Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Learning Curve 7

There were three sessions on Wednesday.  A lot happened in those sessions with two jaw-dropping results.  One was the way that Alex was able to hug Percy into what can only be described as a drugged state.  The other was the way he began to move as a result.  Emotions and physiology go hand in hand in my opinion.  Emotional tension leads to physical tension which locks in the emotional tension.  Trying to release one without the other creates temporary results at best.  The sessions Alex designed for Percy were a perfect blend of mental, emotional and physical stretching.  

I've consolidated the 3 sessions into one report for the purpose of this post:

Goal- continue to settle, build conditioned reinforcers, explore the turnaround.
Location- same figure 8 and basketball setup as yesterday afternoon plus a teeter totter.
Interest- yes in people and toys: he came right over, helped with manure picking (which he loves to do at home), offered hugs
Time- 10:30, 12:30 and 3:
Tempo- basket ball:3.5, figure eight: 4, "gives like butter" (Alex)
Equipment- cones, mat, hoop and loopie toy, round pen, teeter totter
Reinforcers- hay stretcher pellets, the basketball and teeter totter grew as reinforcers, the mat definitely became more reinforcing than ever.
Emotion- from tense to a drugged, sleepy high
Distractions- I tried standing on the shavings bags at one point which Percy did NOT like.  "Well aren't you volatile" (Alex). At the end he could be mildly distracted by noises outside but he came right back emotionally and attentively.  He wanted his head down.

In the initial session, we took turns with him.  One would do a tour around the figure 8, asking for little gives even when he was "squeezed" in the trouble spot. On completion of a circle, we'd stop on the mat for some hugs, then go off on the other portion of the 8 and back to the mat again.  When he gave really good responses to the bodywork/hugs, we'd go play basketball with the three of us and play on the new teeter totter.  

On the circles we were looking for good movement- straightness on a circle, yielding of his hips when asked without the tension and stiffness seen in the previous video.  On the mat, we were looking for gives to the hugs, using Alex's familiar definition of a give: "the body part should come alive with energy and move in the direction I want it to go".  The basketball allowed Percy to learn a new and fun game- a mental exercise.  The teeter totter was a new mental puzzle as well which also incorporated body control and physical stretches.  

Here is Percy on the teeter totter:
video

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Learning Curve 6- spotlight moment

Once he finally calmed down enough to take a brief rest

OK, so- what I missed in Alex's work with Percy was that she actively asked for a response from him.  Rather than waiting for him to calm down, adjust on his own, and just decide to stay even through his anxiety, Alex asked for baby gives.  Her reasoning was based in a John Lyons story.  Many of us train by exposing our horses to as many things as possible.  We start when they are babies by introducing them to halters and ropes and grooming tools and our hands all over their body.  As they get older we add things they may see in their environment: dogs, vehicles, clippers, other animals, plastic bags or wrapped bales, farm equipment, livestock, bicycles, the plastic chain around a dressage arena, big horses, little horses, the trailer, groups of horses, the noise of a loudspeaker, a ribbon on the bridle, other horses galloping past, boots and bandages, the list goes on and on.  But, says John Lyons, what do you do the day an ostrich comes up the driveway?  Did you desensitize him to ostriches?  Or anything remotely like an ostrich?  Different animals have different capabilities for generalization- show them one dog and all dogs are OK or not.  In Percy's case, Black Angus cattle were OK but Holsteins were not.  I like to think this is because he is smart and can tell these subtle differences but I wouldn't mind if he wasn't so keenly aware!  

But the point is, you can't possibly expose them to everything in the world and what do you do when something new and different shows up?  What Alex says he needs to learn is, "even when you are afraid, you can respond to me".  I actually just typed "you need to respond to me" and then had to delete and retype when I looked at my notes because that is a significant difference.  "You need to" is taught and enforced with, well- force.  "You can" is slow, rewarding experiences which show that you are trustworthy in a scary situation.  This was not a light bulb moment but a spotlight moment.  Full on glare of a major piece that was missing from my approach of letting him be completely free to make decisions about whether to stay or leave.  If I waited until he was ready to listen, then I would always be waiting for him to determine if the environment was safe.  I need a way to tell him that I have determined the environment to be safe and so he can stop worrying and play with me.  A horse who isn't a worrier will be more ready to accept this idea.  A Percy is going to take some convincing.

