Saturday, August 17, 2019

Clicker Training Through an Emergency

Life has a way of throwing us lessons we might not choose to go through, though we learn plenty from them. Ten days ago, the photo above is the sight that met me when I went out for chores in the morning. My initial assessment from this distance was, "well, that's probably going to change my plans for this morning". I had no idea how it was going to change my plans for months. 

The first good news was that, as you can see, the leg was easily weight bearing.  That told me it probably wasn't a break of any any kind or even a bad blow. Also, it was a Tuesday morning so I expected my vet to be readily available. I'm not one to call the vet for every little thing, but that much blood and I was pretty sure I was going to need professional assessment. Unfortunately when I called, (yes that was the FIRST thing I did before going a step further), I learned my vet was away on vacation and I'd need to call the vet on hour away. I was glad I hadn't hesitated to initiate that process. I left a message with his answering service and then started to hay horses.  Why was that the second thing to do in this circumstance? The horses were expecting it, it wouldn't take long, and it would keep the group quiet while I dealt with the injury. The last thing I did before grabbing Percy's halter was to get the hose out where I'd need it so that I had everything I needed before having a seriously bleeding horse on the end of a rope. 

Percy came right to me when he saw me approach and again, I heaved a sigh of relief that he looked completely sound. I was less happy when I saw that it appeared the blood was coming from the knee itself. That was definitely not good. Joints are scary things to get injured. He followed me happily through the barn and out onto the lawn where the very best grass is.  This was a treat in his mind. None of that tall grass that was good for him; this was cookies, candy, and cake grass! 

still happily weight bearing
Percy is not a fan of being hosed. He will allow it as I've spent enough time doing it for both training and need but the only time he actually likes it is when it's about 95 degrees and he's been sweating while standing in his stall. So I take advantage of those situations to show him how good it can feel! Otherwise, I tend to use a sponge which is less likely to have him shrink away. Now I was going to need to hose and hose with cold, cold well water. My hope was that that candy grass would be a sufficient treat to make it tolerable. I needn't have worried.  He happily ate for twenty minutes while I hosed and hosed the knee. During that time I also checked my calendar and made the appropriate cancellations, knowing I'd be waiting for the on-call vet. 

After twenty minutes, I hoped the wound was clean and the cold had slowed the blood but it certainly hadn't stopped it. I put him on cross ties and gathered bandaging supplies and a clean towel. I didn't touch the wound with the towel, but used it to dry the leg as much as possible so that the bandages would have a better chance of staying put. I put a sterile pad over the wound, sheet cotton over that, and then vet wrap on top. Below that I put a standing wrap to prevent the knee wrap from sliding down, as the knee is much fatter than the cannon bone below it.
(note- wrapping a horse can cause more damage than help if you are inexperienced. If you don't have the experience, find yourself an experienced horse person, an upper level Pony Club member or instructor to show you how. Never leave your practice wraps on the horse. Practice many times until your teacher tells you that your tension and coverage are safe). 

Up to this point in the morning, I had not done anything with Percy that hadn't been trained with positive reinforcement before.  Some things were easy for him (coming to put on his halter and leaving his buddies to come with me), some things were not his favorites but I'd put in the time to make them non-issues (cold hosing), and some things had much less history, but I had worked through, step by step, in the past (bandaging). I'd never actually put a knee wrap on him before, come to think of it. But with positive reinforcement in his past, he had learned:

  • to come to me
  • to put his head in the halter
  • to follow where I led
  • to stand still
  • to graze without pulling me around
  • to stand for hosing
  • to stand on cross ties
  • to stand on cross ties when I left the aisle and disappeared into the tack room making rustling sounds as I dug around for supplies
He did not "need" nor receive clicks and treats for any of this on that particular morning. The bandaging was less familiar, and certainly not when there was a potentially painful wound involved.  So I did click and treat through the following even though he had experience with all but the knee and wound.
  • to stand while I waved cotton around
  • to stand when made contact with strange materials on his leg
  • to stand when he heard vet wrap being pulled out
  • to stand when he heard masking tape pulled off
Percy and my other homebreds are not expected to "just handle it" when I do something novel. With a click and treat, I explain what I am doing and what my expectations of them are while I do things. This is the way it's been all of their lives. There have been times when excessive pressure was involved by accident, by frustration, or by chance; but it's never been my plan and it's been rare. They trust that I will explain things to them and go slowly. Which is why what follows was so difficult for me.

Going back to July for a minute, the 5th Vermont Vermont Training Intensive was again held here at Bookends Farm. Cindy Martin, Katie Bartlett, and I spent two and a half days on the topic of cooperation, choice, and consent when interacting with our horses. I was now entering the "when choice is not an option" topic we shared. One of the things we discussed over the weekend is that it isn't a choice when they don't know what is about to happen. The more things we can give our horses experiences with, training through positive reinforcement, the fewer things that will come as a surprise. We can train for hosing and bandaging; for tooth care and oral dosing, for injections and blood draws; for examinations and the taking of vital signs; for handling eyes, ears, sheaths, udders, and more. 

