Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When Classical Conditioning Accidentally Goes Operant

That's a confusing title but I wanted those terms in for search purposes.

Classical conditioning is known as learning by association. We can pair something we know the horse likes with something new, and that helps the new thing be associated with the same calm and/or happy emotions.  

Operant conditioning is learning which takes place as a result of consequences. If your horse walks up to you in the paddock and gets a carrot, that consequence will affect the likelihood of the horse walking up to you next time you enter the paddock. 

We often say that classical conditioning and operant conditioning go hand in hand. It's impossible to separate the two. If I am training with operant conditioning in mind by offering treats when my horse does things I like, the fact that I am giving treats will give an overall happy association to training with me. 

It also goes the other way. If I am trying to make a simple associations with food and something else, such as hoof trimming, and I hand treats to the horse, the horse will find any patterns in when I feed. If I happen to feed when the horse swishes her tail and then coincidentally do that two or more times, the horse may think that swishing her tail is what earns the treats. The consequence of getting a treat after she swished her tail, even though it was coincidental, will inform her decision about whether to swish her tail again. 

I experienced this challenge this morning while trying to classically condition my Kizzy pony to the sound of clippers.  In my 30 Days of Husbandry online course, Kizzy demonstrated some concern with clippers. In the last week I have been focusing on that as a training goal. She has made good progress in her comfort level and I was almost ready to try doing a little clipping, but decided on one more step first. I had been working on a lot of classical conditioning with running the clippers around her, but I know that when the clippers actually do some cutting they can change sound. I decided to let her listen to me clip another horse while she ate treats. 

Walter's "cat hairs" under his jaw
I don't clip my horses as a general rule. I like to leave them with their whiskers and other hair which serves a function. But sometimes clipping needs to be done for veterinary purposes so I like to prep my horses and ponies for those just-in-case situations  Another thing I tend to clip are the long hairs which grow along the jawline in winter. During cold and icy months, I think those hairs serve to wick water and ice away from the face. But they tend to hang on long after cold weather does so in spring I sometimes decide to clip them to neaten up the appearance. I often wait until later in the year so I hope I haven't jinxed us by using Walter as an example for Kizzy and clipping under his jaw. 

Luckily, I have been videoing my daily sessions with Kizzy and so I caught this on video.  You can watch it here

Friday, February 14, 2020

Preview 30 days of Husbandry

I am about to open my new 30 Days of Husbandry course for registration. From now through the weekend this post will be available which allows you to preview the detailed description and the Introduction. I was going to open registration today but decided I better have access to my tech guy for the initial registrations so am waiting until Monday but you get to read the Introduction for free.  

Please note that this is copied from the course. Links, arrows, and things "to the right" are not available in this blog post!

Who is this course for? Participants should come to this course with at least a basic understanding of clicker training.  If you know the importance of good timing and keen observation; and have the basic mechanics of how to click and feed safely, this course can be a great next step of what else you can do with clicker training. Many of us have found ourselves in the position of needing better behavior for certain situations and wishing we had already practiced them.  These 30 skills will give you a launching pad toward that end.


In this course are 30 things you can do with your horse to help her become more comfortable with her care. They include things as basic as haltering and as challenging as injections. To be clear, I am not teaching people how to administer injections, apply bandages or drive a truck and trailer. I am going to demonstrate how I teach a horse to stand still for injections, desensitize a horse to bandaging materials, and the process I use to load a horse into a trailer. 

The day that your horse gets injured or ill is stressful on you both. I want to encourage people to be proactive in training for these times. A horse who has been exposed to procedures with positive reinforcement ahead of time will be a horse who is happier and safer to be around than a horse who has no, or only unpleasant experience with them. 
I came up with this list when I had a horse on stall rest last summer. I needed things to do with him to keep his brain busy and provide his much-loved clicker training sessions. As a result, all but two of these things you can do in a stall. It’s always good to practice in a variety of locations, but it’s nice to have a list of things you can do when injury, weather, or time constraints call for a quick training you can do in a stall. I like to add one of these lessons to everyday grooming sessions in order to keep up with them even when not on stall rest. 

You will see real life oops moments. You'll see poorly timed clicks, unintended cueing of other behaviors, and some rushing through training. I try to note them so they serve as examples. Noting our mistakes helps us quickly regroup and with that knowledge we can adapt our training to get back on track.

You'll also see real life situations such as the presence of errant dogs and a cat. My intention is to have dogs confined away when working with horses and this is what I strongly recommend.  But you'll see I don't always take my own advice.
Bookends Farm is located close to the 45th parallel.  Some of the videos were taken in warm weather and some taken in winter. As a result, some of the videos show sleek and shiny individuals, and some show fuzzy and stained ones. Training can't wait for the perfect moment or the perfectly groomed pony. I love grooming and a well turned out horse, but I took advantages of training moments when I had them so you'll sometimes see us dirty.
My hope is that the variety of what you see here will help you decide what you could work on to help your horse, and a range of possibilities as to how to use positive reinforcement with them.

