Saturday, August 29, 2009

TAGteach seminar (2)

I recently wrote to a friend about my thoughts after the TAGteach seminar and she encouraged me to post it to this blog. So even though it is not exactly keeping with the animal training aspect of the blog, some readers might find it interesting. And if you do, I highly encourage you to attend a seminar!

What I’m finding now that I’m back teaching after the seminar is how much better I am at breaking things down. And also the distinct differences between tagging and clicking. One of the things Theresa said (which made perfect sense as she said it but it wasn’t until I got back to teaching that it really gelled) is that you know you have a tag point when you are trying to teach something and find yourself frustrated because the learner isn’t getting it. That’s when you pull out TAGteach. So that rather than incorporating it into every lesson (which can diminish the power of it), it becomes a tool for a specific purpose.

Yesterday a girl came for only her second lesson and I had gotten frustrated at her first lesson because she had a very difficult time mounting. She had popped her hip out of her socket earlier this summer and has just been given permission to start doing stuff again but she is obviously hesitant. So I worked out this little exercise in my mind where I’d use one of my green panels around the round pen to have her practice mounting. I didn't even use a saddle – just had her put her left foot on the bottom rung, step up to straighten that left leg, and swing her right leg straight up perpendicular to your body. After she did that easily and successfully, I had her move on to the 2nd rung, then the third until we reached the height of where the stirrup actually was. I made sure both her hands were together on the “pommel”, not one on the cantle to torque poor Elly’s back. The wobbliness of the panel somewhat imitated the wobbliness of a stirrup and the potential moving of the saddle/horse. Know what? I never even tagged her! We went through this exercise and just breaking it down like that helped her get it. She could follow my directions without my needing to tag. But if I hadn’t been looking for tag points, I never would have broken the exercise down like that. So that’s how some of the philosophy has really helped me so far. When we then moved on to mounting the real horse, she did a MUCH better job than the first time.

The definition of a tag point is:
what you want (as opposed to what you don’t want)
single criteria (be clear and break things down to simple tiny steps)
observable and definable
5 words or less

The first three are very similar to animals but the fourth can be tricky. We practiced this a lot and had to be able to say, “the tag point is” followed by 5 words or less (and never “your” tag point is....keep it impersonal). You can preface it with directions, but the tag point is 5 words or less. I.e. “Stay on the circle, keeping a steady pace and when you pass a cone, the tag point is sit two beats”. And then you have to ignore the circle and the steady pace and just tag the 2 beats of sitting. But you have put directions in there, reminded them and laid the ideal setting.

Another thing: generally you can’t tag for more than 10 minutes at a time because so much focus is required that learners get exhausted mentally. Obviously that depends on the situation- are you tagging repeatedly for one person repeating something over and over rapidly like maybe a golf swing? Or tagging a rider’s leg position over fences such that they only get tagged over fences when they are on course and there are breaks between courses etc.

Those are some things that come to mind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How do you scare a Quarter Pony?

So far I haven't managed to do it :) Ande is just not bothered by ANYTHING. I decided some sacking out with plastic was in order for the babies and found a bright green woven plastic 50 lb. dog food bag. It was small enough for me to manipulate with one hand but large enough to stand on. I held it out to him and he sniffed it, C/T. I put it on the ground and asked him to step forward to it. He pawed it once and it flipped up under his belly. No problem. I had clicked and so he just waited for the treat. I replaced the bag and put my own foot on it so it wouldn't move. He pawed it a couple times (lots of noise!) then stepped on it with one foot. No problem. I asked for more forward and he stomped on it with the other foot. No problem. He did get C/Td for each step but there was no hesitation or concern in his eyes. I backed him off and back on a couple times and you wouldn't even have known that he hadn't been doing this for years.

So then I picked up the bag and touched his shoulder with it. No problem. Rubbed it on his neck. So what? Again, I'm still CTing so he knows that his stillness is what I am asking of him. I rubbed the bag over his barrel, under his tummy, wrapped it around his front leg, plopped it on his butt, slid it down his hind legs, draped it over his rump and asked him to walk off. The bag slid off and his muscles tensed suddenly when it hit his hocks on the way down but I had already clicked so he stopped, took his treat and walked off again after I replaced the bag.

