Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stowaway lightens his feet

I finally took a video of working with Stowaway's feet. It was a winter project and I worked at it in fits and starts so it isn't as solid as I would like it to be but we'll keep plugging away. The history- Stowaway came to me having been a camp pony and he was horrible about his feet. He wasn't aggressive- no kicking or anything, just impossibly uncooperative. Using all the traditional methods, you could pick them out: grab his cannon area, pinch the tendon, shove all your weight into him to get his balance over, then physically haul his foot up...he could even resist bending at the knee! I worked with him the first winter and he got much better: a little lean on him, and I could pick up his foot and pick it out. His hind feet required a lot of muscle to lift them and he occasionally pulled away.

Over last summer, I discovered two things: lesson students were completely inconsistent with the way they approached and picked hooves; and his behavior deteriorated rapidly as a result. I could still do it, but I hadn't done much to improve his behavior with students. I resorted to letting them wrestle with his front feet but I would do his hinds for them. I like to work on these things in the winter so that the ponies get consistent messages. I decided I needed a two-pronged approach. First, I needed him to pick up his foot on his own, not merely allow someone to pick it up. Second, I needed to establish a very clear cue that I could teach the students and teach them to be consistent in the way they asked.

The initial steps took a long time. Stowaway isn't the quickest study and while he loves to hear the click (and responds with an endearing little nicker), it requires a lot of repetition to sharpen him up. I began by asking him in the normal way- running my hand down his leg and grabbing his hoof, but as soon as he would begin to shift his weight off to lift that foot, I would click. I repeated this a LOT without asking for anything more. And while I didn't increase my criteria, he simply began offering more. (at some point, I need to investigate the difference between clicking tiny movements as a beginning step and clicking tiny movements as a way to get tiny movements). Pretty soon I could click when he lifted his foot, then when he really bent his leg and picked up it up, etc. In the accompanying video, his hind feet are at a more beginning stage than his front feet so you can see how it began and where it progressed to.

While I didn't work on this over a lot of sessions, I did make sure he got a lot of reinforcement for the easy steps every time I did in order to keep this enthusiasm high. Frequency of work depended on my schedule, the weather, etc. Right now, I would be very happy with his performance if he was my personal horse. He lifts his leg promptly when I reach for it and holds it 99% of the time while I pick it out. However, being a lesson horse requires more. He will need to hold it up while tentative students are slower to take it. Some folks want to grab that hoof like it's a lifeline while others leap back in fear when the horse picks it up. So he will need to be patient while the tentative ones get brave. The grabbers will need to be taught the correct cue and a gentle touch.

The hind feet are a different story. I don't really want him yanking his hind feet up because that is too similar to a kick (students should be defensive if a horse snatches a hind foot up), yet I would like him to carry a bit of the weight himself, rather than feeling like I'm holding up a tree. At this point, he will lift his hind foot a couple inches off the ground and I like that. That requires him to think about bending it enough so that the handler doesn't have to wrestle with him. At the same time he isn't yanking it up rapidly.

I will use TAG teach to help the students learn the cues (which are full body cues, not just hand cues) to get him to lift his feet. I will also use a gradual process to teach both Stow and students duration. Rather than focusing on the students' getting each hoof completely clean, I will count to a number and have them put the hoof down. We might practice a couple counts each week but I will be the one responsible for keeping his feet clean. Hopefully week by week we can increase the duration that students are able to hold a foot as well as the length of time Stowaway has to be patient and hold the feet up.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Backing Up- Literally and Figuratively

I got the cart out for the first time a couple days ago- I sure hope we don't get any more snowstorms! I had stored it in the horse trailer for the winter and didn't want to get it out until Spring. I put it in the round pen to continue working with it with Rumer. I have never taught a pony or horse to drive before so I am going very slowly and carefully. My goal for this lesson was to have her back up to it until she bumped it with her hind legs- I thought that having her initiate that feeling would be preferable at first to bringing the cart up to bump her. I did have the shafts pointing up in the air, so she didn't have to back between them. I just wanted her to get comfortable with feeling the cart against the back of her.

Well, she wanted no part of it! Rumer knows how to back and step over and all the things I wanted her to do but she did not want to back directly toward that cart. So that's when I had to back up in my training and really determine how well she knew my cues. What I found was that yes, she knows how to back and will back as many steps as I ask for. She also knows to step over from a touch on her hip. What we do not have is accuracy. And this was the problem in my session with the cart. As far as she was concerned, she was doing what I asked as well as doing what she wanted when she backed up crooked. She was backing- my request- and avoiding backing up to the cart- her concern. When she ended up crooked, I could ask her to step over, and she would....several steps so that she was now crooked the other way.

I got very frustrated with this experience but could see it was my fault. There was no way for her to "know" what I wanted. I had never before asked her to back into something scary and she was protecting herself. She was doing what I asked so I couldn't fault her there. Instead I had to back up in my training to teach her the subtle difference between one step over and more steps over, backing up straight and backing up any which way. I had to teach her in a way that it was in her own self interest to figure out how many steps to take.

