Friday, July 2, 2021

Using Enrichment Toys to Train a Call to Barn


Through the month of June, I posted a series of posts to my Instagram and Facebook pages on Mondays with examples of enrichment toys I am now using. 

Here's a quick review of those toys.


Carrot ball (with apples!)
Kong Equine
The Hay Ball





Two Kong Wobblers


A dog tug toy adapted!

Last week I mentioned that I have three goals for the toys: reinforcement for coming in off grass, puzzle challenges for building learning skills and resilience, and longer term entertainment. This post addresses the reinforcement for coming in. 

My horses and ponies can be reluctant to come in off good grass. Previously I needed to halter them individually (very tedious with six individuals) or "herd" them in...not a positive reinforcement approach, even if they received treats once they were in. In previous years, I have tried to increase their interest for coming in by leaving their favorite treat, peppermints, in tubs in the paddocks. The problem was that the first horses in could scamper around and easily eat up the peppermints so that the tail-enders didn't get one. And then they could even turn around and go back out before the slower ones had arrived. 

When I began putting the toys out earlier in the year and saw how happy the horses were to find them when they came in, I thought I might be able to put coming in on cue. When I was a child, my parents had a distinctive whistle they used to call the horses in from pasture. It was almost foolproof that the horses would come when they heard it. Looking back, I am fascinated to think about things my parents taught animals, and us, without the benefit of the education in animal behavior that I had. They did, of course, have a lot of practical experience. In that case, the horses would come in because it reliably predicted that a meal was waiting in their stalls. As new horses were added, they easily picked up the behavior from others, following the group in, and learning the whistle cue. 

Ande's sliding stop on mud

In the past I had trained a recall cue to the horses, but it was problematic for several reasons. One was the excellent response I got.  That might not seem like a problem, but six equines galloping at me was a little hairy. I trusted them to stop in time...but I didn't trust them to appropriately judge the footing they were on (having seen them wipe out in mud and snow while playing). My little Quarter Pony in particular can leave some impressive sliding stop marks, and I did not want to be halfway along that track.

Another problem was that if I only wanted one individual to  work with, I had no way of calling that one, and if I gave my recall cue, I'd have to reinforce everyone, and then they'd go back out, which wasn't always good for maintaining the behavior. So I abandoned that, although I do now have a recall cue for Percy alone, which is quite nice. 

As I watched their behavior when they saw me start putting out their toys, I realized I wasn't really teaching a "recall" cue any longer.  I was teaching a "go to the barn" cue. Rather than coming to me, they would go right past me at the gate to go to the toys. I liked this behavior since it prevented the galloping at me. I decided to be careful not to give out any treats to a horse or pony who stopped at me so that it didn't transition to a "come to me" cue. 

I was able to test this when my 3 year old granddaughter visited because she loved the whistle I used and could whistle from the house porch, and the horses would come to the barn, even though the whistle was coming from the house, and even if I was not in sight. With the cue meaning "go to the barn", I would need to be aware of that specific behavior and use something different (such as a simple hand target) if I wanted them to come to me. 

As I worked on it, I got a very casual response and that was ok with me. I actually preferred it that way. No more horses galloping at me, and no horses vying to be the first one through the gate. Instead, they come slowly, one at a time, allowing me time to open appropriate stall doors or gates to guide them where they should go. 

Training the cue

When adding a cue to a behavior, you want to have the behavior solid first. I got a little tripped up with this because when I started, the horses were getting the toys in the paddock near the barn- they could see me set them out and would begin to come in. So I was adding the whistle as they did so. 

But as the season progressed, they were allowed to stay out on grass longer (as their digestive systems adapted and grass matured) and by the time they came in, the flies and heat meant they were going into stalls and I was putting their enrichment toys inside. They could no longer see me setting out toys, and I no longer had an environmental cue to work off. The whistle was not yet strong enough to get a response so I had to stop using it or I would kill the new cue.

Instead, I reverted to my former tactics of waiting until they were begging to come in from flies and heat. I'd keep an eye on them until I saw them volunteer their way up to the barn, at which point they wanted to get IN.  Then I blew the whistle as I opened the stalls. The whistle was now connected both to the behavior and to the immediate access to their toys and treats...and out of the bad bugs!

Below is a video of me adding the whistle cue as the horses are let into their stalls or paddock.



