Saturday, October 31, 2009

Advanced Targeting

A project I've had on my to-do list for a while is teaching the ponies who live in the run-in shed to stay well out of my way when I go in with food. Going into the midst of a group of horses is a dangerous thing to do when they start shoving and threatening each other and when dinner is on their mind, it can be even more so. In the past, I have carried a longe whip just to quietly wave around me so they stay out of my space, but carrying an armload of hay while waving a whip is no easy feat, especially if the footing is muddy, snowy or icy.

I knew the thing to do was to teach them to stand somewhere well out of my way but with multiple horses, it seemed like a big project to teach them all. Right now, however, only Stowaway and Ande are in that paddock so I figure it's as good as it's going to get. I decided to pick a spot along the fenceline and originally was going to have a spot for each of them. As usually happens, I started with a plan and adapted it as I went along.

I began by hanging a milk jug on one of the round pen panels with a piece of bale string. I chose a spot near where Ande usually gets his hay, thinking it might help to begin by having him wait for his hay rather than following me along the fenceline. As soon as I began hanging the jug, Ande showed up and started nosing it so I was clicking and treating even while I was still trying to hang it up. Stowaway came over and so I was able to C/T them both together. One click and each got a hay stretcher pellet. I decided not to focus too much on Stowaway's exact position because Ande is the boss and I wasn't sure how close Stow would be allowed to stand. As long as he was along the fenceline I was going to be OK with it but as it turned out, Ande let him be right next to him. Still, I didn't worry about him nose targeting the jug each time because I knew Ande could change his mind.

Now technically, I should have taught them each separately and then put them together once they knew the behavior. But I was both lazy and worried that by removing one, the one left behind would be mad or upset and less easy to train. Initially it worked out really well because Stowaway kind of followed Ande's lead. He's not a terribly active pony so he seemed to think it was a good deal to just stand there and wait for the click and treat.

After Ande was solidly targeting the jug (less than a minute), I began to take a step back before I clicked. He tends to pace along the fenceline when he sees me coming whether at mealtime or any time he thinks he might convince me to stop and give him attention. (He also whinnies at me any time he sees me come out of the house!) So rather than walking along the fence at first, which I thought would encourage him to follow me, I stepped back away from the fence. I increased the steps one by one, with a click each time and quickly returned to offer the treat. In hindsight, this probably worked well to have them stay at the jug while I returned to treat, rather than coming to me for the treat when I clicked. Depending on the behavior you are training, sometimes you want the horse to come to you for the treat and sometimes you want them to stay where they are. After I was able to take several steps back, I then began building duration. I wanted to do as much as I could to make the boys understand that staying put was the best thing to offer here.

All that moved along quickly (a few minutes) and so I took one step along the fenceline, toward both the gate and the feed room where I get their hay. I made it a small step and clicked very quickly because I knew they would want to follow me. Thankfully, they stayed where they were and Ande was still batting the jug about. I repeated that step a couple times to solidify it, and then began very slowly increasing the distance before I clicked. All went well until, as I suspected, I actually reached the gate. Then Ande left the jug and walked toward the gate. I froze in place, did not look at him or pay any attention to him when he got to me and after a couple attempts at reaching through the panel to get my attention, he decidedly walked back to the jug. I watched closely out of the corner of my eye as I stood still and as soon as he touched the jug, I clicked and verbally praised him as I quickly returned to give him his treat. I was using a box clicker, rather than my usual tongue click, for this since I wanted the click to be loud and sharp enough to carry across a distance as well as over any noises from the horses moving, etc.

At this point, I lost Stowaway, however. He has not had near the clicker experiences that the homebreds have and once he left the jug to follow me to the gate that first time, he just kept wandering back and forth. Again, probably I should have removed him at this point, but instead, I stopped treating him and just treated Ande. I thought he might end up back in the right place at which point I could begin treating him again but no luck there. But I also thought it was good for him to learn that if he's not earning treats, then following me around wasn't going to work either.

I worked with Ande a bit longer that day and was able to walk all the way to the feed room, open the door and step in, out of sight (peeking out through the crack) while he waited at the jug. That was jackpot time for the day and I handed him a full handful of hay stretcher pellets, untied the jug and left. At this point, the only "cue" he will have is that jug tied to the panel. I plan to introduce a verbal or body cue once the behavior is solid and complete but for now, the jug will only be on the panel when I want them to stand there.

