Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bitting Rumer

Even though Rumer has worn her harness and been ground driven, I have done it all with a halter and no bit. Today I finally remembered to rummage around and find a little bit that I thought would fit her. I still don't know whether I will use it to begin driving her or not but carrying a bit in her mouth should be one of her lessons regardless.

It is common to clicker train horses to self bridle. The person stands in front of the horse holding out the bridle and the horse approaches, voluntarily takes the bit up into his mouth and then stands quietly for the crownpiece to be placed over the ears. I have worked with several of my horses and ponies with this exercise and have learned more about it each time. I do not actually hold the bit out for Ande, as he is for sale and I want him to be accustomed to accepting the bit the way a traditional rider would. Instead, I bridle him the way I teach people to bridle and just click and treat when he willingly opens his mouth as the bit approaches. I think I would like to teach Rumer both ways, if for no other reason than to see if I can do it from scratch!

I gave Percy some hay to keep him out of the way and had Rumer in the barn aisle but loose. She shadowed me as I got things together, wondering what we were going to do today. I filled one pocket with hay stretcher pellets, one with peppermint treats and one with wrapped people-peppermints. I started by standing in front of her and holding out the bit- by holding the ring on each side with thumbs and forefingers. Of course she sniffed it and I clicked and treated with a hay stretcher pellet. After a couple tries though, she seemed to startle a little when I held it out to her. I know that's a funny place for horses since they can't see right under their noses and I decided to change position so that I was next to her rather than in front of her. For whatever reason, this seemed to eliminate the startle.

I am still playing with the correct balance of how much high-level of reinforcement to use compared to how quickly I should up the ante. I'm pretty sure there is no hard and fast rule but that it depends on both the horse and the I guess I'm just trying to educate my feel a little better as to when to do which. Starting with a high level of reinforcement (clicking as frequently as possible) gets them interested, engaged, confident and wanting more. But if you do that too long, they can get stuck thinking that's the total behavior. You want them still varying the behavior a bit so that you can shape further aspects of it.

I am kind of using the magic number of 10 as a goal for a high-rate of reinforcement before asking for more...I vary that if the horse offers what I'm looking for before 10, but I don't withhold a click for more until I get at least 10 good initial responses. In this instance, I clicked Rumer about three times for simply touching the ring of the bit and then she voluntarily touched the mouthpiece on the fourth try. It is critical enough for this process that she learns which part to mouth that I grabbed that offer, reinforced with a peppermint treat instead of a hay stretcher pellet and thanked my lucky stars when she took that as a good reason to keep targeting the mouthpiece. After several more C/Ts, she targeted the ring again. She had done the mouthpiece enough times that I felt confident to withhold the click until she touched the mouthpiece, being pretty sure it wouldn't discourage her. It didn't and she quickly moved on to the mouthpiece, confirming for herself that just the rings were not going to be enough.

Again, my goal was 10 touches to the mouthpiece when her enthusiasm to touch it caused her lips to part a little and I felt it clink on her teeth- another peppermint treat for that. But this time, I wasn't sure that she'd offer it again soon since that clink could have been a little aversive, so I still C/T'd for just lip touches after that....but offered hay stretcher pellets for lips and peppermint treats for teeth.

This is where it became hard to control myself. When a horse is that close to success, it is very hard for me to not want to "help" them this case pull the bit up so her teeth touched it rather than having her offer to touch it with her teeth. There is a world of difference between the two- the mental and emotional equivalent of offering and engaging in an activity vs tolerating what a person does. There is certainly a place for allowing people to do things to a horse (vet work, etc), but there is also enormous value in having a young horse (especially) actually volunteering for every day handling behaviors. A horse who willingly takes the bit every single day is obviously telling you something on the day that he chooses not to take the bit. A horse who has to have his mouth opened for the bit each day and/or has learned he will be in trouble if he doesn't cooperate, will be less able to communicate a poor fit, a tooth problem or any other reason he may not be up to being bridled or worked.

So when I found myself raising my hands to "help" Rumer touch the bit with her teeth, I assigned myself a tag point: elbows at sides. By keeping my elbows at my sides, I was less likely (less able) to lift the bit. After a couple trials of this, I found I was still lifting my hands. So my new self-tagging point was: hands below belt loops. In order to touch the bit now, Rumer had to actively seek it out and I could not subconsciously take it to her. There was no marker signal nor reward for me- I didn't really need one. I just needed to find a way to concentrate on what to DO (as opposed to not-do) to achieve my goal.

Now that I was out of the way, Rumer continued to make progress to the point where she was consistently tapping the bit with her teeth and at one point her teeth separated a bit so the bit just slipped between them. Click and a peppermint treat. She'd been getting a lot of hay stretcher pellets so the peppermint was appreciated and after a couple more teeth taps (I was no longer clicking for just lip touches), she opened her teeth again and this time I gave her a people-peppermint. She loves these and practically dances when she hears the crinkly paper wrapper. Not only was it a great reward but it got her chewing and slobbery and thinking about crunching and eating so it wasn't long before she did it again. In no time, she was opening her teeth and taking the bit between them. Here again, I backed off reinforcing the easy step- the simple teeth touches- and only reinforced when her teeth opened. I had upped the ante again. At each step, there was always something she was confident doing which earned her consistent rewards, but there was also something else she could do for a peppermint treat. Once she did that more difficult step consistently, it became the hay stretcher reward and the next difficult thing became the peppermint earning behavior.

The only thing remaining was to get her to take the bit all the way into her mouth. I think I may have "helped" a little there and rewarded with a wrapped peppermint and lots of verbal praise. She did it once on her own and I decided that was great progress for the day- from never having seen a bit up close to voluntarily taking it all the way into her mouth. I had taken two short breaks during this short session- both when I had run out of treats. Each time I returned she had turned away to look out the door but rather than going to her, I stayed just inside the panel and she would quickly turn back to me and reach for the bit. I consider this a great beginning for a pony who should seek out a bit.

No comments: