Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chapter 2 in which I float balloons at 3: am and Alex hugs my horse

Saturday night I went to sleep easily but woke up at 3: am with thoughts buzzing in my head.  I was thinking about the way I approached the situation of Percy being frightened of the chicken.  I realized I had made a mistake to try to approach with him because, unlike other situations in which I approached scary things with him, I had no control over the chicken.  While I did not really think that the chicken would harm him, it could have naively approached us (in search of a tasty morsel in the grass) and that might have caused Percy to think I wasn't doing a very good job of keeping him safe.  I really need him to trust me and I can't give him any reason to think he'd be better off leaving me behind and saving himself.

I wanted to have some clear facts with which to proceed and so I sorted through my thoughts and came up with the following.  I called them Percy's balloons because I was afraid that after staying awake thinking about this for an hour and a half, I'd forget it all as soon as I fell asleep again, the thoughts floating off like Winnie-the-Pooh to the honey tree.  I used my phone in the dark, so as not to wake my roommate Sarah, and jotted down these thoughts:

  1. Knowing Percy's mother, she does not hit the end of a rope even when explosive.  Neither does she run into you.  Percy seems to be as body aware as she is but I am not yet sure he is as careful as she is.  
  2. If allowed rope freedom, Percy has never gotten away or even tried to pull away from me.  He is polite even when excited.  
  3. If you try to restrain him,  he will fight.  He's been that way since he was a foal.  A combination of my respect for his athletic abilities and respect for his nature has prevented me from trying to force him to accept restraint.  Through clicker training, I have been able to train him to accept various kinds of restraint, from a halter to hoof trimming to a firm grip on his head to examine his teeth.  
  4. Clicker work calms him, as it had done the previous day.  Leaving him alone to settle down does not.  When my husband had to repair the sheep barn roof last winter and was climbing up and down a ladder and walking around on the roof, Percy watched in horror.  I left him, assuming he'd get over it, but when I returned hours later, he was still staring, giraffe like.  Another time I had tied a tarp to the round pen on a windy day and his initial reaction was the same but we approached it together, one step at a time, only advancing when his head was below his withers and for a click and treat of each step.  The closer we got, the calmer he became.   He'd done lots with tarps previously but never when they were flapping and snapping in the wind.  But all that work with the tarp was at liberty- I was not forcing him to approach, I was reinforcing when he did and he was free to leave at any time. 
I had hoped that work like this would make him more trusting, exposing him to more things in life and he'd continue to stay with me in scary situations.  But then there was the ostrich potential.  So I had questions- should I do more tai chi wall work with him so it became a comforting thing rather than a forced control?  Should I have "put him to work" to distract him from the chicken rather than facing it? 
When Alex arrived the next morning, she found me cleaning Percy's stall.  Now that she has her own barn and home base, she seemed to be like the rest of us, enjoying a morning mucking.  She picked up a fork and cleaned Kizzy's stall while I shared Percy's balloons.  At the end, she was even more convinced he needed hugging.  

During the morning discussion, she explained an exercise she had developed at another clinic earlier in the season.  This was for a mare who did not want her girth area approached  (and she was quite adamant about keeping people away).  She adapted the exercise with Percy thusly: we set up two lawn chairs as large cones.  Alex stood on one side and I on the other side.  We were probably about 20 feet apart- each 10 feet from the invisible line drawn between the chairs (with the mare, who was an event horse, the chairs had been jump standards and they built up a jump for her to go over each way).  We each had a target stick.  I think we began by having me "send" Percy to Alex who was holding out her target stick.  He needed to investigate the chairs a bit first (not minding when he knocked one over) but then went and touched her target for a c/t.  Alex then took firm hold of his halter, wrapped her left arm over his nose where the noseband of his halter went and gave him a squeeze.  The moment he relaxed a tiny bit, she clicked and released.  She repeated this process several times, turning him in a small half circle after a few so that he was headed back toward me and hugged him some more.  Then using her left hand on his halter and right at his shoulder, she gently sent him back to me so I could do the same.  

Over that session and another one the next day, we made progress from Percy's nose, to his head, his poll, his neck, his withers and finally his girth area.  I feel conflicted writing this because I don't want it to sound as though we were physically restraining him while he fought to get away.  There were times he resisted but we certainly couldn't hug a 1200 pound horse to us when he didn't want it.   
Alex did state that we should take hold of his halter and not allow him to leave.  This was about him learning that pressure was ok and it was also not optional.   In his past, I had gone just to the point of contact with him, waited for a release from him and then released myself.  This was about going to the point of contact and pulling him to us, c/ting when he relaxed to the contact.  It wasn't a surrender, it was a relaxing.  I could feel it when he relaxed into my arms and I could see the expression in his eyes soften when he relaxed to Alex's hugs.  

