trap of mindless praise. They think positive reinforcement means not screaming at students, but instead gushing over them and telling them "good job" every time they cross the street without falling down. That just creates "praise junkies"- people who can't function without begin told how wonderful they are all the time, and that is pretty damaging to kids. In the world of TAGteach, we use positive reinforcement along with an acoustical marker and other specific techniques. TAG teachers are certified after training and hours of documented and approved practice.

My current feeling is that to understand Clicker Training and positive reinforcement, you really have to have a basic understanding of Operant Conditioning. But some people just glaze over when you try to explain that. They don't want the gory details. They just want the magic that is in the little clicker box and well, sorry, no magic involved.

The whole thing makes me occasionally want to bang my head against a wall because the very notion of positive reinforcement does not allow me to shake these people and scream "You don't get it!". My biggest fear is for all those who try this watered down, incorrect and/or misunderstood version and walk away from it because it didn't "work". It works. But you have to do more than scratch the surface. And for those who do, we are rewarded with some of the most amazing
eye-opening experiences and relationships you could ask for.

So I shall try to refrain from banging my head and shaking people. Instead I will remember the tenet of "babysteps". I will try to teach one person at a time, in a way that they find reinforcing and hopefully thereby help one horse at a time. And I will be so appreciative of those who are willing to educate themselves rather than look for someone to hand them a magic potion which will ensure rapid success.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another thought on shut down

As I was mucking stalls this morning, I was thinking about horses in my past and the many horses you see in the stabling area of competitions who are rock steady in their manners on the ground. They will stand while they are groomed, wrapped, braided, etc, frequently without even being tied. But for many of these horses, it's because they have learned it's better to do nothing until told to do something. So they stand still unless they are pulled (rope) or pushed (shoved over). Rather than being taught TO stand, they have been taught NOT to move. There is a difference.

The first difference is the way that it is taught- with reinforcement or with punishment. Clicker training horses to stand still is done with reinforcement- stand still and you get a treat, now stand still longer and get another treat, etc. They learn self control leads to rewards. They learn good things happen if they stand still. Horses who are taught NOT to move are usually taught with punishment. If they move, they get yelled at, slapped, shanked, yelled at some more, etc. Pretty soon they are afraid to move because if they do, something bad will happen...that's fear.

The second difference
is what will make these horses move and what happens when they do move for some reason. The horse who has been taught not to move by using punishment will stand until he becomes more afraid of something else than he is of the punishment. It may be a door banging, a dog barking down the aisle, a loose horse outside, kids running and screaming etc. The same things might cause a positively reinforced horse to startle but it is more likely that his frame of mind is calmer. And if he does startle, the response will be different. Rather than over-riding fear, he has been conditioned to think about the good things that will happen if he stands. So rather than spooking and then taking off for fear of the retribution, he will spook and then think, "oops, if I stand or go back to my person, good things will happen". A horse standing out of fear may be on edge on a windy day because he is nervous but is afraid to move for fear of punishment so the tension builds and builds in his body until he busts out with some nervous energy or becomes so afraid that he decides it's better to leave town than stay put. A horse standing from being rewarded will have a calmer, happier frame of mind and will be conditioned to calm himself in order to get rewarded. In addition, his person will most likely see his nervousness and begin reinforcing him more for standing as well as asking him to do relaxing things like dropping his head which is a conditioned activity for calming. That horse will feel safest with his person, doing what he knows will be reinforced. The other horse may very well decide that he needs to take matters into his own hands since his handler is scary and so is the banging door.

In the end, I'd rather have the reinforced horse under me when riding than the punished horse. I feel safer on a horse who looks to me for help in calming down than the one who may decide that truck coming down the road is scarier than the thought of any punishment I would dole out, especially if he dumps me just to avoid both options.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Loopy Training

Alexandra Kurland presented us with a new term this year- loopy training. Katie Bartlett does a wonderful job (as always) in explaining it at her website To really get a good idea of what loopy training is, you should read her description but to put it very simply, (and looking through my understanding) it's looking at the flow of your and your horse's actions when you ask for a specific behavior. A very simple example is asking your horse to target something. The loop begins when you give the cue (hold out the target), continues as your horse touches the target, then you reward and the loop is complete when you ask for the behavior again. You can then go into another loop (either the same behavior or another one). The significance of this is how "clean" your loops are. A clean loop is one that does not contain any other other behaviors than the one you ask for. So this would require that your horse promptly touch the target when it's presented, that you click and deliver the reward promptly, that the horse have established manners for collecting his reward and at the end you are in a place where you can ask for the behavior again. A cluttered loop could include the horse being distracted by something when you hold out the target so that he doesn't immediately target it, could include you fumbling for the treat in your pocket, could include the horse being rude by reaching or stepping into your space for the treat, etc. You want clean loops for clarity of training. All that other stuff in the loop gets built into the final behavior if we, as trainers, don't clean it up.

To project this into the riding sphere, you could examine your canter transition. A clean loop would begin with your aids for the canter and would be followed by the horse jumping promptly into a balanced canter, followed by a reward
(whether it is a click and treat, a kind word or scratch, or in the case of negative reinforcement, simply the prompt removal of the aids) all finishing with the horse being ready for the next request. A cluttered loop could include unclear or incorrect use of aids, aids timed incorrectly, uncoordinated use of aids including excess movement of the rider, all of which could result in a horse who may not take the aid, might rush into the canter, might show unhappy signs such as tail wringing or ear pinning, might not transition into a balanced canter and/or might canter off but would not be immediately able or willing to accept the next aids from the rider.

It's been fascinating for me to observe my own training in this context. I have been trying to clear up a lot of sloppy handling on my part. Clicker training has certainly made me aware of how I was always "shouting" at horses, not literally, but with my aids, and how unnecessary that is. Considering that my yearling, Percy, will walk alongside me, without halter or lead, politely and at an acceptable distance, and he will halt, trot or step laterally when I do the same, I really have no need for shouting of any kind. He does this as I walk through his paddock to get to the barn and I do not click or treat for any of it unless he does something's just the way we proceed from fence to barn these days. But it does mean that I am very careful of my thoughts and movements as he accompanies me. If my mind is elsewhere,
my body is not projecting what I want from him. I may be hurrying to get chores done....and he reflects that back by hurrying and perhaps getting a little wound up. So the loop when I enter his paddock has become: duck under the fence, slowly stand upright because he is right there hovering, plant the expected kiss upon his muzzle as he sniffs my face (bad, bad horse trainer), step off toward the barn quietly but with intention and proceed with him at my side. There are many bits of this loop and all have been built individually before being added together, but now I simply have to keep myself attentive so that this loop stays clean- distractions pop up and that is all part of the training process. I need to make sure that I respond in a way that does not reinforce unwanted bits.

To go back to my recent Ear Obsession post, Ande putting his ears back was a piece of clutter that was built into several loops. I wrote about how I used going toward grass as a reward for him keeping his attention on me and with ears relaxed. I also intentionally built some loops once we got to the grass. When we first got to the field, I would let him graze until he was a little less frantic- initially tearing off hunks of grass and then settling into a grazing rhythm. I wanted to set us up for success. Then I would ask him to lift his head for a moment by just putting a little pressure on the lead. As soon as he did, I said "graze" and immediately let him go back to eating. I let him graze for another minute or two, then repeated but asked him to hold his head up for just a second or two. If he tried to put his head down, I simply anchored my hand to my hip so he couldn't. When he was still for a second or two, then I said "graze" and bent slightly at the waist to invite him back to the grass. It was amazing how quickly he picked up the graze cue. The cue "graze" became a reinforcer. I was not clicking because he would have looked to me for a treat- I wanted the action of grazing itself to be the reward.

