Saturday, November 23, 2013

Being Unpredictable

In my efforts to be unpredictable when training for husbandry skills,  I have come up with a variety of ways to change the setting.  I have practiced in different locations, different times, different equipment, different techniques and different routines.  I also need to practice with different people, which is probably my biggest challenge as I have trouble remembering when other people are around!

For different locations, we have worked in Percy's stall, in the barn aisle, in the wash stall, in the run-in shed and in the paddock.  Still on my list are the big pasture and the arena.  Also probably outside each barn door.  

Different times have been both morning and afternoon, at turnout, turn-in, and late night.  I have done it when he has voluntarily come to me and when I have gone to him.

Different equipment so far has been at liberty (wearing nothing), in a halter and with a halter and lead.  If the lead rope is clipped on, sometimes it's thrown over his neck and sometimes it's in my hand.

While using all these different environments, I got to wondering about the cue.  So many times the environment is a big part of the cue: bring out the brush box, put the horse in the aisle and ok, they know to stand for grooming.  When I did my initial injection training, I used a red cross target to train Percy to stand with his nose on the target and a blue tarp for him to target his shoulder to.  My intention was to have the red cross target be a cue for what was coming so that he knew what to expect.  But if I am now being unpredictable, should I be using this cue?  In the videos I have watched of husbandry skills in zoos and aquariums, there does seem to be a station where they do the work.  The animal lines up at a fence or a poolside for the procedures.  But here is where we horse people differ, once again.  Our horses are not kept in their paddocks/stalls 24/7.  We take them places.  We take them on trail rides and to clinics and shows and in horse trailers and to boarding facilities.  If I knew I was going to need to give an injection, I could have my handy red cross target with me at all times (one reason I try to pick easily replaceable targets).  But what about an emergency?  What about those things we don't even like to think about, like an accident or breakdown with our truck and trailer?  Or colic at a clinic or injury at a show?   We won't have our familiar environment to use as a setup.  What then, becomes the cue, considering these are the times that injections and stitches and invasive procedures are likely?  

I think this is the beauty of the unpredictability training.  The horse can become comfortable with procedures regardless of where they happen, but that brings us back to, what is the cue?  And in fact, what is the behavior?  So far, if I think only of the deworming process, the different techniques I have used are freeshaping him to target and then grab the dewormer tube with his mouth.  Even for this, I have stood to his left, his right and directly in front of him.  I have been in the stall with him and outside his stall while he reaches out his grill window- in protective contact.  I have also stood right next to him with my arm under his neck and holding the bridge of his nose.  But then I allowed him to target the tube while my hand "rode" on his nose.  I have further plans for that technique, wanting to get him used to more pressure in case someone other than me ever has to administer a tube of bute paste or sedative.  

I have done the exact same with him wearing a halter, but I have also held his halter in one hand, both gently and firmly.  All that I've done while still allowing HIM to be the one to approach, touch or grab the worming tube.  And yes, he is now grabbing it with several inches inside his mouth.  I am using a partially emptied tube and once he started taking it in his mouth, I removed the cap or else he did!  So every time he takes it in his mouth, he gets a taste.  Considering how he responded previously even to the smell of it, I think we're building up a good tolerance for the taste.  Once I squeezed the tiniest bit out of the end before offering it to him and he took it but then made faces and flapped his lips etc.  But then I went right back to offering it as usual and in a moment or two he was grabbing it as usual.  I think I need to count that as a "procedure" at this stage, rather than a practice and started my count to 100 over again after that.  

Now if a horse's tongue is like ours, it senses different tastes in different places.  I need to study this a bit more to see if there is benefit to putting the paste on the back of his tongue or if the reason that is the traditional way to do it is simply to try to prevent them from spitting it out.  Putting the tube in the corner of his mouth is something else I have been doing.  That is definitely going more slowly than him grabbing it.  His reinforcement history for something going in the corner of his mouth seems to have been overwhelmed by the punishment of nasty stuff eventually, whereas he has a long and varied reinforcement history of grabbing stuff with his teeth in the front…and no punishment to my knowledge (well, there was that time he got the insulator poked through his cheek…but it was a while ago!).  I'd like to eventually be able to deworm him as a non- CT person would, again, in case someone else has to do it sometime.  

