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.....


Mary H. said...

Great post. And I love the pictures!

I think this is the key:

"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."

The ears never tell the whole story. I don't think ears back is always a bad thing, and I don't think two ears forward is always a good thing. Which is why it's so important to learn to read the whole horse.

Dog trainers are forever discussing something similar--a wagging tail isn't always a happy, eager dog.

I really like your walking towards the grass strategy.


Bookends Farm said...

Thanks Mary. I'm glad you picked out that piece of the post because that was THE point I wanted to make- so much of what I learned from this. I also used the walking toward the grass to develop a "loop". I hope to blog about that next.