I moved on to to asking him to step on the bag with his hind feet. This was more challenging. He still wasn't worried, he just didn't wasn't sure he wanted to step on something he couldn't see. He would pick up a hind foot and hold it up high, not quite sure where to put it down. When asking this, I didn't try to place his foot. I wanted HIM to CHOOSE to step on the bag because there would be reinforcement for doing so. So I put a little pressure on the lead (little pressure) asking him to step forward. As soon as he gave in the slightest, I would release the lead- he had responded to my request appropriately. This didn't earn a click because yielding to pressure on the lead is not new to him- I expect it and he did it willingly. He put his foot down in front of the bag- having stepped entirely over it. That was fine- it was his choice. I wasn't going to make him step on it. I asked for a small step back. Again his foot went up high and then when it came down, he stepped on a corner of the bag. Click Treat! Once we had that step, I knew he would understand that stepping on the bag would be rewarded. So we continued to work around it. If he stepped off to one side, I simply walked him around in a little circle so we were lined up again. Once or twice I had him step on it with his front feet but as this was no longer challenging, it was not CT'd. Each time a hind foot touched the bag, he was CT'd. Slowly he became more comfortable with it and I could back him onto it or put it under his belly and have him step forward onto it.

In all this, he was just as calm as could be. Ok, I gave up. Couldn't scare him so I took the lead off and left him to graze....and you can see in the photo that he dropped his head to graze without bothering to step off the bag.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Boots and a raincoat

Well it's been such a wet year, I figured this was an appropriate title. It was Percy and Rumer who were wearing boots and a raincoat today. "Sacking out" probably has as many approaches as there are horses in the world. It is a critical part of young horses lives to get them accustomed to many different sounds and touches on their bodies. I like to approach sacking out with Alex Kurland's "Can I Touch You?". As with many of her exercises, this one is defined by the fact that it is a question. It is not a demand (the "You Will Stand Here and Take This!" game...doesn't sound like a game). It is the horse's choice whether or not to allow some item to touch them and by allowing it, they show they are comfortable with it. If they don't allow it, then the handler needs to find something they will allow to start with and build up confidence from there.

As Percy has had two occasions when he was "attacked" by his lead rope (he walked off and it followed him, then he trotted and it still followed him, then he cantered and it proceeded to start lashing around him like a very dangerous snake), I knew I needed to work with that. I spent one day just swinging it around him gently and clicking him for standing still. I progressed to letting it wrap around his legs and flop over his back. The next time I reviewed all that and also dragged it around on the floor under his feet until I could have him target my hand on a walk around the paddock with the leadrope dragging underfoot.

I wanted to go beyond this and looked around the barn which is when I came up with the boots and the raincoat. The boots had noisy velcro....another good experience on top of the velcro on the fly masks. The raincoat was a black windbreaker which made lovely shhhhhhh noises when rubbed on itself or the horse. It was lightweight and tickly too. I started out with Percy. Even though the name is "Can I Touch You?", I've worked with horses long enough to have had a lot of practice grooming, clipping, bathing a moving target horse. That isn't my goal though, so after I do the intial touch/click/treat, I move on to "Will You Stand Still While I Touch You with This?". Initially it is OK if the head goes up or the eyes look worried. I just keep the touch somewhere non-threatening like the neck or shoulder. I continue to touch/click/treat until I get a relaxed posture and expression.

At that point, I go on to moving the object around on the horse. Touching, rubbing, making noise and wrapping around various body parts are all steps that I take one at a time, making sure to do both sides of the horse's body. I made sure that I could hold the boot wrapped around Percy's leg and tear at the velcro while he stood still before I tried doing up one of the straps. I was kind of glad that he had moved his foot a couple times while I tried to put it on so that he had felt the way it stayed on his leg as he picked it up. The scariest part of the whole afternoon was when I did up one strap and he started to step back. I wasn't worried about his reaction to the boot, but George (the cat) had sprawled out on the mat right behind Percy and I was afraid he was going to step on him. I could just imagine the yowl and leaping black cat that would result and Percy would never let me near him with a boot again. Thankfully, George scrambled to safety just in time and Percy quietly stood. Phew.

After doing one boot, I did the same with the other and then put them both on and took him for a little walk. Interestingly, it was when he caught sight of them that bothered him! He'd put his head down for grass and see them and cock his head and walk away from them (well, he couldn't see them any more anyway!).

Next was the raincoat. I held it for him to sniff and after 2 C/Ts, I had to prevent him from trying to eat it. I rubbed it all over him, around his front and then hind legs, etc. By this time I had taken his lead rope off so it didn't get tangled up while I worked around him so he was standing in the aisle voluntarily as he got C/Td for the various parts of the body I worked on. He wasn't real keen on having me let go of it. Another fascinating observation. It was fine if I was holding it, but if I left it on his back and stepped away, he got a worried look in his eye. It was also very different to him if I held it out in front of me or off to the side. All in all, it was a good start I thought so I let him out to eat hay and got Rumer out.

I was able to proceed more quickly with her. Because of the way she likes to paw, I wasn't sure what her reaction would be to having boots on her legs. It didn't seem to make a difference. She pawed when she got impatient (when she does this, I turn my back on her and wait until she stops, then count silently to 3 and turn back to her). I was able to put the coat on her back while she also had the boots on and walk away for a count of 10. Every time she moved a foot, I would stop counting, wait until she stopped and then start over at 1. I did get a picture of her wearing them all but the aisle pictures always make them look like donkeys so I just put a photo of her booted legs up! And yes, I know the boots are all twisted around- they were way too big for her and moved quite a lot! They fit Percy though....mediums and he's only 1 year old??

