Saturday, November 13, 2010

More Medical Procedures

Peggy Hogan, in California, hosts a great group and site on Facebook called Clicker Training Horses. If you're on Facebook, I highly recommend you check it out. The subject of training for medical procedures came up recently, right as I was dealing with the same issue myself.

Percy, my TB x WB, age 2, came in with a fat hock. Fat hocks make me nervous. This was unusual in that it was high and inside. There was very little heat, and no pain or lameness. I didn't really think it was joint related but hocks aren't something I like to ignore. I was torn because I know how to throw the book at a hock on sport horses (icing, medicating, wrapping, sweating, x-rays, injections etc) and I know how to look the other way when a lesson pony has a puffy spot (they just get better). But Percy didn't fit either of those categories. I didn't need to worry about losing training days but I also didn't want to ignore anything which could cause problems for his career as a sport horse down the road.

Oh, and one other problem. We've been working on having him pick his feet up nicely with just a touch on the hind leg. Oops. Now I needed him to leave his foot DOWN so I could palpate. I decided to give the leg 24 hours to get better by itself. It didn't. I called the vet. He offered to come out immediately as it was the only time in the next 2 days he could get here. I decided it was a good idea. Time to panic train. I had 20 minutes to convince Percy that leaving the leg down was as reinforcing as picking it up. Thankfully, that was a breeze- a much smaller problem in reality than it was in my mind. I just clicked for leaving his foot on the ground when I touched his stifle (not anywhere near where I touch him for picking up his foot) and then worked my way down. I was also careful to maintain a very different body position- squatting and facing him, not bending over toward the rear. He got it in minutes. By the time the vet arrived, I could poke, rub, massage all over that rear leg from either side.

Feeling confident, I led the vet to him. Percy was in the round pen because it was bright natural light and we have had so much rain this fall, it was the driest place outside. The only problem with the round pen is that Percy feels Important when he's in there and likes to puff up a bit and show off. Funny boy. As the vet approached him and reached out to stroke his neck, Percy flattened his ears back. Wow. I realized that was the first time in his life I had seen him do that. He is SUCH a sweet and inquisitive soul, but I had never realized that he never put his ears back until I saw him do it and it was a shock. (Ande used to pin his ears at only days old when his mother tried to move when he was nursing!) I have to admit that I was struck incapable at this. I just did not know how to react.

I really like our vet- he's capable, common-sense, quiet and unafraid. But he's not a clicker trainer. I have never felt comfortable asking either my vet or farrier to adapt to my training techniques. I know I could make their work with my horses go better if I did and I should get over it but for some reason, I just feel that they are professionals and I shouldn't be telling them how to do their job. Perhaps if I felt that either one was too harsh, I would feel differently. But they both have wonderful, if traditional, approaches that do not intimidate the horses. And while I can get the horses to do things for me with CT, sometimes they need to learn that others need to work with them as well. I can do the prep work, but I can't BE somebody else.

So here was Percy, head up in the air, ears back and my vet simply continuing on slowly. OK, so he wasn't being reinforced for his behavior- the vet did not back off. But I also know how talented Percy is at standing up (he demonstrated that at his first hoof trimming as a baby and practices regularly in the field while playing with others) and I feared that was next. I needed to redirect this before we went there because that WOULD stop forward progress and be reinforcing. I tried putting a fist out to target, but his eye was on the vet. So I said "HEY!" to get his attention and instantly put my hand on his poll (I could barely reach it). Thankfully, we have practiced that a zillion times and he reacted instantly by dropping his head a couple inches. Click and treat and hand on the poll again. Rapidly. Normally a hand on his poll instantly puts his nose in the dirt, but even in this tense situation, I got an immediate reaction of some kind which I could reward and we were on the road. I continued to CT as the vet worked his way back toward his hind end and down the leg. He lifted his leg once, I put a tiny bit of pressure on the lead and was quiet. When his head came down a fraction, his leg did as well- CT and we were making progress again. He put his leg all the way down and left it on the ground. Phew.

The vet agreed it was probably not the joint (another big Phew!) but a sprain/strain in the lower gaskin area. We discussed hosing but Percy hates being hosed. We have worked on it I know his mother hates it as well, as do most TBs unless the air and water temperatures are just right. They just have very sensitive skin. In northern VT with no hot water in the barn, I had 2 days this summer when it was hot enough that he enjoyed being hosed with icy water. Now it's fall, cold and muddy. Luckily the vet understood that and thought bute and massaging would be good as long as we saw progress. He suggested an IV injection of banamine and dexamethazone to get the healing started. I let Percy loose for a moment in case he wanted to let off steam while the vet went to his truck for the meds. No, he wanted to follow us.

When we went back in, Percy's ears went back again. It made me so sad! It reminded me of a certain little girl who needed some nasty medicine when she was about 2 years old. Normally a very cooperative child, she did not want that medicine! She fought like a wildcat kitten and it took three adults to hold her down to squeeze it in her mouth. At the same time, she was using her best adult verbal skills to bargain with us to no avail. With Percy, there were only two adults and he weighed a lot more than that little peanut of a girl. My Clicker Training skills were all I had to explain the process. Thank goodness they worked! Head down= CT. Any level was accepted as long as it kept getting lower. My vet slipped the needle in in a split second and I just kept clicking away as long as the head came down when asked. The ears waffled between back and sideways but he stood like a rock for 2 syringes worth. My biggest concern at that point was Ande who was reaching through the round pen to chew on him! The vet kept saying, "he's really doing quite well, don't you think?" Amen!

Next project: twice daily bute paste. I hadn't done anything with a paste syringe since worming him a couple weeks ago. The first time with the bute, I tried putting a halter on him and CT'd him to stand while I approached his lips with the syringe. I got it in but it really didn't feel right. So the next time I went in his stall without a halter and just stood with the syringe. Being friendly and curious, he couldn't stand it and took a step toward me. CT. That continued to be my approach. I kept my standard to 10 clicks before increasing the criteria. He usually increased it on his own before I had to. I think the important part of letting him approach rather than me approach him, along with the 10 clicks at the same criteria level, was that it gave him a LOT of opportunities to sniff the bute paste. He got a little in his nose just from the end of the tube, he got to walk away and come back. He got to sniff and sniff and sniff without being at all threatened by it. He volunteered to take it in his mouth and then I walked a step forward between each click until he was pursuing me around the stall trying to grab the syringe. Mentally, that was a big step for him.

Then I stepped back by his shoulder so he had to turn to touch it and that's how I managed to get him to target it with the corner of his lips rather than his muzzle. I made sure to get a full 10 trials with it in his mouth before squirting the bute in on the 11th. Then I clicked and offered the hay stretcher pellets. He took them and dropped them. I continued to CT for any interest in the syringe. This is the hard part because he got "punished" by the nasty medicine and I wanted to override that with many more positive experiences but they can't taste anything good afterward. He has a lifetime of reinforcement for the click though and it seemed to work for me here because he kept touching it for the clicks, even though he dropped the treats each time. After a few times like that, he stopped taking the treats so each time I dropped the treats into his feed tub. Even though he wasn't eating them, I think the noise of them falling into his tub was reinforcing and they would be there for him. I also unwrapped a couple peppermints. I think the noise of those unwrapping is highly reinforcing and hoped that their strong smell would overpower the bad taste. I kept this up until he was taking the syringe in his mouth again and then just dropped a handful of hay stretcher pellets in his tub along with a couple more peppermints and left him. He had been trying to eat a couple and so I was pretty sure that left alone, he would commence to eating, which he did. AND he'd taken the syringe in his mouth many times without the punishing taste being repeated. So now I'm going to go back out and do it again.

There is a whole list of veterinary procedures on this discussion on Peggy's Facebook site that were put together by a vet who recently attended one of her clinics:
1. Intranasal vaccines
2. Clippers
3. Injections: intramuscular, intravenous
4. Eye meds
5. Handling ears
6. Handling the lips & tongue, giving oral meds
7. Handling the sheath or udder
8. Taking the temperature
9. Handling the feet
10. Just standing still

I think these are great winter projects!!!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Similarities and Differences

Yesterday I had the opportunity to audit a day at a clinic with a nationally known trainer. I've decided not to name this person (I think) because my intention is not to criticize nor recommend, but simply discuss what I saw. I was there from 9: to 3: and heard afterward that they were just finishing up at 7:30 PM! I left at 3: both because I had to get home to my own chores but also because I reached a point of discomfort in watching this trainer work with one of the participants' horses. Until then, I had actually been reasonably impressed with what I saw and heard.

