Friday, January 23, 2015

Weary of Winter? Training Skills to Make It Easier

That's pretty wild.  I just uploaded this photo and the blogging program made it snow on it.  It was snowing when I took it.  Sometimes the internet is really creepy.  

It is appropriate since this post is about dealing with winter. Winter means different things to different people. Living close to the 45th parallel (amazing the things I learn while writing), and at an elevation of 1658 ft, this is about as harsh a winter as I ever want to deal with.  I know some have it harder, but this is enough for me.  It is beautiful, it is refreshing, it is a welcome break from all things hot and sticky (see previous blogpost for examples!). But it is enough.

Winter presents new management challenges: water freezes, grass disappears, many layers of clothes are required for outdoor activities. Last fall I thought it would be a good idea to write about some specific training goals to make winter more bearable.  Unfortunately, I did not get it written before hard winter hit, so if you find some of these things potentially useful, you can try working on them now (depending on the conditions you live in) or you can put them on the calendar to work on when it's warmer so you'll be well prepared when next winter comes.  I had some of these things trained already, but when I posted my proposal on my Facebook page, people had suggestions for other things which I'm working on this winter, when I can.  
Kizzy has frosted eyelashes at 9 below zero
Two things which I had trained for general purposes but which come in very handy in winter are following a fist target and backing at gates.  In the winter, a fist target becomes a glove or mitten target.  It seemed to be an easy transition for the horses, probably due to my body position (arm extended out to the side) being the real cue, and following whatever was held out is the behavior.  They have learned to follow target sticks, pinwheels, flapping tarps and other things I hold out, so a heavily mittened hand was not strange.  Why is this handy in the winter?  Because haltering is not easy in frigid temperatures.  My horses all "self halter"; I hold out a halter and they put their noses down into the noseband.  But then there are two options depending on how you maintain your halters.  I prefer leaving the crown piece done up so I just have to slip it over their ears.  Others prefer to leave the throat latch done up and do the buckle behind an ear each time.  Doing up buckles is not easy when you really don't want to take off gloves.  And if you do take your gloves off and your hands are the least bit damp, your fingers immediately freeze to the metal buckles.  ouch. 

Leaving the crown pieces buckled allows me to slip halters over ears but I have found that when ears are the least bit damp, they become more sensitive.  Individuals who have no problem with ear handling in mild weather will pull away.  That tells me that they probably feel the way my fingers do when they are cold: a lot less tolerant of manipulation or being bumped.  

In any case, one solution is to just avoid halters altogether and target horses where they need to go.  Paddock to pasture, pasture to stall, stall to paddock.  There aren't a lot of reasons to go elsewhere so they quickly learn the routine even without a target, unless I decide to swap something around and change the routine.  In that instance, a fist target is just as reliable as a halter.  

Backing up when I open a gate is just polite manners.  I don't need six equines crowding each other and trying to rush the opening to get inside for dinner.  In the summer, there is less pressure on the situation because they've been out in the sleepy sun grazing (unless of course they are desperate to get away from bugs).  When the temperature can't decide if it's above or below zero, the horses want to eat non-stop, they want to move to keep warm and they want to get into the barn out of the wind at the end of the day.  I make sure that my pockets are stuffed with hay stretcher pellets when it's time to turn them in.  Anyone who backs away from the gate or door gets a handful on the ground in front of them.  That both reinforces them for the backing and keeps them busy for a moment while I bring other horses in.  My over achiever then does not want to go in when I leave the door open.  He shows me he can wait until everyone else has gone in and then still stand waiting politely while I hold the door open. This is where the "walk on" cue comes in handy. I do not want to target him in because if I go inside, I let go of the door and the wind slams it on him.  So I need to get him to walk past me into his stall.