I have done that and more with Percy. But I never taught him to stand for having needles injected into his knee joint. And he'd never been forced to shut down and just handle it. 

I have enormous respect for veterinarians. Large animal veterinarians have to work in some horrendous conditions (outdoors in New England for example), with animals who can outweigh them 10 to 1. The training or lack of training these animals have runs the gamut from unhandled individuals to performance sports athletes. They work with incredibly expensive tools and equipment, all of which can be as dangerous as the animals themselves. And they have to deal with people- the owners who want their animals fixed fast and with the least expense possible. Anyone who gets up and does that every morning with compassion has my respect. 

When the on-call vet arrived, I went out to meet him at his truck. He had come out once before, when my Kizzy pony colicked last Fall. I liked him a lot, but Kizzy is a good patient, and having come from a not-so-pleasant background, she did know how to just handle things. When I saw two other people climb out of the truck, I was dismayed. Something else Percy is not a fan of is multiple people at once. It was time to advocate for my horse. Politely.

I explained that Percy is a highly sensitive individual. I explained how we normally do vet visits. I told him I would stand between Percy's head and him so that if he did snark, I'd be the one receiving it.  I told him that trying to make friends could be counter-productive. I turned to the other two people and said apologetically, the fewer people the better. I suggested that the vet walk within a couple feet of him, no contact, and wait for me to tell him when he could get closer. I'd spent a lot of time this year teaching Percy a "ready for a stranger" cue. I knew there was a good chance this would not be enough, but I had to start out by trying. 

When I went in to get Percy from his stall, he was very lame. Night and day difference from earlier. My heart sank. 

Everything started wonderfully with Percy giving his ready cue when he was ok with the vet touching him. After the initial examination, the vet determined he was going to need to get pretty invasive to properly assess the situation and so he injected him with a sedative, which, thanks to the vet's speed, Percy barely noticed. 

After that, it got a little hairier. Sedation helped a lot but things progressed more quickly than Percy was comfortable with and he wanted to move.  Moving was not advised when there were instruments inside one's knee joint. The vet suggested a blindfold. I was afraid this would cause a real panic but out of respect for him, said we could give it a try. I was amazed how well it worked. Percy settled right down. Of course I was still right at his head, using my voice and tactile reinforcement at appropriate times (food not being safe under sedation). The vet said that for many of them it's more the worry of what will happen than what actually happens. I'm still trying to resolve that with what I know about preparing horses, not to mention my own experiences (the dentist who tried to sneak a novocaine injection in without telling me is no longer my dentist). 

note how far into his knee the forceps go!
Another injection of sedative was needed before he was through- the vet couldn't believe how he burned through it. He certainly didn't stand without moving at all, but he responded well to carefully timed pressure and release if he tried to walk off. I resisted his movement with the rope and released the second he released. Then he would stand again while I scritched bug bites under his forelock. I am grateful for all of the Alexandra Kurland rope handling we'd done. None of that contained this much pressure, but the education was there in both of us. There were a couple times I saw the vet and staff react in surprise when I did things such as giving Percy his "wait' cue before leaving him at liberty to move some things which were behind him. A minute earlier he'd been dancing around and I think they thought he'd bolt if not held tightly, to say nothing of walking away and leaving him loose.  Percy does not appreciate being held tightly. This was obvious when we were through and I needed to put a wrap back on. By this time the other two people had become essential for holding items such as the x-ray, prepping instruments and wound sites, filling syringes etc.  

Percy's ear followed them as they moved around and I asked them to speak as they moved so he wouldn't be startled hearing a voice in a new place with the blindfold on. So when one of them offered to hold him while I wrapped, I accepted the offer, not sure if Percy would hold still after what he'd just been through. But the guy couldn't bring himself to keep the lead loose and when Percy felt that grip he just fought. So I took him back, rubbed his face for a minute, told him to stand at liberty in the aisle, and wrapped the whole damn leg while he stood like a star. 

Now came decision time for my choice/no choice drama. The wound was very deep and into the knee joint. The better medical care would be to send him to the veterinary hospital to fully flush the wound and he would stay for 2-3 days. The hospital was two hours away. A stressful trailer ride, a new and strange environment, many new people and I couldn't stay with him since I had other horses and dogs relying on me at home. The vet really thought he should have the exceptional care offered in a hospital setting and that if he had to come to the farm daily instead, the cost would be comparable. When I tried to express my concerns regarding Percy's behavior, he assured me they would use sedation as needed to avoid drama.

I had absolutely nothing to go on. I had no idea how Percy would respond and how much sedation they would need or use or how it would affect him.  But I also wanted the best chance possible for him medically. I agreed to send him. The vet stepped out to make the referral call and when he came back he had more bad news. The surgeon he wanted to refer to at the hospital was away on family emergency for a week. Now we were looking at hospitals even further away. And in the wrong direction in my opinion. The ride to the initial hospital would have been a winding route through the hills of Vermont but now we were talking about going to another state where there was traffic and congestion and multi lane highways. When we opened the trailer door at breaks, he wouldn't look out to see hills and grass but asphalt and mayhem. I tried not to melt down, but stuff kept seeping out of my eyes. How could I have possibly prepared him for this? Was his life to this point in any way going to stand him in good stead? 