This morning I went back out and hung the jug again and both ponies immediately went to it so I clicked and treated both. Again today, I treated Stowaway as long as he was in position. I was able to increase my distance quite quickly today, taking large steps and only about 3 "trials" before getting all the way to the feed room and going in. I knew the next big step would be entering the pen. It would be hard for them to stay at their place when I was going in through the gate which usually meant I was there to take them out! My first trial was just to reach toward the gate, and Ande was watching me closely so when he bumped the target with his nose as I reached for the gate, I clicked and hurried back to give him his treat. It's a noisy gate, so my next trial was to bump the handle so it clanged as it usually does when I open it. Again they stood and I hurried to reinforce them. I proceeded in the following steps:
  • unlatching the gate
  • unlatching and partially opening the gate
  • unlatching and fully opening the gate
  • unlatching and opening the gate and stepping in
  • finally stepping in and closing the gate behind me
At this point, I moved inside the pen to treat them. I was not surprised when they tried to follow me as I walked to the gate from the inside of the pen. I stopped and froze and ignored them and was not surprised when Ande took this hint and turned back to the jug. I C/T'd him and was not surprised when he then stood there but Stowaway didn't get it. I continued to work with Ande and just ignored Stowaway who followed me about, hoping for a treat. I was able to walk away from Ande inside the pen, and worked up to going inside the shed while he waited at the jug. At one point, he again left the jug to return to me but when this earned no C/T, he walked back to the jug. As the finale, I went in the shed and jiggled one of the feed tubs in there. When that sound did not pull him away from the jug, I clicked and gave him the rest of the carrot coins I had in my pocket, removed the jug and left.

It will be interesting to see whether Stowaway will make the overnight progress again that he did last time. Even though he had not been reinforced for the last part of the last session, he did stay at the jug with Ande today until I entered the pen- much better than he'd done the first day. Will he stay there if I enter the pen the next time? Stay tuned :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The topic of the moment seems to come down to "are we having fun yet?". At least three things have come together to make me question this:
  1. there is an interesting thread right now on the TAGteach list where someone wrote “I was in a group situation and playing the training game. I was the person being trained and I was C/T repeatedly for the same thing, yet never seemed to have "arrived". It was horribly frustrating. And I have to admit, as the learner I felt like yelling at the trainer at one point and saying.. "what the heck do you want?" My inner being was begging for it all to stop and finally the leader did stop. Apparently I had been getting to a certain point and was suppose to do something there, yet never did. I can't quite remember the whole sequence, but truly it was soooo frustrating not understanding.” This was in response to someone else who wrote in about playing the game with her child and both parent and child got very frustrated when the child didn't "get it".
  2. Yesterday on National Public Radio I was listening to “Moth Radio Hour” where people tell true stories about themselves. One man told of being a neuroscientist working with a monkey. He was training the monkey to look somewhere specific (video game) so that he could then study the monkey’s brain movements. The monkey was rewarded with squirts of juice in his mouth. Once he figured out the game, the monkey loved it and things were great for months but the guy said there came a point where one day he just quit- completely would not play. The man’s perception (and this was a neuroscientist!) was that the monkey had figured out that it wasn’t about the game anymore but it was about the man’s research. This is a true story! Long story but the guy had been also giving the monkey extra attention and treats so he went back to “plain science” and no extra stuff....after months the monkey began working again....but like an automaton- no joy, no fun.
  3. There has been a lot of discussion on a Clicker Training list about horses exhibiting frustration behavior as well as horses who, due to previous bad experiences or possibly just temperament, seem to find Clicker Training too "stressful". Some very savvy trainers have found ways to empower these horses into feeling more in control and then they go on to enjoy and find success with Clicker Training.
I can certainly relate on some level to all of these stories. As wonderful and powerful as Clicker Training is, the best use of it is when your base is to enjoy your horse and have your horse enjoy his work. In all our efforts to break things down into baby steps (a critical component of Clicker Training), sometimes we lose the forest for the trees. I know I can get so focused on a behavior that I forget about the whole horse. That seems to be when crabbiness creeps in. As the neuroscientist with the monkey seemed to find, even positive reinforcement isn't always that's not right. Positive reinforcement IS enough- but we need to keep checking to see that what we are using for a reinforcer is, in fact, reinforcing to the learner. The monkey seemed to reach a point where the learning of the video game and the interaction with the man was more reinforcing than the juice. And I think many of our animals reach this point if we do our job well. They LIKE playing with us, they LIKE carrying themselves better and strutting their stuff, they LIKE learning new games and puzzles. So if we forget to keep an eye on whether they are liking their job, then all the food treats or whatever else we may be using, may stop working for us.