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Catching up

End of summer has been busy as always. Last weekend was the TAGteach seminar and I really enjoyed the brainstorming of out-of-the-box ways of approaching a teaching challenge. It was nice to get clarification on the difference between clicker training and TAGteaching- that with human students you have language to assist you...and get in your way. So while we can explain what it is that we are looking for as a tag point, we can also explain ad nauseum until the learner is completely confused. Or maybe we keep it simple and we think we are clear as a bell, but it is still not understood by the learner. Take home point here- Be More Forgiving. It is the teacher's job to explain and clarify until the learner gets it. And now we're back to similarities between human and animal-other-than-human learners. I read a quote by Parelli the other day and while I'm not a Parelli person, I liked this one. It went something like, "If your horse doesn't answer the question correctly, you either asked the wrong question or asked the question wrong".

This brings up an interesting dynamic because as a homeschooling mot
her, I always put the responsibility for learning on the child. But that was because people questioned my ability to teach all the different subjects necessary. And I didn't claim to know everything. I considered myself a research assistant and would do what I could to help my kids find the resources necessary so they could pursue their interests. I think the critical part is inspiring the learner to want to learn. I believe all creatures are born wanting to learn but unfortunately we squash a lot if that out of them in the process of raising them.

Yesterday I worked with a fairly new client and her horse. This woman has done some Parelli and it is interesting to see the similarities in some of the exercises. I thought we would be able to jump right in to some of them and just refine them a bit with clicker training. But since Parelli doesn't use food (and I believe is against it in fact?), there was a rather large hole in this horse's training when it came to food manners. And this quickly pointed out that there was a rather large hole in his training when it came to manners in general. He was very pushy with his head. And as a Quarter Horse, he had a big head and a big strong neck to push it with. Tales of general pushiness came out regarding bridling, handling, etc. When I tried to just "be a tree" to ignore his investigating nose, he gave me a shove that about sent me flying across the aisle. Since his owner is a senior citizen, this was definitely something that needed to be addressed!

So I had her put him in his stall with a bar across the door and stay out of reach. I had her work on a very clean food delivery and just focused on the Grownups are Talking exercise. As rude as he was, it was going to take a long extinction period to get rid of that behavior. I made a bit of a tactical mistake by exclaiming: "I don't understand how other trainers can say clicker training produces horses who are rude around food when my horses would NEVER behave like this!" Not the most positive thing to say about a client's horse. Luckily, she asked for another lesson anyway.

When I returned this week, she said that she hadn't worked with him much since it had been so hot she could barely stand to be outdoors. So we started where we had left off and that horse had definitely been thinking about things. He allowed her to get up to a count of 10 without turning his head toward her at all. So I suggested she step into his reach and begin again with one. AND I had her use some negative punishment as well- if he touched her at all, she was to step away immediately with her back to him and count silently to 3. This took some time as well but by being consistent, she was able to show him that NOT reaching for the treats was what got them. Then I had her switch sides and start again. Because of the setup of the barn, this meant she was right next to him and also partially facing him. S
o there was another period of temptation for him while she stepped away from him and turned her back if he touched her, but was reinforced for standing quietly with his head away. And then we did the same thing by having her step into the stall with him. It was very ingrained in him to use his head to get what he wanted and he needed lots of minute steps forward so he could generalize this lesson to all situations.

Once they were in the stall though, it was apparent that he was learning because when she turned away from him, he didn't pursue her. The previous week he definitely would have. Instead, he went back to standing quietly and waiting for the count. She was counting out loud and she could see that he listened for the count to know that he should just hang on and wait. So the next step was to go on to another exercise- I chose head lowering- and see if the manners had generalized that far yet. He was certainly better but she still needed to step away from him several times. She was using the cue of hands clasped at her waist to have him stand quietly. Now when she removed her hands to cue the head down, he would try to reach for the treat pouch. She was getting very good at her timing, positioning and reactions. By being consistent, he began catching on that mugging is never acceptable or rewarded. I hope she continues to carry this over to all her interactions with him in the coming week!
But this horse was definitely smart and engaged....I think that was part of why it was so hard for him not to mug. Both his owner and I had a hard time not laughing out loud while watching him try so hard not to reach for the treat pocket!

And here's a photo of some very interested and engaged learners begging for attention with their funny new fly masks on!

Monday, August 10, 2009

TAGteach seminar

I am headed to a TAGteach seminar this coming weekend- should be inspiring. There is so much more to clicker training than simply clicking for tricks that I know there will be similar benefits to TAGteach when I get more deeply involved in it.