At this point the loop was- cue for head up, he lifts his head promptly from a light rope cue, waits quietly, I give the cue "graze" and he puts his head back down and is ready for me to ask again. I began to lengthen my loop, adding in a couple walk steps: rope cue to lift head, cue to walk off, walk a step or two, say "graze" and let him go back to eating. What we were practicing was his response to my request for attention even when he is engrossed in heavenly deep fall grass, his willingness to leave the grass, and his waiting for a cue from me before diving for the grass, rather than just pulling for it all the time. Over the weeks of November when we were so lucky to have such nice weather this year, we continued with this exercise a couple times a week and
built in walking down the road. He was allowed to graze for a bit, then I asked him to leave the grass, walk down the road with me a ways (slowly building up distance so that I returned to the grass BEFORE he showed any nervousness...I did not want to turn around and reward him for showing signs of anxiety) and then we'd return to the grass but he could only graze when he heard the cue. I'm glad I did that in November because as of this week, this is what that field looks like now!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ear Obsession

I'm becoming really obsessed by the position of horses' ears. I do not like seeing horses with their ears back when they are worked, whether in hand or under saddle because to me it signifies unhappiness. But the more I watch horses, the more I wonder about it all. For instance when you watch horses in the circus or Lipizzaners, they have their ears back. Perhaps it's the way they have been trained- I always assumed whips and things would bring out an angry attitude. But watch horses gallop in the pasture and they have their ears back- even if they are free and alone. Is it sometimes a sign of concentration? Is that why so many clicker trained horses frequently have their ears back while being worked in hand? Certainly sometimes it is handler error, but it has been interesting to think about and study. Here is a photo of Ande just after I have asked him for a trot transition on the longe. I have been clicking him for a prompt little bounce into the trot, rather than shuffling into it. That seems to take more effort- and the ears went back:

Ande is the one with which I have the most difficulty with his ears and I've written about it before. He is much better than he used to be and I have learned a lot from working with him on it. One of the most important things I finally figured out was how many times he was pinning his ears at the other horses outside the round pen. I figured this out by clicking him for duration with an ear up. I started by just waiting for him to put one ear up at a standstill and clicking that. I did not go for two ears, because my understanding is that a horse puts two ears up when he is using his binocular vision as opposed to his monocular vision. So as long as his two eyes are focused on two different things (which we as humans can't do), then his ears are pointed different ways as well. But when something is so interesting- either appealing like a bucket of grain rattling or scary like something in the bushes, then he focuses both eyes on that spot and both ears go up. I was not interested in creating a picture-pretty pose, although you can see from these photos that he is much cuter when his ears are up! I was interested in assessing his attitude. I think when he was younger, I unknowingly reinforced him for putting his ears back by not paying attention to what his ears were doing when I worked with him a lot. That's why I've put so much energy into trying to untrain that now. My concern was that he was feeling grumpy at one point, put his ears back, got reinforced, and it told him, "ah, if I threaten her, then she'll click and treat me". But really, there was absolutely no other aspect of his behavior that felt threatening to me. He never tried to bite, was very polite when taking treats, and as a matter of fact, when he hears the click, his ears swivel forward in anticipation. I would think if he was threatening, he would keep the ears back to tell me to hurry up and feed him. Not so. Here you can see his attitude as I coil up the longe line- curious and polite:

So back to the other horses- as we worked on duration when walking forward, I found there were certain sections of the round pen where he would happily leave his one ear forward for 10 or more steps, but we had trouble getting beyond that...and that he had a hard time putting his ear up if we were in other parts of the pen. That is when I noticed that it was when we were across from other horses that he put his ears back, and in the parts of the pen when there was just open field beyond, he was happy to keep an ear up. So now I think he was in fact threatening the other horses, telling them, "this is my time and she's my person right now- you guys stay away!" So that was actually a good thing- he wanted to be working with me.

Another technique I used with him was the Premack principle which
states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. Rather than clicking him for ears up, I used another behavior he wanted to do as reinforcement. In this instance, I had wonderful fall weather and hayfields which were open and done producing for the season so I was allowed to hand graze in them. I took Ande out there once or twice until he knew where we were headed when I took him out and he was anxious to get to the field. The grass in the horse paddocks was long gone so he hadn't had grass in a while and it was very exciting! My method was to stand with him until his ears (or at least one) went up, and then allow him to walk forward...toward the grass. If his ears went back, then I stopped (a little negative punishment there). As soon as his ears went up, then we walked forward again. He learned that he had to have a pleasant expression in order to be allowed to proceed toward the grass.

At this point, I was also careful to observe his overall attitude as well as his ears. Last winter I made the mistake of clicking him for ears up when something in the distance attracted his attention. My thought was that I didn't care what caused it, I wanted to give him the idea that his ears should be up. The problem was that this reinforced him for looking off in the distance rather than paying attention to me, which I think exacerbated the bolting problem I was having at the time....look away, find something scary to focus on, then take off for the barn.
Not good. So with the grass, I actually preferred only one ear up and attention on me. It was pretty funny the first time because he tried all sorts of things and finally looked at me as if to say, "what the heck do you WANT?" and that's when I let him go forward. So it quite nicely evolved into a process where when he wanted something- to go to the grass- he would look to me- perfect. I want a horse checking in with me mentally to see what comes next and if he wants something, to look to me for help getting it rather than thinking about getting away from me to get what he wants.

As a result of all this, I have become much more in tune with the attitudes I am working with. I pay attention to lots of other signs besides ears: eyes, expression, breathing, etc. It helps me know whether they are tense and "being good" in order to get a treat, or if they are truly relaxed and attentive. Thanks to Lindsey for her recent question on my first ears post which inspired me to revisit this!

And here is the little Ande man, ears up and getting rewarded for it! If anybody knows a small adult or capable child looking for a nice coming 4 year old pony.....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shut Down

I have said before that I consider Stowaway to be "shut down". There is a technical term, Learned Helplessness, which is defined by Wikipedia (not a scientific definition but a layman one!) as an animal who has "learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected." This condition was found in a very nasty set of experiments with dogs, harnesses and electric shocks. If you google Learned Helplessness, you'll be able to read about it (it is also connected to depression in humans). I hesitate to use that term as it denotes very extreme examples (an animal who will stand still while being shocked), but I believe a lot of our horses, as well as other animals, have learned similar, if less severe, lessons.

Many visitors assume that Stowaway is an old pony- he stands quietly, does not approach or pester people, has to be dragged places by his halter or bridle, needs a lot of leg to get him moving under saddle and when he does move, it's pretty slow. All this is exactly why I bought him as a lesson pony. He is "safe" for children. But in fact, Stow is the youngest of the lesson horses. One could say that his quiet demeanor is his temperament or that he was just blessed with this perfect personality to be a lesson horse. But Clicker Training invites the horse into the learning process. It requires him to offer behavior, not just react when forced. Clicker trained horses learn that they can make good things happen. Watching Stowaway respond to his initial targeting lessons showed me that he really did not believe he could make good things happen...that he had learned to do nothing unless forced to. While the young horses catch on to CT rapidly, Stow took a long, long time to figure out that HE could reach out and touch the target and get rewarded for it. I spent a lot of time doing that with him and he still can't quite believe it when I introduce a new behavior.

Unfortunately, it is usually the shut down horses that we label as "well behaved". They do what they are told and nothing else. Horses learn this defense mechanism at an early age when they get their first lesson in being tied. Although horsepeople are currently warned against tying foals in the first weeks for fear of injuring their necks, it is still common practice that once this danger period is over, you tie the foal with a good strong halter, rope and ring and let him fight until he learns he can't get away. He may scramble, thrash, and fall in the process but with strong enough equipment, he does not get free and so learns....he is helpless. With enough repetitions, he gives up trying. So put yourself in those shoes...or that of a dog with a collar around his neck tied to something with a cable. You have no hands to free yourself and you are quite literally trapped. The animal gives up trying. All too frequently this is seen as a good thing. Think of the term "breaking" a horse...going back to breaking a horse's spirit.

A popular current practice, deemed "kind" in many circles, is that of round penning young horses. There are as many ways to round pen a horse as there are horsemen and there are certainly many popular so-called Natural Horsemanship techniques. My objection to most (not necessarily all) of these is that the horse is basically chased until he is so frightened or exhausted that he struggles to figure out a way to make it stop. Horses that try to jump out or fight back are deemed "dangerous". There is no doubt in my mind that these trainers have good eye, good horse sense, boatloads of experience and a method that works. But I do not agree that these are kind techniques and certainly not that they build trust. If someone chased you around a room from which you could not escape until you were so tired or frightened that you showed submission and complied with their requests, would that be because you had learned to trust them? Certainly not. You might learn afterward to trust them, if they
fed you and treated you kindly. But the basis of your relationship would still be one of fear...indicated by a warning with a raised whip, whether you call it a stick or a whip or a magic whatsit.

The alternative as I see it is to give horses real choices. You can say that they have a choice to be chased around a pen or to turn in and approach the person in the middle, but I say that's not much of a choice. I'd rather give a horse the choice to approach me or to avoid me, with no negative consequences for either choice. If they approach me, good things happen; if they don't, nothing happens, so they choose good things over nothing. I would define examples of good things as Primary Reinforcers: food being an easy one to offer.