I had already decided that a hospital setting was best and so I stayed on that roller coaster rather than getting off. My husband hooked up the trailer while I tried to gather my wits as to how we were going to leave the farm for nine hours with no planning. He had generously agreed to go with me. I wondered if it would be better to go alone and try to stay down there for the 2-3 days so I could be with Percy whenever they'd let me. I have driven all over the northeast with a truck and trailer but not This Horse in This Condition and going to an emergency hospital.  I decided I needed someone else to drive and my dear husband dashed off to ready his own animals for a long day. The referral was made to the surgeon at the hospital. My phone wouldn't pull up the location so the vet handed me a piece of paper with the address. I tried to express my gratitude to him and his team before they left. They had listened. They had tried. They had helped. 

Would Percy get on the trailer? We practice some but with the setting events we'd just had? His opinion of trailer travel was similar to hosing. He'd do it, but he didn't like it. He was usually in a black sweat in twenty minutes. 

I put hay in the net, threw a couple things in the tack room, and led Percy to the trailer ramp. He walked on without a moment's hesitation and stood at liberty while I walked behind him to push the divider over, put up the butt bar, and put the ramp up. Deep breath. Thankful for reinforcement history at its finest. Then we were on our way. He was alone in the trailer for the first time on this trip. Previously he'd always had a pony companion, either by need or by choice. I considered taking one along but asking a pony to be on the trailer for nine hours since we'd need to bring them back seemed very unfair. 

True to form, Percy was dripping sweat at the first check. He hadn't touched his hay, and his head craned out the door when I opened it as he scanned the sights with huge eyes. I shut the door and got back in the truck. The next time we stopped there was a small pool of sweat on the floor under him, edged in white salt. When I went in to the convenience store for bathroom and caffeine, I saw they had small containers of baby carrots available. I bought one and took them out to him. If I stuffed one in the corner of his mouth, he chewed distractedly and let it fall out of his mouth as he stared around. I got back in the truck and wondered how a horse with that experience of trailer travel was willing to load so well each and every time. I hoped he'd do the same when it was time to come home. 

After four hours on the road, we arrived at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. Percy backed off the trailer politely, put his head up in the clouds and I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head. Luckily, we'd arrived at a quieter, more farmlike environment than the highways and rest areas. Someone came up from the building and asked if they'd like me to take him and I said no, thank you. I was going to give that boy choice right up to the very last minute I was able. We walked down a slight slope toward the hospital with him walking tentatively, looking all around trying to take it in. When we got close to the building and he could see in, he stopped. It looked like a barn aisle in shape, but was very light, people moving around inside and unfamiliar sounds and smells coming out. I left my hand open. The lead rope lay across my open palm with no chance of "making it happen" going down the line. I knew if he moved too quickly, the rope would pop off my hand. But I also knew that in his eleven years of life, he'd never run away from me. If he startled and I dropped the rope, he'd only go as far as his startle. Maybe it was stupid, but I had to trust that would happen here as well. 

I held out a fist for a target and he came forward to it. A click and treat and inside we went. Talk about stimulus overload. He walked like a long-legged bird, taking slow but consistent steps with his head going forward and back with each, trying to take it all in. I was directed to the scale on the side of the aisle. It was only a couple inches off the floor. I tried a fist target but he was trying to stay away from the edges of the aisle. The woman behind us reached out to put a hand on his butt to push him over and I quickly said, "don't touch him!". Sorry, lady. We walked past it, turned around and this time he walked onto the scale. He's a heavy little monster. 

Then they told me it was time to take him in for x-rays. I took him to the door and now had to hand over the lead rope.  "The looser you keep it, the better he'll be", I said. They responded as if they knew that type, rather than like I was crazy.  They told me to wait in the waiting room while they did the x-rays and then I could talk to the surgeon. 

Standing still wasn't working for me so we asked about leaving the trailer there and they told us where we could park it. Glad we didn't bring a companion pony. Then we went back to the waiting room and I paced slowly around. When the surgeon came to talk to me, she was wonderful. She showed me the films and explained the surgery and after treatment. I again mentioned his unique personality and she said he was much better when she led him alone for the x-rays. Good. I'd told them he was clicker trained and she said they were strong believers in cookie treatments or something like that. Well, better than nothing, I thought. I said if anyone on the staff had any real experience with clicker training, they could use it. I didn't say that if their timing or other skills were off, he'd just blow them off. Oh, and she said he'd be staying 7-10 days. That was a shock so I'm glad I hadn't expected to stay the duration. 

They said I could see him before we left. He was really doped up- they'd had to sedate him heavily for the x-rays. I kissed him on the nose, silently apologized, and walked out the door. 

To Be Continued

1 comment:

Lin Reuther said...

Jane, what an amazing blog post. Thank you so very much for all the details and information you included. The experience is surely a glowing recommendation for training, and specifically, clicker training. I have so much respect and admiration for how both you and Per y handled the whole situation. So very much looking forward to the next installment!.