First off, I was bemused that this poor person had to take the time, on what was the third day of the clinic, to instruct on bridling and mounting! It did make me feel better about the number of times I have needed to do the same thing with students. With beginners, one expects to do this. But it's frustrating with people who have been riding for a while. Unfortunately not many instructors teach their beginners how manage these basics properly, and they proceed through life bumbling along just "getting it done" with no thought to what they are doing or how. They move on to instructors who assume they know these basics so they don't even look at the student until he or she is in the saddle. And so we have hordes of people who call themselves riders when they have to fight the bridle onto their horse and then play ring around the rosy on the mounting block until they finally launch themselves into the saddle, to quote this trainer "like a sack of turds". So, it was nice to see her pay attention to these things and address them, even though you could sense the sigh of frustration when she realized these were issues.

Secondly, there is this topic of trying to figure out what one's horse is feeling.
This trainer specializes in this topic. Some people just don't care- the horse is no more than a machine which doesn't have feelings or if it does, it just needs to "get over it" so the rider can do what she wants. It was really nice to see this trainer's responses and hear the explanations as she interacted with the horses. For a while anyway. But I'll get to that. For most of the day, she kept me happy by truly giving the horses choices and accepting it when they chose not to do something. She seemed to get what she wanted from them by just asking again and backing off when they complied. My take is that the horses appreciated her efforts and were not worried about the outcome so they were willing to work for her.

OK, now that last sentence was completely non-scientific in behavioral terms. Words like appreciate, worried and willing are pretty loose and many of the smoke and mirrors trainers on the clinic and demo circuit abuse them. But I'm getting off topic here. Smoke and mirrors will have to be another day.

I also appreciated this woman's understanding of biomechanics. I was a little horrified at the lack of decent muscle development in the horses that were there. But she talked about lateral bend and longitudinal bend, had the horse she was riding stepping under with his hind end and rode easily off the inside rein. Her position was faultless and her seat dead quiet. She stressed the importance of ground work as basics.

What got me back in the car on the way home at 3: was when she started working on the shoulders. She began with the horse she'd been riding and when he didn't get the exercise right off, she got into his face too much for me. Previously she had been rewarding try, but here she seemed to want it all- bingo. When she didn't get it, she got louder. In the morning, she had used the example of how useless it was to scream at deaf people, and yet, that's what it seemed to me she was doing. And at that point, I thought she also stopped giving choices and reading the horse's responses. I saw fear and confusion in the horse (that's smoke and mirrors talk for a high-headed, wide eyed horse whose respiration had gone up rapidly).

She had been trying to demonstrate something to one of the clinic participants so he could do it with his horse. The interesting thing to me was that when she got in the horse's face (literally waving her hand and rope at the horse's head), she not only lost clarity for the horse, she lost clarity for the person observing! He could not see what she was doing and how to mimic it. It became very fuzzy for everyone. When she first began the exercise, I thought, "oh, this is just like Alex's Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder exercise. Instead it was hip scramble scramble. The clinician was unable, in my observation, to explain it to her horse or to the participant. So then she took the participant's horse. And that is when I had to leave. Because she didn't explain it to that horse any better and she started "talking" for the horse...saying this mare thought she was pretty. The mare had the same body language as the other horse- head up, eyes wide, nostrils showing increased rate of respiration. Maybe pretty to some, but I don't think that's what the mare was thinking herself. Instead, her body language said "I want to get out of here" and she avoided the trainer as best as possible.

So to my eyes, it was bad enough to have brought this fear out while at the same time not explaining it to the horse. But then I felt I was being lied to when she was speaking for the horse. So I came home to my own horses, not at all sorry to have observed, certainly giving me plenty to think about, but also hoping those horses figured it out without too much more fear and confusion being involved.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

First Frost- time to worm

We had our first frost last week, followed by many more of them! We are always lucky to hold out so long in this area but we are in a protected valley where the cold air slides off the garden most nights...the lower fields get frosted before the garden.

I'm not a big fan of regular worming for several reasons. First of all I don't like the fact that we are producing resistant species of parasites. Research has also shown that many horses are resistant to parasites themselves and do not need regular worming- local vets suggest doing fecals to determine the parasite load of individuals and worming accordingly. While I haven't done a fecal in years, the tendency toward rotund of my ponies does not indicate a parasite load! Last, but not least, because we rotationally graze (and that means only 2 or 3 days on a paddock and then on to the next- 30 days rest for each paddock before being grazed again), exposure to infestation is less than in other management scenarios.

That being said, I do like to worm in the fall and sometimes spring. We do see bot eggs on the horses and though I try to remove them, I don't know that I get them all. I like to clean everyone out before winter comes to be sure that all the feed that I'm paying for is being utilized by the intended recipient! This year we got a double dose of bots for some reason. Normally we see them in later August- this year I saw some in late July, then again in September. So when I ordered a blanket for Mariah and they had a sale on Ivermectin with a boticide, I added them to the order.

Day before yesterday, I stocked my pockets:
Right front- weight tape
Right back- paper and pen
Left back- one tube at a time of wormer paste
Left front- trash pocket!

It was great fun to see the different reactions. I remember when crinkly wrapper meant wormer and everybody suddenly refused to be caught! Not so with clicker ponies :) Crinkly wrappers mean goodies! Stowaway is the most suspicious but also the least reactive so I chose to do him first. He, Kizzy and Rumer were all in their run-in paddock together. I had waited until I was sure all hay was long gone as I know the magic of putting wormer in a mouth with any hay just means that the hay catches the paste and it gets spat out! Sure enough, Stowaway eyed me suspicously. He hasn't gotten many, if any, wrapped peppermints- mostly hay stretcher pellets, so the crinkly paper wasn't too convincing to him. But even though his head and eyes showed suspicion, he stood still for me to tape him and then easily administer the paste.

I could have worked with each horse with treats first, but again, I did not want to fill their mouths with goodies only to have them spit it out with wormer on it. I wanted those mouths empty and was relying on established trust...not "train today because I need results today".

When Rumer heard the crinkly wrapper, she came over to volunteer as the next patient. Always front and center, she happily stuffed her head into her halter, stood like a statue as I taped her and poked the tube in the corner of her mouth. I realized how nice it was to have all the youngsters familiar with the weight tape this year! No one new to introduce it to. It's always a windy day and nothing like a fluttering weight tape flapping about while I'm reaching underneath bellies to grab the other end. She was puzzled at the lack of fun involved with this process but didn't seem the least concerned about the wormer or offended that all she got was a an appreciative word and face rub for her patience.

Kizzy was standing off- fully aware of the process but always game for crinkly paper. She ignored my rude comments about her weight, obviously sure that it was her fuzzy coat and nothing to do with the fact that ribs are a theory-only with that pony. Times like this, I always look back at the pony she was when I got her- couldn't be caught, extremely head shy and worried about people. I adore her pudgy, furry self and am so glad of how she's turned around.

On to the other paddock: Percy, Ande and Mariah. I had put them in the round pen so I could drive through their paddock with the tractor to deliver hay to the barn. It was right next to the run-in so quite handy to my pile of wormer tubes.

But oh dear, when I went in the round pen. Two little boys had been hearing crinkly paper and seeing me others and and they could not WAIT to see what I had planned. I decided to use jealousy in my favor with Percy the youngest (and most likely to say it's his way or no way) so I started with Ande. Of course I had one hanging over each shoulder trying to stuff heads in one halter- rather a challenge but I did manage to block Percy long enough to let Ande put his halter on. That, however, did not deter Percy's curiosity. While I taped Ande, Percy pulled the pen out of my back pocket. I retrieved the pen from his teeth and quickly scribbled down Ande's weight while Percy pulled the fluttery weight tape out of my front pocket and Ande tried to push him away because this was HIS game. Good grief. I let Percy pretend to fly a kite with the weight tape while I administered Ande's wormer and told him what a good boy he was to hold stock still and not even move his head. Then I retrieved a very soggy weight tape from Percy's mouth. The empty crinkly wrappers were shoved deep into my trash pocket where he couldn't get at them. While Ande tried to figure out what that stuff was in his mouth, I put Percy's halter on, much to his delight. He gave his best "I'm being good, I'm a statue, see me not mug you?" pose, while his little lip pooched with the effort of self control. The little red statue stood while I taped him, stood while I wrote down his weight and then really thought he ought to help with the crinkly wrapper. When the wrapper went into the pocket and he saw the wormer syringe, the expression changed to Worried. Having had stitches in his lip as a weanling, he's had his share of unpleasant experiences...see

I was wearing my treat pouch so I decided that I'd risk food in the mouth to reinforce a good experience. First I let him target the syringe for CT. Then I held his halter gently to prevent him from targeting it with his muzzle and just touched it to the corner of his mouth for a CT. Then he understood it was a "will you let me do this to you" game. If he moved- no CT. If he stood and let me touch him with it- CT. Then I let it poke him > CT. Then I poked it between his lips > CT. By now he was into the game and not moving a muscle as I worked the syringe further and further into his mouth each time. The worry was gone. I tried to give him plenty of time to chew each hay stretcher pellet so that he didn't have a big mouthful of food. Finally I pushed the plunger down and that was that. I wore a little of it along with some well mashed pellets but most of it stayed in his mouth. Then I continued the game- but even though he let me put the syringe back to his lips and even in his mouth, he did not want the treats. That's the bummer about wormer. It's such a strong taste that everything you give them afterward just tastes like wormer. But, the point was, he was not upset by the process and there had been no battle, no restricting and the worry had gone DOWN in the process, not up.

