Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trust Me

I have written before about the difference between being taught TO stand versus being taught NOT to move. I think horses are more solid in their behaviors when they are taught to do a behavior, rather than just being taught to endure anything we do to them. Training this approach means I allow the horses to initiate as much behavior as possible, and reinforce them for what I want, ignoring what I don't want...a process known as free-shaping. So when I introduced the young ones to clippers, I simply held the clippers while they were completely loose and allowed their own curiosity to encourage them to approach them and then clicked when they did. This, in turn, made them want to explore them more and we proceeded from there (you can read it in more detail in this post).

I think Percy has had this approach exclusively. I can't guarantee it because my background certainly wasn't in this approach and I may have slipped over the line without realizing it. The reasons I'm pretty sure, however, are that he is the youngest, so I had more practice by the time he came along; and his temperament definitely is not suited to being forced to do things. There have been several occasions when I tried to make him do something and he said, "nope". So I would change my approach and ask him if he'd like to do something, and he'd reply, "why, sure, I'll give that a try if there's something in it for me". To non-clicker trainers, this may sound like he's spoiled, to which I reply, how many of you would go to work every day if you weren't getting a pay check for it?

But I'll admit there are times when our horses do need to allow us to take over and do things to them. If you know any good clicker trainers, you know these instances are few and far between. Clicker trained horses will happily volunteer for trailering, worming, approaching frightening objects, standing on a block for x-rays or in a tub of water for soaking a foot, etc. I think really, it is in an emergency situation that we need them to just plain trust us and let us do something to them. If they are bleeding badly, we need to deal with it without having to go through a training process of allowing a tourniquet to be applied. In an accident, we need them to follow us or stand still, depending on the situation, without taking time to adjust to the scenario. Now a lot of this will be done without a hitch if the horse and handler have a good clicker-based relationship. That automatically builds trust. But sometimes we have to bring in another person- a vet, emergency personnel, etc. So it's good if we can express to our horses that they just need to stand still and endure because we tell them to.

So today, for the first time in his life (I think), I said to Percy, "you stand there on the cross ties and let me do this". "This" was letting me measure him with a T measuring stick. It's metal and plastic, telescopes in the longer part and the T part flips out to the side and snaps in place. It was very scary. And it wasn't enough to sniff it, he had to let me approach his side and have the top slide down and rest on his withers...all the while he couldn't see it well because of it being almost out of his line of vision (especially on the cross ties where he couldn't turn his head). I've seen mature seasoned horses who didn't want this done.

I did start with him loose at noontime and outside. But he decided that was a Very Dangerous Weapon I was carrying and left the scene. Rumer stepped up and I was able to free-shape her to stand for it.....12.2 h. That was when I decided this was not-an-option for Percy. I came back later in the day and put him on the cross ties and groomed him first. Then I brought the stick out in its compact position. I let him sniff it and clicked him for that, which I know I couldn't have done if he was loose because then he would have thought it was about putting his nose on it and pretty soon he'd have been carrying it around and trying to measure me! (He loves to carry the longe whip around- I think I could do a pretty good comedy sketch of horse-chasing-person with whip). After he'd snorted and blown at it, I was able to click for just a quiet expression and head position- low on the cross ties but obviously he wasn't able to put his nose on the ground. Then I slowly telescoped it out little by little, clicking him after each move when he lowered his head on the ties. He was not relaxed- his neck was pretty tight but he knew that a low head position was asked for. His eyes watched that stick very closely. I moved to the front of him and moved it from horizontal to vertical and back a couple times. He did not like to see that it was bigger than him and his head went way up! Then I approached him with it again, clicking for him keeping his feet still...again, this is something he knows is a good thing to do...stand still rather than wiggle around. Head down and feet still are default behaviors by this time so he knows that they'll probably get reinforced. I don't disappoint him!