Alex went on to say "if something no longer frightens him, it's no longer of use as a training tool- because you want to teach 'when you're afraid, you can still soften and listen to me'".  There's a glass half-full perspective.  The world is full of training tools.  I simply need to embrace the difficult situations as training opportunities.  I don't have to go far to find them.  As hyper vigilant as he is, I have had many opportunities to work on this right at home in the safety of his own barn and paddock.  

The reason she turned him around when he got worried was not to make him go back to the scary spot.  It was to ensure and practice getting a response when he is worried.  If he's worried about something behind him, he could just bolt off and leave town.  So when he got nervous and his head went up, she'd oh-so-softly ask him to yield his hips and turn.  I just love the way she verbalized it to him, "you're with me".  This was not a light bulb or even a spotlight but a lightning bolt.  Anyone who knows Alex's "Why Would You Leave Me" exercise appreciates the wording of it.  It's not "Hey Get Back Here".  It's "look at all the fun we can have together playing this game and you're getting all these treats, so why would you possibly want to leave?"  "You're with me" is a variation on this. It's not based not on all the fun we're having... the world can be a scary place and when the monsters are hiding under the bed is not when I want to get down on the floor and play tiddly-winks.  When the monsters are under the bed is when I want somebody I trust completely to say, "here, come with me and I'll keep you safe".  

In asking for these baby gives, you can see she wasn't using the big powerful Tai Chi wall to stop his running off.  I haven't built a reliable Tai Chi wall for her to use on him.  I guess perhaps there are horses you can use it on without ever teaching it (and I have), but with a Percy you'd get a 4 year old version of the hoof trimming explosion we got when he was a few weeks old.  So she slid down the rope without taking hold and asked for a turn.  She got a turn, but again we have the precision of Alex's work come in.  She didn't like the quality of the turn.  This isn't just about control- it's about balance and soundness and all that good stuff.  So that was the work to come.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Learning Curve 5 (the curve increases)

The next session (third of the day- what fun to have Alex all to ourselves!!) was the big aha for me.  The aha didn't really come until we were doing our record keeping afterward but I'll lead up to that.  

Goals- 1) assess any differences if we have Percy on a rope, rather than at liberty, 2) introduce the game of basketball, 3) continue to build comfort and connection toward the goal of riding him.  [My footnote- as far as I'm concerned it's a special brand of Alex magic that allows her to figure out that introducing a totally new behavior in the midst of an uneasy horse experience will be the right thing to do.]

Location- the closer half of the arena.  She set out a circle of cones between the round pen and the barn door with a mat between them.  This formed a figure 8 with the cone circle as the bottom part of the 8 and the round pen as the top half.  She set the mat where the two circles joined.  To the right of the 8 was the open wall, which was so very distracting to Percy.  To the left of the 8 she put her toy basketball hoop.  

Interest- 
Basketball: 3-> 4.5 (yes, we now have ranges of numbers)
Figure eight: 3-> 4.3
Hugs: 3.6 -> 4.9

Time- 3:15 to 4: in the afternoon 

Tempo- Basketball: 3, Figure 8: variable depending on position on the 8

Equipment- pen, cones, mat, basketball hoop and loopie toy from home

Reinforcers- h.s. pellets, voice (our excitement when he made a basket), the basketball was becoming a reinforcing behavior, hugs became VERY reinforcing

Emotion- Around cones good but not completely at ease, some worry. Around the pen, he would scoot in the trouble spot which was when he was between the pen and the open wall but that improved greatly during the session.  During hugs he was very engaged.  During basketball he was interested and in SEEKING mode.  

Distraction- that trouble spot when he was "squeezed" between the round pen and the wall.  [footnote- this was not a physically tight space.  There must have been 15 feet between wall and pen.  But as they (Alex worked him in this bit) rounded the corner and began to turn their backs on the open wall, my sense was that he didn't like having his back to it and so he felt trapped or "squeezed" by the pen and being on the rope.  I would have taken the rope off, following my tendency to let him choose whether or not to stay.  Why Alex did not do this was my AHA.  I told Alex (during our discussion afterward) that I felt he did quite well in squeeze situations.  At home, his barn/paddock setup is such that sometimes while I'm doing chores there is a panel that divides his stall door.  I can scoot around the panel by stepping into his stall and back out the other side of the panel.  He's smart enough to know when that space is too small for him...and also smart enough to know when it's just wide enough for him to barely squeeze his hips through.  He doesn't hurry through, but verrry carefully steps through clearing the space by a millimeter on each side.  So, she said, he doesn't feel threatened by a physical squeeze...this is an emotional squeeze.  (The first little light goes on in my brain.)

