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 blas√© 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:


Unknown said...

Jane - This is very impressive. I listened to the podcast too and it was great to hear the story in your own words.

In the podcast, you mentioned that wind was a big factor. Did you notice anything else, in particular that was more likely to cause a startle or spook? It sounds like the amount of looking/startling/spooking always decreased over the five days. Did you ever feel that he was more on edge after the first l/s/s?

I noticed with Rosie that if we were riding out, she could handle one "unexpected event," but if there were two, then it was really too much for her.

Thanks, Katie

Bookends Farm said...

Hi Katie and thank you.
Wind was a big issue, and it always was for his mother as well, as I guess it is for all horses to some extent. It wasn't that a big gust of wind would cause a spook, but rather that windy days had him on edge from the start so that something he might have been able to handle on a still day, would get a reaction on a windy day.
As far as whether there were other things which were more likely to result in a reaction, I mentioned the alarm calls of birds. While I guess I had become dulled to the sounds, his reactions heightened my awareness of them. But I'm not sure that I would have noticed them on a day he didn't react to them.
I was surprised that traffic never bothered him. It bothers me on an intellectual level in that I'm always afraid a horse will spook into the path of an oncoming car. We didn't have a lot of traffic pass us in the short section of road we traveled, but he was ok when it did. And when we were grazing just off the road, he didn't react to anything. Actually there was one time he did which was interesting because two vehicles came at the same time from opposite directions. We were at the end of the driveway and couldn't see onto the road but could hear them coming. I guess he thought there was only one and did not respond when it popped into view, but then startled when a second later the other one came into view from the other direction. I think he heard them and didn't realize there were two. Just guessing.
Another thing which always had me waiting for him to jump and he never did was George! George the cat loved to come join us after we were out working or grazing. Invariably he'd come right up behind Percy and I'd just wait for him to spook when he saw the cat. But he never did! All I can guess is that somehow he was aware of him long before I even was and so it wasn't a surprise.
The l/s/s (I like that abbreviation!) did not always decrease over the five days- it depended on the weather. Those were hard for me to push through. It was frustrating when he'd been fine the day before and a cool or breezy day would result in less relaxation on a later day. So it wasn't instant, predictable magic. It was more that he got to see those places, regardless of his reaction, and then on later days walking through them consistently, things were ok. The corner of the driveway remains a place that he needs to keep a lookout!
As far as whether he was more on edge after one spook, I'd say it was the opposite. It was more like he was tense just waiting for something to happen, the pressure would build, he'd spook and then calm down. I completely get what you mean with Rosie, though and I'd guess it has more to do with the amount of time we were out. I think the longest I was out was probably 30 minutes and that was on grazing days in the warm summer when I couldn't make myself go in :) Other days it was a shorter period of time. I think if we were out on an hour-long progressive distance, such as a hack, I can see how that tension could build again, especially after the first one. I guess that's a question for this coming summer. (I'm making a list!).
And there was that situation when we were going below the house that he consistently spooked on the way back to the barn that had me wondering it I was making any progress after all. That's when I instituted the grazing on the return and much to my delight, I was able to phase that out slowly.
thanks for the questions. I read it on my phone when I was out this morning and was able to think about it while driving around. Kept me entertained while driving!

Lisa said...

Hi Jane,

After listening to the equiosity podcast I got curious and was happy to find the article and pictures and a video of Percy that helped me to imagine the situations that you were describing. It sounds like you built a lot of trust and reliability that made your discovery walks a lot easier for Percy. Thank you so much for sharing this project, I find your approach very interesting and inspiring and think it can be helpful for a lot of horse handlers.

One thing I was wondering about was the way from the barn to the zone that you were currently working in. Did you never stop or click and reinforce anything all the way to the new zone? Or were you always walking in the "discovery mode" - grazing and looking around? I was thinking about how you distinguished the way from the actual zone where you asked him for the foundation lessons etc.

Thanks again for sharing your experience!


Bookends Farm said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your comments. I am so glad to hear from others that they are being inspired, in any way, by this.

As to your question, when we went to our designated zone of the day, regardless of which day, we just walked casually. Casually meant not dawdling, but not hustling either. It did not involve sniffing or looking around. So, no, I did not stop or click/treat until we got to the zone. It was my way of practicing, "we need to go over here to hand graze or work. We can go from A to B without needing to train or explore our way there".

I also want to stress that the hay pillow bag was an environmental cue that meant he could explore. I carried it tucked under my arm until we got to the zone on exploration day. Once we got there, I dropped it on the ground, and he was then free to explore.

On non-exploration days, we walked casually out and because foundations always included mat work, that may also have been an environmental cue. I either had it with me (the closer days) or I had walked out with the dogs earlier to plunk it in the zone. But really, when the hay pillow wasn't there, it was more about stimulus control. No hay pillow- I will be guiding you in what we are going to do.

Does that answer your questions? If not, please let me know and I'm happy to try again ;)


Lisa said...

