Thursday, June 20, 2019

Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Plan- Part 6, How Familiar is R+?

"Are you teaching people on your own horses/ponies or on theirs? If you are teaching on yours, then you can train them to fit in with your teaching program.  If people are taking lessons on their own horse, then you have to consider whether the animal has any experience with R+. If not, again, creativity comes in to find ways of making the lesson reinforcing for them, how to incorporate markers and food treats, and not be too depressed knowing that will only be a small part of their lives." from the introduction to this series.
The photo above shows one of my ponies, getting into my trailer, using a target he had previous knowledge of, and being handled by a student. I had offered a one day clinic on trailer loading and I honestly didn't know how easily this pony would load. I've trailered him twice in the decade (?) that I have owned him. Once was to bring him home when I first bought him, and he did not load well for that.  Not badly, but not what I would call an easy loader. It was on this trailer (I think?). The second time was to move him from our previous farm to our present one. That time I was moving six equines in one day and chose to put the two horses on this trailer, and the four ponies into our stock trailer which was a very different experience.  The advantage that time was that he climbed onto the trailer with his three buddies. 

For the clinic, even though I wasn't sure how he'd load, I knew his history, his temperament, his cues, and his personality. This allowed me to set my human learner up for success. At the conclusion of our very methodical approach, each of the ponies I used that day was loading like a dream. I know that at least two of the participants went home and were able to replicate the plan to success with their own horses, but they were able to stretch the training over time, as needed. This shows the advantage of being able to use one's own ponies for training, even if they aren't familiar with the skill to be trained. 

Another time, more recently, I had a student bring her own horse for a riding lesson. She said he was not a good loader, and hoped to arrive on time, but promised to give herself an hour to load him. After her lesson, when it was time for her to load him up to go home, he did not want to get on and I offered to help. This was not a horse who was familiar with positive reinforcement training.  By that I mean he did not understand the significance of a click or other marker, did not offer behaviors and he had significant experience with the use of pressure to get on a trailer.  Having been pressured to get on once already that day, he did not want to do it again. That was one of those days which I wish I had timed and videoed the session. I can't promise because I didn't time it, but it took between 5 and 15 minutes. I backed him off regularly, as I do, and he quietly got on again each time going further in. By the time he was fully on the trailer, his owner looked at me in some awe and said, "that was lovely, how did you do that?". Of course she had watched the whole thing but couldn't figure out how it had worked.  I simply used the good training basic of reinforcing small approximations. I used some pressure on his rope, but it was very light pressure and released at any effort to respond. 

My goal with that horse was to get him on the trailer, with as little stress as possible, so he could go home. Had my goal been to train him to get on the trailer well every time, I would have taken a much slower approach, over many days. Had my goal been to teach the person how to use R+ to load a horse, it would also have been a longer process, as we did at the trailer loading clinic. But it illustrates how an experienced positive reinforcement trainer can get things done quickly and quietly. It doesn't make for as exciting a show as using sticks and "moving feet". But we can always choose to spare an animal some stress without avoiding the situation entirely (I could have chosen to go in my house and not watch). 

 Using my own horses and ponies allows me to draw on their skills and their known behaviors to facilitate the learning of the people. Handlers or riders can experience success and get the feel of that into their systems to take home to their own. This is another reason I try not to get my ponies too well schooled, as if it is too easy, then the people will be frustrated when their animals don't respond at all. So when I'm asked for lessons in something my horses do well, I need to get creative. My Rumer pony loads like a dream and always has, having been introduced to loading and life with positive reinforcement, as well as having no unpleasant experiences. To use her for loading practice, I introduced a platform she was unfamiliar with. With a strong history of standing on mats, she climbed right on, but even though she was used for standing on mats with hind feet at last year's Training Intensive, when it came to putting her hind feet on the platform, her inherent worries about her hind feet came through. (note: I think I can safely say they are inherent as I've known her since birth, she's always been "funny" about her hind feet, and her mother is the same way!). So this client was able to spend several weeks of lessons exploring various approaches to fine slicing how to get feet where you want them, even if the pony initially found it aversive. 

For people interested in learning and training with positive reinforcement, and willing to take the time, it's a thrill to oblige. For trailering practice, I can demonstrate how mats and rope handling allow us to fine slice our training. Clients and their horses build up their own repertoire of skills to draw on when the time comes. I often say that I have never found a behavior problem that I cannot solve using one of Alexandra Kurland's Foundation Lessons.  I'll add rope handling into that recipe box of necessary skills. 

I mentioned in a previous post in this series how I try to work reinforcement into riding lessons for horses inexperienced with it. Since traditional riding focuses on pressure and release, teaching people better timing in their releases can yield quick results that impresses students (and sure does help the horse).  If I can demonstrate that I really can help them with my knowledge of learning theory, that sometimes opens the door a crack for me to squeeze some positive reinforcement in. They may still think that stopping to offer treats mid-ride is crazy, but finding an itchy spot for the rider to scratch is sometimes accepted more readily by people who don't want to use food when they ride. And if they don't want to carry treats when they ride (sometimes the resistances people have is beyond ridiculous), I teach people that allowing their horses to graze while out on trail will be more effective at curing a reluctant trail horse than giving him a carrot when he gets back to the barn. 

Because I have incorporated positive reinforcement into all my training and teaching, it is natural for me to look for training solutions there. But I know that I have twenty years of experiences that have gotten me to this point. And I know that others simply haven't been exposed to what I have. My job is not to shame them into changing their ways overnight, nor to refuse to help them if they don't buy the full package immediately.  My job, as I see it, is to toss those pebbles into the pond and know the ripples will reach the shore. It may be a long time and/or many more pebbles in the pond before I see their mind shift.  Or I may never see them again.  But I trust that with gentle introductions and successful experiences, they are more likely to keep their minds open.

Next time- Conclusion

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