Friday, June 14, 2019

Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 3, The Horses and Ponies

"...we also need to consider what the histories of the horses and ponies are. If these saintly individuals have only known a more traditional approach, you will have a very different experience than if you are starting an equine in a program with positive reinforcement from the get-go. Again, I have done both. I currently have four lesson individuals.  Two were purchased at an older age and had histories with traditional training. The other two are homebreds who were started with R+ as babies. They are very different to teach on."  From the Introduction posted on 6/13/19
 As always, these are my experiences and I don't know if others see the marked difference between crossover horses and clicker started horses that I do. There are so many things which determine the personality of a horse and how it responds to training. My understanding of the difference between temperament and personality is that temperament is innate. It is what we see when an individual is born and displays certain tendencies even in the first minutes after birth. Personality is what develops over time when life experiences are layered onto the temperament

Because two of my lesson ponies were born on our farm, I got to meet them in their first minutes. I find it fascinating to see what parts of their temperament remain with them today. Of course having seen those first behaviors, it's undeniable that I interacted with them according to what I saw and so that may be a large part of why they remain so to this day.  My goal was never to mold them into what I wanted, but to take what I saw from them and make it work for all of us. 

My other two lesson ponies came to me when they were about twelve to fifteen years old. They did not come at the same time but the teeth on each indicated that to be their approximate ages when I bought them. 

Kizzy, my 12 h pony, had been rescued. I was told that she was emaciated and had a foal at her side when rescued, and went by the name "Bitch". The rescuers had renamed her "Socks" and fattened her up to the point of obesity by the time I got her. X-rays indicate she had foundered badly at some point. And that is the extent of what I know about her past. When I brought her home, she was next to impossible to catch.  I had no idea if she had ever been ridden but my original purpose for her was as a companion for my TB gelding who was lonely. It was only when a neighbor asked if I'd give her daughter riding lessons that I considered using her for that. I don't think she'd had much, if any, training under saddle. She certainly was never an easy horse to ride independently. Being so little, it was hard to find anyone that would fit on her who was good enough to school her. At the time, I didn't have the ground skills to do it. She was, and remains, a wonderful lead line pony. She is sweet and careful with little ones.

My other lesson pony, Stowaway, came from a woman who dealt in camp horses. She bought horses in the Spring, leased them to summer camps (where they were ridden in multiple lessons a day), and then put them up for sale in the Fall. So he came with a history of many miles as a lesson pony. By this time I was teaching the Junior Pony Club for our local Pony Club and needed a larger pony for bigger kids. Stowaway's personality at that point was the "perfect" lesson pony. He was quiet to the point of laziness, non-reactive, and acted like he never had an original thought in his head. He remains the animal I had the most difficulty teaching about clicker training. He could not believe he was allowed to initiate anything. It took me an entire winter to teach him to target. He did learn that the click meant he would get a treat, and would perk up when he heard it, but reaching out to touch something, whether my hand or an object, seemed too risky to him.  I would try one day, and then decide to give him more time to settle in and find that we weren't going to punish him, and try again in a week or more, with no luck. He never did have that light bulb moment, but finally inched his way into believing that yes, he could reach out and touch my hand without worry. From there, we continued to inch into more understanding. 

In addition to these two ponies, I have helped many horses transition to a life of positive reinforcement over the years. I have less experience with starting foals since very few people start their own horses, and most clients picked up their horses later in life.  This is a big difference from working with dogs. Although rescue is not an uncommon way to get a dog, many people get their dogs as young puppies. We know much more about their parents and early life experiences than we do about horses' early days. My opinion about the results of starting a foal with positive reinforcement is strengthened by the experiences of starting puppies.  

So here's the difference. Animals started in training with positive reinforcement are enthusiastic and clever learners, who love to offer behavior. Very often, traditionally trained ponies and horses have been taught to give up. I can't count the number of times I've been told how wonderful a horse is because he "just stands there" unless told to do otherwise.