At this point I could tell he was pretty tense even though he was being very good. I leaned the measuring stick up against the wall (being sure that it wouldn't slip over and scare the bananas out of him) and then unclipped the ties and took him for a little walk around the paddock to just allow him to shake off the tension. I also gave him some easy clicks- targeting my hand, backing up, etc. Then we went back in the barn and I did a little test run without him being on the ties. He let me get just as far as I had earlier and he stood stock still. When he's worried and I ask him to put his head down, he reminds me of when I first try to drink from a steaming cup of tea or coffee and I don't want to burn myself. He puts his nose down quivering very slowly as if he's ready to leap back up having burned his lips. Once I saw that he passed this test, I put the cross ties back on and carefully flipped the T out. I let him sniff that and then approached his side cautiously, again clicking as I went for keeping his feet still and his head as low as possible on the ties. Before resting the T on his withers, I placed my hand there several times so the feel wasn't new.

I was very happy that he allowed me to do all this. I technically could have free-shaped it like I did with Rumer but I think it's good that we have one experience like this under our belts. And at 20 months old, he's 15 h., although I confess I didn't take the time to make sure the little bubble indicating level was in the right place! It will be interesting to see how big he gets. This photo was taken last October. His mane's even longer now- ugh.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I survived

My stint as primary farmer is over...for a while. My husband returned on Friday and boy were the horses and I (and Jack Russell) relieved. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather while he was gone. The country seemed to tip upside down and while snowstorms were pounding the central and southern states (and even southern New England), northern Vermont was enjoying the earliest Spring in a long time. Last Saturday we actually broke records for warm weather. Snow was long gone (except in the deepest woods) and the grass has already started to turn green. I took this picture while watering the sheep one day...they were all lined up along the barn and I couldn't figure out what they were doing. Turns out, this grass was struggling to grow up behind the bottom board and they were eating the tops off just as fast as it could grow!

Luckily, the horses haven't started to push through fences yet. I have taken turns turning them out in the round pen to chew off anything that might try to grow in there. Rumer especially seems to enjoy pulling it up by the roots so she may get a job in the garden this summer! With the clocks being turned ahead, I am now leaving everyone out until after dinner. I always have them out from sunup to sundown in all seasons so they can get as much moving around as possible (not to mention saving on bedding). While my husband was gone, I was turning them out before it was light and one morning Percy alerted me to a group of coyotes lurking just down the hill. I slept a lot better at night knowing our Livestock Guardian Dogs were on duty.

As far as training, I did what little I could in the last three weeks. In addition to being very busy, very tired and very short on time, I was dealing with a couple injuries that made me want to just sit down in the little available time I had so I didn't do anything major. One of the most exciting things to me was that I have been able to free shape Stowaway to both turn away and back up when I approach his feed tub with grain. This is major success in my opinion because he has been so difficult to explain clicker training to. I did not spend special time with him or focus on it, but each night as I fed, I just shaped him a tiny bit further and he now turns his head completely away and takes a full step back each night. I did nothing to "ask" him to do this- it was strictly shaping.

Percy is now exceptional at walking next to me, with his nose to the ground, at least a foot away from me when I walk through his paddock. For a boy of his age (not 2 until July 1), this is a good way for him to behave around people as a default behavior (a default behavior is a reliable behavior that has been strongly and repeatedly reinforced that he turns to when he's not sure what else to do). It keeps him quiet and calm with his head down, no temptation to bite anything or anyone and not too close to be in the way.

I also had to extinguish a behavior with him. One afternoon when I put him in his stall at feeding time, he had a complete temper tantrum. He bucked and squealed and stood up and spun around and at first I could not figure out WHAT the problem was. Then I realized that I usually did not shut his door during chores- I just put his stall guard up. The ponies all scooted underneath stall guards but Percy is big enough and polite enough to respect it so I was happy to leave his door open so he could hang his head out and watch and interact as I did chores. On that day, I had absent-mindedly shut his door and he was furious! I don't think I would have figured it out if I didn't know his mummy so well. But it is precisely something she would have done. Rather an opinionated bunch.

I knew I couldn't open his door at that point- that would have reinforced his tantrumming behavior. Instead I had to ignore it so that it extinguished. And I had to repeat that several more nights. Luckily I was confident in the structure of his stall! Now he is fine whether I leave his door open or closed.

We're back to more typical Spring weather now- temperatures in the 30's and 40's with some mixed rain and snow. This week I'm focusing on preparing for the TAGteach seminar that I am co-hosting this weekend (see for more details- there is still room if anyone is interested. Feel free to email me with questions at ). And then we'll get back to more focused training!