Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #1- Magic

In our area, there is an amazing magician whom you can hire for entertainment at parties and such. He also works the tables at a local restaurant on Sunday nights and I love to watch the faces of people as he performs his tricks- especially kids! He's no simple magician- this guy is good. Last time we watched him, he had a diner draw a card from a deck, look at it, and replace it. The magician then pinched the flame on the table candle...and 3 appeared in a blister on his finger and the spade symbol appeared as a blister on his thumb!!! (and yes, the woman's card was the 3 of spades). This weekend, Alexandra Kurland worked similar magic.

Saturday morning was the first day to work horses. We had turned everyone out and the trick was to find a place to work Percy that would be least upsetting to a young boy on his first overnight. We chose the driveway between the barn and paddocks, hoping his turnout time had allowed him to get a good look at that area and it also kept him fairly close to Kizzy (who had come along as companion) in the paddock nearby.

Percy likes to look at things. He can get his head way up in the air and his eyes open wide. It isn't a matter of just looking for a few moments...he really needs hours to examine a new area. I have confidence that this will change as he gets older and more time off the farm but this was only his second trip "out" and his first overnight. When I brought him out of his paddock, he couldn't decide which way to look first. He wanted to keep on eye on Kizzy on one side, but the other clinic participants were gathered along the barn on the other side to watch. People kept popping around a corner, cats wandered through the scene, more people appeared around the other side of the barn, the tractor was being used to transport manure to the pile, people were carrying chairs and wearing interesting hats. The minimally traveled dirt road was on yet another side and when cars or trucks did pass by, one could hear them coming from a ways away and I could see Percy mentally mapping the area as he first heard a vehicle and then tracked it like a periscope as it came closer and closer. There was a LOT to look at and he couldn't figure out which direction needed most attention. His front feet came off the ground a time or two, but I had to give him credit because it wasn't the full stand I have seen on rare occasions before. He wasn't trying to drag me around or plow me down...but it was definitely borderline meltdown territory. I began trying to run through the foundation lessons in order to get his attention, give him something to focus on and show Alex his scope of behaviors. He did target my hand, back on a light request and put his head down on request, but was so wound up that he wouldn't take the treat as reward- or took it but neglected to chew it. I had to give him a lot of credit for trying.

Alex quickly set out two very small circles of cones and two mats. We made a round of each circle as I used the Tai Chi wall to try to get him to bend toward me and pay attention, rather than stare off to the outside and push in with his shoulder. I told her I didn't consider mat work to be a very strong behavior for him because he tends to try to get his feet "just right" on them, rather than relaxing- but to my surprise, he did very well on them. One was a largish one made of medium width rubber. At one point, he pawed it and it curled up under him so he had to leap away but (on Alex's direction), I took him right back to it and he did stand on it. The other mat was a small (12"?) one of plywood. He stepped right over it, not paying any attention but coincidentally got a toe on so got a click and treat for that. So, he'd made one round of this training "loop" and on a scale of distractedness came down from a 9 to an 8.5. At this point, Alex told me to bring him to the inside of one of the little cone circles where she was standing. I was expecting her to have him target her hand as a simple behavioral reward to keep the Rate of Reinforcement (ROR) high. Instead, she said "Red. Touch." very clearly and presented a red cone from behind her back. Percy loves to target and so while I don't think he even looked at her or the cone, he absent-mindedly quickly reached out and touched the target for a click and treat. She immediately put the cone behind her out of sight again and then repeated the exercise. The third time, after saying "Red. Touch", she brought two cones from behind her back- one red and one green. Percy targeted the red one.

As an aside, this is the way I remembered it after much consideration at 4:30 the next morning when I woke up and thought about it. In all honesty, as it happened, it was as mysterious as watching that magician in the restaurant. Alex was the magician and I was the 6 year old with my mouth hanging open as she taught, in a matter of minutes, my 3 year old, highly distracted TB cross boy the difference between red and green. And Alex got as much of a kick watching my reaction as I always do watching the magician's observers. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Back to Saturday morning. Alex then said "Green. Touch." and presented both cones. Percy targeted the green one. I was dumbfounded as Alex grinned and sent us off for another round of "Why Would You Leave Me" on the cone circles and standing on the mats. We were down to a distraction level of 8- he was still watching the people, making sure Kizzy was in sight, listening to vehicles all while doing everything I asked with a minimum of attention. But he was now taking treats. And we returned to Alex and her red and green cones. He nailed it each time, regardless of whether she said red or green and even though she switched hands behind her back so that green was sometimes on her left and sometimes on her right and vice versa with the red. Off for another round of circles and mats. Now I could get head lowering on the large mat and at least get him to pay attention to the smaller one.