And here is a video of what it looks like when I now cue them to come in before they ask to come in. You can see how casual it is.  They lift their heads in response to hearing the whistle, and slowly start to make their way to the barn. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Giving Instead of Taking- How to Deal with Destructive Behaviors

 How to deal with destructive behaviors? I've been dealing with a few in the barn recently from both the horses and the cats. And another behavior which, though not currently destructive, will certainly become so if not addressed.  While it can be tempting to take things away in these situations, I opted to try giving more instead.
With the horses, the problem was the cover which my husband had built for the water tank. It was one of several pieces we put together to be able to offer the horses open water  through the winter, as opposed to tanks that froze over shortly after filling. In order to protect the wooden cover from the moisture environment, my husband glued some waterproof paneling onto it. This worked perfectly...until Percy got bored one day last week and started picking at it. Whether he removed it all himself or he just lifted it enough that high winds removed the rest of it, I'm not sure. But the end result was that it was completely off. Initially, we were going to just wait until Spring when it could dry out to re-glue it, but then all the horses started to nibble at the wood...and Percy started to climb onto it. Prompt measures were needed. 

The problem was that it was February turning March, when all creatures in this part of the world get cabin fever. Eating hay is necessary for survival but it gets boring when that is all there is to do all day. I offer the horses little bits of enrichment but I get nervous leaving them with anything which could be potentially dangerous; which, let's face it, is everything when it comes to horses. They love the jugs of hay stretcher pellets I put out, but we only go through so much milk and once they've smashed them, I need weeks to collect more so that everyone gets one. I cut apples and carrots up into inch-sized pieces and throw them into the paddock for them to chase down and sniff out, but that only lasts for a short period of time. I snowshoe out to the far side of the field with their hay on a sled so they have exercise and environmental variety, but all these things just aren't enough by March. 

Since what they were doing was chewing on wood, I knew they were craving that sensation. Poplar logs to the rescue. This is an annual tradition in March, and it really helps to let them gnaw away at the bark so they don't gnaw on the wood of buildings and water tank covers. Once we had substituted something else (given them something), my husband replaced the waterproof sheeting with some special nails that we hope will hold it down better than glue did. Risky as it was, I hoped that when Percy put his feet on the slippery surface, the foot would slide and he'd decide against climbing further. 
The cats, on the other hand were destroying the interior of the barn by sharpening their claws on the corners. I had ignored it for the last seven years with George as he didn't spend a lot of time in the tack room and the other spot he chose was the back of the pony shed. It is amazing how much wood he's removed over the years in that spot, however.  
But now I have Jerry as well, and he just adds to the wear. In George's youth I did not have a tack room to worry about so it's a problem of the luxury of having a tack room at this point. I'd previously given George a cheap piece of cardboard to scratch on which he enjoyed but it wasn't enough for Jerry. A quick scan of the internet provided me with a couple options for scratching that I set up in the tack room. Now that they have somewhere else to scratch (I have given them something) I think I will try to cover the old spot with some hard plastic since that spot has a history. They'll need a reason to try out the new options.
My last problem (well, for the moment) was Jerry deciding that my saddle was the most comfortable place to sleep. I had protected it with pads and a safety vest but that was a temporary solution. I didn't want cat claws in my leather saddle any time I was washing saddle pads or wearing my safety vest. I needed to figure out why that was an ideal spot in his opinion and how I was going to give him what he needed and wanted in another way. 
First, height. Cats enjoy high spaces and Jerry loves the shelf in the feed room as a place to walk back and forth and tap on my head when I walk by. So I would put up a Jerry shelf. I put it as close to his present spot as possible. I realized that from my saddle, he could see out the window and soak up the sun in that spot. George chose the windowsill for this and I was grateful that the little upstart hadn't tried to displace him. That was another reason to give him a spot of his own. It meant moving a bridle rack, to have a spot to put the shelf, but for now I have just moved the bridle until I am sure it is going to work. 
I also needed a way to make it appealing. I purchased some heat reflective pads and put one up on the shelf, using duct tape to hold it in place so that it didn't slip when he was on it. He loves the reflective beds I have for the dogs so I am hoping he'll figure this works the same way. I also hung a ribbon with a card on it from the bridle rack so it dangled temptingly. He didn't seem to explore it right off so I added my final temptation in the form of some fishy cat treats. That was enough to have him climb from my arms onto the shelf to clean them up. So far, I have not seen him sleeping there but I know habits don't change easily. I may have to cover my saddle(s) with something slippery to make them less appealing (tarps?) in the short term so that he seeks out the new shelf. 