Last but not least, Mariah. When I took Percy's halter off (by the way, I would have done them all without a halter if they'd been in their stalls but in a group in paddocks, it was easier to organize with halters on), I turned to Mariah and laughed out loud. Her owner says she makes me whimsical and indeed she does. She was standing there, for all the world looking like a matron waiting in line for her flu shot. She was as close to the boys as she could get- firmly in line so no one who came along could get in front of her but not rudely pushing either. The expression was one of bored impatience. She knew she had to do this bloody procedure but she wished the technician would hurry up as she still had the grocery shopping to do. Ears to the side, back leg resting so that in my mind I could see her enormous pocketbook slung over her shoulder as she waited. Relieved that it was finally her turn, she stepped forward to her halter and stood like a stone as I crossed my fingers that my weight tape was long enough to go around her huge frame (barely!). She waited while I wrote it all down, didn't fuss as I wormed her (had that head gone up in the air, I would have had no recourse whatsoever), and then turned to go when I was done. What a hoot.

Anthropomorphize? Me? Never.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Voice Commands

Before I get on Percy, I want to have some pretty solid voice commands on him. I've learned a lot in recent years about putting behaviors on cue so I'm going about this very carefully.

The first thing I've seen is how many people think their horses (or dogs) know voice commands but in reality the animal is responding to body cues that the person doesn't even realize she is giving. The story of Clever Hans illustrates how well horses observe our body language (if you don't know the story, you can google it easily). Like a lot of people, I talk to my horses but now see that most of what they hear is, "blah, blah, blah, blah". They might be able to pick up something from my tone of voice. When longeing horses, I was taught to use a crisp, upward swinging tone to encourage a horse in an upward transition and a low, slow voice for downward transitions. If you think about this, then the horse really doesn't know the word. Others who do this: do you say "trot" the same way whether you are asking for it from walk or from canter? More importantly, I think if anyone videoed me longeing a horse it would be obvious that I am also using body language to affect the horse's response. Some Natural Horsemanship methods employ this but they use very obvious movements- not for the sake of the horse (again- see Clever Hans!) but for the sake of us humans who need to be obvious or we'll screw it up!

If I am going to transfer my voice commands from the ground to under saddle- which is my purpose in teaching this before getting on- I won't be able to use my visual body cues because Percy won't be able to see me. So I need to teach this carefully and test it thoroughly to be sure he is responding to my voice and not something else.

In hand, Percy walks off promptly when I walk off. So he is responding to the visual cue of my movement. Some horses wait until they feel a pull on the lead to walk off. Some horses have to guess which their person wants from day to day. In beginning to teach him voice cues, I follow the rule of
new cue -> old cue -> behavior
in this case: voice command immediately followed by walking off
Done repeatedly and consistently, Percy anticipates that when I say "walk on", I will then walk. I start to see his body begin to prepare for the walk as I say "walk on". I am very careful as I do this not to combine the new and old commands. I don't want to say "walk on" AS I begin to walk, because then the words become "blah, blah, blah" as he is really responding to my body (a horse's easier and therefore preferable way to read people). I want to be very still with my body, maintaining a forward position just as I
if would if I were expecting him to stand still next to me. But when I saw his body prepare for walk from my words, even though my body hadn't changed, I knew he was anticipating that walk would come next.

This is similar to our newest Jack Russell Terrier, Eloise. She came through a rescue and previously lived in an apartment, always on a leash when she went outside. As a result, she learned to LOVE her leash because she LOVED to go outside. So when the leash consistently and repeatedly was followed by going outside, the leash became a cue for going out! I find this very funny because I've never had a dog who liked a leash before! My older Jack Russell, Beetle, Hates his leash. To him, it means being constrained because he grew up off leash and when he sees his leash, he gets very depressed. The presentation of the leash became a very different cue for these two dogs. Also important to note is that even though Eloise is now off leash almost all the time, she still LOVES to see her leash and gets very excited. She doesn't like to be on the leash (she pulls and pulls) but seeing me pick it up still elicits real excitement from her.
Her early and consistent lessons have stayed with her.

So, back to Percy. I want him to respond with enthusiasm when I ask him to walk on. Preferably not as much as Eloise with the leash (!), but I want him to walk off willingly and happily, not sluggish and unsure. What made Eloise so enthusiastic? Positive reinforcement! Going outside was hugely rewarding for her. Luckily, Percy is a temperament that likes to move so walking off is rewarding, but I can add more power to that with the click and treat.

I have not been clicking and treating to this point because walking off with me was taught when he was just a weanling- I haven't had to reinforce that for quite some time. And when I added the verbal cue, initially he was still responding to my body, not the voice. But when I see him begin to move, even a tightening of his muscles and or a lean of his weight forward, in response to my voice- before I move my own body, then I click and treat. I am reinforcing the fact that he responded to my voice.

At this point, (which is where we are spending time right now), I am being as observant as I can. I always preface walking off with the verbal cue. If he moves before I do, I click and treat. If he doesn't respond, I simply walk off with him. I also have to watch to be sure that he doesn't walk off without any cue. Practicing this, horses sometimes just learn walk-stop-walk-stop. They aren't responding, they have just learned the drill. So I stand for different amounts of time before cueing him. If he moves with no cue, I quietly slide my hand down the rope and ask him to stop and back unrequested forward! He is learning that if he responds to the verbal cue he gets a CT and is becoming more and more responsive to it.

When I do get on him, it will be a different situation so I will be very rewarding when he responds. But taught this way, I am confident that he really does understand that "walk on" means walk (and I will teach, whoa and trot and canter the same way). Then I can transfer "walk on" to a leg aid, in the very same way. At that point the verbal cue will be the "old" cue and the leg aid will be the "new" cue. So I'll apply a little leg and immediately follow it with the verbal cue. As soon as he responds to the leg aid before the voice command, he'll get a CT and we'll be on our way.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Good, Better, Best (and bestest?)

Percy's 2 year old education continues with some review of the Good, Better, Best exercise this week. When he was just a weanling, I taught him to to yield to a little pressure on hips and shoulders and chest. I find this a very important thing to teach and regularly remind because horses instinctively push against pressure and youngsters turned out together practice that a LOT. "I'll shove you and you shove back." Instinctively this works for horses or other prey animals (from whence "herd" and "flock" comes) because it puts them in a tight group with less exposure to the predators nipping at the outside. Anybody who can push to the inside of the group is safer than those who stay on the outside! When you're a baby horse, it's just plain fun to shove back and forth with your buddies in the pasture. So regular, positively reinforced lessons in yielding to my touch counteract those instincts. Think about what happens when you use more pressure instead of positive reinforcement...what instincts come up?

So he knew how to move both his hips and his shoulders laterally and was very very good at it. However, this week I noticed we had lost a little of the coordination between the two. I'm guessing this came about because on our daily treks to pasture and back, if he crowded me a bit, I'd touch his shoulder and ask him to step away and he did so he'd get clicked. But I wasn't paying attention to what the back end was doing.

So it was time to review Good, Better, Best. Again, this is my interpretation and my experience of the exercise. If you want full explanation from the master, go to Alexandra Kurland's books and DVDs. She initially got the exercise from John Lyons and refined it further for her uses and of course, added the +R. I love it because I have found it helps so many riders and horses to really feel and understand their connections. It's a great way to really soften up one's aids and develop an incredibly light and responsive horse (remember, the sign of a good rider is one who looks like he's sitting there doing nothing!).

Although Percy has worn the bit, I have not yet asked him to work in it. Those baby teeth are still
falling out (found one in the paddock just the other day) and being replaced with new ones coming in. Anybody who has ever dealt with a teething child knows how painful that can be. I'm not going to add further insult to injury. Therefore, our G, B, B is done in a halter and not quite as refined as if done with careful feel with a bit. But it does teach him to yield, to bend (not overbend) and to connect his front end with his back end.

I begin by sliding my outside hand down the rope toward the snap. The slide is important...I refer you again to Alex's work! One note I'll make on it though is that at the clinic, Alex reiterated the importance of using two fingers to slide rather than the whole hand and Wow, did Percy tell me it's about TIME I got a little quieter! Putting a tiny bit of pressure on the rope, I ask for a fraction of a give toward me. This is very, very slight because once I ask with the bit, all I will be asking for is a give of his jaw. It will probably not be visible to the naked eye. I'm just going to be asking him that when I pick up the contact, I want him to soften his jaw to my hand and not brace against it. With the halter really I'm only asking him to show me he's paying attention by giving me the slightest response. The microsecond that he responds, I quietly drop the rope from my left hand and CT to say thank you. That's "good". I taught it by itself first.