The Introduction

THE LESSONS- Each lesson includes writeup and brief video of various phases of training. Some lessons show the introduction of a topic, such as introducing a pony to clippers for the first time, while other lessons show progress toward comfort. Your horse will most likely offer a different response than mine do, because each horse is different. This is why you will want to work your way through all the lessons, even if you start with the ones which interest you most. If you feel frustrated or are looking for troubleshooting help, be sure to read the lesson called "But My Horse..." very carefully.

To navigate through the lessons as they are listed alphabetically, you can use the blue arrows toward the top right of the screen. Clicking the blue X will take you back to this introduction. To keep track of which lessons you have completed, click the red "Mark Complete" button. You can always come back to any lesson, even if marked completed.
You can also jump around to the lesson of your choice by using the menu at the right.

THE GOAL- My goal for your horse is what I will call Relaxed Cooperation. Please note that this course does not include what can be called “consent”, “choice” or “start button” training. This course will, however, give you a foundation for that type of training.

Let me define what I mean by relaxed cooperation because it is possible to have cooperation without relaxation and relaxation without cooperation. 

Relaxation- I assess relaxation by watching for stress signals. As you watch the videos in the course and then go out to work with your own horse, I encourage to you look for things like wide eyes and pricked ears. Does the pony lean or step away from me or an object I hold? Does she raise her head or have nostrils flaring or heart pounding? These responses tell me if my horse or pony is feeling stressed. We know they respond to fearful situations with fight, flight or freeze. I want the opposite in a horse who stands while maintaining body signals of comfort: soft eyes, ears at rest, head at mid height, muscles relaxed.  

Cooperation- Cooperation needs to be considered on a case by case basis with each topic.  Before beginning to work with your horse, decide how you are going to define cooperation. What may be cooperative in one situation may be uncooperative in another.  A horse who stands with four feet planted firmly on the floor is being cooperative for an injection, but uncooperative for having her feet trimmed! Have a picture in your mind of what your horse looks like while you are working on something and then be sure to include that picture in what you reinforce when training. 


I have created four loose phases for these lessons. First, is the Introduction. By introduction, I am referring to the very first time that a horse or pony is presented with a particular experience or piece of equipment. This is relevant for both young horses and for horses who may not have had much handling in the past. But it can also involve a situation where you and your horse are just lucky to have avoided the necessity of that experience, such as an x-ray or ultrasound machine. The saying "you only get one chance to make a first impression" applies here. After that, you are in phase four, recovery phase.

The second phase I refer to as Progress. This comes after the first introduction but does not necessarily get you all the way to being ready for the real thing. The Progress portion of the training may just take a session or two or it may take weeks or more, depending on your horse and his history, as well as you and your skills. Please don’t rush this phase or you may find yourself in an unpleasant state of the fourth phase unnecessarily. 

The third phase is Ready. This means that you have gone through a thorough training process to prepare your horse and yourself for whatever is to come and you are ready for it. When you do, you’ll find out how well prepared you really were, and what holes there may have been in your preparation. And that is why there is a fourth phase.

The fourth phase is Recovery. The recovery phase is when the horse or pony has already experienced a procedure, even once, but you return to work on it more. At this point the previous experience is going to affect responses.

Many people skip this training phase and regret it the next time they need to do something.  A classic example is loading a horse in a trailer. A smart person will begin weeks in advance of actually needing to haul the horse somewhere, or better yet, when you don’t even have plans to haul but you want to be ready Just In Case. So you practice in careful and simple training sessions until your horse walks calmly into the trailer and remains relaxed while you close him in and you have even taken him for short rides down the road. Then comes the day when you need to go somewhere. You load him up, and take him to a show, or to meet friends for a trail ride, or wherever you need to go. After you get home, you clean out the trailer and put it away. That’s the mistake. How often have we heard, “he loaded fine last time”. We need to leave that trailer available after our adventure and go right back to loading practice again. Just because he got on the trailer that time, doesn’t tell us how he felt about his trip. We may have thought it went well, but we don’t know the horse’s opinion until we ask him. Maybe you had to travel on a really bumpy portion of road, or got stuck in noisy construction traffic, or the horse next to him was trying to bite and/or kick him for much of the trip.  Or maybe he didn’t like where he went: a long day of showing, being tied to the trailer in the hot sun, going to the vet clinic. Or maybe you weren’t your normal self that he has come to know and rely on because you were nervous, or distracted by other people, or just concerned about your horse.  All these things factor into your horse’s experience of what happened after he got onto the trailer and will affect how he feels about getting into the trailer again. Going right back to training the day after you return will show you whether he is still willing to load and stand calmly, or whether you have more recovery training to do (as well as thinking about what might have upset him enough to make him less cooperative afterward).  And this kind of thing happens with all our husbandry interactions from vet visits to care from us at home. That’s why it’s important to add regular husbandry training to our days.

EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES- Some of these lessons require nothing more than you and your horse, but others will be more effective with some basic supplies. I have included a list of things to have on hand. If you don’t have them, you may be able to borrow from a friend or create something out of things you do have on hand.  In the lesson on x-rays, for example, I use a small piece of plywood as a mock x ray plate. 

LASTLY If you have a serious behavioral problem, please contact a positive reinforcement professional for assistance.  I know people in different parts of the country (and other countries too) that I can refer you to if you email me, and many of us also provide online support if you don’t have anyone in your area. 

You will have six months to work on this course before your registration expires.

There is no particular order in which to do these lessons. I recommend beginning with the Haltering lesson. This lesson shows how to break things down into baby steps. After that, the Picking Up Feet lesson will give you an example of how to look for tiny beginnings like weight shifts without expecting the full lift of the foot immediately. Once you have done those two, there are a couple approaches to consider:
  • read and watch through them all before ever including your horse
  • choose what looks most interesting to you, do the lesson, and take it to your pony

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Training Motivation in a Wintry World

I'll be the first to admit that I get into a training funk in the fall.  Not the early fall.  That is a glorious time to be alive, be outside, and sharing time with horses. They agree. It's when the damp cold sets in that I find myself wanting to get back inside after chores, rather than spending more time cold.  The leaves are off the trees and it's what's known as "stick season" around here. The trees are bare and everything is a shade of brown, black and gray. Yuck. Holiday season is approaching and then here and I find myself avoiding training. 

But after Christmas, I give myself a stern talking to and know I can't let the whole winter go by like this. Everything is now bright white with snow, the air is colder but drier and we have all acclimated to the winter temperatures. The easiest way to motivate myself into the cold outdoors on a daily basis is with training plans. But first I have to make the plans. This year I even had trouble doing that. After putting it off another week, I finally decided I'd just look at January of last year and follow that.  Once I opened my journal to look back, I was reminded of all the things we'd worked on and the progress we'd made.  From there it was easy to adapt last year's January plans to new ones for this year. And I was really excited to see the horses pick right up where we left off, even though I was prepared to backtrack if necessary after some weeks off. 

In the winter, I plan for really short sessions. Most days it's only 5-10 minutes. That protects hands from freezing. But as a friend used to say, "ten minutes is better than no minutes". That friend is no longer on this earth, but I think of her fondly every time I say it to myself. In better weather, ten minutes often extends to longer. But this time of year, it's plenty. 

In the winter especially, I also develop rotations of training days. I pick five to seven different things to work on and assign them Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.  That way, I know exactly what I'm going to do each day. I know that when training time comes (I find it also helps to have an appointment time each day to go out for training), I can go into the tack room, pick up my training journal, and see what day we're on. I check back to the last time I worked on that particular day's skill to see where we left off and if I made any reminder notes to myself. Then I can go straight to training with no further planning required. 
Kizzy is a good measuring stick for snow depth.

If I have to skip a day for any reason, the next day I pick up where I left off. For example, Monday was Day 1, but yesterday (Tuesday) the hoof trimmer came.  We spent a lot of time standing in the cold for that, and of course worked on behavior that makes that go smoothly. So I didn't do any additional training sessions. Today I will go on to Day 2. Tomorrow we're supposed to have a high temperature in the single digits (Fahrenheit).  There's a good possibility that I won't do anything which requires removing my gloves, such as handing out treats at a high rate of reinforcement. So then Day 3 will be Friday (thankfully, tomorrow's cold is only a brief arctic front!). That way I spend the same number of sessions on each skill in a month. The only exception is that I plan one day per rotation for hand walking. If the weather does not permit, such as icy wind or icy footing, then I do skip that day because it's likely we'll have a couple of those in a row. I go straight to the next day's plan and come back to hand walking the next time it shows up in my rotation. 

Once warm weather returns, my training plans will become more complex, and training sessions longer and more numerous. But for deep winter, I am glad to be able to have a routine that allows me to maintain some training which the horses, ponies and I all enjoy. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Not Listening: Guilty

This morning when I entered the barn, I automatically started my usual routine: grab the buckets already prepped for Walter's and Kizzy's breakfasts (oddly, it's the largest and littlest who get "grain" in addition to hay in the morning). I quickly dump it in their tubs and hurry to let Percy out. This morning I opened his aisle door and immediately noticed how little manure was in his stall. In hindsight, I always find it somewhat amazing and very reassuring when I immediately notice something out of the norm which could indicate a problem. 