So now my question for one more problem. George has really spoiled me- or his upbringing in the previous rough barn spoiled me. He has always drunk out of buckets or the horse water tanks. Jerry not only knocks over the little stainless dog buckets I put down, but will knock over a horse bucket (no, I don't know how). So I'm looking for recommendations on water receptacles. I know that fountains are the thing but I am not going to use anything that needs to be plugged in. It also has to be small enough to fit in an already overcrowded tack room. That a can't will be less likely to tip over (he loves to dangle his arms in the horse water buckets...I imagine that has something to do with how he dumps them). 

Suggestions happily suggested in the comments, on my Facebook page, or on Instagram or private message on social media or email





Friday, January 22, 2021

Pony of the Month- A Training Plan for Too Many Horses


There, I've admitted it if it wasn't already obvious.  Too many horses. Actually only two are horses and the other four are ponies. One of the challenges with this many is finding time and focus to work with each of them. I really can't give them each time every day and meet all my other obligations so I have used various plans to find ways to give them each at least some attention.

My plan this winter has been to focus on one pony per month. I still try to do something little with the others in turn, but the pony of the month gets daily sessions. The horses get daily sessions as well or at least, as weather permits. I tell myself to pick a temperature that I won't work below but it depends on what else is happening on the weather stage. Sunny and still at 10 degrees F is ok for going for a walk, whereas damp and windy at 25 is really hard. As a result, the projects I picked for the ponies this year so far have been able to be done indoors for the most part. 

2020 was quite a ride!

For December, I started with Kizzy. I had decided on this plan for my holiday card to clients. I like to do a card which includes both canine and equine subjects when I can since I work with both. I also like to use my card as a teaching opportunity- to explain the amount of training I put into the setups I choose. 

In this case, I didn't just put Eloise on Kizzy's back and expect them both to remain still for a photo. I thought about the component parts and how to work up to this step in a way that kept both of them happy. Before working with two animals together, it's important to think about what you expect from each, and train that with each one alone. Since there is a deadline for a holiday card (I send mine out for New Year's), I couldn't have this project go on endlessly. Choosing a setup that took advantage of behaviors they each knew was one way to give myself a better chance at being successful. Basically, they both had to remain still, and preferably look at me, rather than dozing off. 

Kizzy has a lot of experience with standing on a mat, but tends to tap dance a bit at times, and also didn't have a lot of practice with me going a distance from her and then turning to look at her while holding still (i.e. taking pictures!). So we started with that and it was a lot of work to get that! As Kizzy is a lesson pony, most recently teaching people of all ages about clicker training, she mostly works on the very basic behaviors so she had a lot of history of getting on the mat and getting treats, as opposed to standing there for an extended period of time. We spent many sessions on that piece alone. 

For Eloise, my mental image was of her standing, not sitting. That was going to be a challenge in itself since she has a rapid and automatic sit.  So the majority of her sessions were finding ways to teach her to stand and remain standing. I also had to introduce questionable balance while she stood and used my saddle rack to practice that. 

Finally, I needed the two together. They are not strangers but I usually try to keep dogs and horses a safe distance from each other and this would be quite different. I began by just having them together in the same space, feeding treats to each. I started with Eloise up on a  shavings bag, to give her a little height for confidence, as well as to set them both up for increasing height as we progressed. Over several sessions I moved them closer together, until Eloise was on a height of three shavings bags right next to Kizzy. It was when she was this close and that high that Kizzy started to demonstrate dislike of the situation, putting her ears back at her. 

I have put many, many children on Kizzy's back over the years and she has been a saint. I think for that reason, I wondered if that would be better than next to her. I was using a thick bareback pad to give Eloise some grip while also protecting Kizzy' from dog nails. We'd been practicing with that and so since it was already on when I saw the unpleasant faces, I took a chance and popped Eloise over onto Kizzy's back. I held on, stayed close, and watched. Kizzy was perfectly fine. No more grumpy faces. 