Then on to "better". Here, I ask for a little more as I'm looking for him to soften in his poll. I always precede asking for "better" by asking for "good". It's a series of gives which I want him to learn and be able to run through mentally as soon as I pick up the rein. After "better", comes "best": asking for still a little more bend so that I can see his neck bend (not the kind of nose to stirrup bend you sometimes see which makes no sense to me). Although I initially teach these at a halt, then we progress to doing it at a walk and I have to be careful to keep the horse moving forward- I don't want to confuse him but just explain that he's to bend while maintaining forward movement.

Finally, we go to the hip. Once we've practiced the good, better, best gives, I ask for even more and look at his hip to get him to yield his hip and step up and over with his inside hind. This is where I noticed Percy had gotten disconnected. The first couple times, he simply stalled out rather than stepping over. Oops. I needed more forward and more obvious "bestest" ask to get that inside hind activated. Today he did very nicely at it. We're going to stay here for a bit until I see that he's thinking about his inside hind when I initially ask for "good"....that's the point after all. I want him to respond to my picking up the reins by stepping up and under with his hind end. For now, we'll keep it an obvious step over, but once he's got that down, I'll ask for less and less so that I'm only getting a step under when I ask that lightly.

Then it's on to 3F3 and HSS!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freeshaping the Mounting Block

Continuing with what I'm doing with 2 year old Percy, I am beginning to introduce the mounting block. My expectations for him before I try to "ride" him will be that
  1. I can let go of him in the ring and go to the mounting block
  2. he willingly approaches the mounting block
  3. he lines himself up in the perfect position for me to place my foot in the stirrup
  4. he stands quietly while I get on
  5. he continues to stand quietly until I ask him to move off.
The reasoning behind this method of Alexandra Kurland's is that a horse who will do this is willing and ready to be ridden. A day that a horse trained this way does not go to the mounting block is a day that the horse for some reason is expressing he does not want to be ridden. There are numerous stories of situations when the horse was ill or sore and not approaching the mounting block to be ridden was the sign he gave his rider. Also, a horse who willingly approaches the mounting block is happy with being ridden. If he refuses, he might be telling me that he finds riding confusing, uncomfortable, scary, etc. That is an opportunity for me to look back at recent rides to see what may have gone wrong to make him feel this way. This may sound nutty to the "horse should do what I want him to do crowd" (which used to include me), but when I see how willing these youngsters are, I see that they can enjoy and look forward to rides.

The video shows that Percy has a halter but no lead on. I am freeshaping him at this point- not giving him direction as to where to stand or how but letting him experiment and simply clicking when he takes a step in the right direction. More recently, I used another exercise to practice his responsiveness to a rein cue for stopping and hip gives before I actually get on. I think both methods together provide a good balance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Winning Battles

We hear this phrase all the time when it comes to horses. But recently it's made me think about the wording. If we have "won", doesn't that mean the horse has "lost"? I prefer to think of training as win-win. If my horse finds himself in a new situation, I don't want him to automatically become fearful because he associates new or scary situations with an impending Fight. Then he's worried about the new thing AND worried about a fight.

A friend recently began a thread on the forum at The Chronicle of the Horse magazine about Clicker Training (see the "Off Course" section). I was really excited to see all the responses which appeared in short order. Clicker Training is more mainstream than I realized! More than one person responded about using CT to get a horse through a spooky situation and how easy it made it as well as how it changed the horse's attitude toward things in the future. Horses who have played "Touch the Goblins" see new and scary things as an opportunity to approach and conquer! One does have to be careful because when they like to approach scary things, sometimes we have to be the ones to warn them to go my young ones who want to touch the electric net the first time they see it!

Even if we ignore what "losing" does to the horse's frame of mind (and it would be pretty silly not to consider that in a training situation), what does it do to my frame of mind? I might approach something new like a bridge to cross and if my horse hesitates, I immediately put the "Make it Happen" into my approach. I wrote about this in . I prefer to approach challenging situations like puzzles. Hm, what is going to be the best way to deal with this problem in a way that both my horse and I "win"?

The great thing about Clicker Training is that having the horse win is a critical piece of the whole method! If he does what I want, he wins a prize- a treat, an opportunity to do something he wants to do, permission to retreat to a safer feeling place, etc. So we both win. Yesterday I took Ande out to the arena, successfully passing the usual scary parts of the barnyard without a bobble. However, I knew that our two little pigs had escaped their pen in the barn and were out rooting in the paddock next to the barn. I find pigs hysterical- horses don't seem to agree with me. I was prepared for Ande to be alarmed at their funny little noises, headless appearance (heads rooting in the mud) and unexpected cavorting just like any young animal. I stopped when we came around the corner of the barn so he could have a look. He looked, but at that point they were pretty quiet and he was unconcerned after a moment's glance. Good boy.

We continued on to the arena and had a slightly better view of them. He stopped and looked again. Curious, but still not concerned. Good boy. (no clicks and treats needed here) I continued on to longe him- circles, walk, trot, canter, over trot poles and a small jump. At one point, he was standing motionless after a treat (he's using himself very nicely over trot poles these days!) when a neighbor fired off a gun. I jumped, but he didn't. About two seconds later, however, the piggies came screaming out of the barn where they'd gone for a siesta. That startled him and he shot forward in alarm. He didn't run me over and he stopped himself before hitting the end of the longe line. His head was high and eyes were popping. I raised my hand to his poll and he dropped his nose to the ground. Click and Treat! Head came back up but not as high- the exercise was doing it's job. Practiced and practiced and practiced in relaxing situations, he was responsive and happy to cooperate because he knew it meant good things for him- he got treats AND it helped him calm down. Horses don't like to be alarmed- they really do prefer being relaxed. They might enjoy playing, but I don't believe they really enjoy being frightened. I do believe that "getting after" a horse who is spooking will only increase their anxiety level. And trying to soothe a horse who is nervous can reward the horse for spooking! But asking (not demanding) for something specific from a worried horse, and having him respond by calming down can then be rewarded so that they actually learn to calm themselves.

So after a couple moments of head down and rewards, Ande and I continued on with our longeing. We had both won- I had a responsive and manageable young horse; he had calmed down and the opportunity to go back to work which he likes because he gets rewarded regularly for accomplishing new things.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Percy Day 2

Yesterday I groomed Percy and practiced with the bit. Today, we ventured Out. Our farm can be a scary place because of all the non-horse activity that goes on. While the horses become accustomed to things they see daily, the horse corner is at the back of the farm and the adventure begins when you leave that area. The barn, the run-in sheds, the paddocks and the round pen are all close together and are surrounded by pastures and fields in which they see the livestock and machinery. But to get to the larger arena, we have to travel around the livestock barn, through the barnyard (not visible from the horse barn) and out into the front field. This requires passing many a frightening sight.

First on the right is the sheep "race"...a cluster of blue panels that hold a group of sheep and funnel them into a chute where they can be vaccinated or even into a contraption that flips them so their feet can be trimmed. The horses almost like it better when there is activity going on here- when it's quiet they are suspicious! Then we proceed to where farm machinery is parked on the left and at the same time on the right is the livestock barn with some loose metal roofing that flaps noisily in the wind. If you make it past that, the real excitement begins: the barnyard. You just never know what you will find. Immediately on the right is the barn door, immediately on the left is the shop. The wild card in all this melee is my husband. He does not have 1st or 2nd gear. He gets out of bed in 3rd gear in the morning and shifts up from there. He is likely to pop out of one of these buildings at any moment- if you don't know him, you would assume by the way he comes out that the building is on fire. Add to that, he doesn't believe in going anywhere empty handed, so he may be preceded by a huge roll of black plastic pipe. Or one of our favorites- he carries 50 gallon black water tanks on his head, thereby becoming a large water tank with legs (always a favorite with the horses). There may be a livestock trailer with various forms of livestock parked there as well, vocalizing loudly or banging the sides.

So you get the idea that venturing out with the babies is, well, an adventure. So recently I have tried to come up with a plan that uses more tools than just head down to keep things calm and under control. First, I took one of the larger mats and put it in the drive right next to the sheep race. Beyond that, I put the large orange traffic cone in the middle of the drive at the top of the rise going down to where the machinery is parked. Mother Nature provided some deep luscious grass right next to the truck and livestock trailer (empty today). Back closer to the barn, I put the mounting block.

Percy walks happily to the paddock gate with me but then begins to LOOK. He has been out here before, has practiced getting on the trailer out here, but his body language said, "you just never know....". I like to them to look around but also like them to remember that I am on the other end of the rope. I pulled up my lesson with Ande and Alex of "hyper-clicking" to keep their attention. I clicked for every tentative step forward. Every one. After a few steps we'd practice head down. He was very good about leaving his nose in the dirt until I clicked.

