Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Kizzy and Mat Work
One of the challenges I chose for the Clicker Challenge on Facebook was working with Kizzy on mat work. The challenge is almost up and I have learned a lot in this three weeks- I thought it would be a simple exercise, as it has been with others.
My first challenge was in the type of mat I used. I have been told that horses really like a wooden mat and the guess is that they like the sound for some reason. So I used a piece of plywood this summer and really liked the results compared to the flimsy doormat I had used previously. But plywood on snow is slippery, and snowy hooves on plywood are slippery. So I began working with Kizzy in her stall with the doormat. After a couple sessions, I could see that she frequently had her foot half off the mat, even though I was shaping her for having her feet in the center of the mat. I realized that she probably could not feel when her feet were on the mat compared to when they were on the shavings. I realized that if I used the plywood, she would be able to hear her feet hit the wood. She could certainly see it as she approached, but I began to really wonder about horses' ability to see where their feet are for this kind of work. Due to their blind spot, right in front of their noses, they wouldn't be able to see where their feet are precisely. This is all conjecture on my part, but certainly gives me things to think about and look for while training.
Another thing which happened was classic- Kizzy was using me as her cue. Not just for when I wanted her to step on the mat, but for where the mat was. And even further- where to stand even if the mat wasn't there. I had, without even realizing it, started standing right next to the mat. I probably did this unconsciously to sort of block her from stepping off the edge of the mat. But then when I tried to stand a little further from the mat, she didn't step on the mat at all, but lined up right next to me as if on an imaginary mat. This was a classic example of when we think we have taught behavior A (in this case I thought I had taught her to stand on the mat), but really what the horse learned was behavior B (in this case, to neatly line up next to me like a dog at heel, with no regard for the mat at all!).
It took us several sessions to clear this up and I'm not completely sure we have it fixed yet. I found a small piece of particle board (easier to lug into a stall than the larger piece of plywood I'd used this summer...not to mention I can't find that and I fear it's under the snow somewhere!). At first, the big breakthrough was her confidence in the way she stepped onto it once she could hear her feet landing on it. If her hoof ended up half off the edge, she quickly and easily corrected herself....she could feel that!
I thought that was the solution there, but soon found that if I was not right next to the mat, she still lined up next to me instead of stepping on the mat. This led to a frustrating session as I tried to click and treat a couple times and then step way away from the mat for the behavior to continue, but she just didn't get it. This was also an opportunity for me to learn more about Kizzy. She is very food motivated (she is a pony after all!) and I'm quite sure she'd stand on her head for food as long as she understood what I wanted. I also know she isn't "stupid". This was MY training problem, not her learning problem. But it was apparent how hesitant and concerned she was when she didn't get clicked. I work with the young ones so much that I get spoiled by their willingness to keep trying new things to get a click if what they are doing isn't working. But "crossover" horses- those who were originally trained with more traditional methods where creativity is discouraged rather than reinforced, are much less likely to try new things. And Kizzy's past is a bit murky and she is very worried about being wrong. So when I didn't click as she lined up next to me, you could see her confusion as she tried again and again but did not venture to try anything different. Then she would just stop and stand next to me. Poor pony.
So I started over from the beginning- clicking as she stepped onto the mat right next to me and gave her a full ten chances to be correct and get reinforced. I wanted that plunk plunk of her feet on the wood to become a part of the routine and set in her head along with the click. Then I moved about 2 inches further away from the mat and gave her many more trials there. I slowly moved my position (rather than "testing" her by moving further away) in different directions so that she got used to the stepping on the mat even if it meant stepping forward away from me or not being right next to me. And when she did make a mistake, which happened when only one foot landed on the mat because she was trying to be closer to me, I did not wait to see if she would correct herself because I had seen that only lead to confusion for her. Instead, I quickly and quietly asked her to back up off the mat and try again. Luckily, she caught on to that. If both feet didn't thunk thunk onto the mat, she was corrected and given another chance for immediate success. After a couple successes with that, I quit for the day.
I hope to video it soon, maybe today, and we'll see how things go. Photo above is Kizzy with a couple of her biggest fans- me and a student :)