Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Helping Others to be Brave: Component Parts

A year after beginning the project, Percy
 continues to demonstrate a higher level
 of confidence in his outings.
In my last post, I wrote about a lengthy project I worked on helping my Percy horse to be brave going away from the barnyard area and his friends. I got many lovely responses telling me I had struck a chord with others in similar positions.  I also received some questions about specific things I did and why, and if a certain variation would be ok to use. 

I also mentioned that I used this same approach to get Percy more comfortable in the arena, as well as with a couple dogs I was working with (and their people). Some people wanted to know more about those possibilities. 

I know that in my previous post, as well as in the Equiosity podcasts during which I discussed this with Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day, I made a lot assumptions about the component parts of this whole project.  So now I'd like to delve a little deeper, specifically why I chose the pieces I did and how I think that benefitted the result.

Exploration day, which included the opportunity to graze, was the first day in each series. I came upon this as the initial experience in each new zone while watching Percy.  He was the one who gave me the idea to use this as part of the strategy.  I had let him loose in the barn, the doors closed against the winter chill, and he did what he always does when he has the chance.  He explored. I keep a cart in the wash stall with a bale or two of hay in it and while he usually goes there for part of the time, he doesn't spend a lot of time standing there and eating.  Instead he wanders around sniffing the ground like a big red dog. He looks out the windows of the aisle doors, he goes into the other horses' stalls and looks out their windows. He goes back into the aisle and pokes his nose into places to see what he can find.  When he is "confined" in any way, such as in his stall or on a lead rope, he loves to grab stuff with his lips or teeth: halters come off hooks, blankets come off racks, etc.  But when he's loose he doesn't do that.  He explores.  During the exploration he "grazes".  I use quotes because in the barn, he isn't eating grass. We often use the word "vacuuming" to describe it. He walks along slowly, using his whiskers and lips to hoover up any hay on the barn floor. Since this floor and environmental exploration is something he does by choice, as opposed to standing and eating at the hay cart, I believed it was something he liked to do. 

And this leads me to an underlying goal I had for this project. I wanted him happy. I knew I was going to be taking him places he might not be comfortable but I aimed to do it in a way that kept him as happy as I possibly could.  During the Equiosity interview, Dominique expressed some confusion and perhaps dismay that I was not always giving him choice to return to the barn. I acknowledged also that he was not always under threshold as we otherwise want a learner to be in a desensitization protocol. That concern of hers is hugely important and should be seriously considered. The success of this project has not changed my mind about animals having choices and keeping them under threshold whenever possible.  As Alex said, Percy is on the very outside of a bell curve and so maybe this approach is similarly on the fringes of a training bell curve. But it sounds like there are others out there.

By starting each zone with this freedom to eat or wander, I felt I was giving him choice, but within a set of parameters. You can do whatever you want, as long as you stay with me. I followed him, my only request that he not leave the zone. And as I mentioned, we know that grazing is exhibited by horses who are in a relaxed state and that grazing can help an anxious horse to become more relaxed. So not only was I choosing this based on his choices and expression, but I was also going on ethological foundations. Could someone do this project without that grazing and exploring piece? I don't know.  A different trainer with a different horse might. But I would suggest that they observe and think carefully about what they choose to do instead, if they want it to be an initial day of a happy and relaxed horse. 

Rope cues were another assumed behavior in Percy's backpack. Rope cues, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, are just what they sound like. I simply used contact on the rope to ask him to stop or turn. I would encourage you to check out Alexandra Kurland's work for more detail on the subtleties of using them for flexions and more. What is critical about this is that his rope cues were taught and maintained with positive reinforcement. That is such an important part of this entire project that I am going to repeat it. 
His rope cues were taught and maintained with positive reinforcement.
If he had been taught with escalating pressure ("if you don't respond, I'm going to pull harder"), putting pressure on the rope would have been associated with fear of escalating pressure.  Instead, the association with slight rope pressure is a happy one because when he learned about it, he was clicked and treated for responding. 

