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. 

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