Saturday, February 20, 2010

Busy, busy, busy

This post is an attempt at an explanation for my lack of recent posts. In addition to my equine pursuits, our farm also includes sheep, cattle, dogs, and a cat on a regular basis plus chickens and pigs at times. February is our biggest lambing season- when we have the most lambs and the most intense time for assistance due to the cold temperatures. We also lamb in June and October but then the weather is pleasant and newborns don't need to be tended to as quickly as on the nights it's 20 below zero!

So I'm including some photos here of what our lambing barn looks like right now.
Although I haven't counted recently, I think we have about 90 new lambs which have been born in the last 3 weeks. We're almost done...just about half a dozen ewes left to lamb. It would be nice to think that the hard part is over but now we have to take care of them all and watch them for problems.

As if my mind isn't preoccupied enough, my husband has to go away for job training for 3 weeks in the beginning of March so I will get to do this all by myself. I'm feeling rather whiny these days. I feel like all I do is tell people they can't count on me for the next month. In reality I am very fortunate...just busy at the time being!

I haven't clicker trained any of the sheep, but I have found the principles of Operant Conditioning to be very useful when working with the livestock. I am much more sucessful (and relaxed) when moving the cattle or sheep because I know what I am doing as far as reinforcing or punishing their movements and I can use that to my advantage!

The weather has been deceivingly mild recently- almost 40 degrees today. While the mid-Atlantic states have been getting buried in snow, up here we're not getting any. We still have barely a ground cover from snows that came weeks ago but as far as working horses goes, it's been pretty nice. My hands don't freeze when I take gloves off to treat! I'm still working on my winter projects with each of the ponies- making great progress and now putting refinements on them. Kizzy and I are learning more about cues- distinguishing from one cue and behavior to another. I'm seeing just how insecure she still is. I'm very thankful for learning about cues with her because Percy's "trick" for the winter was learning how to pick things up and he has learned it well. He now offers to pick up just about anything- buckets, gloves, pitchforks, etc.
In addition, he found he can zip up my coat for me and tug on my hood string. Needless to say, these last two are not really things I want him doing so I am now working on putting a cue on "take it" so that we can only have him pick up things that I want him to!

Rumer and I continue to work on ground driving without tack. I'm learning as we go- while I've seen others do it, I have no book or video to follow as to HOW to do it so I'm making it up as I go along. In addition, she and Percy are both learning about hopping. I'm hopping; they are learning to deal with it. Ande didn't care at all when I hopped as a prep to mount, but Percy and Rumer both thought I shouldn't be doing that. So I hop and click them for head down and relaxing while I do it. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in my barn!

Stowaway will now pick up his front feet with just a light touch on the back of his knee. I really haven't worked with him much- he and Ande are in the run-in shed and it's a much less fun place to work. Plus no lights so I can't play in the evenings. Ande is being a champ about stationing while I go in with hay. His food manners are miles better and I feel much safer when I go through the gate with an armload of hay in the dark on the ice. Even though he wants to attack Stowaway, he knows there is a routine which will be reinforced and he reliably follows it.

One more photo- a set of triplets napping together (those lambs do know how to pile up to keep warm!).

Monday, February 8, 2010

Be a Fun Distraction

While teaching yesterday, the subject of distractions came up for two horses. They were very different personalities: one was an Off-the-Track-Thoroughbred (OTTB) and the other was a Canadian Horse- a little known breed similar to a rugged Morgan or Cob. So even though they were on opposite ends of hot/cold spectrum, both these individuals were more interested in "watching the movie" on the outside of the arena, than focusing on the job at hand.

The TB is not newly off the track and has had some amazing owners who have done wonders with him such that he is a real sweetheart...but he is still a TB. So he could see reflections in the windows of horses outside (we were in an indoor), he could hear conversations going on in the barn aisle and he could hear the wind blowing along the indoor walls. He thought all of these were worthy of his attention just in case he should need to go into full alarm mode and leave the scene...which he never did thanks to the patience and base that his rider has given him. Nonetheless, he rarely or never gave his full attention to his owner.

The little Canadian, on the other hand, did not seem in the least worried. Just busy! While the TB's ears swiveled around to listen in all directions, the Canadian's whole head and neck swung as he checked things out. He had been trucked in for the lesson so this was his first time at that facility and in that arena. There were lots of things to investigate- mirrors, doors, a hole in the kickboard etc. and especially that gate leading back to the barn where all those potential friends were hanging out!

So the challenge for both of these riders was and is how to get and keep your horse's attention. Every rider shares this challenge. How do we keep our horses' attention? Some people like to give a horse some time to look around first so they can then settle down and focus. Others like to "put them right to work" so that they don't have a chance to get worked up about something.