So rather than tying a young foal and letting him struggle until he gives up, I don't put him in a position where he feels panicked enough to struggle. I can put a tiny amount of pressure (which is a dicey word to use when a LOT of pressure is frequently used) on a foal's halter. If he backs up, I do not increase the pressure, but I maintain that tiny bit. It's not enough to cause pain or panic, just enough so that he is inclined to try to lessen it...the same you would put holding someone's hand to ask them to come with you. If he is in a stall, he may quietly back to a wall and if the light pressure remains, he may then step forward. THAT is when you release the pressure. The foal then learns that approaching someone increases his comfort. If he is also offered food (and yes, young foals quickly learn to like grain or hay stretcher pellets), that is even more enticement to approach a person. Once you have him coming to you on a tiny amount of pressure on his lead, you can add the click which makes the gigantic transformation into immediate information to the horse "YES!".

Long after he is comfortable with this, you can begin tying. Tying him for the first time can be done by simply running the rope through a ring on the wall and gently holding the far end of it so that you can release it slowly while maintaining that tiny pressure if he should back up. I make sure the sound of the rope running back and forth through the ring isn't scary before I ever do this. Then I apply that tiny pressure to the rope and this time, the foal needs to figure out that he still is better off yielding to the pressure even though he isn't necessarily approaching me. I take it in tiny baby steps as always, but am careful that he understands that sometimes the pressure will take him away from me, not always to me. With all this playing, he learns not to be afraid of the pressure, the ropes or me. He learns to relieve the pressure himself, not because things will get worse if he doesn't, but because things will get better if he does.

Begun this way, I think I train a horse who is not shut down, but instead grows up knowing that he can figure things out to make his life better. I believe my young horses do trust me- not only because I supply the food, water, access to fields of grass and beds full of fluffy shavings. They trust me because when I show up, good things happen and I have never had to frighten them into behaving.

If you carefully watch the physiological signs that horses in training exhibit, it helps you to decide whether the horse is stressed or not. Is the breathing rapid and heavy or slow and quiet? Is the head raised or low when given the choice? Are the eyes wide with fear or relaxed and blinking. There is a lot of talk about licking and that submission or relaxation? Is that achieved after frightening or chasing the horse or present throughout the session?

To get back to Stowaway, I will continue to work with him and try to convince him that good things happen with us. He has begun whinnying when he sees me coming (he used to just hang back and ignore people). And he nickers when I click now..."oh boy, I got it right". His ears are up, his eyes are bright and he is looking for the right answer, not locked away in a little black box that you have to bang on to even get his attention. In the photo above, Stowaway is being offered oat cake by several students who made it for themselves and the horses. It is my goal to teach people and horses that good things happen when they are together.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

You Can't Make Me Eat That

You Can't Make Me Eat That is one of Alex Kurland's "tricks" that I have decided would be advantageous to teach to help with the feeding situation. It teaches a tremendous amount of self control around food.

This photo shows Stowaway during the second session of this. Stowaway is an interesting one to teach to because he arrived here so "shut down" last year that it took forever to even get him targeting. He just could not believe he could make something good happen for himself. I spent last winter just introducing him to targeting and that was about it (obviously I didn't work with him a lot!) I didn't want to get him overly ambitious going into his first season as a lesson pony. The only thing he got clicked for this season was bitting. He was miserable to get a bit in his mouth and with the little ones just learning to bridle, I needed all the help I could get! Oh, I also used it for picking up his feet because he was awful about that too.

So now, with the work I've done this fall about standing at his "station", he has become much more interested in life and has even gotten vocal about it all- quite endearing. He whinnies when he sees me get the toys out and nickers some when I click (which Smarty always did- I miss him!). So now I was about to change all that enthusiasm into self control. I started by filling this little white bucket with hay stretcher pellets and just going to a point where he got hopeful and reached his nose through the panels. As soon as he did that, I stopped and turned away for a count of 5. This is technically Negative Punishment (-P). I am taking something AWAY ("negative") to make it less likely the behavior will happen again (punishment). Anytime he reached through the bars, the food disappeared. The first time I was able to turn back to him and he did not reach through the bars, I clicked and gave him 2 hay stretcher pellets- Positive Reinforcement (+R). He got something (Positive) that would make it more likely he'd repeat the behavior (Reinforcement). When he kept his nose on that side of the panel, he got a click and treat. That of course made him want to reach again, which caused me to turn away and count (slowly) to 5. Then I would turn back.

Pretty soon he kept his nose on his side of the panel for a couple seconds after chewing up his treat so I was able to click and treat again without having turned away. Now we were building duration. When he stood there patiently for a count of 10 to get his click and treat, I stepped closer. Initially I had been several feet back from the panel- he couldn't have reached me if he wanted to; he was just anxious to reach for the food. As I got closer, I went back to the beginning count- first to see if I could stand that close without him reaching at all, then to see if he could stand quietly as I increased the count to 10 without him reaching. Every single click and treat at this stage was building success for him. He got many many rewards for standing and not reaching. Therefore, when I got closer, he had a good idea of what was required. Any time he reached, I turned away, counted to 5, and turned back toward him. I did not increase my distance; the criteria was the same, I simply turned away as a punishment.

Slowly I brought the bucket closer and closer to him. The hard parts were when he could first actually reach the bucket and when I actually put the bucket inside the pen. But when the bucket was taken away if he reached for it, he stopped trying. In the photo above, you can see him pulling his head up away from the bucket so he doesn't accidentally touch it- that was my measure for too close. If he touched the bucket, it left. Pretty soon I could put it closer to him and he would back away from it...thus the name "You Can't Make Me Eat that"!

For the finale today, I went into the pen with him. I thought that might change things dramatically but he stepped toward me once and I turned away- that was the last time he did. After that, I could hold the bucket right under his nose for a count of 10 and he wouldn't move.

Adding this self- control to the self control of standing at the jug should give me a clear opening to enter the pen with food and not be accosted.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tool Boxes

Working with horses, as with many other endeavors, it's not unusual to hear the term "tools in your toolbox" to refer to the different methods, exercises, and approaches we can use. We are encouraged to build up our collection of tools so that we have a good selection of possibilities to use in the myriad of situations that come up. While cleaning stalls this morning (always my thinking time), I discovered I think I really have four different tool boxes. I just added the fourth and that is how my train of thought developed.

Frequently, I think my tools are organized more like my husband's shop- scattered everywhere; some are in piles together, not necessarily for any particular reason other than they were used together last; some are strewn along the bench; others are in buckets or hanging from wire baskets. Now while he may be able to go in there and find just the right wrench when he needs it, I can't. I hope I am more successful at finding my own mental horse training tools but it helps to organize them.

I began assembling my first mental horse toolbox a
s a child. I learned how to groom, tack up, start, stop, steer, etc with the help of my parents, brothers and sisters. I learned about equine behavior from them and also went to camps and picked up some tricks from others- but mostly I learned from just being around horses and ponies. It's easier to catch a pony with a carrot. Sometimes it's best to hide the halter- it's always best to look casual. Two Shetland ponies can "take out" a child of 8 who has cornered them in a shed to flyspray them (that was a big lesson). No pony is truly bombproof- a pony with a log tied to a harness can gallop through the woods quite rapidly before finally detaching the log on passing trees. And of course, when a pony stops quickly, the rider doesn't necessarily do the same. I competed in small horse shows (not at all successfully) and decided it was not for me. Competitive 50 mile trail rides were more fun and I learned about conditioning- more tools.

Growing up in a family of riders, I didn't really have a formal lesson until I was in high school and this is when my second toolbox was started. Rather than just riding by the seat of my pants, I learned there were exercises that could be done to achieve certain outcomes and oh my, the bits and martingales and other pieces of tack that were available. I acquired my first
thoroughbred and found that not many of the tools that worked on my Heinz 57 pony gelding also worked on an off-the-track TB mare. I graduated from high school and local instructors. I discovered eventing and was given a wonderful old campaigner to do it with. I loved it and went on to college as well as clinics, working student positions, and jobs with professionals. I read magazine articles and books on the art of dressage (pretty dry). I read about jumping, conditioning, competing and horse management. I learned from barn owners, friends, farriers and vets. Both toolboxes were expanding- the theory was no more important than the daily interactions.