If Percy spooked at something during this process and that resulted in the rope being straightened (our default is for there to be slack in the rope at all times), I didn't want him to feel trapped, but instead to automatically yield and take the slack out of the rope on his own, and to do so happily.

Likewise, if he was exploring and tried to leave the zone we were working in, I could redirect him back in my direction with a light rope cue. If I had ever had to put real pressure on the rope, I think that would have increased the tension in the overall emotions he exhibited. And I can tell you that if you try to stop him when he doesn't want to stop, he has a very effective twist of his head and neck that make it quite clear who is stronger. It's not me. 

Building chains of behaviors is another component I used. To use this, again, the behaviors must have been taught and maintained with positive reinforcement. Chains (which are referred to as sequences by some) are built by cueing another behavior at the moment that one would normally click the previous behavior. I have been chaining behaviors with Percy for about seven years and he can happily do quite lengthy behavior chains. On day 3 of this project I asked for very short chains and they were simply a slight progression in his focus from the previous day's Foundation Lessons in which he was clicked and treated for each behavior.  

A horse with no history of behavior chains should be introduced to them in a calm environment, and be allowed to explore them for some time before ever using them in a situation which might otherwise be stressful, such as a taking them out in potentially scary places. 

So, could you do this project without using chained behaviors?  I think I can more easily say yes to this than to skipping the grazing and exploration day. The chained behaviors were a way for me to ask for just a little bit more focus. It was also a way for me to assess if cueing behaviors in this environment was still reinforcing. If he was stressed to the point that responding to behaviors was not in and of itself reinforcing, then the chain would fall apart and that would tell me something about his emotional status. 

A trainer could substitute some other cue/response for chained behaviors if their horse is unfamiliar with behavior chains. To stick with my approach of making each day just a little more challenging, the trainer would pick a cue/behavior that fits that description. One might go straight to newer behaviors. Or one might try different cues for well known behaviors.  If a behavior is initially trained with body cues, and a verbal cue is added later, one could see if the horse responds as well (accurate and low latency) to a verbal cue as a body cue. 

The way the treat was offered is something I described in the blog post but we didn't discuss on the podcast. There are many ways to present a treat to a horse. As any student of Alex's knows, one should at the very least keep one's own balance and one's horse's balance in high regard for this process. Emotional balance and physical balance are inter-related. A trainer can choose to present the treat in a location that affects the training in various ways. Offering a treat in a slightly lower position can bring an anxious horse's head down in an effort to tap into the physiological/emotional response similar to grazing. One can turn to face the horse in a way that asks the horse to either rock back or step back in an effort to help the horse's balance or teach them not to push into our space looking for food. One can also offer food in a place that sets them up for the next repetition. 

I did none of these. 

As a component part already in place, Percy has a very reliable square halt. I did not want to fuss about his being square at any point in the process but we have worked on it so much in the past, that I did not feel that his balance was going to negatively affect his emotional state. In contrast, a horse who falls on his forehand is going to have a harder time stopping (for Grownups or the mat) and will be more likely to speed up just to try to catch up with his own balance. For a horse without that understanding and practice of halting in balance, the emotional success of this project could be jeopardized.

Remember that my goal was to increase Percy's trust in me when we went places. To build that trust I wanted to be reliably consistent. I wanted to offer the treat in the exact same way each time. If he was keeping an eye out for monsters as I clicked, I didn't want him to turn quickly and have to look for the treat, which could have resulted in frantic grabbing or frustration. Neither did I want to be shoving treats in his mouth wherever it happened to be when I clicked. I wanted to establish a norm in which I was responsible for putting the treat where he knew to find it and he was responsible for receiving the treat politely.  

While it might take some brain work, I hope describing these component parts helps with adapting this to other situations, whether it is other species or other places. I'll walk through one example to try to help further. It's a concrete example as I used it for Percy again to teach him to be more comfortable in the arena. My arena, like all arenas, has a scary end. When we built our current farm, I set it up specifically so my paddocks surrounded my arena.  Therefore, the horses were turned out on all sides, my hope being that would eliminate a scary end since all surrounding space was happy turnout space.  It seemed to work on days that they were turned out in that specific paddock at the far end but for Percy, if he hadn't checked for monsters in the last 12-24 hours, they might have returned. 

