Saturday, June 15, 2019

Using Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 4, The Goals of the Program

"Third, what are the goals of the human learners?  The primary job of my lesson ponies currently is to teach people about positive reinforcement.  Most of my lessons are now lessons on the ground, to adults, so they can practice with R+ on experienced learners and then take their skills home to their own horses. But I also teach some riding lessons, and did much more of that previously. In all honesty, I have pulled further away from the riding lessons on my own ponies because of the stress of trying to convince people of a different approach. Traditional riding is heavily ingrained in our society due to the visibility of everything from cowboy movies to watching the current competitive scene. As someone who used to partake in that competitive scene every other weekend throughout the riding season, it has been a long road to where I am now. I enjoy working with others with the same mindset and so I have gravitated to more of that teaching.  But we need to preach not just to the choir, so I don't turn people away if they want riding lessons. I know that I will need to be tactful and patient with my human learners, just as I must be with my equine learners." From the introduction of this series. 
Whether child or adult, many people just want to learn to ride.  More sad are the ones who don't even realize it's a complex set of skills to be learned. They just want to ride, forget the learning part. Now I love to ride, and feel more at home on the back of a horse than I do in most places. Numerous equine therapy programs recognize the therapeutic benefit of being on a horse. But all these statements are about us, not about the horse beneath us. 

As positive reinforcement trainers, we have a responsibility to educate people about what a horse's body language tells us and humane ways to respond.  Actually I think all trainers have that responsibility but as a group, I think positive reinforcement trainers are more open and sensitive to those responsibilities. 

A common response to any concern about how a pony feels is, "it's his job. He gets food and shelter; veterinary care and hoof trimming so he better not complain about being ridden". Or "he can handle it".  These responses minimize our responsibility and make it easy to do what we want, without concern for the emotional and mental states of the animal.

I have always had horse management as a centerpiece of all my teaching.  This includes leading, grooming, safety, feeding, health, and more. Since transitioning to positive reinforcement training myself, I simply include that as part of the package. People are taught to leave slack in a rope when leading, which then prepares students for my insistence on soft hands when riding. I teach that instead of shoving a pony over, there are cues we can use to ask her to back up or move over when we are grooming, and we can thank her by clicking and treating. I know the weak points of each pony, and step in to demonstrate over many lessons how to address that specific skill in a compassionate manner. 

In this way, I can have positive reinforcement training be the umbrella which covers everything I do. While students may come with the goal of learning to ride, my goal is to teach them how to do so in a scientifically up to date way. Not only do they learn that turning their head affects the way their seat bones contact the horse's back, but I challenge them to observe and share with me what they think the horse is looking at, thinking about, and feeling, based on observations, as they ride. 

Children can be very compassionate when encouraged to do so. As I no longer have full sized horses for riding lessons, I don't have to deal with adults who may have years of societal pressures about how animals should obey humans and "just want to ride". With kids, I can use analogies of their own lives to explain that we get better cooperation when we ask politely and reward good responses.

A skilled trainer working on desensitization for trailering
A large portion of my horse related business is teaching others to train, not just ride, with positive reinforcement. As these people are coming to me with the goal of specifically learning this way, my job is easier without trying to convince people to let go of old thought patterns.  They still need help letting go, but they are willing to do so when taught how. This means they give off somewhat conflicting cues to my ponies. For this reason, I do not fine tune my ponies. To do so, I believe, would sensitize them to the point of frustration with novice handlers. Instead, their cues remain somewhat coarse. Gross movements are easier for people to mimic than subtle ones. Being handled by a rotating variety of people is much more pleasant when you are getting paid in hay stretcher pellets to make your best guess as to what the person wants. 

I make sure the ponies get frequent breaks, with hay in their stalls, while the student and I step out to discuss, review, and practice some more without the pony.  This is where I can pull out TAGteach so that people can learn the movements of cueing, rope handling and feeding mechanics. I may or may not specifically "tag" and reinforce, but my teaching methods are heavily informed by TAGteach as far as my instructions, my marking of correct moments, and my responses to errors. 
using targets to build behavior

For the past five years, I have hosted a Vermont Training Intensive here at the farm. This is a two day clinic, during which up to twelve people come for instruction in some aspect of positive reinforcement for horses. I have been joined by good friends Cindy Martin, Katie Bartlett, and Marla Foreman, who have co-taught the weekend with me in different years. These weekends are always instructional for me, not only in how best to help people learn, but how my horses and ponies respond to strangers. The first year was an incredible experience in realizing how fully I trusted my fellow coaches with my equines. After five years, I am even more appreciative, as I have learned more and more what challenges the ponies have with different people. 

Stow and handler having fun!
Most years, we have had a couple dog trainers join us.  Most of them have at least some horse experience as well, since that number of participants does not allow the one-on-one supervisions that novices require around horses. Even so, they always come with a friend who does have significant equine experience and the friend is tasked with keeping things safe from a "do not walk straight up behind the pony" aspect. I always encourage participants to bring their own treat pouches if they have them. One year, we had a couple dog trainers, one experienced with horses and one not. I was amazed to see my ponies quit on them, and just start walking away from training sessions. They assured me they had scrubbed their treat pouches clean of any dog treats before coming, but just to be sure, I had them wear some of mine.  It was a night and day difference. The ponies were back to being committed participants in their training session. 

Another fascinating thing to observe is how people "invite" problem behaviors which their own horses have. They certainly aren't doing it intentionally, but when my reliable lesson ponies start mimicking the horse they have at home, the person is more likely to realize that the problem is not in the horse. 
another skilled trainer demonstrating keeping a pony in balance

For the first several years, I divided participants into teams, with 2-3 people assigned to a particular pony for the entire weekend. They chose a goal, relevant to the topic, and worked together through the weekend toward that goal.  Then one year we had a topic that seemed to lend itself to having everyone able to work with every pony, because the different ponies had different things to teach on the topic.  So the ponies would work with 2-3 people, then they'd get another 2-3 people, then another 2-3.  I really saw pony fatigue set in. Whereas they usually were enthusiastic participants, by Sunday afternoon, they were telling me they were cooked.  I realized how exhausting it was for them to try to adjust to each new person who came along. Horses are so observant of our body language and while I try to keep gross movements as cues for the ponies, they no doubt pick up on all the other little things each person does.  The way we stand, the way we walk, the way we move our shoulders when we turn, where our toes point, at what point do we reach for the treat, how quickly we reach for and deliver treats, and so much more. I have gone back to the team approach, so that each pony only needs to learn three new people in a weekend, instead of twelve!

Next post: Teaching groups or individuals?

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