I think my third toolbox was opened when we acquired our daughter's first pony. As grateful as I was to all the ponies and horses of my own, there was a shift in my heart watching a procession of ponies take care of our daughter. I watched as that first saintly pony tensed every muscle in her body when a cascade of snow came off the barn roof behind her (and almost on top of her); but she did not step forward onto the diminutive 3 year old child standing in front of her. I could observe more objectively the way that these ponies offered lessons that she was ready to learn- she had her share of falls, disappointments and close calls.
But the gratitude of a mother's heart when they kept bringing her home safely shifted my thinking in irreversible ways. I owed these creatures something. Not just a roof over their heads and food in their tummies, but the respect that they knew more and felt more than I ever gave them credit for.

So the container was open and ready for Clicker Training when it appeared. This gave the horses an opportunity to show me what they could learn. I did not have to force things on them. They truly wanted to work with me. Now it took about ten years and it's still evolving because I had to learn how to balance what was in my previous toolboxes with this new Clicker Training toolbox. It required that I throw away some of my previous tools. That was very hard to do considering how much I had invested in them. The old tools worked:
they were easy to find, a familiar fit and they were, quite frankly, easier to use, but I came to realize that didn't mean they were the best tools to use. But Clicker Training offered me the opportunity to combine two things- science and art. It is squarely founded on the principles of behavioral science- research based facts. But is also requires the art of reading horses, respecting them and being gracious enough to consider their feelings.

And feelings are the critical component in my fourth tool- which is really more of a specialized tool than a box per se. It's like a fancy gadget you get at the hardware store that comes with it's own specially fitting case. And it isn't a tool for everyday use although you can use pieces of it on a daily basis. It's called Constructional Approach Technique...although the name as well as the technique is still very much in flux. It's not a tool that every person needs since it is used for horses who are extremely fearful or aggressive. I don't have one of these horses and so I've never really been able to use this tool, but I "bought it" this fall after reading about it for the past six months or so. Like most tools, just reading the directions is important and helpful, but it isn't until you actually use the tool that you really see its benefits. So for now, I'm just keeping it on the shelf and using all my other tools. But if at some point, my regular tools aren't working, I may reach for this new gadget and give it a try.

And here- a blast from my past:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My lessons from Advanced Targeting (so far)

I've learned a lot from this effort. I've been very slow and methodical about it (or tried to be and admitting when I'm not) so that I can observe what's working and what isn't. It's a matter of learning how to teach my horses rather than just trying to get this one behavior taught.

It was interesting to see how Stowaway was able to progress in the desired behavior even when I wasn't as thorough in my requirements of him. This has shown up now, however, in a much weaker performance. He is much more likely to give up standing there to come to me. He was never rewarded for leaving his spot- I always ignored him when he left. However, he was not as consistently successful compared to Ande. Because I was careful to set it up so that Ande was almost always successful, he has ended up being much more reliable. That seems to me to be evidence that positive reinforcement gives you a better result than letting a horse fail (if you can help it). To be sure, Stow hasn't had the background in Clicker Training which Ande has either.

Today I rode Ande (thankful for a beautiful late Indian Summer day!) and left him in the round pen when I was done so that now Stowaway was alone in their paddock. Now I had no excuse not to work with him alone. I tied up the jug...on a different post further from where Ande usually is. The last time I did this was at suppertime and Ande was ready for dinner and therefore did chase Stowaway away from the previously shared spot. What I saw first was that Stowaway was interested and ready- but did not actually touch the jug. So I cleaned that up with ten successive C/Ts for an actual touch of the jug.

From there I proceeded the way I had previously, just as a review and to make sure Stowaway had all the pieces- stepping away one step at at time, going both directions away, rattling the gate, and finally opening the gate and going in. I was able to cruise through the whole process in one session but I think it was important to do it all with him. I'm almost ready to bring out the food when they are at their "stations" but still struggling with how to do it in the most steps possible. Actually, it has just occurred to me that I should do Alex's "You Can't Make Me Eat That" exercise first! That is a great exercise in self control and will give them practice in resisting the urge to come to me when I have food, when they are accustomed to coming to me when I show up with hay. Once I have taught that as a separate exercise, I can combine it with the targeting for my goal.

Another thing I discovered yesterday is how important it is to have a concrete target to start with. I am still using the jug and do not plan to phase that out for a while. But it's going so well that I thought I would begin the same exercise with Rumer and Percy. I had learned enough to want to do them separately and began with Rumer. For them, my goal is to get them to stand outside the barn while I go in. As it stands now, I have one over each shoulder (quite literally!) as I try to open the panel to go in. They are both SO good and I trust them completely that it doesn't concern me, but it is a little awkward. So my goal is to have one stand on each side of the 12 foot wide door. I did not take another jug out and decided I would just have Rumer target side of the door. That just plain did not work. There was even a screw eye in there with a plastic chain on it which I used as my "target" but she has played with that chain so much on her own that she just did not understand that it was about targeting. She stood well and did not mug me, but if I got more than about three steps away from that spot, she would come over to me and assume the same position. She thought it was about Grownups are Talking, not about targeting. So she was very polite and very patient....she'd done this lots of times before. She was willing to wait me out and just stand there. The only way I could get her back to the spot was to take her there. I finally decided I needed a real target and this afternoon I will go back with a yogurt container to tie to that screw eye. I am quite confident that will make the difference.


Thursday, November 5, 2009


It's great to get feedback on this blog, whether privately or publicly. This week I heard about someone who was able to use the technique of targeting a place in the paddock in order to more safely get her other horses out of the paddock. I also heard from someone who read my blog about being stumped when presented with Ande's butt in the doorway that I couldn't get past- she suggested that I train him to back up from the cue of tugging on his tail. That is something that many people use to cue their horses to back off a trailer and is definitely something I should teach!

This morning I had Stowaway and Ande target their jug while I picked out the run-in shed. I had done a thorough cleaning this morning so it only took a couple minutes but it was another distraction that they usually like to come "help" with so it took self-control for them to stand outside instead. After that, I began working with the fence a bit and that was too much for Ande- he really likes helping with fencing! So as soon as he left the jug, I left the paddock. I wanted to be sure he got no reinforcement for leaving his spot. In this case, being able to watch and help me could have been more reinforcing than treats so I took
that away. I was very clearly going to leave the area but when I came out of the shed having put the tools away, he was back at the jug- once again I'd forgotten to take it down! So I had to give him credit for going back there and he got some hay stretcher pellets (after a click) as I took the jug down.
Here's a photo of Ande on another "patience" exercise from earlier this summer- standing on his mat.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I always tell students to avoid shortcuts in their handling and habits. Horses are dangerous enough when we are on our toes; taking shortcuts increases our chances of accidents. Of course I don't always follow my own advice and I've had my share of injuries, from bruises to hospital stays, as a result. Sometimes it's our horses who end up injured. Sometimes a shortcut just becomes a "longcut"...a long walk to catch a loose horse, fixing a fence, broken tack or a mess to clean up. Luckily, if your horses are well trained and/or kindhearted souls, you sometimes get off a little easier.

This time of year, the grass has become pretty short everywhere as our first frost was a month ago and it's no longer growing back. I try to extend the grazing season by letting the ponies graze around the buildings and driveway. They graze here in the summer too but this time of year they are willing to do a little more weed control than in the summer when they have good grass to enjoy. Today I had turned Ande and Stowaway out in the area outside their pen and just looped a piece of electric rope (not hot) around some posts to hold them in. They had done a really good cleanup job by the time I went out after lunch. I took their halters to get them but they both had come right to the fence when they saw me filling the water tub and putting out hay. It was only 15 feet to the opening of the pen, with a deep mud puddle on one side which would funnel them into the area that led to the gate. I got lazy, didn't put halters on, and just let them out. Stowaway immediately took one step and in the "grass is always greener" philosophy, dropped his head to eat the short muddy grass and weeds on this side of the line. Ande cooperatively headed for the gate. Unfortunately he went past the gate which leads immediately to a dead end at the feed room door. Unless you forgot to shut the door. Which I had. So he went in.

Now the feed room, as you can see, is not very big. It also functions as the tack room for the lesson ponies and so the left hand side has the saddle racks, some shelving, etc. The right hand side is where the hay is stacked. Ande walked all the way in and stopped, just as if he had loaded himself into the trailer. And there he was. Thank goodness he didn't panic. Thank goodness the trailer work seemed to make him comfortable being squashed in there. Thank goodness he had a full tummy from grazing and wasn't the least bit interested in the pile of hay which he could have pulled down and gotten tangled up in . Instead he looked out the window as if to say, "hm, never saw the view from here before". He was so content, I actually took a picture of him but my cell phone camera decided not to keep that picture.