At this point though, I really found myself challenged with juggling treats. Dogs are more than happy to eat hay stretcher pellets but it takes them a while and involves a lot of crunching and dropping bits: not ideal for rapid reinforcement. And horses and ponies get very insulted if you try to feed them dog treats...or even if you happen to have crumbs or even the scent of meat flavored biscuits on your hands. There was no way I could use anything moist. Luckily, Eloise works well for tiny bits of hard biscuit. 

Even with horse treats in left pocket and dog treats in right, I found myself getting tangled up while also trying to feed Eloise just-so to keep her standing. Props to the rescue. I pulled out the shavings bag again, put a tub on it and put a scoop of  hay stretcher pellets in it for Kizzy to freely eat while I worked with Eloise on her back. Classical conditioning for Kizzy, operant for Eloise. Once Eloise was confidently standing while I backed away and returned, while at the same time Kizzy in her solo sessions would stand while I did the same, I was able to merge them back together. 

We did a couple sessions in the barn aisle where I took pictures just to be sure I could really do it. Then I think we had one session outdoors before the day I took the final photo I used. 

If you look at the photo, you can see that a couple of my planned components did not pan out but I liked the end result so it was ok. As we approached my deadline (needing to get the card designed, ordered and delivered in times of covid), I started looking for appropriate weather for a photo shoot. When I saw a stretch of bad weather coming in, I knew I had to give it a try late one afternoon before the weather turned. The light was fading and it was cold.  Even though Eloise's stand was coming along beautifully in the house, and pretty good on Kizzy's back, I knew she'd be cold standing in the frigid wind so I let her sit. I still don't know what Kizzy saw behind her to cause her to turn and look back, but it worked out to a nice photo and didn't require me to catch her with her ears up looking at me. 

Once the card was done, I had about a week before the end of December and I returned to working on each of them alone again, to finish up Kizzy's month by putting more reinforcement history for standing on a mat while I walked away.

Feline fotobomb of bow training with Stow

January's pony is Stowaway. Last winter I decided that teaching him to bow would be a fun thing. Ha! As usual, it was a much bigger project than I anticipated and while we got enough of a start for me to realize how long it was going to take me, I dropped it when warm weather came. I decided to resurrect it for him this winter. 

When I initially started, I turned to my good friend Katie Bartlett for a training plan as I knew she'd done it and written about it. Reading her article was the first indication that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. First of all, the bow she taught was no small thing. Be sure to check out the article, with the photo of one very impressive final behavior! Secondly, Stowaway is notoriously unaware of where his parts are. It's always been amusing to see the positions he ends up in when you ask him to move one end..because he only moves that end. The other end does not catch up unless you specifically ask it to. So whether it's a lesson child who has pulled his head around to tie him, or the hoof trimmer who has asked him to step his hind end over, that's where he stops: with his front end facing north and his hind end facing west. It's actually one reason I chose this for him so that he could learn a little more how to coordinate his pieces. 

Whew. Both his history as a camp pony before I got him (where he learned "don't move unless they absolutely force you to") and his temperament (the barn could come down around him and while his head might shoot skyward and his eyes bulge out, his feet would remain still), I've had my challenges with this. I abandoned any notions I had of Katie's end result, and thought if I could just teach him to lift and hold one foot up while lowering his head a bit, we'd call that good. 

When I started up again this year, I was thrilled to see him perk right up and offer exactly the result we ended on last year. There was no need to backtrack. He would quickly lift a foot and hold it up without me touching him, and he would target my hand at any height or location I put it. Two separate components- check! What he struggles with is the balance to do both at the same time. When he lifts a foot, his head goes up and in the opposite direction of the lifted foot. Since body awareness and coordination is my purpose, and the bow is just a fun possible end result, I've been focusing on teaching him about starting square (originally he seemed to do better if one front was significantly behind or in front of the other); and slowing down his fist target. He wants to shoot his head down rapidly which throws him off what little balance he has, resulting in him slamming his foot down as soon as he sees my fist. 

What I am trying to do here is use "additive adduction". Again, I refer you to Katie's blog, to a report she wrote on a talk by Ken Ramirez at the 2020 ASAT conference

  • Additive adduction: cue one behavior, while animal performs that behavior, cue a second behavior so that the animal continues with the first behavior and now adds the second behavior, performing both simultaneously.

