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,
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:
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.