Friday, October 21, 2011

Using What Comes Up (or The Difference Between Angus and Holsteins)

Apparently, from an equine perspective, there is a difference between black cows and black-and-white cows. We have Black Angus. The photo above shows some of our weanling calves, pastured about 75 feet from the horses. The horses see them daily and in the short lives of my youngsters, the cattle have been pastured on all sides. They hear them, see them, smell them and watch them daily. They watch them with interest, but not usually concern.

Today, however, they saw black-and-white cows. Holsteins, to be precise. The neighbor's heifers got out and although they stayed on their own property, they came in sight of my horses. I had just put Percy in the round pen for a little training session and had gone to get the mats out when I noticed the heifers...or rather I noticed Percy notice the heifers. I called the neighbor (good friends) and he said he'd go fetch them back to where they belonged. It was a bit of a hike from his house to the far field that adjoined us where the heifers had wandered. It would be a few minutes at least. Percy was doing his Standing Stallion Statue pose as he watched the heifers at the bottom of the hill. Every 10 seconds or so, he'd terrrottt around the round pen very importantly only to freeze and stare some more. All the other horses were rooted to the spot in their paddocks as they watched the strange black and white creatures.

A training opportunity had arisen. I was in complete management control- he was in a safe place and so was I. I could see how much I was worth to him compared to the side show of Holsteins. I wasn't interested in forcing him to pay attention to me. I wanted to know just how much of a "cookie" I was. How much value had I built up? I had a pouch full of treats since I was about to work with him anyway so I was ready. I stood on the opposite side of the round pen- he was facing away from me- and I called him. He turned immediately and trotted to me. Well, that was impressive and earned him a people-peppermint (his favorite).

I can't remember exactly what order I did things in, but my mind was whirring as I tried to figure the best approach. I know I asked him to put his head down and he promptly did- C/T. He trusted me enough to relax into that- good. I considered working on 300 peck pigeon since I wasn't sure I wanted to get any more complicated than head down considering the distraction. I thought it would be good to see how long he would keep his head down in that situation. But then I realized that would break one of the 4 D rules. I didn't want to increase the criteria in more than one of the 4 Ds- distraction, distance, duration or difficulty. We already had Distraction to the extreme, so I didn't want to up the duration as well. I was also changing the cue on him a bit so I was really pushing things. Normally I place my hand on his poll for a non-rope cue for head down but because he was on the other side of the panels and was at high alert, I couldn't really reach his poll and was doing a modified cue of just raising my hand. He seemed to get it, but I needed to be careful to keep things successful even if it was a bit of a test.

So we did a bit of easy targeting, then some head down for a count of 5. He'd give me some good responses and then trot back to check on the heifers. After a couple seconds, he'd come back to me. I did not call him back to me after the first time. I was hoping for, and in fact I got, him to choose to come back and play with me. I'm not sure I was overwhelmingly more interesting than the heifers, because he did feel the need to go check on them regularly, but he did return to me each time on his own. I checked to see if he'd offer head down if I didn't cue him after we'd done it a couple times. He's currently offering Pilates moves when given the choice and I didn't want to encourage him to puff himself up any more so I went back to asking for head down or targeting. His eyes softened considerably and I was able to get a head down for count of 10. That was enough so that I decided to take the mats and go into the round pen with him for our original lesson plan.

By this time, the heifers had disappeared over the rise in the distant field. They were not forgotten, but I did have Percy's full cooperation. I was very pleased to notice improvement in his work from the previous day (we're working on a pre-riding pattern of three mats) even with the higher level of excitement. All in all, I was very pleased.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Schooling ditches

I love fall- it's such a great time to ride with no bugs, cool temperatures, and beautiful scenery. It's not hard for students to convince me to take them on a hack so we can work on riding "in the open"...something many kids and adults sorely miss in these days of disappearing open land available to ride on.
This fall, I've gotten confident enough to ride Ande with students...I needed to be sure he was quiet enough that I didn't need to worry about him sparking an unusual moment in an otherwise quiet lesson horse and also that I could focus on a novice without needing to be on alert and horse training every second. Yesterday, at the end of a short ride with a student on Mariah, I decided to introduce the rider to ditches. We'd done uphill, downhill, steep ups through low woods (in other words on Mariah, she had to duck a lot more than I did!) and I was pretty confident Mariah would step quietly over the ditch so she could practice correct position without my needing to worry that she'd really need it.

When my daughter was younger, we'd practice ditches along the road- she could jump from the road over the ditch up onto the hayfield or lawn- uphill with less worry about bucking on landing. The town road crew had cleaned out the ditches with the grader after Hurricane Irene, so they were clear and obvious. Mariah was a champ and stepped carefully into and then over the ditch- the only challenge being keeping her head out of the deep grass on the other side. Ande, however, wasn't too keen on following her. As sure footed as he is, he is the one who still likes to leap over the little spring on the way to turnout in one of the fields when everyone else will simply splash through. I only had one peppermint in my pocket and I bit it into as many pieces as possible. Every tiny step toward the ditch (he had no problem going right to the edge, but then got worried), got a click and a tiny peppermint bit. The hardest thing of all was not going into complete "do it!" mode. Amazing how old habits kick in. Luckily, I knew the student's ride home was coming soon and so when the peppermints were gone, I shushed all the little trainer demons in my head who were telling me I couldn't let Ande "win" by not going over the ditch. I hopped off and led him over it. Sure enough, he leaped high and wide enough to make a Training horse proud. I let him graze and then led him back and forth a couple more times. Each time he avoided the possibility that any alligators in the ditch could reach him. Each time he got 10 mouthfuls of grass as reward and then we went back to the barn.

the ditch full of alligators

Today, I put a pouch full of treats on me and a halter and lead on Ande and we returned to the ditch. Standing him in the road, I asked him to step a tiny step toward the ditch. I knew he would gladly leap the ditch but I wanted him in it. Some schools of thought say never to teach a horse to step in a ditch because in competition, you want them going over it, not in it. I decided I'd risk it because I think it will be more important for Ande to be a quiet trail pony, rather than a high level event horse. And I figured, once again, he could be my guinea pig for Percy. If Ande proceeds to be unwilling or difficult to teach to jump ditches in the future, I'll do it differently with P.