It's an advanced skill for an animal, and therefore requires a solid base of training. Just as with Kizzy, Stowaway has been a lesson pony, both for kids' riding lessons and clicker training for all ages. So it would be expecting a lot for him to figure out this concept. We'll get what we get when it comes to a bow, but at least he's getting a fun training session each morning and learning about how to move and balance a little better. We've got another ten days to play with this before February starts.  

In February, I will turn to Rumer. She is a fun little pony who loves attention. I have been intrigued with the notion of equine agility for a while and played with pieces of it with both Percy and Ande. I think Rumer will have fun with it and so have signed up to be a member of the International Horse Agility Club to have access to the courses and ideas they use for competitions. With covid, they opened up their competitions to video and whether or not Rumer gets to the point where I might want to submit a video, I think she'll enjoy the training games involved. I'll be using my own training plans. While they accept the use of treats, I know I'll want to break things down into smaller slices for her but it's always good to observe how others train, providing it isn't aversive. 

International mail is such fun to receive!

I'm going to have to figure out things I can do indoors, for the days (who knows how many) when weather or footing prevents outdoor training. 

I'm not sure yet what I will do in March. Many people are planting gardens and are able to do warm weather horse activities by then but we are usually still up to our eyeballs in snow at the beginning of the month with anything from snow to mud and back again by the end. I do have one more pony, but someone else has been coming a couple times a month to work with Ande so on top of regular husbandry training I do with each of them, I don't feel he is as needy as the others. But this will at least have gotten the ponies and me through the deepest part of winter.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Grazing Tuesdays- Managing Horse Pasture



If I had married someone else, well, a lot of things would be different. But specifically I probably wouldn't be as interested or careful about pasture management for my horses. My husband has been a dedicated rotational grazer with sheep and cattle for decades and I have gone along, sometimes willingly, sometimes being dragged. But like everything else in the relationship, I'm better off as a result.

But I want to be very clear that I am not as invested nor educated in grasses and their growth and care as many other people are. What I do is a result of those decades of listening to him, and then experimenting. Because horses are different from cattle and sheep in many ways, it wouldn't make sense to do exactly what he does. I would love for other horse people to read this and look at their pastures more carefully, research further, and try to do a better job of managing the plants and the land. But what works for me is specific to my situation, where I live, and the equines who are here. So please do your own careful research and consult with professionals before making any dramatic changes. 


I recently posted some photos of my grazing stick on social media and several people commented on it, wanting to know where I got it. Many years ago (ten?), I attended a pasture walk specific to horses pastures hosted by Vermont Extension and that is where I got the stick. I use it during grazing season as it has a lot of information on it. Because of the feedback I received about it, I'm going to post more pictures of it on coming Tuesdays, along with information about how I manage my horses, ponies, and pasture. Those will be available on both my Facebook and Instagram feeds. 

To start things off, I thought it would be a good idea to give a general overview. 

I have about 4½  acres of pasture for 6 equines. For a really cool tool to calculate the acreage of your pasture, you can use this nifty site along with google maps. 

I have divided those 4½  acres into paddocks. For many years I tried to build paddocks as I went, as a good rotational grazer would do, so that the paddocks were the right size depending on the season. But that was way too labor intensive for me (I'd rather be training than building fence!) and I now have somewhere between ten and fifteen paddocks which I set up in the spring and take down in the fall, ideally before snow falls but October snow takes me by surprise. 

The general rule is that you should never graze a paddock longer than five days. This is because that's when the first grass they bit off begins to grow back and that's the sweetest. That's what the horses choose to eat, and so they just keep eating what has already been grazed, which is why you see horse pastures where some of the grass is chewed off right to the ground and other parts are high. The high grass is older and doesn't taste as good so they just leave it. 
The other important number is 30 plus or minus days until that grass regrows enough to be grazed again. 

A little math tells us 30 days to regrow, divided by 5 days per paddock, equals a minimum of six paddocks. But of course later in the year, the grass is not growing as quickly as it is right now so it takes longer than 30 days for a paddock to recover. Therefore I need more than six. It's best to really study the grasses and know the best maturity stage for grazing. And that's where horses and other livestock differ dramatically. Livestock which is grazing to produce milk or meat needs high energy grasses. High energy grasses are not good for horses...with the exception of mares nursing foals or young horses who are rapidly growing. Therefore, I aim for mature grass, and I only turn my horses out onto it for a couple hours/day.

