Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I want to be honest in this blog and not just post about the perfect days and the successes. Two days ago I posted about getting the three youngsters past some scary things on the way out to pasture- today we had an "incident" and I have tried to parse it out.

After getting halters on Percy and Rumer and going through the first of two gates, I stopped and asked for some head down from each. They complied but Percy responded to the first two clicks by shaking his head as he threw it up in the air. There was a LOT of energy in that boy that was bursting out in little bubbles wherever it could. He was doing what I asked, but it was taking every bit of his self-control. Once he was "released" from my request with the click, there was a little spark of relief that was let off. He's been getting a little bargy (my fault for snuggling with him too much I think and allowing him free access into my space) and so with all that energy, I wanted him back out of my space. When he stepped forward unrequested, I turned to him to back him up- and he stood up. He has done this before but only a handful of times, if that. In the past I have ignored it and taken it for what it was- a symptom of fear, anxiety, over- excitement, etc., and I have modified my requests accordingly. (Note- this does not mean he was rewarded for doing it! The rearing has never gotten him something good- I have been careful to see to that). This time, however, partially because I had Rumer on the other side of me and partially because he was up against the barn wall, his waving front legs came uncomfortably close to my chest and head. There's nothing like a brush with fear to bring out my temper and traditional training methods. I responded with positive punishment- I can growl/yell with the best of them
and to quote Prof. Higgins, my vocabulary would have "made a sailor blush". Percy got many sharp yanks on his halter to accompany my tirade.

During this process, I let go of Rumer who thankfully went 15 feet away and put her head down to eat. But things with Percy went downhill from there as far as training went. If I tried to turn toward our destination, his head was still up in the clouds, and he used his shoulder to his advantage by shoving it toward me and he pulled forward. Thus began a vicious cycle of barge, spin, yank which was exactly what I had been trying to avoid. This caused Rumer to decide it was safer further away and off she went to the paddock on her own, further exacerbating Percy's anxiety. This was a perfect example of how trying to dominate a horse and being bigger and scarier than they are simply raises the level of danger. Thankfully, he isn't totally nuts, and once I got hold of my own temper, lowered my energy, asked him to lower his head even a fraction, he complied and his reward was to be allowed to walk forward 2 steps closer to his buddies. Then we repeated this process, so that as he kept his head down (opposite of rearing), he eventually reached his destination.

So, when all this was over and I was kicking myself all the way back to the barn, I tried to figure out what had started our descent into chaos. The best I could come up with (other than my Scots-Irish temper) was this:

Yesterday, when I was preparing to take Percy and Rumer out, Percy did not leave his nose in the halter when I was trying to put it on. Rather than taking more time with him, I decided to let him go and just take Rumer out alone and then come back for him. There were three reasons for this, only one of them good. The first, poor reason #1, was that I was in a hurry. I had a busy morning ahead of me and was in "get the chores done" mode, rather than training mode. Keep in mind that Percy is not even 2 yrs old yet, he's hot bred, and he's bigger than me. I should ALWAYS be in training mode (one should with all horses, but this sort of bugger especially). Poor reason #2 was that as a result of my impatience, I decided to use negative punishment (-P) rather than positive reinforcement. Negative punishment is taking something away- the opportunity to go out- in order to stop (punish) a behavior...I wanted to stop his silly antics about haltering. This was just bad decision making all around. Horses (animals) respond to what immediately happens after a behavior, not the long term afterward. So what Percy got for backing away from the halter, was freedom and the opportunity to move. He got what he wanted! It didn't teach him to put his halter on better next time. It taught him to leave. Then, he got abandoned by both me and his buddy which he didn't relate to the haltering at all, but simply made him more anxious about the whole process today...when the halters came out, he associated all the worry of being left behind yesterday. This was not learning- it was emotion.

My third reason for leaving him, in an effort to redeem myself somewhat, was that I thought I could work with him better alone, rather than with Rumer. This was true. But that needed to be weighed against the anxiety of being left, which didn't work, and is why I have always led the two of them out together, as challenging as it has been. This is where management versus training comes in. In my ideal world, I would not have a construction zone to get through (which was actually not an issue AT ALL today....that part I got right the first day! It was all about baby manners and worry), and I would have someone else to lead the second horse so that each one got full attention. But, life gets in the way and we have to do the best with what we have.

Importantly, I have to decide where to go next. I have decided that today's lesson with Percy will be to practice walking up to that paddock without the distractions. In other words, the excitement of going out to grass and worry about his buddies going first all function as distractions to his efforts at minding his manners when being haltered and led. So later in the day when his tummy is full of grass and his buddies are quietly eating hay in the dirt paddock, Percy and I will go for some quiet walks toward the paddock. I will not ask him to go more than one step beyond his comfort zone. Positively reinforcing each individual step out of his comfort zone (by CTing and allowing him to return to safe environs) will build confidence a little at a time and hopefully begin to ask him to forgive me for my poor behavior this morning. Thank God horses are so forgiving.


smazourek said...

Bad days happen. I lost my temper with my gelding the other day and I still feel really awful about it. The only good thing about it was that since then I've really concentrated on making all my interactions with him as positive as possible, doing things he finds really easy and relaxing like targeting. I think he's forgiven me, but that doesn't mean I've forgiven myself.

I'm sure your colt will forgive you too, especially since it doesn't happen very often.

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks- I do have to comfort myself knowing that I've changed a lot over the years. And Percy didn't seem to hold it against me at all when it was time to come in. But I still want to have some very positive fun time with him this afternoon.

Unknown said...

Don't beat yourself up, Percy and his mummy can bring out the good/bad/ugly very easily. Good thing when they are good they are so very good. I'm glad that Perc is getting a better start than Zoe, because I certainly don't think that starting to really work through her baggage at 13 is the "easiest" way to be doing it.