There are some incredibly aversive approaches to starting young horses. There's a reason they call it "breaking" a horse, whether to a halter or to being ridden or driven or anything else. They used to call it breaking a horse's spirit. Horses are big and can be very dangerous. The goal is to get on their back which goes against all of a horse's self preservation instincts. Predators are usually the only thing which climb on a horse. Techniques to breaking sometimes mean putting tack on its back and letting them buck it out until they give up. No matter how hard he bucks, he can't get it off.  Sometimes that is done with a rider as well. 

Even if a horse is backed in a more kind manner, equipment and techniques have been developed over the centuries to control, not train, a horse. Round pens give a flight animal no escape. Bits, hobbles, martingales and bitting rigs tie the horse up in ways that they give up when they find they have no way to escape.

I spent a couple summers working on a TB breeding farm when I was younger and one of my jobs was to "break" a couple of the young horses who stayed on the farm. The farm owner gave us general guidelines but also gave us a lot of independence.  I had never heard of positive reinforcement at that age, and I doubt the owner had either, but we did not use any of the aversive methods listed above. We went slowly and we gradually increased our expectations. These youngsters had learned as foals that they could not get away from our ropes. We taught them that when they were still small enough that we could hold on if they fought to escape. That knowledge, along with slow and quiet handling, taught them to do what we wanted. There were no treats involved, but there were rests, stroking, and quiet words.  

Even in this kind approach, creativity from the horse was not encouraged. The expectation was that they do what WE wanted. There were no puzzles to solve. The best thing they could do was stand quietly until asked to do something. They learned to stand on cross ties for grooming and tacking up and that prevented any efforts to move or leave. If they balked at anything, pressure, though mild, was used to encourage them forward. They became nice horses who did what they were told.

In contrast, Ande and Rumer, the two lesson ponies who were born here, learned with choice and I listened to their opinions. Their foalhoods were earlier in my positive reinforcement journey. I'd "only" been doing it for seven years when I started them. So I made mistakes and came on situations I didn't know how to handle. There was some pressure used simply out of habit, but for the most part, Alexandra Kurland's work was my guiding light. Even if I used pressure, responses were followed by a click and a treat. Yielding to pressure was learned much more quickly when followed by a click and a treat than I'd ever experienced before. (note: Ande is the oldest, then Rumer, and then my Percy horse.  Percy had the most positive reinforcement-based start of all, as I learned from each one along the way and could do better with the next).

When I taught them to wear halters, then bridles, harnesses (for ground driving), and saddles, every step of the process was explained with a click and a treat. If they balked, I slowed the training and broke it down into smaller steps. If they saw something scary in the environment and balked at that, we played "touch the goblins". That is Alex's game where approaching a scary thing gets clicked and treated for any forward movement. Ande was the first to show me how drastic a difference this was from my previous experiences. While other youngsters might learn to ignore things in their environment, Ande would see something new and march up to it to touch it with his nose. The world was not to be ignored, but to be explored! New skills were puzzles to be solved, challenges to conquer. They were active learners, not passive ones.

Ande was also the one who taught me that ignoring unwanted behavior was not sufficient to eliminate it. With his Quarter Horse breeding, that pony could leave in a flash. If leaving got him to grass or friends, the leaving was highly reinforced. I had to delve deeper into Alex's work to learn how to teach him to flex away from his freight train alignment. I did many, MANY repetitions of that with a high rate of reinforcement to overcome the previous reinforcement history of grass or friends for bolting away. When I turn him out, he still loves to gallop fast in a straight line and then do a sliding stop for grass...his temperament as dictated by his genes. But he hasn't done that in hand for many years, or under saddle ever. As a lesson pony, I don't need that in his repertoire of things to offer under saddle! 