Next Alex lesson that I pulled up was rewarding them for difficult behavior with something they like and so I had planted the mat right there for him to go to. The mat is a secure and safe place, so he marched right onto it and stood like a statue (well, a statue that wiggled from flies). If he had not been so fond of the mat, I would have been risking "poisoning" the mat by putting it in a scary place. But I felt I had enough good experiences under his belt that it would work the other way, and the mat would calm him in a scary place. After being clicked several times for standing, I asked him to put his head to the ground while still on the mat- more calming behaviors. Then we walked off again.

I did this last week as well and last week, I turned around and we went back to safer zones after our first trip to the mat. But today, I thought he was staying cool so we continued on. Clicks for stepping bravely forward with me, stopping now and then to put the nose in the dirt. And that brought us to the cone! So he got to touch the cone a bunch of times for clicks and treats- another thing he loves to do and is rewarding for him. Here too, last week, I had let him turn around and go back to the mat after this but today we continued on down the little hill toward the stock trailer and the grass. Once we got to the grass, I let him put his head down and graze- a calming and rewarding behavior all by itself.

Here, the Jack Russells made it interesting. I forgot to mention that there is a stack of giant straw bales behind the shop, covered with black plastic. It can be scary in the wind but today was still. Straw stacks mean mice and rats, however. And Jack Russells love to hunt mice and rats. So under the black plastic they went. I stood with Percy for about 15 minutes while he grazed and the Russells rustled and popped out of the plastic here and there, and then were quiet and then sneezed, and then got in a fierce was not dull. Percy spooked several times and once did a very good imitation of his mummy. I'm not sure how they do it but at one second they are next to you and the next second they are 10 feet away. They don't hit the end of the line. They just kind of levitate to the side. I couldn't blame him. The darn dogs were startling. But it was good for him to go back to grazing each time and get less and less concerned with the rustling.

Finally the dogs scared all the vermin deep into the pile and came out, panting happily and I decided we'd all head back to the barn before my husband came home and started anything new..... Oh, but when we got back to the paddock, we did a quick mounting block lesson. Alexandra Kurland has a whole session on teaching a horse to stand for mounting and that is another piece of preparing Percy to be ridden. As well as self bridling- clicker trained horses bring themselves to the mounting block to be ridden. So I climbed up on the block and worked a bit with Percy positioning himself just exactly where I wanted him. I patted and rubbed all over his back and reached over and patted his far side for several clicks and treats. Last week I actually jumped up on him- just lay over him like a sack a couple times. He was very, very good and I was very, very happy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What do you do with a 2 year old?

I was recently admiring someone else's monthly goals for their horses and pondering doing that myself. It seems I have nebulous yearly goals but as she said, putting goals into months makes them more pressing and increases her chances of getting them done. I'm not sure if I'm just wishy-washy but when I thought about making monthly goals, I couldn't figure out how to combine that with being flexible and dealing with things that come up (opportunities) and adjusting my goals to suit the training needs as opposed to getting it done...(which somehow sounds like "make it happen" :)!

So I guess instead I have "projects" with each horse- what I am working on at any given time. Take Percy, for instance. A very long term goal is to get on him! I don't expect to do that until he is three, but it is a project I am working on now, even though he's only just turned two on July 1. One of the steps in this big goal is to get him used to a bit. I could stuff it in his mouth and let him wear it for a few hours and he'd get used to it. But I choose another route. I like Alex's "self bridling" technique and used it to introduce the bit to both Rumer and Percy last winter, when Percy was only 18 months. So, if my goal was to get the bit in his mouth, you could say I've already done that. But as I've worked with Ande and Rumer, I see more and more ways to break that lesson down, even though both Ande and Rumer self bridle.

Another piece of the "getting on Percy" goal is getting him used to me all over him, getting used to touch, to weight, etc. I honestly see grooming as part of this goal. Especially with a youngster with Thoroughbred blood as they can be so sensitive to both touch and fears.

Today, while Percy was eating his breakfast, I took my grooming box into his stall and thankfully, he chose to eat his lovely second cut hay rather than take everything out of the grooming box and dismantle it. I like to be able to groom him on cross ties or loose- I think there is value in both situations. As I groomed him, I was happy that I could use the grooming mitt and brush from head to toe without any concern or squirminess from him: around his ears, under his tummy, all the way down each leg, the inside of the opposite leg I was near, between his hind legs, etc. I was not worried about being kicked or startling him at all- he was completely relaxed. This tells me both that he is comfortable with me doing these things AND I know how much pressure to use without pushing him over any threshold. The ponies are happy with a rubber curry comb and pretty stiff brushes. But with him I use the mitt and a soft dandy brush. I can scrub enough to get the dirt up, but not so hard to make him dislike it. I did not click or treat at all- we are beyond that. He did listen and look for a CT when I picked out his feet because I do still occasionally click for foot manners, but I'm weaning him off it.

After that, I got out the little headstall thing my niece gave me for bitting. It's like a bridle but no noseband or reins and has little snaps to clip the bit on rather than complicated leather and studs. When I worked with him last winter, he had learned to take the bit into his teeth happily. The further steps I have found are:
  • front teeth
  • incisors
  • bars of mouth
  • holding it in the proper place, rather than immediately spitting it back out
  • being comfortable with the bit coming back out
  • the headstall approaching his eyes
  • headstall approaching his ears
  • headstall going over his ears
  • the feel of wearing the entire contraption for any duration
Today, Percy willingly took the bit to the bars of his mouth and held it there for a couple seconds. The best part of the whole experience was I started thinking about the ideal of a dressage horse seeking out the bit- ideally reaching for the bit and the contact. That's exactly what Percy was doing. I had gone through the process with the others of teaching myself to anchor my elbows to my sides and not raise my hands at all when they are taking the bit. That is me putting it in the mouth. I want Percy to put it in his mouth, not me. I loved the image of him reaching out to grab it and pull it up in.

So those were today's little lessons- didn't take long. But baby steps on the way to being a riding horse! Tomorrow we'll do something different.

One Last (?) Clinic Post

Here are some more photos from the clinic with Alexandra Kurland. One of the other participants sent them to me (thanks Mundi!). In the first two photos, above and directly below, you can see a little of the cone formation which Alex set up for us to use. If you look between the two red cones, you'll see the mat. Ande and I are beginning to turn down the "runway" toward the mat. The runway is formed by the funnel of purple, then yellow, then blue cones, ending at the mat. In the photo above, I am asking Ande for some lateral flexion...not just in his neck but asking him to step up and over as well, although because of the moment this photo was taken, you can't see that bit. The rope is over his neck- I ask and release for this bend; I don't hold it- that's Ande's job.

Then we ask the horse to straighten as we go down the runway (we need to be able to ask for straight as well as bend) toward the mat. In the runway, we practiced asking the horses to take just as many steps as asked for. A horse which has done any significant mat work has learned to love it but we don't want them charging for it without attention to us. So we practiced one step forward, one step back or more, just as long as the horses were attentive to what we were asking. When they showed they were listening and responding carefully, we "released" them to the mat (providing they were mat savvy) and let them go to it. The release was more of a symbolic one, not a physical one. The rope is only over the neck so at no point was the horse physically held back, but emotional control is one of the first things we, as Clicker Trainers, work on. So even though Ande wanted to go to the mat, he kept himself under control and stayed with me. Once I released him to the mat- he went and stood on it, happy and relaxed as in the photo below.
And, may I point out, a nice square halt! That sentence should be underlined, in red and with flashing lights. The base of all of Alex's work is a well balanced horse. I did not have to fuss with him to get this halt- it simply happens as a result of the balancing work built in to her exercises. (oh, and the dog in above photo lived at the farm and was doing his job keeping things tidy by cleaning up any dropped hay stretcher pellets!)

The last photo is a fun one. This was Saturday morning (I think?) as we practiced rope handling skills. Alex built a horse out of four of us: each of us functioning as one horse corner. First she led us around the way many horses are led, with no concern for the horse. She went left and right, stopping suddenly and then just as suddenly taking off forward again. We certainly got to feel what horses feel! As I was the right hind, I frequently felt the whiplash effect of the outside hind!
You can see by the rather evil grin on Alex's face and the way she is pulling on the rope, this was early on in her demo as she was saying "c'mon horse, get moving, what's the matter with you?!" We are not in step here and I am lagging behind as the caboose of the train!