I approached the ditch the way I approach a horse who is difficult to load into a trailer. It's not about the end result, it's about each tiny step of the way. I wanted him comfortable approaching the ditch and being in it, just like I want a horse comfortable approaching a trailer and comfortable being on the ramp. If you can get that, the rest is easy- and the training sticks. It's not just a one time deal. So I only asked for 2 inches forward at a time. And I made sure those were two inches straight ahead (using the Tai Chi wall if necessary), not toward me. I did not want him leaping onto me for safety (if you've seen the Thelwell sketch of the pony with his legs wrapped around his owner's neck when he sees a mouse, you know what I was picturing). When we had gone forward 6 inches down the little slope, I asked him to back up so we could do it again. Pretty soon, he was happily going forward and back, further and further down into the ditch until- ta da- he could reach the grass. So we stood and grazed there, another couple inches and he'd forgotten all about the alligators.

We went back and forth several times and he never again tried to leap. Next- I'll put the saddle back on and try again while mounted. I need to find a fairly level spot though because riding him with front feet in the ditch and head down in the bottom of it grazing will be a challenge!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


As a clicker trainer and TAG teacher, I have tried to remove the word "don't" from my vocabulary. It hasn't been easy, but it has been very worthwhile. Positive reinforcement techniques are all about focusing on what we want as opposed to what we don't want. Initially, this can tie a person in knots. Working with a young student whose horse was trying to bite her as she tightened the girth, I asked her to tell me what she wanted the horse to do. She simply couldn't figure out anything beyond "not bite me!" (yes, consideration was given to all the things which could be causing this behavior before trying to re-train it).

Step 1 in Alexandra Kurland's Step by Step book is "decide what you want your horse to do". Susan Garrett, dog trainer, does all her training in "do-land". TAG teach instructs us to make tag points of what we want. The easiest way I have found to explain this to people is to quote the title of a book. I tell them to close their eyes and then I say "don't think of an elephant". Then I ask, what is the first thing that popped into your head? In all cases, it's an elephant. But I said DON'T think of an elephant! Why did they? Because that is the way our brain works. Our brain thinks in positive images. It doesn't have a picture for "no". It pulls up the things we think about. So if we go through the day thinking "no chocolate, no chocolate, no chocolate", our brains are hearing "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate".

Having raised a few young horses in recent years, there were plenty of things I didn't want them to do. I didn't want to be bitten, or kicked, or run over for example. I didn't want them to rear, or pull back on cross ties or bolt away from me. For all these situations, I had to do what clicker trainers call "train an incompatible behavior". That meant I had to come up with things to train them to DO, that made it impossible for them to do the things I didn't want. Don't bite became "mouth closed and head away from me". Don't kick became "four feet on the floor". Don't run me over became "walk a safe distance from me". Pretty soon, these things I taught became incompatible behaviors for other things I didn't want. "Four on the floor" also meant they couldn't rear and couldn't pull back on cross ties. Walking a safe distance from me meant they couldn't bolt off.

Now there was a lot of management that went into the process as well. You don't turn your backside to a young colt and just leave it hanging there begging to be bitten. I know that colts are all about biting. Not because they are bad, but because they are colts and that's what colts do! It wasn't personal- they bit everyone- their moms, their pasture buddies, the cat. It's part of their play which is part of their education. So while I was around them, I protected my backside (and arms and legs and face) by keeping a safe distance and training them to do something else with their heads which they got reinforced for. I had to make not-biting more reinforcing than biting.

I still remember exactly where we stood the first time Percy, as a weanling "struck" with a front foot and caught me in the back of the leg. At least that's how I saw it at the time. My mind was yelling "DANGER, RUDE, AGGRESSIVE" while this little clicker angel on my shoulder was saying "reward the positive". That little clicker angel and I had quite a discussion.
"But it was dangerous", I argued.
"Keep yourself in protective contact", the little angel said.
"I can't keep myself protected every second!"
"You know horses are dangerous big animals", the little angel said, "you have chosen to work with them and specifically with young ones".
"Why can't I punish this behavior?", I demanded.
"Punishment has unintended consequences", the clicker angel said.
"LIke what?!"
"You know perfectly well"

She was right, I did know. I didn't want this little horse to fear me, fear being with me or fear offering things because I might hurt him. I taught Percy to walk next to me, not behind me, where an enthusiastic paw wouldn't catch me in the back of the leg. I taught him how to turn and stay next to me when we went through gates so I could shut it behind us (the instance that had him behind me on that memorable day).

Now he's three and even though I never punished him for it, he doesn't strike. And many repetitions and a high rate of reinforcement for being next to me mean that when he gets startled and shoots forward, it's not been over the top of me. Am I absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, sure he'll never hurt me? Nope. He's a horse. A young horse right now. He weighs half a ton and he has hooves. Accidents happen. I must take responsibility for my own safety as much as I can and hope for the best.