"The Recipe"

  1. Start where the horse is comfortable. 
  2. Build a succession of behaviors to build on in that space.
    1. each successive approximation should require a little more from the animal
  3. Once complete, move to a slightly more challenging zone.
  4. Repeat the same succession in the new zone
Applied to the arena- 
  1. started at the gate, envision a zone that I think he can remain calm in
  2. day one- remaining in that zone, allow him to sniff, graze the edges, roll in the sand, weed the arena.
  3. day two- 
    1. stand by the gate and do one of the foundation lessons 5-10 times, followed by
    2.  walking in a circle on the edge of the zone, returning to the gate facing the opposite direction
    3. do that foundation lesson another 5-10 times,
    4. walk around the edge of the zone and back to the gate
    5. do another foundation lesson 5-10 times
    6. repeat through the foundation lessons
  4. day three- I used the mounting block as the "marker" of where each day's work would be. So before going out with Percy, I placed the mounting block in the next zone.  I used dressage letters as a way to advance.  So my gate is in the corner by the letter F.  The next day I put the mounting block at C and that is where we did our foundation lessons, walking off in a slightly larger area which now included the zone by the gate and the new zone around C. After 5-10 reps of a foundation lesson, we walked off around the edges of the zone, returning to face the opposite direction and do some more.
  5. day four- now I put the mounting block in the corner by K. We did our lessons there, and now the walk could include the entire close end of the arena.  In previous years he  has been fine for the most part at this end of the arena.  But I was developing a routine he could count on in a comfortable space before pushing on. 
Percy standing and waiting for me at the mounting block, head down was his choice.
And so on we went around the arena. Each day we were in there (I was doing every other day walking out around the farm still), I moved the mounting block to the next dressage letter and repeating our pattern. I also added in other fun things he liked to do.  I put ground rails and cross rails out that we could go over on our walks around. I changed them up to add variety, while still being things he reliably liked to do. 

You could do this in hand or under saddle. I progressed to partly under saddle through the summer. In that case the zones were mental, not physical. After we'd gone through the process all the way around the arena, he was completely relaxed at the scary end now. I added the mental challenge (for us both), of getting on him, first by the gate and then over time all around the arena. Some days were windy. Some days there were "things going on" that he could see or hear at a distance.  But we stuck to our pattern. 

So I hope that gives you some idea of the flexibility that is possible while still following the critical piece of the recipe that I laid out above. 

While there is still about three feet of snow in the arena, I was able to get Percy out down the driveway a few times in Febuary and March this year. I did not progress slowly, but went as far as I could to assess whether the training had "held" with many months off. He kept a steady pace with my, although his head was high and looking.  Amazingly, for the first time, he did not switch sides behind me at the scary corner as he did all last year. He stayed on my right going out and back.  He did foundations lessons and chains beautifully out there over a week or so, on days we could get out.  The last time, I took the boat bumper out for stationing and he stood quietly while I walked away. 

Then I had a funny idea.  I wondered what would happen if I let him walk back to the barn at liberty.  I assessed the dangers. I knew he wouldn't turn toward the road, since it was the opposite direction of the barn.  The snowbanks were well over both our heads so he would be funneled back to the barn if he did decide to race back.  Walter was calling to him from the barn, but he'd been able to stand quietly as I walked away.  I decided to try it. I unclipped the lead rope and started walking back. 