After letting us experience that, Alex switched to more tactful rope handling and leading skills. It was quite a relief. She led us forward and back, through turns and stops and we became more and more in sync....the balanced horse. In order not to anticipate, but rather just feel, I stopped looking ahead and just looked down and followed the feel of the drill team of the horse. That was when I noticed that all of our feet were in lock step! We had not intentionally done it, but through the calm and smooth movements, we had coordinated ourselves, the way the horse learns to coordinate his own body.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Taking the "Make it Happen" out

This post will include some assumptions on my part. There are, of course, as many different theories on training horses as there are horsepeople. The popularity of Natural Horsemanship has opened up many new ways of looking at things but the varied opinions among those specialties is wide as well. Clicker Training differs from most, if not all, Natural Horsemanship approaches although some individuals combine the two. The critical component to Clicker Training is the use of Positive Reinforcement...misunderstood by many. While pressure and release of pressure is a reward system, it is Negative Reinforcement, not Positive Reinforcement. Pressure and release is the traditional way of training horses- use of leg pressure for going forward or sideways, rein or rope pressure to ask for turns or stops, as well as seat pressure. Natural Horsemanship has helped some people refine that technique- improving one's feel and response. But the "make it happen" for many is still in there...the pressure remains or is increased until the horse responds. Then and only then is the pressure removed.

Escalating pressure is one of the things that drives people to turn to Positive Reinforcement. Some horses (dogs, etc) do not respond to levels of pressure that their handlers are comfortable using. And when we feel ourselves increasing that pressure or being coached to increase that pressure in order to get our desired result, we can't bring ourselves to continue. Unfortunately there are many "tools" which allow us to deceive ourselves about the level of pressure we are using. Bigger bits and spurs, tighter nosebands as well as devices which trap a horse in a certain position (side reins, martingales, bitting rigs) all allow us to use the same amount of muscle, but these devices transfer that pressure into much more serious levels of discomfort for the horse.

This is not to say that Clicker Trainers never use pressure and release techniques. But the more one practices, the more ways one finds to teach things without it. The harder thing for me has been to change my internal approach. Over and over I have found that the techniques are very different depending on your mental approach. You hear people speak of "asking" a horse to do something. But it's sometimes difficult to see the difference between asking and telling. Is there a threat behind that ask? What happens if the horse says "no"? If the horse knows that saying no will result in punishment or escalating pressure, then we really aren't asking. However, if the horse knows that nothing will happen if he says no, but good things will happen if he says yes, that gives him more of a choice in the matter. That is the core of the switch from a horse who is truly working with you, looking for things to do that will please you, as opposed to a horse who has shut down and will do nothing unless told to...because he fears the consequences.

So what happened at the clinic with Alexandra Kurland to make me review this whole topic yet again? We were practicing her rope handling techniques. She has a great exercise which demonstrates how much more sensitive we (and horses) are when we are relaxed. Tightness and tension block our ability to feel. She also has her Tai Chi wall technique which turns a simple cotton lead into a solid wall to prevent a pushy horse from going over top of you...
maintaining a quiet and calm presence without having to get "big" or "loud". While doing this Tai Chi wall exercise with some of the participants who had not done it before, I was having them pretend they were differing temperaments so I could put different amounts of intent into my response. While explaining this to Alex, I said I still felt like "muscle" was my focus. I found myself preparing for the Tai Chi wall by planting my feet and tightening up my arms in preparation for a pushy horse. She worked with me for a while and simply said "take the make-it-happen out of your request". And then she had me go back to the previous way I had been doing it. One of the other participants (Caroline, the wonderful organizer of the clinic) said she could see my body language change as I went from one approach to the other. I could tell I had to intentionally shake off the tension in my body to remove the "make it happen". Alex had Caroline and I work with each other for a while (amazing what you can learn and practice about working with horses without even have a horse present). Caroline could easily feel when the "make it happen" was present or not present in my request. The more I did it, the more I realized there was, as I called it, an "invitation" within my movement. It just seemed like I could slide down the rope and not hesitate at all and blow right through the invitation spot to go directly to back up. Or, I could slide down the rope, and during the moment of contact, hesitate for a nanosecond to say "are you there?". That nanosecond made the difference. It felt to me like I was inviting the horse (or the person playing horse) to work with me, rather than telling.

So, where do we draw the line between this and just letting a horse walk all over us? What if the horse says no to the request or doesn't even listen to the request? I'm not sure I can put that into words. There is still intent in the request. One of the reasons it's hard to put in words is because the words have been used before and with different meanings. I want to say I am still the "leader" in the relationship, but that has all kinds of connotations from various professionals. There is definitely a feeling of confidence involved, but not one that is derived from having successfully "won battles" in the past. Rather it's a feeling of confidence that comes from having a tool box full of techniques (as opposed to a tack box full of weapons) that I can use to develop a relationship with a horse that involves the horse looking to me for good times. It's the difference between being invited to do something by someone you like and enjoy spending time with versus being invited by someone who has been unkind or rude or demanding of you in the past.

I most look forward to using this new feeling with Percy. I know all the horses deserve it but Percy has his mother's sensitivity and is so light already...but that sensitivity can also lead to him being overboard if I'm not careful. I think it will be very important to make sure he is with me at a deep level before I start asking him to do more and more.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

High Rate of Reinforcement- conclusion

I only reported on the first two days of the clinic regarding the high rate of reinforcement. On the third day, I did tack Ande up so that if he was still calmly focused on me I could ride. I think the biggest distraction on that last day was in my own mind. Because it was the afternoon of the last day, I was having a hard time staying present rather than thinking about the long drive home, what awaited me at home (having been gone almost four days) and the fact that I needed to be up and away early the next day to teach at Pony Club camp. On top of that, we had some heavy rains blow through in the morning while the horses were turned out and instead of going in the shed, they chose to race around in it and then stand in the middle of it. After that the sun came out and it was hot and sticky so the bugs came out in full force and when we went to bring them in, they were pretty stressed. They got hosed off and were cool and dry by afternoon but mentally, I was not as composed as I could have been.

I have been saying "they" because I took Mariah to the clinic as well, so that my friend, Sarah Memmi, could work with her. Sarah lives only an hour from me and it's great to have a support person like her so close! She helped me back Ande as well as learn the single rein riding techniques with Smarty. Since I was taking the trailer, it was wonderful to put Mariah on as company for Ande as she is such a steady big girl. Here is a photo of Sarah and Mariah at the clinic. So, back to riding Ande- after the morning romp, Mariah was calling to him more than the previous day so he really did a good job paying attention. Furthermore, I was also concentrating on taking the "make it happen" out of my body language...more on that in another post. So we had a very nice light communication going on but when Mariah would call from the barn, he had a hard time ignoring her. After a bit, Alex and I did agree that I could get on. Alex reminded me of her rule for riding: no one is allowed to fall off in her presence. :)

There was a time or two when I wondered if I had made the right decision- Ande never did anything wrong but that focus was constantly being tested by Mariah's whinnies. Alex talked me through it, having me repeat the exercises we'd done on the ground. I was really happy to get on and test the same things under saddle. Alex pointed out I was not releasing soon enough when I asked for a single rein stop. She said if you really need a stop, go ahead and reach far down the rein but it's very dangerous to hang on to that for fear of flipping the horse. I needed to be more sensitive to when he gave even a little in his hip and let go of the rein then. It's not as if he was taking off with me of course...but he sometimes offers a little jog because we've been working on it at home and initially it got a lot of reinforcement. I am working on putting it on cue so now when he offers it without the leg aid first, I slide down the inside rein for a stop.

One of my questions with him was that when I asked for little gives of his jaw and poll, he would give me the whole thing- a lovely flexion all the way through his neck, stepping up nicely from behind and then softly stepping over laterally. I was making it way more complicated than it needed to be. Alex simply said that I didn't need to keep asking when he already had it down! When I worried about the lateral steps when I didn't ask for them, she simply said "ride him forward". OK, talk about a "duh" moment. Actually, we had done all that on the ground so that when I was riding, all I had to do was think about riding forward, rather than laterally, and he held his lovely balance and went forward when I asked for it, or over when I asked for that.

Such a difference with this approach...I guess I'm just not used to having it be so easy!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Alexandra Kurland Clinic- increase the Rate of Reinforcement

The beautiful site for the clinic!
(see below for details on this great facility!)*
Wow, there is no way I can fit everything into one blog post. It was a full and mind expanding weekend. Some of it was review; a lot was review with amazing new layers and understanding; some was clarification of some things I had read about but not fully understood; and there were some completely new ideas. I'm sure more will come out as I work with the horses in coming days, weeks and months.

I think there were two major points that I brought home. One was taking the "make it happen" out of my requests with horses. The other was that when a horse is distracted, I should request less and reward more.

Ande was the one I took to the clinic. The first evening after arrival, Alex asked us to introduce ourselves and share what we hoped to get out of the clinic. I expressed my concerns about Ande's focus. I don't always feel like I have his full attention and of the three young horses, he seems to be the least interested in working with me. The others clamor for attention and he will also...if there is nothing else to do. But for instance when I let him loose in the round pen, he would sometimes go off and graze along the fence rather than choosing to stay with me. If I kept him busy, he would willingly work, but the other two will continue to offer things in the hopes of enticing me to play...Ande seemed just as happy to be left to graze. Obviously this is a lot better than a non-clicker trained horse who doesn't know how to offer behaviors to entice the handler to play!