This was such an enlightening session I'm having trouble figuring out how to write about it.  

To try to give you a mental picture:  starting at the bottom of the 8, they headed clockwise around the cone circle.  When they reached the mat at the connection of the top and bottom, Percy got clicked for stepping onto it and then Alex proceeded with her hugging magic while he stood on it.  To read more about the hugging, see my post from the clinic with Alex in August.    Percy retained his love for being hugged after we got home from that clinic.  My challenge was to try to get him to relax into my hugs, rather than just dropping his head or turning toward me.  The goal was to get him to just relax and allow me to place his head somewhere, rather than cueing him with a touch and having him PUT his head somewhere.  He loved his hugs and he was in hug heaven with Alex.  The mat for this exercise, as a result, was incredibly reinforcing and relaxing.  After many hugs, they headed off counter clockwise up the top half of the 8, putting them in that squeeze spot.  And tada!  Clever me, I have a video clip:

As you can see, he got quite nervous in that spot.  When he hurried past the ideal spot next to Alex, she would turn him and head back through it again.  In our discussion afterward, she asked what I saw.  I thought she was simply walking him through there and if he scooted, then he had to go back.   "Oh, there was much much more than that", she said.  So I think rather than going on to explain, I'll allow readers to watch the video and see if others can catch what I missed.  You have an advantage because I didn't know there was more to it but you do.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Learning Curve 4

Percy finally settling in enough to eat some hay

One of the fun things about this week with Alex was playing with record keeping.  Yes, fun and record keeping in the same sentence.  Something I have learned over the years is that good trainers keep good records...and they try to encourage the rest of us to do the same.  I know it helps me when I make a plan first and then record it afterward.  When I took Susan Garrett's  online 5 minute Recall course (for dogs), she really impressed upon participants how helpful record keeping would be and gave us a minimal format to follow.  Since then, I have tweaked it to fit me and even came up with a simple acronym to help me remember what to record.  The acronym was GLTRED, which I mentally said as "glittered".  The letters stood for Goal, Location, Time, Reinforcers, Equipment and Distractions.  

In order to have a Goal, I had to have a plan- critical for a successful training session.  Location is very important to think about- where will my horse be most comfortable?  Do I want to push the envelope and ask him to work somewhere more challenging?  If so, then I have to back off on my criteria.  
Time- this included both time of day and the length of the training session.  Was I more successful working after he'd had some turnout time?  Or before the heat and bugs got bad (depending on time of year!)?  How long did I expect him to focus?  Did he tire, get bored or settle in with more time?  
Reinforcers I use are almost always hay stretcher pellets (with dogs it seems more varied food reinforcers are used) for food treats, but breaks in the session, secondary reinforcers such as allowing him to do fun behaviors and things he naturally found reinforcing (such as movement) are also valuable and worth noting and planning for.  
E for equipment...this is important for planning.  Depending on the facility, it can be really frustrating to start a training session and then remember you left something you needed back at the barn.  Will I need cones?  A long line?  A target stick?  
Distractions- this I broke down into Planned distractions and Reality distractions.  I might have planned to work in the paddock with minimal distractions planned but then one of the other horses decided to start leaping about.  Or someone drove in the driveway and all the dogs started barking.  Or the tractor went by with some other piece of equipment etc.  

There were a few more things I recorded that didn't fit in the acronym.  Emotion- this was a big one which I broke down into many subcategories.  

  • Self at beginning- what mood did I bring to the session?  Was I tired at the end of the day?  Discouraged from working with another animal or client?  In a rush to do something before I had to leave?  All it took was one word to note my own emotion but it really made me think about how my own emotions affected a training session.
  • Horse at arrival- had he been anxious to come in out of flies?  Sleeping in the sun?  You never really start with a blank slate.
  • Transition- this is something I learned from Susan and it's been SO helpful.  What did I do to get the horse I found when I arrived at the barn, to the beginning of the training session.  If he's worried about something maybe I need to do a lot of clicking for head down before I even put his halter on.  If he's distracted maybe I need to ask him for some easy behaviors with a high rate of reinforcement to get his attention.  You can't wait until you're in the arena or work area to begin your training and if I thought about it, I could help set the horse up for success by transitioning him from free time to training session with intention
  • Beginning- how was he at the beginning of the session?  Did my transition work as I intended or not?
  • My response- how did I deal with whatever emotion the horse offered?  
  • Conclusion- how did he end?  Was he more relaxed at the end of the session than at the beginning?  Tired?  Still enthused?
  • Transition- transitions are equally important for going back to free time.  No gratuitous endings.  How can I leave the horse so he's not feeling abandoned?
I believe the next bit comes from Bob Bailey: was this a sufficient challenge?  Your training won't get you very far if you don't regularly challenge yourself and/or your horse.  No getting stuck in ruts.  
What did I learn?  hopefully something!
Carry over- here I actually turn the page of my journal and write 3 things on the back of the page to carry over to the next session- so it's staring me in the face when I start my next session's plan.  What should I work on tomorrow?  Do I need to back up a step or more?  Do I need to have more distractions or fewer?  Do I need a bigger challenge?