And I was thrilled with the results. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Learning to Be Brave

It has been almost a year since I began an ongoing project with Percy.  This was actually phase two of something I had worked on in 2017, which I wrote about in a post called Desensitization Continues. But this year I am taking Percy out into the world more. His world has been limited to the barn, the arena, and the turnout fields.  With the rotational grazing, the turnout changed regularly but did not go beyond consistent boundaries.  Last year when my daughter visited, she took a pony and I took Percy (in hand) and we went for a little walk beyond the fringes.  We all survived, he stayed with me, but neither he nor I were relaxed. Having the new horse Walter has reminded me how nice it is to have a horse who is blasé about things. Of course the ponies are but one expects ponies to be.  Walter is a big TB and he can get high headed and spook…but it’s rare. He’s given me something to shoot for. 

Many years ago I developed my own theory comparing working with dogs and horses. I differentiated between horse distractions and dog distractions by saying that with dogs, one usually just needs to be more interesting than the distraction because so often the distraction is something they want to get TO.  They want to chase the cat, eat what just landed on the floor, run to go meet that person or dog, etc.  So we can increase the value of the reinforcers to show them that staying with us and focusing on us is even better than a given distraction. But for horses, the distraction is so often something they fear. As prey animals who evolved as horizon scanners, with long legs for fleeing, horses see things in the far distance and immediately begin assessing whether they should run in the other direction. They want the safety of a herd to hide in the middle of, which means if they are given the chance, they are going to run away from the handler and back to the barn, field, or wherever they feel safe.  I fully admit that this is generalizing and that there are dogs who are fearful and horses who pull toward grass, but overall, I feel this is a significant generalization to work with.

What is the point of this? When horses are fearful of distractions, no higher level of reinforcement is going to make them focus on me. Which brings me to my underlying principal

Horses need to trust the person more than they fear the environment.
Thinking about this, I wanted to know just what more I could do with Percy so that he didn’t feel like he needed to be on alert if we went anywhere new. I felt that a 10 year old who’d been clicker trained all his life should have resulted in more trust. I did a lot of thinking. And then some more. I listened to Hannah Branigan’s interview with Susan Friedman where Hannah refers to one of her dogs needing to “file a lot of papers” in a new environment or something like that.  And I thought what a great analogy.  Look at EVERYTHING and figure out where to file it. And in my mind Percy’s files have different colors for different levels of dangers and many are flagged and many are cross filed in multiple places! 

As I listened to that interview, a plan started to form in my head. The thing that always blows my mind about Susan is that I listen to her and nod along, agreeing with everything and then I get hit with something that makes me come to full attention.  It’s not a sentence or an idea but somehow all of a sudden I get an aha! that I would have said I should have already known but…now I see it more clearly. 

What I decided to try was to be more predictable and reliable. Because Percy is so busy, and easily responds to any cue from me while still filing papers, I always tried to keep him focused and moving, both physically and mentally. I did this in an effort to keep things interesting and new and fresh in hopes that would serve to keep his focus on me. He never knew what to expect from me…but maybe that was hurting a lot more than helping.
My new plan would be to start from a place of success (success in this situation defined as relaxed) and we would build from there. I took into consideration the environment, activities and me. I drew out “zones” on the farm (the environment); a progression of activities that he was comfortable with; and decided on some rules of behavior for myself.

The procession of activities were as follows:

Day 1 was exploration day- he was on halter and lead but I followed, rather than directing. I did this because he loves to explore and I know that hand grazing is a good activity for allowing a horse to settle in.  I realized this as he “grazed” scraps of hay in the aisle (the first zone) while walking around. Now I started this project in February. Living in northern Vermont, there were no hand grazing possibilities mid-winter. 

In the following zones I filled a hay pillow on exploration day and that became a cue that he was the leader and could do whatever he wanted…as long as he stayed in that zone. In future zones, he was not allowed to retreat to an easier zone…we had just spent a full five days in the previous zone during which he could certainly see, hear and smell the next one so I thought that was a fair rule. Interestingly, he never ate from the hay pillow! The first time I put it outside, he used it as a mat. haha!!!  After that, he just wandered around with his nose to the ground or head up looking around. 
February- Percy using the hay pillow as a mat