I did this by using the plywood mats. She is very good about standing on a mat so we reviewed that- and I left her completely at liberty so that I couldn't be tempted to force her somewhere. I had her put her front feet on and then her back feet. Then I pulled out a second mat and placed it behind the first one. We worked on having her walk up to the first one, CT for putting her front feet squarely on it, then step forward and put her front feet on the second one. She got a CT for that but left her hind feet trailing out behind her like a park horse so that the back feet didn't have to be on the second mat. Interesting. This was where the subtle cues came in. I need to teach her to step forward with her back feet onto the back mat, without stepping over it or walking off completely with her front feet.

Again, I couldn't, nor did I want to, force her somewhere. But I did need a more accurate way of communicating so I put a lead rope on her halter. I wanted her to figure out what the puzzle was and get rewarded for accomplishing it. So I kept reminding myself to ask with a light rope cue and if she responded at all, release the rope cue. But the only time she got a CT, was if she made progress toward putting her hind feet on the second mat. So if she inched forward with her front feet, but left her hind feet where they were, I released the rope cue and asked again. There was a tiny reward in the release of the rope pressure, but not the click she was looking for. If the hind feet moved forward a bit- CT. Pretty soon she learned it was about the hind feet and she tried various things-
toe on > CT
step over the mat > release but no CT
step sideways with a bump of the back foot on the mat > CT
wiggle completely away from the back mat > release but no CT

So she had options. She could do what she wanted- avoid stepping on the mat with her back feet- and there were no negative consequences, but also no reward. She could do what I wanted, and she'd get a CT. I decided to quit when she had one hind foot on the mat and the other resting. We had made progress in communication. I was becoming more clear with my cues. A touch on the hip doesn't mean just step over however far is convenient. I need to be more precise with my requests and expectations and she is also learning that there are subtleties involved.

I have since watched Peggy Hogan's youtube clip on teaching her mini to drive and I think it's quite brilliant (as much of her training is) so I will use the wheelbarrow next time!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I've been tossing this topic around in my head for a while now but have been having trouble pinning it down into anything resembling organized thought. So I'm going to try writing it and see what happens!

The various pieces that are trying to come together are:
  1. In TAGteach, we need to be careful to separate praise from information.
  2. Using a Keep Going Signal (KGS...see previous posts for detail) in clicker training requires a specifically conditioned KGS, as opposed to verbal diarrhea (thanks to Amanda for that lovely descriptive term)
  3. In all training we have to be clear in our requests, both in our minds and in the horse's mind
First off, when using TAGteach, I have a hard time letting the marker signal do its job without also adding verbal commentary. Since one of the advantages of tagging is the objectivity of the auditory marker, I am taking away from the benefits by muddying things up with "good job", or "excellent". At the last seminar, I learned that I don't necessarily need to stop the verbal praise, I just need to separate it from the tagging, and put it in later if I want to. So it is more like

skill > tag > skill > tag > skill > tag > > > praise

That keeps me quiet while the tagger is doing the work to its full potential.

Verbal diarrhea- yuck, right? But how many of us know people, ourselves included, who chatter away nonstop to horses? We keep up this continuous babble and the horses of course have NO idea what we are saying so they are just hearing blahblahblahblah. It's just background noise- it has no meaning, so, here is the critical part, it gets tuned out. Therefore, if we want any verbal communication with our horse to be effective, we need to learn to shut up unless we are giving important information, whether a cue or feedback. While practicing at the seminar, my own TAG point became "duct tape"...which to me was a reminder to tape my lips shut. Focusing on that TAG point enabled me to be quiet and just use the marker until it became habit.

Likewise, our horses are going to be able to hear and understand "walk on", a lot more easily than they understand "c'mon Trigger, keep going, you can do it, walk on, keep marching, it's ok yadayadayada". And yes, that means we have to TRAIN them what "walk on" means, as opposed to relying on the nagging voice or leg or seat to maintain that forward. Taking this into the concept of a KGS, many of us use "good girl", but is that a real KGS that means "keep trying and a reinforcer is coming"? Or is it sometimes accompanied by kicking legs and driving seat which we may see as encouraging but in fact the horse finds unpleasant and so the "good girl" is conditioned to mean nothing at all, because sometimes it's accompanied by reinforcers and sometimes by punishers.

These are really just examples of many situations where we think we may be clear, but the horse is not at all clear on what we mean. The same is true of all our aids and responses. If we are not consistent and clear, it is unfair to get frustrated when the horse does not interpret and respond the way we want.

The photo was taken at our March TAG seminar here in Vermont. Theresa McKeon of TAGteach Int'l is on the left and Sarah Memmi of Equiclick on the right. The exercise was about trying to learn with distractions but excess information is also a distraction!