So this afternoon I went out with the intention of watching the whole picture with each of the youngsters. I worked them all in the round pen. With Ande I worked on trot and canter transitions as well as having him stay out on the circle (no cones). He wore only a halter- no line. The big "ah ha" moment with him was realizing how I put pressure on him by staying close and monitoring each step. I quite literally stepped back from him today while asking for upward transitions and found him to be happier and more responsive.

With Rumer, I wanted to work on both having her maintain her walk right next to me without a rope...but also wanted to transition her to walking away from me as she will in harness. How to make that transition? I realized I already had taught her the cue to step away from me by tapping her shoulder and so rather than hyperfocus on the details, I simply got her walking nicely and then asked her to step away. At this point, I remembered watching a friend use her driving whip to cue the horse while driving and switched from asking her to step over with a cue low on her shoulder to one up high near her when driving I can use it. All Rumer's work was also done with a halter and no rope.

With Percy I wanted to do more trot work in hand. I had a friend come take some photos recently and when I tried to show off his trot, he decided it would be more fun to canter. I had not done enough work on it to really troubleshoot so we went into the round pen with a halter and lead. I remembered to teach opposites- after a couple good transitions into a jog, when he began offering to trot off almost before I asked, I also began asking him to halt when my body did. I was very conscious of my body position and carriage- lifting myself up and slightly back when asking him to halt. He caught on in no time and I was able to work him on walk/trot and walk/halt transitions in both directions with no pressure on the line. He was working off voice and body cues. I think if I had been less focused on the whole horse, I would have forgotten how my body influences him and would have been focusing on him rather than my own cues. There is one good photo of Percy jogging in hand- I hope to have them soon to post here!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Zoe's Great Adventure

This isn't really a clicker post, just an update. My daughter Anna decided she was ready to have her Zoe with her in Wyoming. She found an acceptable barn (which was not easy since most horses out there live OUT and that sounds a little harsh for thin-skinned Ms. Zoe). The original arrangement was that Zoe would live with me while Anna got settled in out there and in return, I could breed her and keep the foal. And now I have Percy as a result of that and as I think I've mentioned, I adore this little boy so am very glad for the deal we made!

On Sunday morning, we left home (28 degrees in northern Vermont) and headed for Fair Hill, Maryland where Zoe was to meet up with some west coast competitors at the Fair Hill CCI so she could get a ride West. Fortunately my college roommate whom I hadn't seen in 15 years lives in Fair Hill and so my husband and I arranged to spend the night with her.

Anna loaded Zoe without any blankets since she is pretty fuzzy from the early cold weather we're having and the trailer is pretty draft free. On our first stop to check her, one hour in, she was already sweaty. So Anna opened some vents and we hoped she'd settle down. We stopped and checked her again another hour later and she was still sweatier. It was only in the thirties so it had to be nerves. She hadn't been on the trailer in 2 years but we're guessing she was looking for the cross country course at every stop! So we opened some windows but were trying not to have 30 degree air blowing on her sweaty self. At the next stop, Anna pulled out her fleece cooler, covered her up and we opened every available window. Anna's cousin was also traveling with us and she dug out the Rescue Remedy and and Anna squirted it into Zoe's mouth. Zoe was eating hay like crazy (she's a good eater thank goodness) but didn't want to drink on the trailer. Anna had fed her a breakfast of hay stretcher pellets soaked in warm water to soupy consistency to get lots of fluids in her.

That was pretty much the status for the rest of the trip. The day warmed up as we went south, Zoe dried off and settled in- whether it was the Rescue Remedy or just time, I'm not sure. We made fantastic time and had good roads and little traffic for the most part so we made it to Fair Hill in just over 9 hours- arriving with just enough daylight to transfer Zoe's trunks to her next trailer. She was stabled at a race barn and Anna pulled her cooler off so she could have a nice roll in the shavings. She then emptied her water bucket and was happy. Thankfully, she settles in to new surroundings very easily.

Her limousine for the remainder of the trip was a very nice 4 horse, air ride, slant load trailer pulled by a semi, shared with two other horses. It was fascinating to listen to the driver (the husband of the Fair Hill competitor) and watch him pack equipment into the various hidden compartments. The truck could go 1500 miles without refueling! It had its own water storage which he figured would get the horses half way to their destination before needing to be refilled. They were planning on stopping each night, however.

My husband and I had planned to leave the barn fairly quickly so as not to get in the way of all the travelers. I took a deep breath, kissed daughter and horse, and climbed back in the truck. Anna's cousin is going west as well so the girls are following the trailer in a car. I get regular text messages when they enter a new state, and arrive at their nightly destination. Zoe seemed to figure out that this was not about competing and has been calm and dry for the rides and is eating, drinking and pooping. So far, so good. Banamine and ace have been packed but I hope they aren't needed!