Once grass came, he grazed! But I still used the (empty) hay pillow as his cue that he’s the leader on this exploration day. The amount of time I spent depended a lot on how cold it was those first months. I tried to do a minimum of 10-15 minutes.  Once we got to grazing weather, it often extended to 20. 
March- stationing at a boat bumper while I walk away

I also developed a weather rule.  If the weather was such that I didn’t want to be out in it, we skipped that day. Those were the cold, raw, or rainy days. But if I found myself hesitating because I didn’t think HE would like the weather, we went anyway.  Because those were days involving wind which made for scary noises. We live in a windy, breezy place and if we didn’t venture out in the breezes, we’d be severely limited. He needed to learn to trust me through the wind. 

On exploration day there were no treats. I asked for no behaviors. This was HIS day. He got to just explore.

Day 2 in each zone was Alexandra Kurland’s Foundation Lessons. I did 10 reps of each foundation lesson with half of them facing away from the barn…and the other half of them with his butt to the scary world. Anything which could involve duration, I went up by 5 seconds each rep. So the first head down was clicked and treated for just nose to the ground, the next was a count of 5 seconds, then 10, etc, so that by the end of mats, grownups and head down, he was up to 20-30 seconds (if his head came up a bit or he moved a foot, I’d restart the count even though he re-set the behavior on his own). 

Day three I chained Foundation Lesson behaviors. I asked for one to four behaviors before a click/treat. I varied what and how many so this was less prescribed, but I stuck to Foundation Lessons only and ignored any environmental input.  Just because his head shot up did not mean I asked for head down.  I just asked for a variety of things.

Day four I called “new” behaviors. These were not brand new things but things I knew he liked to do (step over rails) or I felt were important (my stepping onto a mounting block stool). I had a list of about 6 things that I pulled from but only did one in a given day.  I felt like that made me more reliable. "Rails are out, we’re doing rails today” etc.

Day 5 I used Foundation Behaviors to reinforce a “new” (as above) behavior. Not necessarily (in fact rarely) the one I’d worked on the previous day. They were just two unit chains followed by c/t. 
one day this area was all grass, and the next day my husband had created this scary diversion

note- even though I was consistent spending five days in each zone before moving on, the world was not always consistent. The weather changed day to day which not only was a different feel, but sometimes meant the world looked different- from snow to mud and back to snow again, or leaves busting out on the trees. In some zones, our sheep were pastured nearby one day when they hadn't been the day before. When we got to the road, there was sometimes traffic that went by (something which surprised me in that it fazed him not at all). But I didn't change my plan. That was part of this process.  We are going to proceed regardless of what the world throws at us but we are going to proceed in a manner that is predictable and you can count on me not to throw something unexpected at you. 
the quonset hut door was open, ready to eat horses
After going through the five days in one zone, I moved further from the barn to a new zone and started over again with exploration day. My zones were small. I wanted to increase incrementally.  I'd say most zones averaged about 20 yards in length. We all know horses who willingly march forward to investigate, only to wheel and tear off in retreat. Wheeling and retreating was not part of my plan.  Staying under threshold was. 

February, March and April were slow going.  The cold and snow and wind kept coming, the driveway was icy and I skipped many days but we made progress. I never repeated a day and never backed up in the progression. I wanted slow and steady progress toward the rest of the world. Finally grass came and his exploration days were something he really looked forward to. I'd go out early in the morning and we'd go exploring before chores. The weather varied but there was always grass. 

As we progressed, I developed some rules for him and this was really important as in the past I always let him be who he is. If that meant he wanted to move, we moved. If that meant he wanted to retreat, we retreated.  I felt I was respecting his concerns and giving him choices. But we seemed to be stuck in that routine and I started wondering just how much I was enabling his reactivity, rather than helping him through it. Sometimes I tried to help him through his worries by asking him to put his head down or reinforcing low. He never knew how I’d respond and I wanted to change that so that my response would be one less unknown. I traded interesting for reliable.