Now, Alex being Alex, there were many other things going on at the same time below the surface.  These weren't just random hugs.  These were progressive flexions.  She was precise in how we held his head and neck, where our arms, and then hips, were placed so that we supported correct body mechanics.  He was not to wrap down and around but maintain a more correct alignment.  She felt a kink in his neck when she got halfway down.  I did not feel it but did feel him make a big step toward relaxation after she sent him back to me the next time.  Once we got to his chest and wither, she showed me how she used her hip at his shoulder in a lifting position, rather than pulling down on his withers- it reminded me of the way a chiropractor uses their body to manipulate a patient.  I need to review my anatomy.  

Caroline asked if a chiropractor or massage therapist would be helpful in that kink.  Alex was firm in saying that professionals can be very helpful but also that we can do a lot for our horses ourselves with the exercises we use.  This rang true for me because a daily morning yoga ritual keeps me putting one foot in front of the other each day without pain and vertigo.  We know our horses bodies- daily careful grooming ingrains the feel of their legs in our brains so that we sense the slightest heat or swelling- why not carry that over to the rest of the body?  Grooming him at home yesterday, I changed the feel of my currying with the grooming mitt so that I was feeling muscles and looking for potential tight spots, rather than just massaging the skin.  

I seem to have a very snuggly horse now.  I have previously worked on getting him to relax and lower his head when I comb his forelock- yesterday he voluntarily buried his head in my chest and with a wing and prayer, I wrapped his head in my arms, squished his ears and hugged tight- he didn't move a muscle. When I was picking out his run-in, he came over and instead of begging to play games (backing away, pricking his ears, trying to steal the pitchfork), he just wrapped his neck around me in a hug.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Chapter One, in which Kizzy goes to Lilliput and Percy becomes undone by a chicken

This past weekend was the long-awaited yearly clinic with Alexandra Kurland.  I must start off by saying that the host, Caroline Albert, gets the Energizer Bunny award of the year from me.  With two school-aged children, four dogs in various stages of training, 8 horses, and a startup bustling dog training and daycare business, somehow she invited us into her home and barn and even cooked fabulous meals for us for three and a half days.  Her businesses are Click for Confidence (equine) and The Grateful Dog (canine).  A year and a half ago, she and her family (kids plus husband Wayne who is a farrier extraordinare) rescued a weanling colt.  The photos were heartbreaking: emaciated, barely strength to stand, covered in rain rot which came off in chunks, structurally unsound, one could only wonder what kind of future this poor thing could have.  Below, a photo of him this past weekend.

Smitten- now the picture of health and fitness
Amazing, isn't it?

When we arrived at the farm on Friday late afternoon, we were a truck and trailerful:  Percy, Kizzy-as-companion-to Percy, Eloise the Jack Russell, Sarah Memmi who traveled down with us for wonderful conversation and support, and myself.  I unloaded Percy who couldn't figure out which way to look first and Sarah unloaded Kizzy who saw there was grass so all was well in her world.  Percy has an amazing ability to turn into a giraffe when he needs to see all the world at once and so with head held high, we proceeded toward the paddock which Caroline had waiting for us.  As we approached, a small head and body appeared around the corner of the barn.  One of the farm minis had snuck between some rails and ended up in assigned paddock.  Had Percy been able to raise his head even higher at this astonishing sight, he would have.  Caroline's daughter grabbed a lead rope, lassoed the escapee and returned him to his own paddock.  We opened the gate and entered with Percy and Kizzy.  The mini returned.  With reinforcements.  And attitude.  We now had two minis in the paddock with us and they seemed rather incensed by the visitors so they skirted Caroline's daughter who was trying to catch them again and presented themselves front and center.  At 12 hands (which may be generous) Kizzy has never towered over anything before.  A bit concerned at what Percy was going to do about this situation, I nonetheless had to giggle at the Lilliputians.  Sarah handed over Kizzy's lead rope and the minis were once again captured and led off to their stalls.  Relieved that Percy hadn't ended up splayed out and staked to the ground by a miniature race, we proceeded to settle everyone in.  

Saturday was Day 1 of the clinic, a day which Alex sets aside for data collection.  She observes horses and handlers and begins to lay her plans for the work to come.  Our assignment is to work our horses as we would at home and see if the behaviors are all in order.  We could either proceed or back up as warranted.  The previous evening I had said that my goal, if Percy was Percy, would be to work on some emotional control.  All in all I had been pleased with how he had handled the Advance of the Minis and was drooling over the lovely flat sand arena, unlike anything we had at home.  What fun it would be to work in there.  Alex later quoted John Lyons saying that we can have all the training in the world, but horses being horses, things happen and what are you going to do when an ostrich walks up the drive?  Well, in our case, the ostrich was a chicken.  A rather attractive laying hen had ventured from her pen to graze in the grass next to the paddock which Percy and Kizzy were in.  Percy was alarmed.  