Zoe was very glad to see her own special person again- I'm sure the peppermints WILL be gone by the time they reach Cody, WY :)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Click for Quiet?

I have been having some discussions with some other clicker trainers recently about how much of one's daily interactions or training should involve a clicker. Should we click for everything? For new things? Only for things which are difficult? Is there such a thing as clicking too much? Does it minimize its effect? Does it have a negative affect on any training?

Now none of us really click for everything- once you train a behavior, you "fade" the click, and the horse has learned it, so it doesn't require clicking. If the behavior deteriorates, you might need to do a little reminder lesson. I compare it to teaching a child to say please and thank you. Sometimes 2 year olds are the most polite because they have just learned it and they get lots of reinforcement for being polite! Then we expect them to continue it for the rest of their lives but they go through plenty of stages and new situations (ie strangers) where we need to remind them that we expect them to continue their please and thank you's.

One situation we have discussed that we wondered if it had a negative affect was when we want a horse to just "chill". This has come up for me a lot because of the amount of daily interaction I have with my young horses. Every day there is something new to teach or reinforce in daily handling. Whereas with an older horse, they have their manners down pat and you may go out and school them in the arena while you ride, you may or may not introduce a new dressage movement. Therefore, if you are only clicking for training new things, there might be very little clicking going on. But with young horses, I am constantly exposing them to new things and asking them to expand their repertoire of skills. As a result, they are tryers...always trying to impress me with what they can do so that I will reward them. While this has tremendous benefits, there have been times when I wanted them to just relax and not DO anything. On crossties for instance. Once we have been through touching all the various body parts, grooming with all the various grooming tools, moving in response to light cues, etc, then really, there is no more to learn. Percy, at one year old, is still reinforced for certain things like holding his feet up, or standing while I groom an opposite leg, etc. Rumer, at 2, is a fidget and we need to regularly go back to getting her to stand still- not so much while I am working on her but when I leave her to go to the tack room, she tends to go into a little dance routine until I come back.

But Ande, at three, has been through it all. What came up as a result of this is that there was nothing to click for while I groomed so he started trying to figure out what he could do to earn a click. Head down has always been a default behavior for him (won't do that again but that's a different story) and so he tried that. I figured that was a calm behavior so for quite some time I clicked for it. He'd actually hang his head on the crossties, as low as they'd allow him to go, and I worked on duration for that while I groomed. After we reached the amount of time it took me to groom one side, I faded even that out. But he got frustrated at that point because he wasn't working on anything. He'd try to push his head lower, straining at the cross ties or move a little, etc. I finally just decided to ignore his efforts and keep grooming. I would not even take treats with me when I groomed. I wanted him to just go to sleep like a "normal" horse. (in fact, many horses don't sleep but show all kinds of unpleasant behaviors while being groomed from pawing to ear pinning to worse!). This did seem to work. It took several sessions, but now he seems to understand that he just needs to hang out while he's being groomed. We have been through all the steps, so he has been taught everything with the clicker, but unless I come across a problem, I don't want to use it any more while grooming.

One of the comments about using a clicker for these quiet behaviors is not only that the horse keeps trying different things, but also that is sort of startles them out of quiet mode when we click. Yesterday, the farrier came and I decided to play around with it with the intent of seeing if I could effectively improve calm behavior with the clicker without creating an animal who was trying to do something. I tried it with the little fidget and the big fidget- Rumer and Zoe (hmmm, the two females...).

Rumer's little head is very busy even when she has one foot up in the air. She's either actively trying not to mug (head toward me a little, no I'm not supposed to do that, head away, but can't hold still so then head down and then I can't stand still so she looks back at me, etc!) or trying to put her head down. I think it must really be difficult for the farrier when they are putting their head up and down so I try not to have them go lower than knee height. So that was my first criteria to work on. I wanted her head in that spot: in front of her and at chest to knee height. Once she figured that out, I focused on her ears. I wasn't after ears up, but ears to the side. I also stood very close so that I could quickly deliver the treat right to her mouth just as soon as I clicked so she wouldn't be tempted to come looking for it. That actually seemed to be pretty successful. The criteria was easy enough that she didn't have to TRY to do anything different and I didn't push the duration. I just wanted her standing there quietly for the farrier. Not sure what will happen if I push it longer.