Remember, positively trained individuals OFFER behavior. Transitions from one gait to another should be under very careful stimulus control. When I was teaching Ande to walk, trot, and canter under saddle, I got a lot of offered upward transitions, which was great at the time.  I wanted him willing to trot and canter freely.  But that would not be good for a rider who was not prepared with the physical skills to ride it OR the mental awareness that the pony was not running away with her.  So I had to take the time to put it under strong stimulus control.

All four ponies offer behaviors now. But the ones that Stowaway and Kizzy offer tend to be things which they were taught with positive reinforcement initially.  So Kizzy loves to go to and target cones.  I can use that for lessons to indicate where I want her to go with a little rider. Or I can avoid that by removing cones from the arena. Stowaway will seek out mats in the arena.  Again, I
can use that or remove them.  Additionally, those are behaviors which stop movement. So they are relatively safe, providing that they don't speed up to get to the target or mat. I did have Kizzy in a perky mood one day and I'd neglected to remove the cones so she zipped from one cone to another, giving her little rider an excellent lesson in keeping her balance! I was laughing so hard I could barely stand up so it was a good thing the little rider was ready for that lesson.

Stowaway is an energy conserver when under saddle. I can't imagine how many kids he carted around before I got him, but there was no enthusiasm for the job. Somehow, he'd been taught to do as told, no more, no less. He was dead to leg aids. Even now, I might expend more energy than he does during a lesson. The way to get him to willingly trot is for me to go to the end of a long side and hold out my hand for a fist target. His ears perk up and he breaks into a trot to come to me. Then I have to run down to the other end of the arena to give the rider another trot. [While Kizzy is an exception, I avoid teaching horses to target cones because I like to use them for guidance. If they are indicating a circle, horses and riders both get frustrated when they continually stop at cones.] This is how I have helped him enjoy his lessons better, but is an example of how he responds to me, rather than to his rider (see part 2 of this series).

Last summer, I had a young teen, who is a lovely rider, come and ride Ande. I wanted to see how he did with a traditional rider. Ande is very light to rein aids as a result of getting clicks and treats for responding. Negative reinforcement has been shown to produce the least response necessary to remove the aversive stimulus, whereas positive reinforcement trained behaviors lean toward giving you more. So I found I needed to remind the rider to keep a very light contact. He can be really wiggly until you get used to using those light aids. Novice riders are not able to keep a light and consistent contact so he is not appropriate for beginners.

I had this young rider go over individual cross rails, which I had done with Ande myself in years past.  Then I began to set a gymnastic line. He has done those before, at liberty, but I can't remember how many jumps I have set in a line. In any case, with this rider he would do two, and then peter out.  It wasn't a slam on the brakes, just a loss of energy until he stopped. Neither rein, nor leg aids changed the situation. He had zero fear of being chased through the line. Whether it was a loss of energy or balance with a rider over additional obstacles, or what, I'm not sure.  But it was quite clear that we were going to need to break this concept down for him somehow, as good training should.  I've seen a lot of horses stop at fences over the years, but this was unlike anything I've seen in his total nonchalance 

While this has been a scattering of anecdotes about my own ponies, the theme I have found is that individuals started with positive reinforcement are creative and enthusiastic, responding to very light aids. Beginner riders instead need reliable, calm mounts who can ignore all the crossed wires that a novice gives with seat, hand and legs.

Horses who have been initially taught with traditional methods have very often shut down their reactions to things in the environment. You can see it in their flat expressions. This does make for a safer ride. When transitioning this type of horse to positive reinforcement, I have found that even when they "wake up" to offering behaviors and more enthusiastic responses, they maintain their ability to accept aversive experiences, such as an unbalanced rider. On the other hand, if a lot of pressure was used to build or maintain their behavior, and that is no longer used, they may decide they'd rather not participate at all. Then you have to decide if you are going to maintain them with the negative reinforcement with which they are familiar, or take the time to retrain everything with positive reinforcement. This is made more complicated when working with students who may not have the observational and timing skills necessary to train, rather than just being able to focus on their own skills.

Next up: the goals of the lesson program and the students

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