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.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Construction Zone

One of my favorite things about Clicker Training and teaching Alexandra Kurland's foundation lessons is the ability to talk a horse away from the edge. I distinctly remember the first time I realized I had that capability and the relief that flooded through me as I approached a hysterical yearling, knowing that I didn't have to be bigger and more hysterical than he was in order to get through to him.

This morning I had reason to be grateful again (and there have been many instances in between!). I have recently changed the horses' schedule so that the young ones are out in their dirt paddock all night, go out on grass for several hours early in the morning, and then spend the hot, buggy part of the day in their stalls. The past couple days have been rainy and when I've gone out in the morning, three little faces look out at me from the run-in, willing to go out in the rain to eat grass, but not overexcited. This morning, however, was a bright morning with sun streaming through the lifting fog- and a brisk 40 degrees. They knew the new routine and were very excited about going out to a grassy paddock. I usually take Ande out first, since the grass keeps him content while he waits for the younger ones, and then I take Percy and Rumer out together so neither of them gets left alone.

Today we had the added interest of having to go through a bit of a construction zone to get to their grass paddock. I have one of those fabric covered hoop buildings as a run-in shed which proved to not be as wonderful as I thought. It held up well to the winds and snows, but not to equine inhabitants. Thankfully, I didn't need it last winter and my dear husband is now trying to shore it up for a new horse arriving next week. So the large plastic covering is off and lying to one side. Because that paddock hasn't been used all spring, the grass is waist deep and you don't see the plastic until you get fairly close. To get to the next paddock, you have to go between the plastic and the skeleton of the shed...a narrow path just barely wide enough for two horses and a person. Inside the shed, eight deep holes have been dug for support posts for walls and the support posts not yet in concrete emerge at crazy angles. Yellow shovels, blue handled rakes, a wheelbarrow, white buckets and jugs all hide in the grass surrounding the skeleton shed. In addition, that paddock has a spring which keeps one area we walk through quite damp. With the recent rains and the tractor going up with supplies, there are deep tractor tracks full of water to cross. The area is perfect setup for conditioning young horses to surprising things!

Ande navigated this maze admirably. His neck was arched as he peered through the grass and blew at all the new things that appeared but he picked his way carefully and politely. I held out
my fist to target a couple times just to keep him focused on me but that was all it took. When I returned to the barn for the other two, they were in high spirits. They love to get each other going and they were racing around their dirt paddock having a grand time. Rumer was doing her Fritz imitation (of Fritz and the Beautiful Horses, by Jan Brett), galloping her little pony gallop and kicking up her heels with glee. Percy varied between his mummy's TB gallop (which he could only do about two strides of before running out of room) and his father's impressive warmblood trot. But he's still growing and when he came screeching up to halt in front of me, his head was way up in the air and his eyes and nostrils were wide open.

So, time for a little calm down cue! Rumer was dancing around me and Percy was tense as stone. I had their halters but before even putting them on, I needed Rumer to stand still and Percy to bring his head down to where I could reach it. I placed my hand on Rumer's poll and she backed away. I stayed with her and the little pony light bulb went off as she dropped her head a couple inches. Click! That click snapped Percy out of his racehorse reverie and he dropped his head to say "me too! I can play, I can play". I took turns between the two of them as they have experience being worked together. One at a time, the heads went down lower and lower until both noses were in the dirt and they would leave them there for a few seconds.

At that point I held out the halters and had them each put their noses in them- this was a
volunteer task. I wasn't about to wrestle anybody into a halter and blow the cooperative attitudes. Percy still has enough colt in him that anything touching the crest of his neck can be an invitation to play fight and even the halter on his poll brings his energy level back up. He tries SO hard to put his head down in these situations but it's as if there is a bungee cord pulling his head up that he has to strain against when he puts it down. The slightest wobble and the head shoots back up again. Keeping myself as quiet as I could, I reached up to just rest my fingertips on his poll, and he'd struggle to lower it a bit for a CT. Thankfully, Rumer had recovered her pony self by this time and was perfectly calm but wanted to be played with also so I had to keep her busy behind me as Percy and I worked through his gene pool of anxiety. I had to keep an eye on her for the "no unrequested forward" as she'd creep up to get my attention and I would have to calmly back her away and be consistent about it. Two at once is not easy but we all had lots of experience with it. The thing was, we were all getting calmer as time went by, as opposed to more wound up which frequently happens when making horses wait for something they want.

Once Percy could put his nose to the dirt again with his halter on, I decided we were ready for the construction zone. Before we reached the exciting part, I clicked once when they were both at my side and walking calmly. ("Games still on guys- don't forget I'm here") Both ponies had their eyes on all the equipment ahead when the tractor rut puddles appeared at their feet. There were clicks for putting their heads down to look at the water, and then clicks for steps toward it. This eliminated the desire to back away or leap over it. Instead, they were reinforced for putting their feet in it a little at a time. In a matter of seconds, we were over that hurdle. They know they get reinforced for approaching scary things so they didn't hesitate to march up to the thick of things. Percy's neck was arched like a swan as he looked at all the new things while Rumer just kept her head up high and tight. Before entering the narrow way between plastic and skeleton-shed-full-of-holes, I stopped for some more head down practice. I was between these two and did not want to get squished as the one on the right jumped left and the one on the left jumped right. I gave them plenty of time to look and plenty of reinforcement for heads down and calm. Then we tiptoed forward. Because they were calm, they did not scoot through, but walked with polite manners, if not total relaxation. Once through there, it was only another 15 feet to the gate where I could let them loose to graze in belly deep grass- the biggest reinforcer of all!