One of the reasons I caution others to learn more before trying this is because both my vet and hoof trimmer were horrified when they saw what my horses were grazing. Because of the dangers of laminitis, we are told to keep our horses off "lush" grass. But what exactly is "lush"? That's why it's important to learn more about the growth phases so we know the best  way to keep our horses happy and safe. Two things I read/watched this spring were helpful to me. The first was an interview put out by SmartPak about when it is safe to turn out onto grass in spring. What I loved about this interview was the discussion about time of day, as well as time of year, and the science behind it all. That can be seen or heard here: When Should I Let My Horses Out to Graze?  

The other video which was helpful is by the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and discusses the plant side of things. It's called "It's Spring. Is Your Pasture Ready for Animals? 

When my horses are not on grass, they are either in their stalls (during the heat of the day in summer) or in the "sacrifice paddock" or "dry lot" (at night). They have access to hay there but often don't eat much of it because they are so full from grass. But horses do best with small amounts of fiber going through their systems regularly so I want to be sure they can nibble when they want. 

As far as the horses I have, they include a 12 h, 30+ year old pony who foundered before I got her 15 years ago and has pretty significant bone rotation seen on x-ray. But she hasn't foundered since I've had her through my rotation grazing journey. Initially I was really cautious about her and kept her separate, locking her into those tiny patches of weeds that the horses wouldn't eat. Over time, I got more bold in where I put her, as I became more confident about the grass. Finally, a few years ago, I made her a deal. I told her she had earned the right to enjoy her final final years. I could have locked her into a dirt paddock as I was advised, but I couldn't bear that thought. I wanted her to enjoy her retirement. So I told her she could go out with the others, and if she foundered, I would put her down.  I voted for quality over quantity of days. And she has been fine. My vet cringes, my hoof trimmer nervously checks for digital pulses (and I confess I do too), but she just is fine. 

On the other end of the scale is a 16.1 h, solid, 11 year old OTTB gelding. He's the one who challenged me that grass was sufficient.  He just needs more calories. Rather than putting him out on richer grass, I supplement with high fat, high fiber, low starch, low sugar grain. Because the other part of pasture time is social time. I like my horses to be together to play, groom each other, and help keep off the bugs. So I take that into account if I'm tempted to separate anyone out. 

The challenging two are the middle aged ponies. The do not need calories and are easy keepers. If I separate anyone, I separate them. They stay together, but go into less desirable areas to graze. Especially because they are voracious grazers and tend to get quite portly. And somebody needs to clean up the barnyard!


Having learned about #BlackoutTuesday, I postponed this week's Grazing Tuesday social media posts to Wednesday.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Anyone Else Experiencing Trigger Stacking?


I recently had someone ask about how to address trigger stacking with horses. First, a discussion of what it is. 
Trigger Stacking is a non-scientific term to describe what happens when an individual is exposed to multiple stressors all at once, and reacts in a way that exceeds the way they would react to just one of those stressors. Observers might only see one of those stressors, and thereby think the individual was over-reacting. 

An example might be a horse who spooks dramatically when a dog appears. The horse might be familiar with dogs, and might even be familiar with that particular dog. They might live at the same place and have had lots of exposure previously. So a person's response could be, "you've seen that dog thousands of times! Don't be so silly!" What the person might be missing is how many other stressors the horse is dealing with at the same time. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable saddle fit and the person doesn't know it because normally the horse doesn't overtly react (that's the yellow block in the photo here). In addition, the horse has gone away from the barn with the person. Again, that may have been done many times before with cooperation. But a horse alone often feels less comfortable than in a group. So there's your orange block. On that day it also happens to be windy, which interferes with a horse's hearing AND makes things in the environment move. Now you've added the red and green blocks. And that's when the dog appears. If the horse was dealing with any one of those stressors individually, they could still appear calm and responsive. He might even be able to deal with two, three, or four of them stacked. But add that final stressor of the dog appearing when the horse is already uncomfortable from the equipment fit AND is out alone AND they can't hear well AND the branches and grasses and loose bit of plastic are blowing around; and it becomes too much. If it's a block tower, it comes tumbling down. If it's a horse (or dog or human or cat or giraffe or...), there may be 


I think many of us can sympathize with this right now. We are living in a time when stressors abound. Many of us are dealing with:
  • novel uncomfortable equipment (masks, gloves)
  • lack of access to our supportive friends/family 
  • a threat as invisible as the wind (until we see the damage)
  • limited resources (real or perceived)
So when one "little" thing happens, such as the appearance of others in the environment who may not be taking precautions, we may blow up. Ahem, true story.