When I shared this model with Alex, she took right hold like a dog with a bone.  First she added the remaining letters to my "glittered": 
I is for Interest- ahhh yes.  Do I have his attention or only half of his attention?  
The other T was for Tempo- (the uncanny thing was that when we were talking about this with Ann that night, she came up with the same words Alex had...they think a lot alike!).  Tempo included the rate of reinforcement and the flow from one behavior to the next.  All part of Loopy Training.  Then I could put in the second E for emotion.  

By the end of the week, Alex had come up with an acronym of her own.  But that's her story.  

She did want to assign a numerical score for the interest.  I must have looked concerned because she said "like 1 through 5 or something".  She defined it as-
1- no interest
2- occasional check-in
3- not eager but participating, slow responses
4- interested but distractable
5- locked on- nothing else mattered

For the rest of the week, she gave me numbers like 3.6 and 4.2 and 3.75. I was now record keeping with the precision of an Eastern European Gymnastics judge.  Words work better for me and I have slipped back into them, rather than the numerical scoring.  Don't tell Alex.  

So the record keeping for session 2 looked like:


G- test connection and increase exposure to the far end using the squashed road kill technique (oh, you hadn't heard of this advanced training technique either?)
L- furthest half of the arena
I- 3.5
T- noon 
T- 2.5 
E- mats and cones
R- h.s pellets primarily, peppermints at each new mat
E- sleepy, stressed
D- 3.5 

What I learned- he was not tethered to me but keeping in proximity.  

The squashed road kill exercise was the flattened circles you get when you start in the area comfortable to the horse and then gradually move toward the scary end of the arena.  Alex laid out a line of mats leading toward the far wall.  We had decided to leave both horses at liberty but each would click only one horse and see if they'd learn to stay with that particular person, whereas in the morning they had wandered back and forth between us.  

I did a figure 8 at each mat.  When we got to a particular mat the first time, I clicked and gave a peppermint.  Then I'd circle off to the right- toward the open side of the arena and come back to the mat for a few clicks.  Then I'd switch sides and circle off to the left and come back to the mat.  From there we'd go straight to the next mat, closer to the scary end and he'd get a peppermint for this new milestone.  Alex was ahead of us with Kizzy forging the way as only a brave little Welsh pony mare can do.  While Percy did stay with me for the most part (a 3.5 from the Clicker Center judge), he was only very loosely attached mentally and emotionally.  He kept an eye on the open wall and his head would come up when his back was to the scary corner.  

Day 1 of training and we'd already had two training sessions!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Learning Curve 3

More of the view from the arena 
On the second day, the formal training sessions began.  After chores and breakfast, Alex opened her toy cupboard and began pulling out playthings.  She has quite a collection of lumber from the building process so she has mats of ALL sizes and shapes.  She noticed Percy had a little bit of "far-enditis" and so the plan for the first session was to observe the level of comfort in the arena- the full space. 

Both Kizzy and Percy were at liberty.  He was no longer harassing her and definitely gained confidence with her presence and participation.  With the round pen set up in the first third of the arena, we scattered the toys in the further part.  I had also brought some of Percy's own toys from home- his loopie toy that he loves to fetch, some "rail razers", that lifts a ground rail slightly off the ground, and a rail, and flat soccer cones that we play color games with.  Alex and I wandered about following her instructions to click for interaction with anything.  Kizzy was in seventh heaven.  All this attention and fun!  Percy liked to play, but would occasionally go and check over the wall to be sure the enemy hadn't advanced and then he'd return to play some more.  Whereas the previous night he had been anxious, HYPER vigilant and just had to keep moving, this morning he was watchful and not really connected to me, but nonetheless engaged in the play when he was around.  