One rule is that when we are going to the zone of the day, we maintain a casual but steady pace. I do not break my gait. If he's dragging his feet from worry, I don't creep along slowly, I just walk casually. As soon as the slack is out of the rope, he comes along (it’s a short rope). Some days that happened several times; some days not at all. My pace was part of my predictability. If he gets nervous and gets ahead of me, I do not speed up. Only a couple times did I need a Tai Chi wall to prevent him from circling when he got out in front of me. Circling is not allowed. I am aiming for a horse who walks along with me rather than a whirling dervish. He can look at whatever he wants but he must keep walking at a steady pace. Initially I tried to keep him on one side of me but there are places where he really feels safer on one side than the other so he may lag behind and swap sides if he wants as long as we don’t break pace.

As far as rules for ME: in addition to what I ask for, I feed predictably.  It’s been hard! I feed in the same place every time.  I do not lower my hand to keep him quiet or feed where he is just to get the food in. I do not ask him to back.  I had a very reliable food delivery protocol. I clicked, turned to be perpendicular, and my outside hand went full arm’s length slightly lower than shoulder height. 

And I stuck to the plan of the day. No creative problem solving.  No surprises.  We just did what was on the plan. I like to think he knows the plan as well as I do by now.
May- grass to graze but keep an eye on what might come out of the quonset hut

June 5- he is concerned on our first day on the road about what might come up behind him

June 9- progress. Curious, but not worried in this zone. He has chosen to graze, lifting his head occasionally to look into the woods. 
Once we reached the road, I chose to make a big leap in our zones. There's 100 yard stretch where the woods and ditches made it impossible for us to get off the road if a car came. We don't get a lot of traffic on our road but there's a blind corner near the driveway and what traffic does come, comes far too fast for my liking. I didn't have anywhere to place a mat other than in the road. Instead, I decided to continue walking until we got to where the trees ended and opened to fields so I could step off the road for grazing and had room to do our Foundation lessons. By this time, Percy was familiar with the routine and content near the road. His head was high and ears swiveling as we walked down the road, but he maintained a steady pace with no spooking. When we stepped off the road to graze, just look at the grass he found.

June 13- just days after reaching comfort on the road, we were able to get this far from the barn and other horses.

In describing this to others, people always wanted to know, “but what are you going to do when (insert problem, lack of response, here)”.  Miraculously, problems did not arise. He never had a meltdown- he never yanked the rope. He never got so worked up that I was worried for our safety. I never wondered how I was going to get back to the barn with a nervous horse jigging alongside.  I guess instead of saying miraculously, I should say the training worked.  The reliability served its purpose. That is not to say he always remained under threshold.  This horse LIVES on his threshold.  He'll spook out at pasture and spin in his stall if the moment calls for it. My goal was keep pushing the threshold he lives with further out, rather than tipping him over it.

I ALWAYS have a calmer horse walking back than going out. Every single day. And significantly.  Even when we were in uncharted (incompletely filed?) territory.

Sniffing along the roadside as we return from a session far from the barn

Places he would previously have been alert in, he is now able to walk through calmly. We kept pushing the envelope and the safe environment is expanding. 

I kept track of body language. I logged looks, startles and spooks and defined them as:
a “look” is head high and ears forward, a “startle” is one of those spooks in place- muscles tense but the feet don’t move…or at least land where they left the ground! and a “spook” is movement of feet or change of gait).  I did not see an increase in any of these over time and they decreased within each new zone from day to day, and rarely happened in a previous zone.

Once the arena dried out in late Spring, I began working Percy in there every other day so our outings were less frequent. One day we'd be in the arena, the next day we went for a walk. Sometime in mid-summer, I had to change my route. Our sheep were now grazing the zones Percy and I were headed for. My goal had been to continue on around the perimeter of the fields and back to the barn.  Instead, we began in the other direction. This meant going down below the house which now blocked the view of his buddies at the barn. It was fascinating to see that he was more relaxed further from the barn when he could see the others, than closer to the barn if they were out of sight.