As far as routines go, I mix up what I do when.  Some days I only do the dewormer tube, sometimes I go through all the husbandry practices I'm working on (feet, legs, IM injection, IV injection or blood draw, tooth exam).  Sometimes I do feet and injection and no dewormer.  Sometimes I use the red cross target and sometimes I just grab a skin pinch and CT.  I don't do any of this without warning.  I think my attitude is as much of a cue as anything.  I'm not trying to startle him.  

Right now, my thought is that the presence of the dewormer tube is a cue, but for what?  For "this thing is going in your mouth somehow?"  Perhaps offering it as a target is the cue for the behavior of him taking it in his mouth.  And if I hold his halter and touch the tube to the corner of his mouth, that will be the cue for relaxing the side of his mouth and taking it in that way.  Likewise, a syringe can be a cue combined with whether I grab skin on his neck or run my hand down his jugular, differentiating between IM and IV.  

I think my cue for leg palpation will be my position.  If I bend over, he should pick his foot up.  If I squat, he should leave it on the ground.  There are times, however, that tendons are palpated in a foot-off-the-ground position.  Maybe a mat would be the "leave your foot on the ground" cue.  

For tooth exams, I stand in front of him and point my thumbs at each other- he opens his mouth.

To quote Alexandra Kurland "cues evolve out of the shaping process"- and we are definitely still a work in process. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Code Red

Yesterday I wrote about Alexandra Kurland's new online clicker training course and that one of the benefits is the yahoo group for participants. Recently there was a discussion on that list about what to do when horses alert- how can we use clicker training to help us through those moments?  Cindy Martin wrote a great post about a "tiered system" she mentally created when working with her very reactive horse, Porter.  She modeled it after the alert system the government uses- codes green, yellow, orange and red.  

Very shortly after her post, Percy gave a great demonstration of these codes.  We needed to have some lime spread on our new fields to improve the grass  next summer in the horse paddocks and closest  hayfield.  I had taken down all my paddock fences except the small one closest to the barn so that the trucks could drive in and spread the lime.  I had cancelled my morning lesson so I could be there as a truck drove in where the horses had been grazing the previous day and keep an eye on them.  And here is what the truck looked like from where I stood with Percy:

It was a fire breathing dragon for sure.  Thankfully, none of the others were the least bit alarmed and they continued to eat their hay.  I had filled my pouch with multiple handfuls of treats and stood right next to Percy, wanting to help him cope.  In his paddock with three quiet companions, I could have just let him cope as best as he could but I have learned that he doesn't just calm down, but rather winds himself up in that situation.  When the trucks first pulled in, Percy was somewhere between Code Orange and Code Red.  In Cindy's words, 
Code orange is a more extreme version of code yellow. Head high, neck muscles very tense, often white showing around his eye. Slow or no
response to efforts to re-direct his attention from the concern.
Questionable about taking food. He might take it, snatching it from my
hand, but then he would raise his head again and stare, and often, not
chew. Or he might not take the food at all. 
Code red was the body position of code orange, but would result in him
deciding he had to blast away, rather than de-escalate.
I was trying to take photos, click and treat all at the same time which was a challenge, but I find the following two photos fascinating to compare (one is the same as above):

In the photo on the left, his head is higher and neck tighter.  There is a tension in his body position that was very clearly close to Code Red.  In the photo on the right, his head is also high and you can see the white of his eye, but there is not the tension that there is in the other photo.  You can also see that he is chewing.  He had taken a few treats and was chewing them while keeping an eye on the monster.  As in Cindy's descriptions, a horse who will chew is more relaxed than one who refuses treats or takes them but doesn't chew them.  

What I did from the start was simply reward any offering of attention to me or effort to lower his head.  Without a rope, my only cue for head lowering was to put my hand on his poll, and when it's that high in the air, I can't reach his poll!  Any time he lowered his head even a fraction, I clicked and treated.  That's what got us from the photo on the left to the photo on the right.  In fact, this was after the trucks had left the paddocks and had moved to the hayfield further away.  When they were close, I was clicking and treating as fast as I could, not taking time for photos.  Any time I had his attention, I would ask for a simple behavior.  I started with targeting and when I was getting good responses to that, I began asking for head down (once I could reach his poll).