There really was not room for me to squeeze around his large bottom to get to the front of him to ask him to back out. While I was wondering what to do, he slowly and carefully began to back out, just as methodically as we had practiced with the trailer. When only his front feet remained inside, he discovered the little white bucket I keep hay stretcher pellets in (you can see it there on the left). "I knew there was a reason I came in here", he said, and helped himself to a large mouthful, very Pooh-like. By this time, I was able to get past his shoulders, get a large handful of hay stretcher pellets myself, and ask him to back the rest of the way out, for which he got the my large handful.

Don't forget to shut the feedroom door...and don't forget to use a halter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Advanced Targeting 2

There were two things that popped into my head that I should have added to the last post before I continue with the most recent sessions.

One is to point out the difference between my previous method of dealing with the issue vs my current method. One was managing and one was training. By carrying a whip and just using it to quietly keep the horses out of my space, I was simply managing the situation, which is a good thing to do in order to keep a situation safe, but it does nothing toward changing the future behavior of your horse and so you need to keep managing that situation each and every day. That was what got tedious and I'm sure I will find, as I have in the past, that simply taking the time to train, I will find it much less time consuming!

The other point is that I am trying to remember to train the opposite...I don't want the ponies to think that they should always be standing in that spot and even though am currently using the jug as the cue and intend to train a new cue, I want to be sure I have a way to pull them away from that spot as well. So when I go to the gate and want them to come, I use my kiss sound to bring them to me, and reward them for that.

This morning I changed the criteria a bit to introduce yet another distraction that might pull them away from their spot- food. Stowaway stayed with Ande at the jug while I did a little review of walking toward the feed room and opening the door. I am finding it very interesting that while he doesn't always maintain the behavior within each session as well as Ande, he is progressing. This may show up as "holes" in his training down the road, but I am prepared for them and prepared to address them with some solo training if necessary.

My first step in the new criteria today was to simply lift a flake of hay from the bale and put it right down on the floor. I know the horses' hearing is quite good so I was pretty sure that would have them interested. When I stepped out of the shed, Stowaway had turned his head back over his shoulder to look and Ande was watching me out of the corner of his eye but he batted the jug with his nose again. So I clicked and each got a hay stretcher pellet. Next step: bring the flake of hay to the door and put it down- C/T for standing. Next, bring the flake about 5 feet out of the room, click, set the flake down and hurry to treat. I then proceeded in about 5 foot increments, each time bringing the hay a little closer.

Now since I had set it up that they were waiting at the spot where Ande usually gets his hay, I was able to proceed up to the point where I was right on the other side of the panel from them...and then went past them with the hay. I knew this would make them want to follow me so when I got just half a step beyond them, I clicked and threw the hay over the fence as the final jackpot. But I underestimated Ande. The jug was still there and so he stayed there even when Stowaway had his head in the hay pile! Thankfully, I had a wrapped peppermint in my pocket and so I clicked again and gave him that peppermint. While he was eating it, still standing there, I untied the jug and then clicked again and gave him a handful of the horse peppermint treats. What a good boy!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Advanced Targeting

A project I've had on my to-do list for a while is teaching the ponies who live in the run-in shed to stay well out of my way when I go in with food. Going into the midst of a group of horses is a dangerous thing to do when they start shoving and threatening each other and when dinner is on their mind, it can be even more so. In the past, I have carried a longe whip just to quietly wave around me so they stay out of my space, but carrying an armload of hay while waving a whip is no easy feat, especially if the footing is muddy, snowy or icy.

I knew the thing to do was to teach them to stand somewhere well out of my way but with multiple horses, it seemed like a big project to teach them all. Right now, however, only Stowaway and Ande are in that paddock so I figure it's as good as it's going to get. I decided to pick a spot along the fenceline and originally was going to have a spot for each of them. As usually happens, I started with a plan and adapted it as I went along.

I began by hanging a milk jug on one of the round pen panels with a piece of bale string. I chose a spot near where Ande usually gets his hay, thinking it might help to begin by having him wait for his hay rather than following me along the fenceline. As soon as I began hanging the jug, Ande showed up and started nosing it so I was clicking and treating even while I was still trying to hang it up. Stowaway came over and so I was able to C/T them both together. One click and each got a hay stretcher pellet. I decided not to focus too much on Stowaway's exact position because Ande is the boss and I wasn't sure how close Stow would be allowed to stand. As long as he was along the fenceline I was going to be OK with it but as it turned out, Ande let him be right next to him. Still, I didn't worry about him nose targeting the jug each time because I knew Ande could change his mind.

Now technically, I should have taught them each separately and then put them together once they knew the behavior. But I was both lazy and worried that by removing one, the one left behind would be mad or upset and less easy to train. Initially it worked out really well because Stowaway kind of followed Ande's lead. He's not a terribly active pony so he seemed to think it was a good deal to just stand there and wait for the click and treat.

After Ande was solidly targeting the jug (less than a minute), I began to take a step back before I clicked. He tends to pace along the fenceline when he sees me coming whether at mealtime or any time he thinks he might convince me to stop and give him attention. (He also whinnies at me any time he sees me come out of the house!) So rather than walking along the fence at first, which I thought would encourage him to follow me, I stepped back away from the fence. I increased the steps one by one, with a click each time and quickly returned to offer the treat. In hindsight, this probably worked well to have them stay at the jug while I returned to treat, rather than coming to me for the treat when I clicked. Depending on the behavior you are training, sometimes you want the horse to come to you for the treat and sometimes you want them to stay where they are. After I was able to take several steps back, I then began building duration. I wanted to do as much as I could to make the boys understand that staying put was the best thing to offer here.

All that moved along quickly (a few minutes) and so I took one step along the fenceline, toward both the gate and the feed room where I get their hay. I made it a small step and clicked very quickly because I knew they would want to follow me. Thankfully, they stayed where they were and Ande was still batting the jug about. I repeated that step a couple times to solidify it, and then began very slowly increasing the distance before I clicked. All went well until, as I suspected, I actually reached the gate. Then Ande left the jug and walked toward the gate. I froze in place, did not look at him or pay any attention to him when he got to me and after a couple attempts at reaching through the panel to get my attention, he decidedly walked back to the jug. I watched closely out of the corner of my eye as I stood still and as soon as he touched the jug, I clicked and verbally praised him as I quickly returned to give him his treat. I was using a box clicker, rather than my usual tongue click, for this since I wanted the click to be loud and sharp enough to carry across a distance as well as over any noises from the horses moving, etc.

At this point, I lost Stowaway, however. He has not had near the clicker experiences that the homebreds have and once he left the jug to follow me to the gate that first time, he just kept wandering back and forth. Again, probably I should have removed him at this point, but instead, I stopped treating him and just treated Ande. I thought he might end up back in the right place at which point I could begin treating him again but no luck there. But I also thought it was good for him to learn that if he's not earning treats, then following me around wasn't going to work either.

I worked with Ande a bit longer that day and was able to walk all the way to the feed room, open the door and step in, out of sight (peeking out through the crack) while he waited at the jug. That was jackpot time for the day and I handed him a full handful of hay stretcher pellets, untied the jug and left. At this point, the only "cue" he will have is that jug tied to the panel. I plan to introduce a verbal or body cue once the behavior is solid and complete but for now, the jug will only be on the panel when I want them to stand there.

This morning I went back out and hung the jug again and both ponies immediately went to it so I clicked and treated both. Again today, I treated Stowaway as long as he was in position. I was able to increase my distance quite quickly today, taking large steps and only about 3 "trials" before getting all the way to the feed room and going in. I knew the next big step would be entering the pen. It would be hard for them to stay at their place when I was going in through the gate which usually meant I was there to take them out! My first trial was just to reach toward the gate, and Ande was watching me closely so when he bumped the target with his nose as I reached for the gate, I clicked and hurried back to give him his treat. It's a noisy gate, so my next trial was to bump the handle so it clanged as it usually does when I open it. Again they stood and I hurried to reinforce them. I proceeded in the following steps:
  • unlatching the gate
  • unlatching and partially opening the gate
  • unlatching and fully opening the gate
  • unlatching and opening the gate and stepping in
  • finally stepping in and closing the gate behind me
At this point, I moved inside the pen to treat them. I was not surprised when they tried to follow me as I walked to the gate from the inside of the pen. I stopped and froze and ignored them and was not surprised when Ande took this hint and turned back to the jug. I C/T'd him and was not surprised when he then stood there but Stowaway didn't get it. I continued to work with Ande and just ignored Stowaway who followed me about, hoping for a treat. I was able to walk away from Ande inside the pen, and worked up to going inside the shed while he waited at the jug. At one point, he again left the jug to return to me but when this earned no C/T, he walked back to the jug. As the finale, I went in the shed and jiggled one of the feed tubs in there. When that sound did not pull him away from the jug, I clicked and gave him the rest of the carrot coins I had in my pocket, removed the jug and left.