At some point, Alex introduced a yellow cone. At this point Percy made his first mistake with the colors. In the entire morning (which was in some sort of warp time so I have no idea how long we worked him...20 minutes?) he made three mistakes in probably 25 attempts. And I think he only made a mistake when she tried the yellow. She then returned to green and red and for the rest of the weekend, he was error-free.

This entire process illustrates Alex's "Loopy Training" method. She creates a loop of behaviors for the horse to progress through, each one reinforcing the previous one. The loop of

behavior -> click -> treat -> behavior

is the first loop. One looks for "clean" loops. She defined "clean" as fluid and prompt with no unwanted behaviors creeping in. So a simple clean targeting loop would include the horse immediately responding to the presentation of a target by touching it, the handler promptly and smoothly offering a treat which the horse immediately and politely took at which point the handler would smoothly offer the target again. If the horse were to hesitate at either the presentation of the target or the offering of the treat for any reason- unsure, looking away, trying to graze, etc, that would be an example of a loop that is not clean.

She also states that "when a loop is clean you get to move on. Not only do you get to move on, you should move on." Therefore, I asked why she had presented the color training to Percy that morning when, in my opinion, his loops were far from clean. He was looking everywhere but at what he was doing, he didn't consistently take the treats, he tried to wander off and the behaviors he did offer were far from his standard. She agreed completely, pointing out his baby rears. Her explanation was that she felt he was an individual who would benefit from something new and fun. While I can see some horses would become frustrated or worried when asked to do something completely new in a highly distracting environment, Percy loved it and that got his focus when his well-known behaviors didn't. He even became fascinated by something over the roof of the barn while Alex was presenting colors but it didn't affect his success rate.

And that was only Day 1.

This clip was taken the second day after he had calmed down considerably but illustrates the color training.

Thank you to Sarah Memmi for catching this video clip and taking great photos!


Bookends Farm said...

In the video, I realized it looks like he made a mistake at one point but there were a couple times he began to reach for one cone, and then changed his mind and went for the correct one. The angle of the video makes it difficult to see that he doesn't actually touch the incorrect one. On the few times he did make a mistake, Alex drew the cone back so, as she said, it didn't become a guessing game.

Emily said...

Jane's description is spot on. I think all of us were amazed by what we saw. All the while Percy kept getting calmer in an environment that should have been unsettling.

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks Emily! We must get together- clicker training is growing in Vermont. Once I get everyone's email addresses, I'll send out an invitation. Kizzy would love to see you again!

Lottie Eriksson said...

This is wonderful! I love how Alexandra came up with such an unexpected strategy to help him settle down. What a good eye she has for what will suit individual horses. There may be a "Clever Hans effect" going on here, but in any case it's clear that Percy is a very clever boy! Thanks so much for sharing!

Bookends Farm said...

Lottie, yes Alex is amazingly astute at reading what horses need. Did you see any Clever Hans affect in the video clip? I have studied it and not seen anything consistent. Plus, the first day he was SO distracted I don't know how he could have been paying attention to any subtle cues :)

Lottie Eriksson said...

No, I didn't see any Clever Hans effect, but in order to rule it out a task of this kind would have to be set up in such a way that the horse can't see the human at all. But then we're getting scientific, and there's really no need for that. :)

I do love seeing how well he does, it IS magic!

Lottie Eriksson said...

Just to clarify my previous comments: even if there was a Clever Hans effect, I don't think that in any way would diminish Percy's accomplishment. It's impressive to see a young horse learning a complex task so quickly, in such a challenging environment. In my book, he's a star!

Monty( the pony fairy) said...

What fun..thanks for sharing!

Bookends Farm said...

Yes Lottie, regardless of how he is figuring it out, it shows extreme cleverness on his part (of course I'm a bit biased). And I am not at all interested in using him as a guinea pig...I'm looking to build confidence and fun! I've done it a couple times myself since we got home (the one time Alex had me try at the clinic, I was so flummoxed I kept screwing up the words and the presentation!) and while he did not always appear as confident, he has been correct.