Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Turnout Practice

Under the heading of Taking Advantage of Problems, I am using yet another rainy week to work on behavior of horses while being turned out. With record snowfall that melted at the same time as record Spring rainfall, we have very wet paddocks. Last week was beautiful and I was finally able to turn out on grass- but now it's too wet again.

Last week I had developed an exercise I was using with everyone. Each individual had to earn the right to eat grass. So rather than work on "walking politely" to the grass paddocks by using a tidbit from my pocket, I had each one walk x number of steps (each horse or pony had his or her own "average or better" number of steps), then clicked and treated from my pocket. Then, they had to stand for an "average or better" count, at which time I used the verbal cue "graze" and they could drop their heads and feast for 10 or 15 bites. Then I said "head up", and we walked on again.

I was really pleased with how this worked. I was using a former distraction- ankle deep, Spring-rich grass, as a reinforcer. I also used treats from my pocket...this was to prevent them from diving for grass. They had to wait to hear the cue "graze" which taught self-control. What I found was that I was working with two distinct distractions- when we got to the paddock, the horses got to graze as well as buck and play. Simply being handed hay stretcher pellets on the way out did help over the years, but the anxiety level could still be pretty high even though they managed to keep a lid on it. By using grass as a reinforcer on the way out, they didn't have to wait until they got to the paddock to get the grass. This took a lot of the energy out of the situation. I also cued "graze" when we got into the paddock and before I removed the halter.
This confused a couple of them, but it removed the connection of "through gate = explosion". When I did remove halters, there was no explosion! They just kept grazing. I sometimes heard a little explosion behind me as I walked back to the barn, but that was glee for being out, rather than glee at getting away from me finally. When weather warmed up this Spring, I began leaving them out in their "dirt paddocks" at night, rather than putting them in stalls, so it wasn't as if they'd been locked up all night and needed to move.

On Saturday we had a little glitch in the system. I had been turning Percy, the youngest, out first. He was doing very well. Saturday morning I needed to leave early to teach at a Pony Club clinic so my husband offered to help. I told him he could start turning the lesson ponies out while I fed Percy his breakfast and did water buckets. Oops. When I took Percy out and he discovered that others were already out there eating without him, he got rather more excited than usual. I should also explain that because we do rotational grazing, it is sometimes a bit of a hike to get to the paddock of choice. In addition, there is a very steep hill (really a very long bank) we have to walk down to get to many of the paddocks. This can be challenging when you are leading a boisterous youngster and you're both slipping and sliding on the dewy grass. Percy got so excited at the top of the hill that his energy burst out and he stood up, once, twice, thrice, four times. He wasn't really trying to get away from me because one time he got a leg over the rope and it came out of my hand but he just walked a couple steps and started grazing, perfectly happy to let me catch him. We proceeded to the paddock as in days before with me mentally kicking myself all the way there and back for not seeing this coming.

The next day, I resumed my previous arrangement, but Percy thought standing up was fun the day before so he did it again. Not good. I jerked hard on the rope, said "NO" and he dropped his head. We proceeded as before. The following day it was too wet to turn out but I decided to "practice" anyway, later in the day. Again, we got to the top of the hill and he stood up. Again I jerked on the rope, said "NO", but this time I walked him right back into his stall. There was no hay or grain in there and I just left him for several minutes while I walked out of sight. My guess was that I'd built a behavior chain. Rearing was OK in his mind because even though he got jerked and yelled at, he still got to go out. The punishment was not strong enough to stop the behavior. I was not willing to go to harsher punishment. The reinforcement of standing up was stronger than the reinforcement of waiting politely. It was time to break things down further so I had no more rehearsals of this very inappropriate behavior. When I took him back out, we just hand grazed for a minute or two and then returned to his dirt paddock- no turnout after rearing.

Since I can't turn them out on grass, this week is turnout practice...without ever leading to actual turnout. There are two criteria I'm after: walking quietly next to me with slack in the rope and standing quietly when I do, also with slack in the rope ("quietly" also includes no head tossing) There are two distractions: grass and anticipated freedom.

Phase 1- get my criteria without either of the distractions. Practice leading around the dirt paddock building duration. Our "average" for him has been 15 steps and a count of 5 wait. I need to build more reinforcement history of this behavior and increase my duration by a lot before I ask for much less when I introduce distractions.

Phase 2- introduce lower level distractions. Put hay out in the paddock and ask him to walk to it while meeting criteria. Ask him to walk past the hay while meeting the criteria. (this has proven pretty easy). Today I will move on to less enticing grass and not in the direction of turnout. I will test the value of my training by seeing if he can meet his average while walking through already grazed grass right in the vicinity of the barn. If not, I will find his average under those distractions and build up duration from there.
Phase 3- Practice walking toward the paddock but not getting turned out. I can hand graze him on the way out and teach him that maybe that's all that happens. He doesn't get to anticipate being turned out any more. I will do this at times of day other than early morning at first (which is usual turnout time).

Phase 4- Practice walking out to hand graze in the paddock. No freedom, just grazing in the paddock with me occasionally asking him to pick his head up and walk or just stand.
Phase 5- Hopefully we'll dry out some day and can turn out and with luck, by then I'll have the little beast under control again!

The beast- watching young cattle buck and run on the hill. (in desperate need of a spring trimming of mane, whiskers and cat hairs!)


dmillho1 said...

I have used grass as a reward with all of my horses. They agree to walk quietly next to me and not dive for grass. I agree to stop at random intervals and let them chomp a few times on the grass. Win-win!

Bookends Farm said...