One of my biggest challenges with TAGteaching is focusing on one thing only. I know that is the best approach and one of the greatest advantages to using TAGteaching but my own brain keeps telling me that I can't ignore certain things because they are safety issues. This past week I had 2 girls, both D1 Pony Club kids, at the farm for 3 days. They arrived at 8: AM and stayed until 2: PM- their first experience with a Pony Club "camp". As neither of these girls have their own pony, we thought it best to give them this experience before throwing them into the full camp experience with the older kids. So they came early, cleaned out the run-in shed and scrubbed water buckets, spent a few minutes each morning just observing pony behavior and had two lessons per day in addition to a noontime "lecture". They also cleaned tack daily!

As Kizzy is not terribly cooperative when it comes to obstacles (preferring to go around rails on the ground or at least walking over them rather than trotting), I put one of the girls on Elly for the first time. Elly is just enough bigger and more horse-like that it did challenge the girl's position. Legs slipped forward, hands came up and eyes focused on the ground (further away than before!)

I felt like all these things were critical pieces that needed correction and so I started the week by forcing myself focus on one at a time. Keeping it at a walk, I announced, "TAG point is lower leg back". The kids use the dressage letters as reminder points and I use them as opportunities to TAG. Each time she passed a letter, she was to remind herself to have her lower leg back and if it was correct, I tagged her. When she was keeping her leg back, we moved to "TAG point is pinkies within reach of the withers". She was to check to see if she extended her little fingers down, could she reach Elly's withers with them. If not, her hands were too high. I tagged her at the letters if her hands were low enough. Last and most difficult for her- eyes up. When I initially teach kids, I have them look at the mountains and trees and clouds and distant barns to encourage them to look up. But then I need to transition them to look where they are going (in the round pen, that's a bit dull which is why I choose more fun sights). So the third tag point for the week became "TAG point is look at the next letter". This was an effort to have her focus on where she was headed next in the arena. This was the only one which wasn't solid by the end of the third day. She did look up frequently, but she wasn't keeping her focus up- so that's the next lesson! I just need to figure out how to break it down. Maybe "TAG point is keep your eyes up between letters" and I will tag only if her focus remains up between each set of letters?

Maybe I'll get some inspiration at the seminar!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Testing the quiet pony

I was very proud of Ande again tonight. I longed him on this cool evening in the round pen with stirrups banging against his sides for the first time. On one side of the round pen, Rumer and Percy began their nightly romper room, chasing each other around the paddock at top speeds and at one point even careening right into one of the round pen panels.
On the other side of the round pen Farmer Ed was setting up sheep net and disappearing and reappearing over the bank. The only time Ande even stopped to look was when Ed was at the bottom of the bank and threw the net up over his head so it popped up over the bank by itself.

Then there was Catman George, streaking through the round pen at random intervals, occasionally stopping to roll in the grass and waiting until Ande was about to step on him before leaping up and scrambling to safety. Through it all, Ande did prompt and polite transitions, stepped away from me when I pointed the whip at his shoulder, and generally behaved as if he was in a peaceful place.

All photos taken after the troublemakers had tired themselves out and Ande could graze in peace as a just reward.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

First mounted exercise: Turn on the forehand?

I managed to fit in a session with Ande today before the rain started up again. I've been working him in hand or longeing him almost daily but don't like to get on him unless somebody else is on the farm. After climbing on, I took the slack out of one rein to get him moving by displacing his hips as I had read about and seen demonstrated. He promptly stepped over behind so I clicked and treated. Tried again, same thing. We still weren't going forward so I held the rein for a second more. But this was a clicker trained pony and so he had been rewarded for hip gives before so I got a nice little turn on the forehand. hm. Tried the other direction. Turn on the forehand in the other direction. Hm. Well, we've got the turn on the forehand down!

I resorted to 40+ years of experience and clucked! Ah- a step forward. C/T. Then I tried both together: I'm not exactly sure what it was but we went sideways and forward and turned both directions and it's been a long time since I've ridden bareback and he was wiggly and little and so I just slid off to think a minute. He knows to stand still so I decided to go back to that. I got back on and clicked immediately and then right off quick again to get him standing quietly. Very important with these enthusiastic learners to reinforce "chill!" to stop their minds and bodies from throwing behaviors out in an effort to be right! So we stood. Then I lifted my reins toward his ears and clucked, careful not to put any pressure on either rein. We got a step forward and I C/Td quick! Tried again and C/T'd after two steps. Now we were on a roll. We proceeded one step at a time up to 8 steps at which point I realized I was out of treats and we were right in front of his mat so I let him stop on the mat, slid off and gave him the rest of the crumbly bits I had left and then pulled the bridle off so he could graze.