Hi Jane,

yes that was exactly what I wanted to know, thank you for answering my question. I am currently starting to go for little walks with my horse and I am reinforcing him a lot for walking quietly and released, but that means a lot of stopping and it's hard to build duration. We never get into the "just walk casually" mode as he is always waiting for Click and Treat. So I was thinking of using an approach a bit similar to yours and try to walk casually to a "working space" where we to the foundation lessons or other exercises and slowly put this space more far every time. So he would know that there is walking time and working time.

I guess both approaches could work for him as he is already doing really well right now, but would be interesting to try and see the difference!


Bookends Farm said...

Hi Lisa,

I'll be interested to hear how it goes. Ideally, going to the working space should be reinforcing since once they are there, they get lots of fun interaction. But they are all different so as you say, both approaches could work. You could tell yourself that you will only click and treat a certain number of times on the way to the space, or in certain locations on the way, etc. Those would be ways to build duration.

Good luck!

Hilde Cecilie said...

This was the most interesting I've heard (podcast) and now read for a long time. How lucky for Percy to have you! My horse is not as sensitive as Percy at all, but she does not want to go out in the world. She is 22 now, a gysy cob, and very calm and relaxed at home. I've tried to expand her safety zone, and we've come a teeny, weeny (are those words?) bit further. But this is the most reasonable and best explained way to do it I've ever heard and read! Tonight I'll set up a plan, and tomorrow we will start. Thank you very much! <3

Bookends Farm said...

What a wonderful response Hilde! You are absolutely right that a horse does not need to be in the extremely sensitive category in order to be concerned about going out in the world. There are many factors which can contribute to the issue. Your horse is lucky that you understand that even though she is calm and relaxed at home, going further is a different situation. I am so glad you've been inspired to set up a plan and I hope you will share how it goes. One teeny weeny bit at a time :)

Kim said...

Hello Jane,

This post could not be more timely. I also follow Alexandra Kurland, and I also have a horse that LIVES at threshold. Even in the riding ring, she has to stop and stare and the woods that are a full kilometer away from us, and she does this constantly. Also, any movement can cause a spook. This is a horse that is scared of everything, and I just can't seem to get her to relax in any environment during the winter. Summertime is much better but winters are often a write off for training since I can't hold her attention very well.

This gives me a plan on how to get her out and about a bit more, once the weather improves a bit. I will only be able to do weekends until the days get longer since I typically get to the barn at 7:00 pm each night and am restricted to the indoor arena (which is also a pretty terrifying place, I typically do a half hour of mat work at liberty to settle her and get her calm enough for learning something - this work follows a very strict and predictable routine).

I could write a book about this mare, I have never seen a horse so reactive and on edge despite 2 years of clicker training. I moved her last April to a barn with an all natural environment to help her relax, and she has improved slightly (herd life, hay available 24 x 7 on a track system). She is so fearful that being in the barn is scary, the riding ring is scary, the indoor ring is scary, she is on full alert most of the time!

You are the first clicker trainer I have found so far that has a similar sounding horse, and I'm so grateful to have found this blog post. Thank you very much for sharing.

Kim and Tash

Bookends Farm said...

Hi Kim, I'm sorry you've had to deal with this as well. Winter was always more challenging for Percy's mother too. It's hard when you feel you have to just write off so many days due to weather! I really hope this gives you something to work with. Each horse may need his or her own adaptations but I would love to know how it goes. Please keep me posted!

Gwen Quon said...

Oh I have read your post over and over. It all makes sense and so encouraging to us all. Yes I have a Perch TB and we live in the woods. It is a challenge but Brice is not extreme. A birds voice or a crackle in the wood can make him spin. I do not ride him at all. I want to one day when it is right. I will keep pressing on and now I feel so encouraged.
Thank you so much

Bookends Farm said...

Oh thank you for the kind comments, Gwen. Spins under saddle are not fun so I don't blame you for staying on the ground for now. I hope this will help you reach your goal of riding when it is right.

Unknown said...

Hi Jane:

Again, thanks for your wonderful idea and for sharing it. It is something I have started with both of my geldings.
Question about day 5. I am not clear what you mean by you do 2 units, C/T and include a new behavior (not the one just done the day before (4)). Can you explain this? Thanks again and I will let you know how we are progressing. We will be out of the barn tomorrow!


Bookends Farm said...