He was concerned about the far end, but willing to go there to play as long as he could leave when he wanted.  This was where my mindset was at the beginning.  Percy does not like confinement.  From his first days as a foal, he fought any restraint.  Most foals do, of course, but there are ranges of both what is considered restraint and how much fight an individual puts in.  I may have told this story here before, but Percy was the fourth foal born here in four years.  The first actually belonged to my niece who was visiting, then came Ande, then Rumer and then Percy.  While all three of mine started with CT, each year I learned more and each year was able to "let go" of more traditional training and use more CT.  When it came to first farrier visits, we just held on to Ande and Rumer.  I enlisted the assistance of my husband who is quite practiced at wrastling young calves (and bigger ones) and between he, myself, and my wonderfully patient farrier, they quickly settled down and stood for the hoof trimming.  I had concerns about Percy but we started out the same way.  In no time at all, both my husband and Percy were on the floor but my husband was the one bleeding.  Hm.  I stopped it all right there and we went to CT, no restraint and that was my rule for Percy from then on.  

The reason I tell that is because from then on, I made almost everything free choice for him.  He was smart, athletic and sensitive.  Fighting him was not an option for me and he could and did learn all his life's lessons by making what I wanted very reinforcing for him.  From leading to trailer loading, he wasn't pushed at all.  He was reinforced every step of the way when he made progress and was allowed to leave when he felt he needed to.  I had a hiccup when it came to veterinary visits which included stitches in his lip as a weanling and of course castration but with the assistance of sedatives, we got through those without a fight as well...though we did seem to have some fallout from that in that he hates my vet now and that is a winter project to come.  

When I was at the clinic with Alex this August, she was uncomfortable letting me leave the paddock with Percy because she saw I did not have a strong tai chi wall to protect me if he panicked.  I, on the other hand, did not want to use a tai chi wall, though it took some mental work after getting home to figure out why.  Percy's mother can be quite a wild child but in all the years my daughter had her, she had never so much as touched her during an explosion.  She was very aware of where her body was and very careful about not making contact with a person, and rarely even hit the end of a leadrope.  So I was hoping that even if Percy remained a reactive individual to the end of his days, I could feel safe in the hopes he'd be like his mum.  And I knew that if I gave him a long line, he could react and get away without going over the top of me.  By using a Tai Chi wall, I would be restraining him and I feared that would cause a fight because he'd feel trapped in that closet with the spiders. 

So, to get back to Alex's indoor, Percy would occasionally find himself further into the far end than he liked, and I'd see him lift his head and walk quickly back to safer territory.  The plan for the next session would be to increase his exposure to the far end and further test his connection to me. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Learning Curve 2


In my hurry to finish my post yesterday before I left for the dentist, I left out a couple things about the first day.  One was the joy of getting to meet Panda and Ann (above).  For anyone who doesn't know, Panda is a miniature horse trained by Alex to be a guide horse for Ann who is blind.  Ann and Alex have been friends for a long time and are partners in the Clicker Center.  Another partner is Mary who lives at the farm and has her own barn for her horses.  This threesome has indeed built a great facility.  

But back to Panda- of course I've heard lots about her, seen photos and watched videos but it was great fun to meet her in person (that would be my person, her horse).  She and Ann have a great relationship and it's amazing to see them go about together making it look smooth and effortless.  But Panda knows this is "her" barn too so although she spends days and nights with Ann, she comes to the barn in the evenings and has her own stall (full size!) to hang out in while Ann does chores, visits, and works with the other horses (Ann and Alex have two Iceys...not sure who officially owns whom but it doesn't really matter).   

Panda invented her own game, called "Panda Catch" in which she chooses a person from a circle of people and lines herself up with them for which she earns a click and a treat and then runs off to pick her next person.  As my horses were living in the arena, the only place we had to play was in the aisle so she simply went back and forth between Ann and I.  




You can read more about Panda here: http://www.theclickercenter.com/Clicker-Store-Panda-Book.html

The other thing I neglected to include was Alex's stressing the importance of the relationship I was building with Percy by simply staying with him that night.  Having had horses for a lifetime, I am very familiar with the phrase "deal with it".  Horses get put in new environments, living situations, together with unfamiliar horses or training expectations and they get told to "deal with it".  They may be observed long enough to make sure they don't hurt themselves or colic, but often, sooner rather than later, they just get left in the new situation to worry alone.  This is really a form of flooding- something unpleasant until they stop reacting.  Imagine if you are afraid of spiders and are put in a room or closet full of spiders with no way of escape.  You will probably stop reacting to them but it will be a long miserable process and may have unintended fallout...like mistrust of the person who locked you in that closet! 

This issue is the beginning of my learning curve of the week.  More to come.