At this time I also had to add another strategy. When we went below the house, we were near the woods where real life predators lived. Ever since we moved here 5 years ago, we were often alerted to wildlife coming out of the woods when we saw Percy in his paddock standing on high alert, nostrils flaring, body stiff and you could almost see his heart pounding at a distance. Bear, deer, moose and coyote lived in those woods and came out to graze or hunt. And now I was asking him to leave his buddies behind and approach those dangerous woods. What I found was that he was willing and able to maintain our progress closer and closer, but when we turned to go back to the barn, he would suddenly leap forward at some point. Having the woods behind him was too much. I have no idea what he'd hear that would suddenly cause him to leap (still never pulling on the rope but a definite over threshold situation). I decided to try grazing our way back to the barn.  With so much grass available, it seemed silly not to take advantage of it.  So regardless of what we were working on that day, when we turned for home, I'd stop frequently to let him graze.  I started with stopping every 5 steps and letting him have 20 bites of grass. That seemed to help immensely and the spooking stopped. I progressed to going 10 steps between grazing, then 15, and so on, until we could go all the way back to the barn, only stopping once. Again, the routine, the permission to look but progressing to fewer breaks, all served my long term purpose.
August- lifting his head from grazing to look into the woods on our return

One day I tried taking a buddy out with him when I had a working student at the farm to help. Surprisingly, he was more nervous that day than he'd been in a long time. He felt he had to keep an eye on the surroundings AND the pony (you know, so he could warn him if a bear was sneaking up behind him).  So much for the quiet pony being a calming influence.

September- taking Stowaway along for company
At some point, the grazing sheep got in our way again and we had to turn around and go back to our original travels.  Happily, I was able to start where I'd left off. Then, in October, it snowed.  A lot.  Winter came way too early and I was not acclimated and unwilling to wade through deep snow to our current zone. Then came the holidays and in January I told myself I had to get back to work. I wasn't exactly sure what to do for our adventures. Last year we were still working close to the barn and were able to stay in the plowed driveway. Now what will I do? Just to see what a couple months off had done, I took Percy out down the driveway. No treats and we hadn't been out there in months.  His head was high and watching but he never stopped. He passed the quonset hut, doing his usual swapping of sides as we went around the corner in the driveway. It was getting dark and below zero degrees but he walked along with me without so much as a startle. We didn't go out on the icy road in the half dark, but turned around before I froze. He quickened a little, but slowed when he felt the slack go out of the rope. I was probably walking more slowly than usual due to the footing but he accommodated me. 

I am looking forward to using this technique with Percy going forward. There is no doubt that keeping things interesting is an important part of working with him.  But so is being predictable and reliable in both my requests and my responses.  It's like balancing on the edge of a knife with this boy sometimes. He continues to teach me so very much. 

Bonus!  A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation about this project with Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day on their Equiosity podcast. It was a long conversation and so Alex broke it up into several parts.  The first part is more of my personal history and how I came clicker training.  The second part is Percy's history and the "why" behind this project.  Part three we finally get to this, and in part four, we talk about the desensitization project I did in 2017.  To hear our conversation, go to Equiosity

To listen to Hannah Branigan's interview with Dr Friedman which inspired this project:

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Daily Planning and Journaling

I've thought about this post since I published the previous post about big picture planning and logging. Several people commented, on Facebook or Instagram, that what they really needed was the daily format.  I think I posted the other one first, because until you know what your big goals are, how do you know what to do each day? I guess this is a warning that if you haven't read the previous one, or didn't think it was important, it's worth considering.

Assuming you have done that, and you know what your big picture is and where you are going to start, then you need to think about planning vs logging. In other words, how much planning do you do ahead of time, compared to just writing down what happened. For me, the bulk of what I write, I write ahead of time. I like to have a detailed plan of what I am going to do, and if I know my learner well, then what comes afterward is just an acknowledgement.