It will be interesting to see whether Stowaway will make the overnight progress again that he did last time. Even though he had not been reinforced for the last part of the last session, he did stay at the jug with Ande today until I entered the pen- much better than he'd done the first day. Will he stay there if I enter the pen the next time? Stay tuned :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The topic of the moment seems to come down to "are we having fun yet?". At least three things have come together to make me question this:
  1. there is an interesting thread right now on the TAGteach list where someone wrote “I was in a group situation and playing the training game. I was the person being trained and I was C/T repeatedly for the same thing, yet never seemed to have "arrived". It was horribly frustrating. And I have to admit, as the learner I felt like yelling at the trainer at one point and saying.. "what the heck do you want?" My inner being was begging for it all to stop and finally the leader did stop. Apparently I had been getting to a certain point and was suppose to do something there, yet never did. I can't quite remember the whole sequence, but truly it was soooo frustrating not understanding.” This was in response to someone else who wrote in about playing the game with her child and both parent and child got very frustrated when the child didn't "get it".
  2. Yesterday on National Public Radio I was listening to “Moth Radio Hour” where people tell true stories about themselves. One man told of being a neuroscientist working with a monkey. He was training the monkey to look somewhere specific (video game) so that he could then study the monkey’s brain movements. The monkey was rewarded with squirts of juice in his mouth. Once he figured out the game, the monkey loved it and things were great for months but the guy said there came a point where one day he just quit- completely would not play. The man’s perception (and this was a neuroscientist!) was that the monkey had figured out that it wasn’t about the game anymore but it was about the man’s research. This is a true story! Long story but the guy had been also giving the monkey extra attention and treats so he went back to “plain science” and no extra stuff....after months the monkey began working again....but like an automaton- no joy, no fun.
  3. There has been a lot of discussion on a Clicker Training list about horses exhibiting frustration behavior as well as horses who, due to previous bad experiences or possibly just temperament, seem to find Clicker Training too "stressful". Some very savvy trainers have found ways to empower these horses into feeling more in control and then they go on to enjoy and find success with Clicker Training.
I can certainly relate on some level to all of these stories. As wonderful and powerful as Clicker Training is, the best use of it is when your base is to enjoy your horse and have your horse enjoy his work. In all our efforts to break things down into baby steps (a critical component of Clicker Training), sometimes we lose the forest for the trees. I know I can get so focused on a behavior that I forget about the whole horse. That seems to be when crabbiness creeps in. As the neuroscientist with the monkey seemed to find, even positive reinforcement isn't always that's not right. Positive reinforcement IS enough- but we need to keep checking to see that what we are using for a reinforcer is, in fact, reinforcing to the learner. The monkey seemed to reach a point where the learning of the video game and the interaction with the man was more reinforcing than the juice. And I think many of our animals reach this point if we do our job well. They LIKE playing with us, they LIKE carrying themselves better and strutting their stuff, they LIKE learning new games and puzzles. So if we forget to keep an eye on whether they are liking their job, then all the food treats or whatever else we may be using, may stop working for us.

So this afternoon I went out with the intention of watching the whole picture with each of the youngsters. I worked them all in the round pen. With Ande I worked on trot and canter transitions as well as having him stay out on the circle (no cones). He wore only a halter- no line. The big "ah ha" moment with him was realizing how I put pressure on him by staying close and monitoring each step. I quite literally stepped back from him today while asking for upward transitions and found him to be happier and more responsive.

With Rumer, I wanted to work on both having her maintain her walk right next to me without a rope...but also wanted to transition her to walking away from me as she will in harness. How to make that transition? I realized I already had taught her the cue to step away from me by tapping her shoulder and so rather than hyperfocus on the details, I simply got her walking nicely and then asked her to step away. At this point, I remembered watching a friend use her driving whip to cue the horse while driving and switched from asking her to step over with a cue low on her shoulder to one up high near her when driving I can use it. All Rumer's work was also done with a halter and no rope.

With Percy I wanted to do more trot work in hand. I had a friend come take some photos recently and when I tried to show off his trot, he decided it would be more fun to canter. I had not done enough work on it to really troubleshoot so we went into the round pen with a halter and lead. I remembered to teach opposites- after a couple good transitions into a jog, when he began offering to trot off almost before I asked, I also began asking him to halt when my body did. I was very conscious of my body position and carriage- lifting myself up and slightly back when asking him to halt. He caught on in no time and I was able to work him on walk/trot and walk/halt transitions in both directions with no pressure on the line. He was working off voice and body cues. I think if I had been less focused on the whole horse, I would have forgotten how my body influences him and would have been focusing on him rather than my own cues. There is one good photo of Percy jogging in hand- I hope to have them soon to post here!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Zoe's Great Adventure

This isn't really a clicker post, just an update. My daughter Anna decided she was ready to have her Zoe with her in Wyoming. She found an acceptable barn (which was not easy since most horses out there live OUT and that sounds a little harsh for thin-skinned Ms. Zoe). The original arrangement was that Zoe would live with me while Anna got settled in out there and in return, I could breed her and keep the foal. And now I have Percy as a result of that and as I think I've mentioned, I adore this little boy so am very glad for the deal we made!

On Sunday morning, we left home (28 degrees in northern Vermont) and headed for Fair Hill, Maryland where Zoe was to meet up with some west coast competitors at the Fair Hill CCI so she could get a ride West. Fortunately my college roommate whom I hadn't seen in 15 years lives in Fair Hill and so my husband and I arranged to spend the night with her.

Anna loaded Zoe without any blankets since she is pretty fuzzy from the early cold weather we're having and the trailer is pretty draft free. On our first stop to check her, one hour in, she was already sweaty. So Anna opened some vents and we hoped she'd settle down. We stopped and checked her again another hour later and she was still sweatier. It was only in the thirties so it had to be nerves. She hadn't been on the trailer in 2 years but we're guessing she was looking for the cross country course at every stop! So we opened some windows but were trying not to have 30 degree air blowing on her sweaty self. At the next stop, Anna pulled out her fleece cooler, covered her up and we opened every available window. Anna's cousin was also traveling with us and she dug out the Rescue Remedy and and Anna squirted it into Zoe's mouth. Zoe was eating hay like crazy (she's a good eater thank goodness) but didn't want to drink on the trailer. Anna had fed her a breakfast of hay stretcher pellets soaked in warm water to soupy consistency to get lots of fluids in her.

That was pretty much the status for the rest of the trip. The day warmed up as we went south, Zoe dried off and settled in- whether it was the Rescue Remedy or just time, I'm not sure. We made fantastic time and had good roads and little traffic for the most part so we made it to Fair Hill in just over 9 hours- arriving with just enough daylight to transfer Zoe's trunks to her next trailer. She was stabled at a race barn and Anna pulled her cooler off so she could have a nice roll in the shavings. She then emptied her water bucket and was happy. Thankfully, she settles in to new surroundings very easily.

Her limousine for the remainder of the trip was a very nice 4 horse, air ride, slant load trailer pulled by a semi, shared with two other horses. It was fascinating to listen to the driver (the husband of the Fair Hill competitor) and watch him pack equipment into the various hidden compartments. The truck could go 1500 miles without refueling! It had its own water storage which he figured would get the horses half way to their destination before needing to be refilled. They were planning on stopping each night, however.

My husband and I had planned to leave the barn fairly quickly so as not to get in the way of all the travelers. I took a deep breath, kissed daughter and horse, and climbed back in the truck. Anna's cousin is going west as well so the girls are following the trailer in a car. I get regular text messages when they enter a new state, and arrive at their nightly destination. Zoe seemed to figure out that this was not about competing and has been calm and dry for the rides and is eating, drinking and pooping. So far, so good. Banamine and ace have been packed but I hope they aren't needed!

Zoe was very glad to see her own special person again- I'm sure the peppermints WILL be gone by the time they reach Cody, WY :)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Click for Quiet?

I have been having some discussions with some other clicker trainers recently about how much of one's daily interactions or training should involve a clicker. Should we click for everything? For new things? Only for things which are difficult? Is there such a thing as clicking too much? Does it minimize its effect? Does it have a negative affect on any training?

