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 chewing...is 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!