I have a specific acronym I use. Whether or not to share it here is what took me a while to think about. I am opting not to share it for two reasons.  One is that I think it takes a lot of explaining, and that will make it seem like a complicated system when it isn't.  The other reason is that I think everyone needs to come up with an approach that works for them. I do share my template with people in person and will probably be opening that up for internet sharing as well in the near future, but it will be an interactive session as opposed to just a blog post. 

I realized in my musing, that I could boil my own template into the commonly known, 5 Ws and an H: who, what, where, when, why, and how. More specifically:

  • WHO are you training- this may only be pertinent if you have more than one learner and maybe additionally if multiple learners share a journal. If you have specific journals for specific animals, then this is self explanatory.
  • WHAT are you going to train- in my own template, this means what am I going to work on in this session? If I want to train a horse to load into a trailer, then while that may be the overall goal, for a daily plan, I'm going to write down what I hope to accomplish that day.  This is why I have to know my learner and have to be able to break things down and know when to stop. A horse who has had problems in the past is going to require a very different one session training goal than just refreshing the comfort level of a horse who hasn't trucked recently. My goal for the former could be walking up to the bottom of the ramp on a loose lead. That would be enough for the first session. The goal as refresher might be to actually get into the trailer and just hang out for a few minutes.
    • sometimes my "what" is simply an exploratory session or an assessment. If I am starting something new, and don't really know how the horse is going to respond, I write "assess comfort level of....", etc
  • WHY- I'm going out of order from the traditional because I think WHY is a worthwhile question to ask early on and will greatly affect the approach.  Do I want to get the  horse to load because I have somewhere to take him next week? Or because I want to teach him to self load as opposed to leading him on? Or because I have a new trailer that he's never been on?  Why am I undertaking this lesson at this moment? This will greatly help decide the next Ws and the H.
  • WHEN- what time of day am I training? If you always train at the same time of day and then one day you switch, that may very well affect how the session goes. Things like daylight, temperature, bugs, and feeding times all affect how our horses react to us and to the environment. Again using the trailer as an example, where will the sun be at the time I plan to train?  Will it make a glare inside the trailer or make it look like a black cave?
  • WHERE- This can be as simple as stall vs aisle vs arena. Sometimes when we have a behavior that we want in the arena, it makes sense to start it in the barn. Thinking about it ahead of time can help me to consider this.We also want to consider who and what else is around.  Are other horses turned out nearby? Is there activity happening near the area I want to work and will that affect my success?
  • HOW- one could write the how as a beforehand plan. How will I approach this goal?  Will I use targets or mats or rope cues to advance my trailer loading? This is a useful question to ask if the previous session didn't go as hoped.  Maybe a different approach would work better. You could also write the how afterward as in "how did it go?".  This is a dangerous question because too often people write "good" or some other nondescript answer. Stick to quantifiable data! Figure out a time or a distance to measure.  Describe the horse's response with visuals such as ear position, breathing, head height. 
Yesterday I did a training session with my Stowaway pony on accepting an oral syringe. He can look like the world is going to end in such situations but he freezes rather than fleeing or  fighting. If I was to write the session up using the 5 Ws and an H, it would look like this:

WHO- Stowaway
WHAT- begin improving comfort level with oral syringe. Assess good starting point
WHY- Stow is never a problem with worming, but it would be nice if he didn't stress about it
WHEN- 4:30 pm after coming in to eat
WHERE- stall
HOW- plan- no halter or lead. Present syringe, click for any reaction toward it. Increase as able in 10 reps
           after- initially: head high, eyes wide, stiff neck leaning back, backed a step first three times. Head gradually lowered with each rep.  Then I tried putting a hand on his head as I would with a real worming syringe and he backed into the corner. By the 10th rep, I could touch the syringe to the corner of his mouth without him backing or raising head.

I hope this helps show how I can quickly write a plan which nonetheless helps me design a carefully thought out process. Normally what I write afterward isn't even that long but this was an assessment session. Next time my "what" might be "touch syringe to lip corners 10 times". Considering where I ended the above session, that seems like an achievable goal for the next session.  Assuming that goal is met, I might write down his body language but that would be all that's necessary.