Since Percy was loose in his paddock, he could have "blasted away" any time.  In fact, he only left once and he did so at a walk, away about 15 feet and then back to me.  I think he just needed to move a bit and was free to do so.  

After this little walk, he calmed down some more and began interacting with me more so that I could ask for even a moment of grownups without losing his attention.  He was still very tuned in to the trucks, but was willing to only keep half an eye on them while he entertained me.  

In this (unattractive) photo, the ears are more relaxed, the eyes are quieter and again, he is chewing.  Cindy wrote her explanations from code green (calm) and explained the escalation.  This situation with Percy went the other direction (thankfully) but Cindy's own words are too good to bother to rephrase.  I hope it's not too confusing but realize that while she writes "code yellow represents a loss of focus", in our case, it was actually more focus than earlier, but still not where I really wanted it quite yet. 

Code yellow represented a loss of focus on me and the game; slower response to cues, slower to orient to my food delivery hand once I had clicked;, there would be a delay on his part, of moving to receive the treat, and so he rush into position, belatedly and would take the treat a bit more roughly. His head would be a bit higher and neck muscles tensing. His weight would be more on his front feet. He might alternate between that stance and code green, but he would return to code yellow frequently.   
I  found, when he was in code yellow, I could often re-direct his attention back to me by cueing a known, easy behavior and clicking for that. We might do that a few times, then we would return to whatever exercise we were doing. But it didn't really allow him to resolve his concern with whatever had caught his attention. I found that clicking  while his attention was elsewhere wasn't really productive. It was sort of a "wasted click." So I tried letting him focus on whatever concerned him. At first, I would click for his focus returning to me. Then I would cue a simple, known, behavior, usually targeting, and click and reinforce. I would cue targeting multiple times and click and reinforce each time. This would show me he was "back with me." Eventually, I "marked" his returned focus, not with the clicker, but by cueing targeting, or backing or bringing his forehead to the palm of my hand.

His head has come down a little more. I was getting good responses to my requests, even....
A full, nose-in-the-snow head down.

Again- in Cindy's words:
Code green meant his muscles were relaxed, especially in his neck. His head was at, or around the height of his withers, or even lower. His attention was on me and what we were practicing. He took treats gently and carefully from my hand. He could track my food delivery hand easily. He was "in the game," of clicker training ready and eager to learn.

I wish I had timed the entire procedure but once I was getting good responses, I was also running out of treats.  I dumped what I had left, and decided to return to my chores and see how he did without me.  Thankfully, he decided all was well and he could eat his hay quietly.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Online Clicker Training Course

Alexandra Kurland has a new online course available.  As she says in the Introduction, 

"After you’ve completed this foundation course you’ll be able to teach your horse new skills and to resolve training issues."
This course takes you from getting started right through riding.  It includes sections on everything from her Foundation Lessons to Loopy Training (a fun term coined by Alex which refers to an important training concept).  She covers cues, chains, and teaching/training strategies as well as the technical and important skill of rope handling.  

As an added bonus, she offers support in the form of coaches with whom participants can communicate via phone, email, skype, video lessons, etc.  (Disclaimer, I am one of those coaches).  The coaches are located all over the world and while the course includes one coaching session, you can then sign up for additional sessions if you like.   

Also available to participants is a yahoo group where students can share successes, ask questions and give each other support.  Alex and the coaches are also on this list. 

As a quick explanation for anyone new to Clicker Training horses, Alex's Foundation Lessons are an amazing collection of 6 simple behaviors to train which give you, yes, the foundation to training anything else you want.  As someone who has followed Alex's work for almost 14 years, I can tell you these lessons continue to amaze me.  The more I do them, with different horses as well as repeating them over with seasoned clicker training horses, I am astounded at how these 6 lessons show up in everything else I want to train.  

Many people want to know if and how you can use the clicker for riding.  The answer is- of course, and many of us do.  Anyone can tell you the simple how, but the true power of clicker training under saddle is begun in hand, and then carried over to under saddle work.  Which takes you back to the Foundation Lessons.  The beauty of Alex's work is the balance that it builds into horses.  Before and after photos of horses within a session or over months of training reveal horses who become comfortable on their feet and display coordination and grace in their movements.  I have never seen a program with such foresight.