But regardless of which of these is best for each individual horse, we can use Positive Reinforcement in order to BE the distraction which the horse turns to instead of all that going on outside the arena (or off the trail or wherever). If the horse is truly worried about something (which I believe TBs often are), then we can be reassuring to them by inviting them into a positively reinforcing game or exercise. It helps to start out with a familiar exercise which you know they enjoy and then depending on the horse, you can introduce something new or keep them comfortable with what they know.

The mentally quick horses love a new challenge and with Positive Reinforcement, we know that it's the SEEKING mechanism that entices them (read about SEEKING here). So if we work on a relaxing behavior like head down in the barn and in hand until they are rock solid, they will happily respond when asked to. Then when going into a scary indoor, we can ask for head down and that behavior will have been conditioned to relax the horse. From there we can transition into perhaps walking forward with head down, building duration for the head down behavior. We need to keep the reinforcements rate high at this time in order to keep the horse's focus on us instead of the howling wind. Then we can move on to some lateral flexing exercises (the head down is a wonderful longitudinal stretch), with lots of reinforcing for nice flexions. By now, we should have the horse's attention. We have become more distracting than the noises outside. Who wants to listen to the wind when somebody keeps offering peppermints?

For the busy and curious horse, you can sometimes bypass the relaxing exercises and go straight to the fun stuff. But it's always good for a horse's anatomy and physiology to get that stretching in the neck and over the back as a warmup. But perhaps that horse would find it fun to target cones on the ground with his nose as he went around the arena. If he's focused on cones and getting clicked for touching them, he won't be looking in the mirrors or out windows. And that type of horse usually can't wait for you to tell him what the next game is going to be once you get started. All else is forgotten!

Many riders use distractions to get a horse's attention- but not necessarily in a positive way. Some use negative reinforcement- more and more pressure to make that horse pay attention...but that does not help a horse relax. Instead it can add tension to the situation. Far better to
build a reputation with our horses of being far more interesting and FUN than anything else. We've already seen that horses will leave food in order to play the Clicker Game. Now we need to build trust so that they will also leave their worries behind and join us in work.

Photo above is TB mare Zoe, near and dear to our hearts, showing all the physiological signs of tension and distraction! One ear up, one cocked to the side. Tight neck, wide eye, jaw tense. This was her first time back under saddle after foaling. She hadn't been in the arena in over a year. Clicker training doesn't eliminate a horse's instincts and fears, but it does give us a way to deal with them....Zoe is doing wonderfully 6 months after this photo was taken, learning lots of new games and ways to deal with her tension.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Energy is an interesting concept to think about when working with horses. Many riders and trainers talk about "building energy", "creating energy", "bringing up the energy", etc. While some people like a nice quiet horse, others like to see "expression" of gaits, impulsion, etc which all imply a degree of energy expended more than the quiet trail horse.

Like everything else with horses, there are as many ways to create energy as there are horsepeople. I have a vivid recollection of riding in an indoor at a barn which trained saddle seat horses while I was in college. They used all kinds of noisy, banging, rattly, eye-popping paraphernalia to get the horses energized.
Most people would agree that this method inspires some fear in the horse in order to get that expressive response. Personally, I think the rest of us need to examine whether we are also inspiring a fear response in order to build energy in our horses.

I have heard the recommendation that handlers bring their own energy up in order to encourage the same in our horses. But how do we do that? Many times I see people being very expressive themselves but that tends to inspire a response in the horse which then gets a little too expressive when the horse bolts off or spooks left and right.

Considering that horses are prey animals, it makes sense that energy is associated with fear. When things are safe, horses graze quietly or rest. When startled, they raise their heads with eyes wide and then move quickly, covering lots of ground with each step in any gait. When we watch horses play in the pasture, frequently they will stop, heads lifted high, give one of those snorting noises and then tear off again. This is contagious as other horses in the pasture or neighboring pastures (or unfortunately under saddle in a nearby arena) also pick up on the energy and begin acting the same way. So we can certainly incite this in our horses...but is that what we really want considering all the other "baggage" that comes along with a fear response?

When I taught Percy to trot in hand (which I wrote about in this post), I used my own energy to entice him to trot. Simply by jogging next to him, I was able to transfer that extra energy into him. I could have made a noise, waved something at him or tapped him with a whip, but those would all have been negative reinforcement which would have meant introducing something that he wanted me to stop doing. Instead, my jogging steps were more of an invitation to him to join me.

I guess one way to look at it is the difference between dogs and horses. Dogs, as predators, love to see us act loony so they can join in. But horses, I think, are more apt to worry when we get wound up- and their energy is in trying to get away from us, not join us. I'd be interested to hear how others create energy without creating fear- and encourage you to really observe your horses to be sure you aren't scaring them into behaviors.