In addition to these two basics which my guys already know, I am working on two others this winter: walking behind me (as opposed to next to me) and standing for blanketing.  
Narrow paths through the snow. It doesn't look deep on either side, but trust me, step off that path and you're over your knees. 
I have a very strong preference for a horse who walks beside me when we are together.  For me, it is a safety issue. I do not want a horse behind me in case something startles him and he scoots forward.  Others think differently but this is my strong preference.  In the winter, it becomes a challenge when the horses have worn narrow paths through deep snow.  There isn't room for walking side by side.  Somebody has to wallow through the snow if you try.  In thinking about how to train this, I decided simple targeting, again, was the answer.  I have played with both Rumer and Percy with this.  Their initial confusion points out that my body position for following a target is the cue, rather than the fist itself.  When I tried to walk holding a fist behind me, they did not "see" it.  I had to introduce this position slowly.  I could have done it by gradually moving my hand from out to the side to a position further and further back until it was behind me.  That is what I would do if I was training it in the summer.  But I am training in the situation of narrow paths already existing.  Therefore, I changed my body position, rather than the arm and horse positions.  I stood sideways in the path and had the horse target my hand close to their nose.  Then I rotated slightly, facing further forward and repeated.  I proceeded this way until I was facing forward, with the horse/pony behind me, targeting my fist behind me. I did this all at a standstill. Then I took a step, click/treat.  Both Percy and Rumer took bigger steps than I did and were immediately breathing down my neck.  But this turned out to be a good thing because when I stopped, they stopped and had to back up to touch my fist and get the treat.  I decided this was a good lesson- to watch me and be ready to back up if I stop. If I take a header into the snow, I'd like to know the horse behind me is watching in case I stop and will be ready to stop and back up!  Once they are comfortable with this, I will decide what cue to put on it.  If I am carrying a hay net or water bucket, I cannot also hold a fist out behind me so there will need to be an alternate cue.

The last thing I am working on is holding still for blanketing.  You might think this would be easy and if you had asked me, I would have said so as well.  The problem I have is that I have trained each of mine to back up from a very light contact cue on the chest and/or when I face them and step close to the chest.  Well, guess what?  I do exactly those two things when doing up the chest buckles on a blanket. I face them, close to their chests and have hand contact as I fiddle with the buckles.  They back up. Because I don't blanket often, this isn't something that we practice much so with the recent cold biting wind, I've been thinking how to resolve this (the surcingles and leg straps and tail strap are not a problem- doing them up does not mimic any other cues).

My first thought was to have them target something with their nose and my second thought was to use the "stand" cue.  The problem with both of these is that while I know they would comply with those two requests, it remains that touching the chest and facing them would still be a cue to back up and in any other situation, I would expect them to move on to that next cue.  So they are doing exactly as trained.  I have also foolishly allowed them to back until they get to a wall, hoping that might stop them but they have each either learned how to back through a corner (to teach them to displace hips toward me) or learned to problem solve well enough that when cued to back when their butts are up against a wall, they adjust and find a way to keep backing. 

Right now I am thinking that the blanket itself needs to be the cue to stand, regardless of where I stand and what I do.  So I am training it from the start, recognizing that I will need to really micro shape and click often to catch them standing before they start to back.  Something I noticed the first couple times I tried, is that using food as a reinforcer also gets in the way of keeping them from backing, since I have trained a default of drawing back a bit after a click (as opposed to reaching toward me for the treat). 

My solution for this is to use scratching as a reinforcer.  There are many complicated ways to train secondary or alternative reinforcers but I took the direct and easy approach. Blanket wearing also causes the itchies.  So I touch a blanket buckle, and then scratch the chest (no click since for me click=food reinforcer).  Scratching the chest makes them want to lean in to me, rather than back away.  I pull out the end of the blanket strap or undo a snap and scratch again.  Any thought of backing away is negated by that scratch.  Slowly repeating this process has changed horses who want to back away, into horses who gladly stand for, what they think, is a chest scratching, but for me is an opportunity to do up or undo chest buckles.
Blankets piled on the door after being taken off for a sunny day.
Next topic- some simple ways I enrich my horses' winter days.