He stared, he blew, he retreated and advanced.  He clung to Kizzy.  He did his giraffe imitation.  The chicken was unconcerned.  She did her little chicken walk around in the grass, searching for bugs seemingly without any knowledge of the large horse she was intimidating.  Percy was a farm boy but our chickens were in the other barn and he'd never seen them.  Alex watched from the barn door as I put his halter on.  He obligingly lowered his head into his halter but shot it back up when I opened the gate and went onto the grass where the chicken was.  She had puttered over to the other side of the lawn.  I told Alex that if I was at home, the first thing I would do would be to address the chicken.  Not in a formal commencement speech sort of way, but in a more casual introduction of "Percy this is a little red hen.  Little Red Hen this is Percy".  Alex was concerned for my safety and sent us back into the paddock.  She didn't like me being on the side of Percy that would be leapt upon if he leapt.  She gave us a mat and a circle of cones in the paddock...a slightly stony, slightly side hill- just like home.   And so we went to work.  Percy settled with the familiar exercises.  He wasn't quite focused enough to show off left and right error-free but he could do his foundation exercises.  He gets fussy about just how to perfect his feet on a mat and was true-to-form there.  But he targeted, head lowered, backed (even on voice), stood for Grownups and his ears were mannerly.  His "stretch" command was only half quality (at home his nose is right at the ground as he walks).  

Alex observed and made helpful suggestions.  She commented something about spending the weekend hugging him...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Is Positive Reinforcement Bribery?

No.  There are distinct differences between the two.  Whether you are clicker training an animal or TAG teaching a person (of any age), you are using a scientifically researched and proven method of teaching or training which involves the pupil learning something new.  This might be a completely new behavior or a new way of performing a previously known behavior.  Good teaching or training also involves a plan.  A key element in Clicker Training and TAGteach is breaking the behavior down into manageable steps (which will be different for each learner) and reinforcing each step along the way.  
The downfall of bribery is that each bribe only gets you one behavior.  There has been no learning involved, therefore, no long term change will occur.  The bribe is offered before the behavior: “do this and I’ll give you this”.  Without the bribe, the behavior doesn’t happen.  This frequently leads to the pupil demanding the bribe before repeating the behavior.  They think, “well, last time I got a cookie for getting into my car seat.  I want to be sure I get one this time too!”.  This is a one-time deal.  
With animals, we don’t have the ability to tell the animal, “if you get on the trailer, I’ll give you a carrot”.  So those using bribery stand on the trailer with a bucket of grain, shaking the bucket and trying to lure the animal in.  They might give a bite now and then, but there is rarely a plan for how this training is taking place.   Without an understanding of the other things affecting the horse’s behavior, those bucket-shakers don’t change the long term behavior of the horse.  They may get the horse on the trailer, but the next time they need to load, they will be back there shaking that bucket. 
With clicker training, no treat is offered ahead of time.  The animal does not know what will earn a click, or if it will earn a click.  Therefore, he must think.  He must try different things to see what works.  The animal becomes actively engaged with using his brain to figure out this puzzle.  Engaging him in this way changes the training picture entirely.  In addition, we don’t click and treat the same behavior, differentiating Clicker Training from luring and bribing.  The animal must keep working, keep thinking, keep trying in order to continue getting clicked.  Standing still on the trailer ramp doesn’t work.  Backing off and then putting the front feet on again over and over doesn’t work.  Clicker trainers use measurable criteria to determine when progress is being made and they mark that with a click.  Once it is trained, as long as nothing else changes that training (such as a bad experience), you have a well-trained loader.
With people, we have the advantage of language to be able to communicate exactly what will earn a tag.  We aren’t bribing a person for a finished behavior.  One doesn’t tag for “good position” or “a clean room”.  One breaks the position down into manageable steps.  The tags occur when that step is achieved- our bodies need to experiment to find that right spot and then TAG!  The brain processes that and tries it again- TAG!  Once we have been tagged several times, we know the feel of the correct position.  We can repeat it.  At that point the teacher goes on (using the training plan) to another piece of the position.  Through this gradual process and understanding that one piece may slip when a new one is introduced, we can help a student achieve that final position we are looking for.  Through this process, we have also helped the student to feel good about the position.  Therefore, no bribery is necessary to maintain it.  
In case you are wondering, you can devise a plan to TAGteach for a clean room :)