In real time, my mind went straight to colic, and my eyes went straight to him. Usually if I am concerned about horse or pony health, I stand and watch them. Is that individual sleepy and relaxed or depressed? But Percy never looks sleepy and relaxed and this morning was no different. Bright eyed and right at the door as I slid it open, his ears were pricked and he greeted me as warmly as ever. Weird. 

I crossed his stall and opened the dutch door to the paddock to let him out. Sometimes he stands in his stall, sometimes he walks halfway out and sometimes all the way out, but he always spends a few moments scanning the horizon intently on his first look at the world in the morning. This morning he walked out to the edge of the run in before stopping to stare. I closed his door and let Stowaway out. Then I walked across the paddock to open the gate to the big field. Percy followed right behind me, as usual, and when I opened the gate, he marched down through the snow to the first hay bag and started eating. 

That did not look like a horse who was colicking. I wondered as I walked back to the barn, could he possibly have had a mild tummy ache that resolved itself?  But I couldn't believe that anything which limited manure production enough for me to notice would resolve itself. Going back into the barn through his stall, I looked at his water bucket.  Full. That was really off as well. He and Walter almost empty their water buckets each night. 

And that's when I noticed there was no hay bag in his stall. 

They sometimes manage to unhook the carabiners in their tugging at hay which leaves the hay bag on the ground.  I looked around the stall but there was nothing half buried in shavings. I looked in the wash stall and there was an extra empty bag there. Did I really?  I was dumbfounded. In a lifetime of caring for horses, I don't think I have ever managed to forget or miss feeding a horse. But last night I had. I thought back to night chores.  I specifically remember putting Walter's in his stall because I had thrown a flake in on the floor earlier when I emptied the cart. I was intending to add it to his bag that night but now the bag was full so I just left it and figured he'd have an extra.  What in the world had distracted me so that I never filled one for Percy? (for a fascinating listen on our memory accuracy, or lack of, Hidden Brain had a great program a couple weeks ago). 

But what I do remember, and here's the worst part: he tried to tell me. When I was ready to leave the barn last night, I did my usual last look down around, checking door latches, etc. Percy's head was out of his stall looking at me. I walked to him and actually said, "what do you want? You have hay and water and everything you need". But I never looked to see that was not true! He offered me some behaviors and I had the gall to tell him that not all interactions involved treats. I rubbed his neck and walked out of the barn. He hadn't been asking for treats, he'd been trying to figure out what to do to get the rest of his dinner! Thankfully, he does get a big mash with hay cubes and supplements at night, as they all do. So at least he had something in his belly going into the night. But he was short about 6 pounds of hay. 

When I was a kid, I had a phrase that I would repeat to myself as I left the barn: "hay, grain, bedding, water". I would repeat this thinking about each equine I was responsible for.  It was my way of making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything for anyone.  I continued that mantra as I got jobs on a breeding farm, a competitive stable, a track layup stable and more. I taught it to others who were learning to care for horse. When did I stop? I need to resurrect it. 

Many of us rely on routines and habits to make sure everything is done.  Certainly I've gone through chores thinking about things completely unrelated to horses and I still get everything done. But something must have interrupted my routine last night which resulted in my skipping an important chore. One of the problems with routines is when we change them, and that happens a lot if we are dealing with living creatures and Mother Nature because we need to respond to changing conditions. This is the first year I have fed hay in bags in the barn.  In previous years they got hay bags outside where there was risk of it blowing away or landing in soiled areas that couldn't be kept clean in freezing conditions. But I'd still give them their hay on the floor in the barn. 

I think I changed that when we put up a bag for Percy in his stall while he was on stall rest this summer and fall. I realized that since the longest stretch my horses went without fresh hay is overnight, that is an important time to use nets to make it last longer, keeping those sensitive equine digestive systems full longer. In previous years, I have set the stalls up at 4: when I bring the ponies in, so filling hay bags at 9: or 10: is a relatively new habit (I can't set them up earlier because the bags are still outside until I put fresh ones out and bring the empty ones back in). In any case, habit alone didn't protect Percy last night. 

I like to have an order of operations for chores that takes into account the priority of what needs to be done. Most important, water.  After that, hay.  Bedding and any grain tie for last. That way if I get interrupted during chores, (loose sheep, UPS man arriving, needing to leave early for an outside appointment), there is a better chance that the critical pieces are done. I considered changing the order of my little phrasing from childhood but considering how well I can chant it to this day, I think I'll leave it alone. 

And I guarantee you, next time Percy solicits attention from me when I am leaving the barn, I will listen more carefully to what he is trying to tell me. 

morning chores done, all set for tonight