Like all seasoned horsewomen and men, Alex's eye is always at work.  She watches horses as they are led out of their stalls, in from the pasture and on uneven ground.  As she likes to say, she has been to all of her clinics, and so she has uncountable video sessions in her head and her computer.  Over the past couple years, she has taken all this experience and compiled it into a very affordable course available to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of where you live.  

To learn more, visit 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Practice 100x and Be Unpredictable

I attended a webinar (does one "attend" a webinar?) a few weeks ago with Ken Ramirez, famed head trainer at The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.  I have referred to him before due to his inspirational videos of training marine animals for husbandry and veterinary procedures.  This webinar dealt specifically with this topic and I got two great new tidbits out of it.  

First is the issue of training for a procedure when the procedure itself may be aversive.  I wormed 4 of 6 of my horses a couple weeks ago.  Only four were done because I was demonstrating the procedure for various students and so they weren't all done at once.  Then I happened to participate in the webinar before Percy and Rumer were done and decided to do them a little differently (yes, I realize that might not be the best farm management practice!).  The problem is that we may train by getting the horse accustomed to the worming tube with no wormer, finally convincing them that we can put this thing in their mouths without nasty stuff...but then we DO put nasty stuff in their mouths and not surprisingly undo all the work we did.  What frequently happens is that we then don't work on it again...until we need to deworm again and we have to start from square 1.  

What Ken shared with us is that they practice 100 times for every one procedure.  My first thought was, well then no wonder we can't do it.  These big aquariums and zoos have veterinarians on staff who can train with them daily and we don't have that luxury in our own little barns.  I then went on to think that for deworming just 3 or 4 times a year, you'd need to train every single day- 100 days would be a little over 3 months, then you'd deworm and have to start again right away so you'd be ready for the next time.  Crazy right?  But then I though, wait a long would you really have to spend?  Why couldn't you just stick a deworming tube in your brush box and make it part of your grooming routine?  If you did the magic 10 treats, you could CT 10 reps in a minute or less.  How hard would that be?  Not at all!

The other aha! moment I had when listening to his webinar was that his trainers are unpredictable.  Now this may seem contrary to good training practices.  Consistency is key, right?  But what he meant was, they train for accepting unpredictability.  While the training methods are consistent, the animal isn't necessarily asked for each behavior in each session, nor in the same order, nor with the same person (I am making this up as he didn't go into as much detail but this is what I took from it.  I know they have strict guidelines about the trainers).  So if you suddenly need to give an injection or series of injections for some reason, the horse won't get upset if you do an injection at a different time of day, or wearing different clothing, or maybe twice a day.  Unpredictability has been trained into the behaviors.  

I decided that this would be a good project for this winter.  Four of my six equines have no problem with any of of the routine veterinary procedures- the three schoolies and Ande are pretty much OK with whatever you do.  Rumer is just young enough that she sometimes objects and Percy, well, Percy gets pretty alarmed over things.  He could use a little unpredictability training.  Or a lot.  He trains ME for unpredictability, heaven knows.  About time I turned the tables on him.  

I came up with 5 different procedures: deworming, IM injections, IV injection or blood draw, teeth work and leg palpation.  I threw in the leg palpation because while he is perfect about having his feet picked out and being trimmed (it still blows my mind that he's better behaved than any of the others about being trimmed) and for leg grooming, both those things have specific cues and predictable expectations from him: pick your foot up and hold still.  But if he ever has a soundness issue or injury, he will need to stand with his foot down while he's poked and prodded or hosed or soaked or bandaged or God forbid, stitched.  So I think I should prepare for that ahead of time.  

I think the hardest thing will be trying to be unpredictable.  People like routines.  It would be easiest if I went in every day and did 3 reps for each behavior at a set training time.  Instead I'll have to try to vary what I work on, how many times I ask for it and what time of day.  I've been working on the worming paste tube for about 10 days and I've been keeping track of how many times...reaching for that magic 100 number.  This afternoon I didn't do the wormer tube but did 1-3 reps of each of the others.  The only similarity was that I asked him to keep his nose on his red cross target (see the post from this Spring for details) for the duration of each different behavior.  

Here is a video from this Spring showing the first time I actually inserted a needle into his muscle after many training sessions preparing him for liberty IM injections.  I was so happy about his non-reaction, I could hardly stand it.  After this, I was able to give him his vaccinations myself without incident.  

Now to get all the other behaviors this quiet!