Now none of us really click for everything- once you train a behavior, you "fade" the click, and the horse has learned it, so it doesn't require clicking. If the behavior deteriorates, you might need to do a little reminder lesson. I compare it to teaching a child to say please and thank you. Sometimes 2 year olds are the most polite because they have just learned it and they get lots of reinforcement for being polite! Then we expect them to continue it for the rest of their lives but they go through plenty of stages and new situations (ie strangers) where we need to remind them that we expect them to continue their please and thank you's.

One situation we have discussed that we wondered if it had a negative affect was when we want a horse to just "chill". This has come up for me a lot because of the amount of daily interaction I have with my young horses. Every day there is something new to teach or reinforce in daily handling. Whereas with an older horse, they have their manners down pat and you may go out and school them in the arena while you ride, you may or may not introduce a new dressage movement. Therefore, if you are only clicking for training new things, there might be very little clicking going on. But with young horses, I am constantly exposing them to new things and asking them to expand their repertoire of skills. As a result, they are tryers...always trying to impress me with what they can do so that I will reward them. While this has tremendous benefits, there have been times when I wanted them to just relax and not DO anything. On crossties for instance. Once we have been through touching all the various body parts, grooming with all the various grooming tools, moving in response to light cues, etc, then really, there is no more to learn. Percy, at one year old, is still reinforced for certain things like holding his feet up, or standing while I groom an opposite leg, etc. Rumer, at 2, is a fidget and we need to regularly go back to getting her to stand still- not so much while I am working on her but when I leave her to go to the tack room, she tends to go into a little dance routine until I come back.

But Ande, at three, has been through it all. What came up as a result of this is that there was nothing to click for while I groomed so he started trying to figure out what he could do to earn a click. Head down has always been a default behavior for him (won't do that again but that's a different story) and so he tried that. I figured that was a calm behavior so for quite some time I clicked for it. He'd actually hang his head on the crossties, as low as they'd allow him to go, and I worked on duration for that while I groomed. After we reached the amount of time it took me to groom one side, I faded even that out. But he got frustrated at that point because he wasn't working on anything. He'd try to push his head lower, straining at the cross ties or move a little, etc. I finally just decided to ignore his efforts and keep grooming. I would not even take treats with me when I groomed. I wanted him to just go to sleep like a "normal" horse. (in fact, many horses don't sleep but show all kinds of unpleasant behaviors while being groomed from pawing to ear pinning to worse!). This did seem to work. It took several sessions, but now he seems to understand that he just needs to hang out while he's being groomed. We have been through all the steps, so he has been taught everything with the clicker, but unless I come across a problem, I don't want to use it any more while grooming.

One of the comments about using a clicker for these quiet behaviors is not only that the horse keeps trying different things, but also that is sort of startles them out of quiet mode when we click. Yesterday, the farrier came and I decided to play around with it with the intent of seeing if I could effectively improve calm behavior with the clicker without creating an animal who was trying to do something. I tried it with the little fidget and the big fidget- Rumer and Zoe (hmmm, the two females...).

Rumer's little head is very busy even when she has one foot up in the air. She's either actively trying not to mug (head toward me a little, no I'm not supposed to do that, head away, but can't hold still so then head down and then I can't stand still so she looks back at me, etc!) or trying to put her head down. I think it must really be difficult for the farrier when they are putting their head up and down so I try not to have them go lower than knee height. So that was my first criteria to work on. I wanted her head in that spot: in front of her and at chest to knee height. Once she figured that out, I focused on her ears. I wasn't after ears up, but ears to the side. I also stood very close so that I could quickly deliver the treat right to her mouth just as soon as I clicked so she wouldn't be tempted to come looking for it. That actually seemed to be pretty successful. The criteria was easy enough that she didn't have to TRY to do anything different and I didn't push the duration. I just wanted her standing there quietly for the farrier. Not sure what will happen if I push it longer.

Now the big fidget came out of her stall breathing fire. Ah Zoe. She was chewing on her tongue before I even got her to the crossties. That is Zoe's coping mechanism but it has always bothered me because it doesn't really seem to calm her- it's just what she does when she's wound up. So when I have worked on head down with her, I don't allow tongue chewing. If she starts at any point, I leave her stall. And if I go to her stall to feed her or take her out, if she chews on her tongue, I stop all movement. Since what she wants is me in there, she has learned that she needs to quiet her mouth in order to get me in there. So that has at least opened the door for her to learn to try a quiet mouth. Before, tongue chewing always got her through stressful situations so when she wasn't getting clicked, the chewing started. So it was difficult to break through that.

As soon as I got her to the cross tie area where the farrier was, I asked for head down. That stopped the tongue/jaw fussiness, I clicked and treated and immediately started clicking rapidly before she could start up again. I was basically just shoveling treats at her so fast that she didn't have time to fuss. That got us started so I could start to build duration by the tiniest of increments. I'd wait for her to chew twice, C/T. Then wait until she chewed three times, C/T. Each time she only got 2 hay stretcher pellets so pretty soon she had chewed them up before I clicked. So there was a tiny moment of quiet mouth. I clicked there for quite a while until I thought she was pretty clear that the quiet mouth was what I was after. Then I lengthened that time out. Not for very long because I wanted to keep the rate of reinforcement very high in this otherwise stressful situation. But after a bit I also began playing with where her head was. I dont' know why I did it, but I started free shaping her head in different positions. If it was chest height she got clicked (quiet mouth too) but then she rocked back a bit and I clicked that too. Soon we were playing with microshaping and she was experimenting with all kinds of positions. The side effect was that she was relaxed and so no tongue chewing, but also I was reinforcing her for standing balanced. By microshaping her stand, I could help her be more comfortable so it was easier for her to stand quietly. And then I focused on her ears, just as I had with Rumer. Out to the side in a quiet way.

Now we got plenty of chances to start over because one thing I do with the farrier is not click when he puts a foot down. I want them to look forward to him picking a foot up because that is when the game is on. So Zoe would get fussy and start chewing on her tongue when he stopped and we'd start all over again when he picked one up and she caught on pretty quickly and it took less each time to get her into it. This even got her through front shoes. She's been barefoot for almost two years while pregnant and after but she is about to embark on a long journey to a very dry place and with her feet, shoes were called for. I would say that she was quieter when we finished than when we started and that is always a good sign!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I've said before that I should have named Percy "Earnest". He tries SO hard at everything he does. I just adore this little booger. Today I thought he should start to learn about doing some trot work in hand. I never took him to any of the warmblood testings as a foal or older because it was just too inconvenient (he was born late in the year) and too expensive. Now I'm really glad I didn't because behavior wise, I'm not sure how it would have affected him. Those must be pretty traumatic experiences- to be taken away from home and then chased around at such a young age. Plenty of horses survive but when I see how he took to it today, at 15 months old, I was glad that we were able to be casual about it.

I had actually played with it a little out in the paddock when he was loose recently which is what made me think about doing it. He and Rumer always come hustling over whenever I show up and when I walk through their paddock they are right beside me wondering if they can entice me to play. One day I saw Percy was in perfect leading position beside me so I C/T'd a couple times to engage him and then jogged a couple steps. He picked up a trot instantly. I C/T'd but we were at the barn by then and I did no more.

Today I put his halter and lead on and started by leading him around his paddock. I am working on getting him to walk straight since he loves to do his little lateral steps for me (like the previous post, for everything you teach, you must also teach the opposite! I didn't want a horse who only walks sideways!). Once he was walking nice and straight, I gave a little tug on the lead and started to jog. No response. I clucked and pulled some more. No response. I decided I better not release the pressure on the rope or I'd be rewarding him for ignoring me so I kept jogging and pulling. He was doing his best warmblood donkey imitation. Except that I could see his eyes were trying to figure out what the heck I was doing.