Now the big fidget came out of her stall breathing fire. Ah Zoe. She was chewing on her tongue before I even got her to the crossties. That is Zoe's coping mechanism but it has always bothered me because it doesn't really seem to calm her- it's just what she does when she's wound up. So when I have worked on head down with her, I don't allow tongue chewing. If she starts at any point, I leave her stall. And if I go to her stall to feed her or take her out, if she chews on her tongue, I stop all movement. Since what she wants is me in there, she has learned that she needs to quiet her mouth in order to get me in there. So that has at least opened the door for her to learn to try a quiet mouth. Before, tongue chewing always got her through stressful situations so when she wasn't getting clicked, the chewing started. So it was difficult to break through that.

As soon as I got her to the cross tie area where the farrier was, I asked for head down. That stopped the tongue/jaw fussiness, I clicked and treated and immediately started clicking rapidly before she could start up again. I was basically just shoveling treats at her so fast that she didn't have time to fuss. That got us started so I could start to build duration by the tiniest of increments. I'd wait for her to chew twice, C/T. Then wait until she chewed three times, C/T. Each time she only got 2 hay stretcher pellets so pretty soon she had chewed them up before I clicked. So there was a tiny moment of quiet mouth. I clicked there for quite a while until I thought she was pretty clear that the quiet mouth was what I was after. Then I lengthened that time out. Not for very long because I wanted to keep the rate of reinforcement very high in this otherwise stressful situation. But after a bit I also began playing with where her head was. I dont' know why I did it, but I started free shaping her head in different positions. If it was chest height she got clicked (quiet mouth too) but then she rocked back a bit and I clicked that too. Soon we were playing with microshaping and she was experimenting with all kinds of positions. The side effect was that she was relaxed and so no tongue chewing, but also I was reinforcing her for standing balanced. By microshaping her stand, I could help her be more comfortable so it was easier for her to stand quietly. And then I focused on her ears, just as I had with Rumer. Out to the side in a quiet way.

Now we got plenty of chances to start over because one thing I do with the farrier is not click when he puts a foot down. I want them to look forward to him picking a foot up because that is when the game is on. So Zoe would get fussy and start chewing on her tongue when he stopped and we'd start all over again when he picked one up and she caught on pretty quickly and it took less each time to get her into it. This even got her through front shoes. She's been barefoot for almost two years while pregnant and after but she is about to embark on a long journey to a very dry place and with her feet, shoes were called for. I would say that she was quieter when we finished than when we started and that is always a good sign!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I've said before that I should have named Percy "Earnest". He tries SO hard at everything he does. I just adore this little booger. Today I thought he should start to learn about doing some trot work in hand. I never took him to any of the warmblood testings as a foal or older because it was just too inconvenient (he was born late in the year) and too expensive. Now I'm really glad I didn't because behavior wise, I'm not sure how it would have affected him. Those must be pretty traumatic experiences- to be taken away from home and then chased around at such a young age. Plenty of horses survive but when I see how he took to it today, at 15 months old, I was glad that we were able to be casual about it.

I had actually played with it a little out in the paddock when he was loose recently which is what made me think about doing it. He and Rumer always come hustling over whenever I show up and when I walk through their paddock they are right beside me wondering if they can entice me to play. One day I saw Percy was in perfect leading position beside me so I C/T'd a couple times to engage him and then jogged a couple steps. He picked up a trot instantly. I C/T'd but we were at the barn by then and I did no more.

Today I put his halter and lead on and started by leading him around his paddock. I am working on getting him to walk straight since he loves to do his little lateral steps for me (like the previous post, for everything you teach, you must also teach the opposite! I didn't want a horse who only walks sideways!). Once he was walking nice and straight, I gave a little tug on the lead and started to jog. No response. I clucked and pulled some more. No response. I decided I better not release the pressure on the rope or I'd be rewarding him for ignoring me so I kept jogging and pulling. He was doing his best warmblood donkey imitation. Except that I could see his eyes were trying to figure out what the heck I was doing.

I stopped and thought for a minute. This was not what I was expecting after his willingness to jog alongside me previously. So I decided to try that approach. I went back next to his shoulder and stayed at his shoulder but started to actively jog while keeping at his shoulder. His walk quickened. C/T. Tried again and got another very forward walk. C/T. The third time I held out a little longer and he jumped into a little trot step which I immediately clicked. Another one of those "oh, why didn't you say so?" looks from him. Again I started to jog and he immediately picked up a trot with me. He looks so satisfied with himself and relieved when he figures something like that out. So we went around the paddock a couple times, trotting for increasing lengths of time and with NO pressure on the leadrope. I added in the "trrrrot" verbal cue and also switched sides so he would trot with me on either side. Then I started to lengthen my stride a little bit and he matched me automatically. Whatever pace I picked, he kept his shoulder right next to me, lengthening his stride accordingly. No chasing, no clucking, no whips, no pulling. Don't ask me how he figured it out but the resulting work was wonderful!