As I said before, what I came away with is that in these situations, I should ask for less and reward more. I can't even remember how Alex said this; I just remember putting it to work on the second day. The first day was "data collection", as she calls it. She watches us work with the horses and on other skills in order to decide what to offer us in the way of exercises and conversation. (Note: when you go to a clinic with Alexandra Kurland, she is unlike other clinicians. Instead of getting a lesson or two per day with her, you get HER for the full duration, from when she gets up in the morning until she goes to sleep at night. She has more energy for teaching than any of us do for learning and she makes herself available at meals and in the evenings. She teaches everyone equally, regardless of who happens to have the horse in the ring at any given moment). So that first day I put Ande in the round pen and he wanted to trot around and whinny to his friend in the barn. I explained that this was not typical. Usually I have solid voice commands on walk, trot, canter as well as a pretty good WWYLM (anyone unfamiliar with Alex's work, in simple terms it's an exercise where he walks next to me without any contact on lead or rein, choosing to stay with me).

What she pointed out was that any distraction, whether it was grass or other horses whinnying, was adding criteria to a behavior and so the rate of reinforcement needed to be increased. I knew this...somehow I was ignoring it. I was expecting him to respond in a certain way and rather than starting from a point of success (TAGteach talk), I was trying to wait until he responded correctly. Instead he chose to look elsewhere for his entertainment. Traditionally, I had been taught to "put them to work" when they are distracted. But asking for more simply added to the distraction and unless I was willing to make him respond...not at all clicker didn't encourage him to want to work with me. The ridiculous thing was that as soon as I started rewarding more, I got better performance than ever in a fraction of the time. By holding out for better, I got less. By rewarding more, we shot past previous standards. There was a lot more to Day 1, but in order to stay focused myself, I'm going to go to Day 2 with Ande.

After Day 1, Alex gave us the homework of thinking of other behaviors our horses enjoyed so we could use them as reinforcement. This is under the topic of "hierarchies of reinforcement". I was stuck for a bit because I felt like he would be distracted no matter what I asked for. Then I remembered teaching him last winter to target a milk jug hung on the round pen so that I could put hay down without him pestering me. He seemed to like that and I hadn't done it in a while so he might think it was fun. There were even some targets already hung on the round pen we were using. The exercise we were going to do (possibly yet another blog post of its own) included the mat and Ande does like the mat. I also have used hand targeting successfully in the past. So I had a plan there.

My second task was to get that rate of reinforcement up. I realized I would need to start this from the first second. No lazy horse management. I needed to be training from the second he first saw me in the barn. I also decided to use a box clicker- it would be louder and sharper than my usual tongue click and hopefully grab his attention even a little more.

When I approached his stall door, he backed away as he's been taught- click, treat. I opened the door and he backed another step- click, treat. I could see him thinking, wow, this is easy. Open the halter and he pushed his head into it to self halter- c/t. I proceeded to c/t for everything he did well all the way to the round pen: walking politely, stopping and backing at the gate, etc. If his ears and or eyes wandered to the barn where his buddy was whinnying, I held out my hand for him to target (easy, peasy) and c/t when he did. I had a completely different boy already than the day before. His WWYLM work was lovely- not only staying with me but I asked for and got lovely flexions and lateral steps. Both Day 1 and Day 2 I had not bothered to tack up. I wanted to focus his attention on me on the ground first. On Day 2, Alex paid the compliment of saying "this looks like a horse I would be comfortable getting on". Whoopee! She has pretty high standards for how well a horse should be behaving and responding before getting on. It doesn't matter how young or old, how green or schooled, how many places they've been or things they've accomplished, you don't ride until they demonstrate her standards of safety and training.

I won't say he never looked away, but even when he glanced toward the barn, I felt like his attention was still with me and all I had to do was make a tiny request and he complied. It's so nice to have a horse who is voluntarily working with you. I also think using the target, the mat and the hand targeting were very helpful in keeping his attention. As Alex says, when they do something new or difficult well, we can say, "oh you did such a good job at that, we can go do something I know you like". And standing on the mat is such easy work but oh so handy to have in the tool box.

The "make it happen" post will have to wait for another day-

*Mountain Tide Farm is located in Danby VT. We were treated like royalty- it is a pet friendly site and the owner, Linda Sears, is a great cook! Man and beast could not want for more. There are also trails in addition to the wonderful round pen, arena and indoor. Turnout is spacious, grassy and well fenced. To contact Linda, call
802-293-2339 or email her at

Monday, August 2, 2010


I'm not sure how people access this blog and if you are checking it and disappointed not to see anything recently. If so, I apologize and assure you I have not disappeared. Our son had a serious accident a couple weeks ago and my time and focus have been elsewhere. He is recovering nicely and I hope to have more time to write soon. The clinic with Alex is in 2 weeks and so if I don't write before then, I will surely be sharing experiences from that day!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Getting Ready for Alex

I am really looking forward to attending another clinic with Alexandra Kurland in August. After spending a few days with her I am so inspired and amazed at what I learn. I got a little boost of excitement earlier this week when she posted on her "The Click That Teaches" list about her clinic themes for this year. She doesn't post often (everyone else keeps the list moving along quietly but productively) but when she does, they are long posts just bursting with information.

After reading about what her theme for this year has become (she doesn't plan this, the horses give her the theme as the season progresses), I had to decide whether I wanted to focus on this before getting her input, or whether to jump in with her written word and see what she thinks of my work when August comes. I decided it was too good to sit on and I'd give it my best shot for the next 4-5 weeks and then be amazed by her peeling of the layers and what I'm sure to miss! :)

Without trying to rewrite her words, I'm going to give you my interpretation in the form of the exercise I created for Ande (age 4, who will be going with me to the clinic). It's a continuation of loopy training and stresses teaching individual parts of the loops before stringing them together. That can lead to concept training...and I'm not sure I'll understand that until I see Alex in the flesh but here's what I did with Ande:

First I plunked down a mat in the middle of an imaginary circle. Then I put a cone to each side of the mat, about 15 feet away. Additionally, I put two cones about 4 feet in front of the mat about 3 feet apart from each other...a gateway leading to the mat. Opposite the gateway, I laid a large rail about 25 feet away.

x x

x mat x


Unfortunately, the editing of this does not allow me to line these little x's up correctly. I'll try to get a photo or video.

IF I understand correctly, I can teach Ande the concepts of staying straight to a fence as well s looking to me for the next jump in a course by using this little exercise. Ande was wearing his halter with the lead draped over his neck. He was at liberty. I walked out of the barn with him toward my little setup. Seeing the mat, he headed toward it because that's a learned place to get goodies. So, he was right next to me. But rather than going straight to the mat, I clicked as we went through the little gateway. Hm. He did stop, not quite sure about what. He got his treat and moved off with me again to go the 2 steps or so to the mat. Click and treat for two quiet feet on the mat. Three more CTs for standing quietly and waiting on the mat. Then I stepped forward and he moved off with me, CT and praise! Leaving the mat is not always easy!

Forward again and I turned left, making a small circle toward one of the cones to the side. CT for turning and staying with me, CT at the cone. Staying with me at liberty is not new- we have done this oodles and oodles. The CTs were simply to reinforce "yes, this is what we are doing today". I often use cones as markers for places to CT- I taught him to free longe on a 20 meter circle that way. So that is not new. But I was marking the specific circle I wanted him to do by CTing at it. Going to and standing on a mat is not new. The only new part here was the little gateway of cones. Why? I wanted him lined up straight for the mat, not approaching it at an angle. I would like to teach him the concept of approaching fences straight...and I had that rail set out there for that purpose.

I repeated that circle three times. He knew the exercise well and was stopping at the little gateway of cones readily. That had him focusing on them so he was always lined up to go to to the mat straight. The next time we left the mat, I stepped into his space a bit to send him to the right toward the right hand cone instead of the left. I knew I had to be careful because of mistakes I have made with his space and crabbiness in the past. He is SO much more pleasant faced now but I know to be watchful. I had to time my clicks carefully to reward his stepping away and not any ears back when I got in his space. I wanted him looking to me for suggestions on where to go to earn a click, not irritated because I was pushing him around.

And so we built in a circle to the right: CT for turning right when I stepped right, CT at the right hand cone, CT for turning right toward the gateway, CT for going through the gateway, CT at the mat. Each one of those CTs was a link in our chain. Each one of those spots is a reinforcing place for him to be. I began to leave out the CTs for turning away and he stayed right with me to the next cone without frustration because he knew the cone was the next place he could get to CT. In this way, learned behaviors become rewarding themselves.

I did three circles to the right, and then alternated one to the left and one to the right. He visibly watched me as I left the mat to see which way to turn. Just what I wanted.