I stopped and thought for a minute. This was not what I was expecting after his willingness to jog alongside me previously. So I decided to try that approach. I went back next to his shoulder and stayed at his shoulder but started to actively jog while keeping at his shoulder. His walk quickened. C/T. Tried again and got another very forward walk. C/T. The third time I held out a little longer and he jumped into a little trot step which I immediately clicked. Another one of those "oh, why didn't you say so?" looks from him. Again I started to jog and he immediately picked up a trot with me. He looks so satisfied with himself and relieved when he figures something like that out. So we went around the paddock a couple times, trotting for increasing lengths of time and with NO pressure on the leadrope. I added in the "trrrrot" verbal cue and also switched sides so he would trot with me on either side. Then I started to lengthen my stride a little bit and he matched me automatically. Whatever pace I picked, he kept his shoulder right next to me, lengthening his stride accordingly. No chasing, no clucking, no whips, no pulling. Don't ask me how he figured it out but the resulting work was wonderful!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teaching Opposites

I was speaking with a client this morning who said that her yearling was being very good about staying out of her space as a result of his Clicker Training lessons. She was surprised that he didn't come up for a face rub when she went to his paddock this morning but she was smart to realize that it was because she had done a good job of training him and he learned his lesson well. So I told her that one of the things which Alex Kurland reminds us of frequently is that for everything you teach, you must teach the opposite. And in fact my client has already done this because she has taught her yearling to target. So that is a way to bring him to her if he is voluntarily staying away. One can see how it could be problematic if you do an overly good job of teaching a horse to stay out of your space and you don't have a cue for the opposite: you wouldn't be able to catch your horse! But by simply holding out a target, you can bring the horse to you. I have followed Alex's lead by teaching my horses to target my closed fist as well as other items. I never have food in the closed fist; that would confuse a horse who is not supposed to beg. I just hold my closed empty fist out away from my body and when the horse bumps it, they get a click and treat from the other hand. From there I teach them to follow the closed fist. I hold my arm away from my body and walk. As the horse follows, and at this point he does not need to actually keep his nose on it or even touch it, but just follow and he gets C/T'd at duration intervals. This is VERY handy when I have a loose horse. I just hold out my closed fist and rather than the horse thinking "oh, I'm free, I'm going to run and play", she thinks, "oh- a fist, if I follow that I'm going to get goodies!" and bingo, your loose horse follows like a puppy dog, right back into the barn or paddock. It's also the way I lazily bring horses into the barn. I don't bother with a halter or even lead over the neck- just a fist held out.

The wonderful part about teaching a horse to stay out of my space if asked or to come to me if asked, is that now my horses are watching me to see what is expected, rather than doing what they want to do for me to react to. They are tuned in. Now this presents issues of it's own because it means that I need to be very aware of what I am doing. Horses learn body movements and pick up on subtleties that we aren't always aware of. An example of this was when Elly became very light to rope and body cues in hand. She would walk with me, step away with a hip or back with the lightest of aids. But when I'd been working with her on this, a student would come to ride her, lead her into the barn and turn to hook up the cross ties. Elly would see the student turn to face her and know that was the cue to back up. So she would back the full length of the aisle with the student baffled as to what she was doing! Another reason to be careful what I teach my lesson horses.

Other opposites to be sure to teach: go forward and stop. This seems obvious. But sometimes we spend a lot of time teaching horses to stand still- on a mat or with the drop of a rope, etc. Then the horse learns there is a lot of reinforcement for standing still and he doesn't want to move. So it's a good idea to teach the balance at the same time. Yes you are being reinforced for standing, now I am going to reward you for moving when I ask you to.

The other time you need to balance go forward and stop is when beginning to ride. I had been riding Ande for a while before realizing I had not taught him to stop from his back. Because I clicked frequently, the stop always happened when he heard it so he could turn and take the treat. But I needed to teach him to stop when I asked with a rein cue as well!

Another thing I need to work on with the little ones is head UP. I teach them head down as a relaxation cue but when they volunteer it, it can be a problem if there is grass! So as well as teaching them head down, they need to learn it on cue. I like that they will drop their head to calm themselves if necessary but not as an excuse to grab a there needs to be a cue for walk with head at chest height (or whatever you choose).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Zoe update

Somebody asked for an update on Zoe and I'm happy to oblige! I have had no major agenda for her this year as she is in limbo waiting for her next job offer. So we just go day to day without much excitement and I hope that her mind is letting down as much as her body is. She knows enough about her head-down exercise to offer it to me when she is bored and I go in her stall. This is really a huge bonus- she's a mare who knows how to be very expressive to get attention so for her to offer calmness as an attention getter is pretty impressive. I reward her when I can with attention in some form. It might just be few moments of rubbing her face, or I'll go and get her grooming mitt and give her a body massage, or I'll grab some treats and we'll do some duration work with head down. My aim is to keep life peaceful for her- and have her learn to enjoy that peace rather than feeling like she needs to stir up some excitement.

She loves to be out and grazing and there were a couple times this summer when turnout time presented some opportunities for clicker training. In the heat of the summer, I turn out as early as I can in the morning and then try to bring them in before the bugs get bad. I didn't always guess correctly about when the bugs were bad and that meant she would be in a bit of a panic by the time I got there. This stresses me out because we are obsessive about the grass in our paddocks and I hate seeing horses running up and down a fenceline destroying the grass. So I wasn't always happy with her by the time I got to her and it took some time for us to work through our combined angst.

Traditionally, a chain over her nose kept her in line but that is a management solution- gets us through a moment but does nothing toward changing her future behavior. I would like to write about this as a future post in and of itself. The chain also had a tendency to make her want to walk on her hind legs. She was trapped between wanting to go forward fast and the chain so the option was up. Now I have to admit that Zoe is about the safest horse on the farm to handle. She can be leaping all about but she is very very careful as well as talented so you really don't get the impression that you are going to get hurt. But having her rear next to me on a side hill was still a little unnerving and unnecessary.

The challenge with Thoroughbreds is that food is not always a high priority for them and movement can be more rewarding than a food treat. With clicker training, you always need to be aware of what is motivating and reinforcing for your learner. So for Zoe when the bugs were eating her alive, her biggest reinforcement was to get in her stall away from the bugs! Standing still was basically a punishment. I would put her halter on as quickly as possible (not always easy as she danced around) and ask for a split second of standing still. With that split second of self control, I would click. Now, the click ends the behavior, so if she then moved right off, that was OK. Generally I wouldn't allow that because I want them to back up for their treat for general manners. But Zoe's food manners are exceptional and that wasn't the issue here. The goal was to teach her that by showing a little self control, she would get inside sooner. I do have a contract with all my horses that click=treat so even though the treat wasn't her highest reward (moving was), I did offer her a treat with each click. She would take it but I also made sure that she was getting closer to her stall at the same time. Then, as long as she walked next to me, I would walk as quickly as I could to keep up with her (and she can walk FAST!). If she broke into a jig, or pushed into my space at all around a corner, I would slide down the rope with my left hand until I reached the snap of her lead, stand firm and let her forward energy ricochet her back out of my space. For details of this whole process, refer to Alex Kurland's T'ai Chi wall exercises. That was a correction, so there was no C/T for that. So she was learning that jigging did not get her to her stall sooner; it slowed her progress. However, if she took a couple nice quiet steps next to me, I would C/T, again not worrying too much about her stopping for the treat (as opposed to just about any other situation where I would insist on that). Stopping was a punishment- I didn't want to click and then punish her! Over a period of about a week, we made tremendous progress. Granted, the bugs weren't an issue every day so the days when she was quiet offered me an opportunity to ask her to quietly halt on the way in and C/T that, as well as standing for longer than a split second. But when her poor little thin skin was being chewed on by an army of bugs, then I did everything I could to get her in as soon as possible as a reward for a little self control at the end of the rope.

A couple weeks after that, we were practicing the same thing going TO the pasture in the morning. Cool mornings came and she wanted to get out as quickly as possible and blow off a little steam. In this instance, I was less tolerant of her impatience. She wasn't physically being tormented by an outside force (bugs) but by her own energy level. So as I led her out, she had to walk quietly next to me and any time she got ahead of me whether in a fast walk by breaking into a little jig, I would slide down the lead and make her back up. We had a bit of a setback because on these particular days we had a steep hill to go down and the grass was slippery in the early mornings. As a result, I wasn't always as coordinated as I needed to be and twice, she reared and the lead was so short that it was pulled out of my hand so she got a nice gallop around all the paddocks as a reward for rearing. Not good. I found a longer lead rope, was able to let her rear and still have hold when she came back down, ask her to back up, then proceeded.

Reading this makes it sound like she's a totally berserk mare who gets away with murder. But really she's a sweetheart with an incredible amount of exuberance. In the past, punishment or the threat of it kept her in line- a chain over her nose, yanking on her lead, etc. But what I was after- and got- was for her to walk calmly regardless of bugs or cool brisk mornings and be responsible for controlling herself. No chain, no yelling, just quiet controlled compliance. Because I trusted her to be careful with me even in her wildness, I was able to ignore the bad behavior- the rearing- and just reinforce the good. Had I felt she was dangerous- to me or herself, I might have had to take a different approach.