Hi Rosemary,
Thanks for the question and opportunity to clarify.
One of the things I include in this process is requests for behaviors other than Foundation Lesson behaviors. I call them "new" behaviors, although they aren't brand new, just newer to him than Foundation lessons. I use the examples of stepping over rails, lining up at a mounting block or stationing at a boat bumper dropped in the snow.
On day 4, I ask for just one of these behaviors and click treat that for several repetitions. So I might take the boat bumper out and walk away from him several times in different directions while he stands and stations at the boat bumper. There is a photo of that in the post.
On day 5, I use a different "new" behavior, such as stepping over a rail. But instead of clicking and treating each time he steps over, I build a 2 unit chain, by reinforcing the step over with a request for a foundation behavior and clicking and reinforcing that.
You and your horse would need to both be familiar with chains to utilize this, of course. Sometimes a "chain" is called a "sequence". The terms are not universally defined. They vary in that one means the behaviors are always done in the same order and the other means the order can vary. I was taught that a chain means a series of behaviors in which the order or even behaviors included can vary. The important bit is that the cue functions as a reinforcer for the previous behavior so that you don't need to click and treat each one.
Specifically, on day 5, if I decide to do stepping over a rail as the "new" behavior, then instead of clicking and treating him for stepping over, I cue a Foundation Lesson behavior at the exact moment I would have clicked. I then click and treat that. So maybe as he steps cleanly over the rail with his last foot, I hold out a hand for him to target. As soon as he touches my hand, I click and treat that.
In order to build and use chains, you need to understand how and why they work: behaviors must get easier, they must use behaviors with a long history of reinforcement, and they must have been taught with positive reinforcement. That's the way they are able to function.
I'm not sure if I gave you enough information or too much but thanks for the chance to make it clearer for anyone else who might have been confused!

Rosemary said...

Perfect! I understand now and love the really specific information that the cue for the 2nd behavior should be given at the exact moment you would have clicked. I did not appreciate that point before.

I will let you know how we progress and thanks again for sharing this as it is especially important for my 2 geldings and their temperment! Hope the rest of your winter is less snowy!


Hilde Cecilie said...


Here is how I plan my weeks. We're ready for zone three now. I just love it.!AtQAph5BTNF_hiDQwP6SWCGlLJ0N

wirekitten said...

Hi Jane, I also listened to the podcast and I got very encouraged to try using this method with my 13-year-old gelding. He is a former Parelli-trained riding school horse and he was very shut down when I got him 4 and a half years ago. As someone returning to horses in my late thirties after 20 years of having no contact to horses, I didn't realize this at the time. I just assumed he was "good" and you could do anything with him - go for walks, go for three-hour rides on our own, I was never worried. There were signs early on that HE was actually worried, although he still always complied and did what I asked. It's a long story but to cut the chase, at some point I decided to give him his voice back and not just keep forcing my will on him, doing positive reinforcement training and stopping riding (I thought for a couple of weeks, but we're going on two years now). Once allowed to say no, he said it a lot and we got to the point where I couldn't leave the yard anymore and when I did and I pushed him too far, he would completely lose it and remain over threshold until we got back. I got us into a few rather unpleasant or even dangerous situations that way. We moved yards after four years last summer and I wanted to give him the time he needed to settle in. However, he remains on high alert most of the time and I haven't been able to take him for walks away from his herd to the point where he couldn't see them anymore or again, he would freak out. I love this zone system with the different days and their different focus and I did my very first session today, so zone 1, day 1. It would be so great if we could manage to work our way further and further away from the barn. I have definitely been unpredictable to him and not been able to give him the trust and safety that he needs to feel once he leaves his herd. It would be fantastic if this new approach worked for him and it can't hurt to give it a try. We have nothing to lose anyway, because we're basically stuck on the yard at this point. I feel so encouraged by your account of your training with Percy and if this worked for him, it might as well work for us, right? I'll let you know whether we are making progress in a couple of weeks. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Claudia

Bookends Farm said...

HI Claudia, Your response meant a lot to me. I really value people who take horses who appear brave and offering them opportunities to express themselves, even when it means our own goals or experiences might have to change. I hope that our experiences help you and your gelding to get out into the world a little more, feeling safe and comfortable. Jane

Lisa said...

Hi Jane,

I wanted to give you a short update on our "going for walks" projects. I ended up by combining Alex's 300 peck pigeon exercise (or if you like building duration by counting the steps and slowly increasing the number of steps between click+treat) and your approach to use the mat spot to reinforce the whole walking and slowly extend the distance. And it worked so really great! I'm very pleased because the pattern seems to be very predictable for Lucky so his mugging/touching me (his way of expressing stress/too low rates of reinforcement) is getting less and less. We are going for walks of about 50 minutes by now and he is very comfortable and safe at any moment although the environment around the barn is very challenging. And how proud he is when I finally put his mat on the ground and he knows it's playtime! He was already quite reliable and safe to take out for walks in the last years but was never as relaxed. Also, he sometimes called his friends or "suggested" to take every intersection that would take us home. He does not do this any more at all. Now he waits for me to go right, left, whererever, and is always willing to follow me. That is so much more pleasant for both of us.

The only difficult thing for me is counting the steps - very good training for a human mind! Sometimes I keep counting my own steps after our walks because it becomes so natural. I'm sure I will be able to fade this out with the time, but I think it really helped me to be systematic and predictable for my horse. And it was a way to reinforce him in between. As he is insuline resistant, I cannot use grazing as a reinforcer on our walks so this seems to be a good alternative for us.

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful approach with us.

Bookends Farm said...

WONDERFUL!! I love how you were able to adapt it for your horse and your situation and you had success!! This makes me very happy and I thank you for sharing and following up.