We are having a heat wave and after this little exercise at the walk, the sweat was literally dripping off my 9:30 in the morning. I decided that was a good start and I will save the rail option for another day. That will simply be another option after we leave the mat- to go straight to the rail for a CT. I will not CT at the rail much but instead show him that going over the rail leads to going somewhere else for a CT. That way I won't have a pony who thinks the job is over when he goes over a fence, but will be looking up and for where to go next that will be fun!

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I appreciate all the "been there" comments, both here and on the Bookends Farm facebook page regarding my Good, Bad and Ugly post. That was part of my reason for that nobody got the impression that all is sunny and bright here with never a mistake. That would be deceiving anyone who reads this. After all, if horses were perfect, we wouldn't need to train them would we?

This might also be a good time to point out that Positive Reinforcement is not the only thing that works to train a horse. The other three quadrants of Operant Conditioning- negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment, all work as well. BUT, we each need to understand what the side effects of those quadrants are and decide which technique to use at any given moment. Back when I started Clicker Training, I was sure there were limited applications. But the more I have used it, the more uses I have found! Over the years, I've had several misconceptions slowly evaporate. I thought the handler had to to be alpha/dominant- wrong. I thought you could never use it with young horses who had a tendency to be mouthy anyway- wrong. I thought there were certain things which MUST be punished because they were dangerous behaviors- wrong. I thought there were some things which just couldn't be taught with +R... wrong.

So, the other day Percy got punished. Did it work? At this point I'd have to say yes. The definition of punishment (in Operant Conditioning terms) is that it makes it less likely that the horse will repeat the behavior. As excited as he was, he did not rear again (and he does love to rear when he's playing out in the pasture so it's not like it's difficult for him). Was the original punishment delivered accurately? I'd say yes- it was immediate and strong enough to make a good impression on him. What followed, however- the spin/yank cycle, was not effective
training. AND what was the fallout? Well, when I went to bring him in a couple hours later, the little booger broke my heart because for the first time in forever, he did not come trotting or cantering up to the gate to meet me. I had to walk out and get him (sob). He allowed me to put his halter on with no problem and did not act afraid, but he sure didn't think I was as much fun as he used to think.

When I took him back to The Spot where we had our disagreement, it was definitely poisoned. He had unpleasant associations with that area and simply going there put him at a higher level of anxiety. Rather than remembering any training I had done, he was just emotionally uneasy and that anxiety overrode what he "knew" was desired behavior. Talking about a horse knowing what is right and choosing to do something different is silly. There is always a reason a horse is behaving the way they do and as their handlers, it is our responsibility to figure that out and work with it. In Percy's case, it was nervousness in each and every incident. He was anxious about going out that first morning because it's FUN to go out and eat grass and it was cold and breezy and Ande was already out there, etc etc etc! So, he didn't leave his head in the halter when I held it out. I should have stopped right there and worked with him to calm him down so he could focus on my requests, rather than foolishly trying to punish him for not cooperating. The next day he had the association of being left behind added to the excitement of getting turned out. When he reared, I should have figured out a way to calm things down, even if it meant bringing Ande back in and nobody going out on grass that day until we could do it calmly. Pushing through at a time like that simply backfired on me. By the third day, I had excitement, worry about being left behind and distrust of me all roiling around inside a hot little red head. That was a lot to work through.

So while the punishment may have been effective, it gave me all kinds of other excess baggage that I now had to deal with. Who needs that? If I'd kept my cool and worked with him, I could have gotten the same result without the baggage. At the afternoon session, we did work through the problems with patience and positive reinforcement and he's been a saint ever since.

Oh- one other little piece of baggage? Rumer has decided I'm not to be trusted when I am leading them both. sigh. Just her, she's fine. If I have Percy along, she turns into a little donkey statue and Will Not Move. So, to keep Percy's progress moving along, I have dropped her lead, taken him out alone and she comes grazing along at her own pace. Guess what I've now taught Rumer about being stubborn. argghhh

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I want to be honest in this blog and not just post about the perfect days and the successes. Two days ago I posted about getting the three youngsters past some scary things on the way out to pasture- today we had an "incident" and I have tried to parse it out.

After getting halters on Percy and Rumer and going through the first of two gates, I stopped and asked for some head down from each. They complied but Percy responded to the first two clicks by shaking his head as he threw it up in the air. There was a LOT of energy in that boy that was bursting out in little bubbles wherever it could. He was doing what I asked, but it was taking every bit of his self-control. Once he was "released" from my request with the click, there was a little spark of relief that was let off. He's been getting a little bargy (my fault for snuggling with him too much I think and allowing him free access into my space) and so with all that energy, I wanted him back out of my space. When he stepped forward unrequested, I turned to him to back him up- and he stood up. He has done this before but only a handful of times, if that. In the past I have ignored it and taken it for what it was- a symptom of fear, anxiety, over- excitement, etc., and I have modified my requests accordingly. (Note- this does not mean he was rewarded for doing it! The rearing has never gotten him something good- I have been careful to see to that). This time, however, partially because I had Rumer on the other side of me and partially because he was up against the barn wall, his waving front legs came uncomfortably close to my chest and head. There's nothing like a brush with fear to bring out my temper and traditional training methods. I responded with positive punishment- I can growl/yell with the best of them
and to quote Prof. Higgins, my vocabulary would have "made a sailor blush". Percy got many sharp yanks on his halter to accompany my tirade.

During this process, I let go of Rumer who thankfully went 15 feet away and put her head down to eat. But things with Percy went downhill from there as far as training went. If I tried to turn toward our destination, his head was still up in the clouds, and he used his shoulder to his advantage by shoving it toward me and he pulled forward. Thus began a vicious cycle of barge, spin, yank which was exactly what I had been trying to avoid. This caused Rumer to decide it was safer further away and off she went to the paddock on her own, further exacerbating Percy's anxiety. This was a perfect example of how trying to dominate a horse and being bigger and scarier than they are simply raises the level of danger. Thankfully, he isn't totally nuts, and once I got hold of my own temper, lowered my energy, asked him to lower his head even a fraction, he complied and his reward was to be allowed to walk forward 2 steps closer to his buddies. Then we repeated this process, so that as he kept his head down (opposite of rearing), he eventually reached his destination.

So, when all this was over and I was kicking myself all the way back to the barn, I tried to figure out what had started our descent into chaos. The best I could come up with (other than my Scots-Irish temper) was this:

Yesterday, when I was preparing to take Percy and Rumer out, Percy did not leave his nose in the halter when I was trying to put it on. Rather than taking more time with him, I decided to let him go and just take Rumer out alone and then come back for him. There were three reasons for this, only one of them good. The first, poor reason #1, was that I was in a hurry. I had a busy morning ahead of me and was in "get the chores done" mode, rather than training mode. Keep in mind that Percy is not even 2 yrs old yet, he's hot bred, and he's bigger than me. I should ALWAYS be in training mode (one should with all horses, but this sort of bugger especially). Poor reason #2 was that as a result of my impatience, I decided to use negative punishment (-P) rather than positive reinforcement. Negative punishment is taking something away- the opportunity to go out- in order to stop (punish) a behavior...I wanted to stop his silly antics about haltering. This was just bad decision making all around. Horses (animals) respond to what immediately happens after a behavior, not the long term afterward. So what Percy got for backing away from the halter, was freedom and the opportunity to move. He got what he wanted! It didn't teach him to put his halter on better next time. It taught him to leave. Then, he got abandoned by both me and his buddy which he didn't relate to the haltering at all, but simply made him more anxious about the whole process today...when the halters came out, he associated all the worry of being left behind yesterday. This was not learning- it was emotion.

My third reason for leaving him, in an effort to redeem myself somewhat, was that I thought I could work with him better alone, rather than with Rumer. This was true. But that needed to be weighed against the anxiety of being left, which didn't work, and is why I have always led the two of them out together, as challenging as it has been. This is where management versus training comes in. In my ideal world, I would not have a construction zone to get through (which was actually not an issue AT ALL today....that part I got right the first day! It was all about baby manners and worry), and I would have someone else to lead the second horse so that each one got full attention. But, life gets in the way and we have to do the best with what we have.

Importantly, I have to decide where to go next. I have decided that today's lesson with Percy will be to practice walking up to that paddock without the distractions. In other words, the excitement of going out to grass and worry about his buddies going first all function as distractions to his efforts at minding his manners when being haltered and led. So later in the day when his tummy is full of grass and his buddies are quietly eating hay in the dirt paddock, Percy and I will go for some quiet walks toward the paddock. I will not ask him to go more than one step beyond his comfort zone. Positively reinforcing each individual step out of his comfort zone (by CTing and allowing him to return to safe environs) will build confidence a little at a time and hopefully begin to ask him to forgive me for my poor behavior this morning. Thank God horses are so forgiving.