Now that I have hopefully given you some empathy for your animal, what can we do to help? With all good training, we need to break it down, but there are many things we can do. And lessons we can learn for ourselves. 

First, what can we do to give our horses more choice and control? As humans, we are experiencing a lot less choice and control in our lives than we are used to. We need to figure out what we do have control over. How should we spend our time? How much news and social media is too much? Who should we focus on for information? What will we eat and drink that supports us long term, rather than momentary pleasure? 

Figuring out what our new choices are and taking control over them can be a breath of fresh air these days. But what about our animals? Last summer I wrote a blog post called Lessons Learned about helping a horse on stall rest and turnout restrictions. In it, I wrote of how I searched for ways to give him choices in his limited confinement. Just having choices can make a world of difference. My husband happily stays on our farm every day, all day. But he said just knowing that we were supposed to be staying home in this virus outbreak made him want to go somewhere! People have come up with lots of ways to distantly socialize these days- virtual chats with friends and family, meeting for walks or hikes when you can keep your distance but still "be together", sitting outdoors at safe distances to visit with good friends. 

Does your horse have others to socialize with? Activities for when you are not there? Look for equine enrichment ideas such as hay bags and trees to chew in my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Make sure there is opportunity for movement and exploration in a safe setting to give your horse confidence. Regular positive reinforcement training sessions keep brains busy and hearts happy. I recently posted this example of things you can do with your horse which should all be non-stressful. Share with me on social media or in the comments if you use this!





Once you've done what you can to give your horse the best welfare physically, mentally, and emotionally, then you can work on the stressors themselves. The first step is to identify as many as you can. Is the equipment you use all comfortable? Ditch the rope halters that bite into faces and substitute a flat, even padded halter. Have someone knowledgeable with bridle and saddle fit check yours on your horse. Keep your equipment clean so that buildup doesn't make sore spots. And try to find the most comfortable mask you can for your own face when you go out these days. You can find some with pretty prints, but let's be honest.  Does your horse or dog really care about bling or color? Put comfort first. 

What about environmental conditions? We have no control over the wind and precipitation, but we can honor our animals' preferences in those conditions. Start by letting them choose (more choice!) where they would like to go. Give them plenty of time to learn that you will listen to their requests. Once they know they have a voice, you will probably find them much more willing to take risks with and for you. Only ask for a little at a time. If the environment is a stressor, start with literal baby steps and make them reinforcing ones. Give them a target to head for, reinforce when they get there. Repeat until they are comfortable and confident. Then move the target a little further. By advancing slowly but steadily, over minutes, days or more, you will give your horse the foundations to be successful at greater distances.

What about specific things in the environment? Do you know what things your horse finds concerning? Watch that body language: ears, head height, muscle tension and more. One of the things on my bingo card is to write down 10 things your horse looks at. Doing that will inform you about what is worthy of their attention. Is it something they want such as companions or grass? If so, what can you do to use that as a reinforcer? Is it something they may be frightened of? How can you present new and unusual things in a mild enough way that they are interesting but not scary? I wrote a blog post about this called Desensitization Continues in which I describe putting things into the environment every day to show my horses that new things might pop up, but they don't need to be concerning. 

If you can present your horse with some of their stressors in teaspoon amounts that don't scare them, they may begin to generalize to other stressors and new things in the environment become less frightening. Then you have minimized the triggers in the stack so when something unexpected happens, they are better able to handle it. 

Here are some examples of things I've put out for my horses in the past week. And be aware of your own stressors, try to minimize the ones you can, and take control of the choices you do have these days. Be well, my friends. 

Grain bags with more grain bags inside:
 bright colors, crinkly noise, move in wind

A rain sheet out to dry lifts its "wings" when the breeze blows






Poles which were familiar last summer but
have been put away all winter and never
higgledy piggledy on a chair like this
and then the wind blew it all over!



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