Friday, November 11, 2011

The Power of Targeting

The other day I was reminded of how powerful targeting can be. I don't think we understand this when we first learn about targeting.

I had taken Rumer out for a little walk and we were doing silly things. If she is going to be appropriate for kids, she needs to learn about silly. So we went for a walk, we stepped over logs in the woods, we got the mail from the mailbox and other things we've done before. Then when I was putting the mail in the garage, I decided she might as well learn to go odd places. I certainly took my pony odd places when I was a kid. So I invited her into the garage. The big door was closed and so I stepped into the person door. It was a bit dark in there but she bravely followed me, tiny step by tiny step. Our garage is a bit of a catch all so the recycling boxes were on one side of her, along with the hose coiled on the floor. The cot that I sleep on for foaling is stored in there, covered with plastic; various buckets, a wheelbarrow, bikes hanging from hooks in the ceiling- all were carefully and hesitantly checked out. So far I was doing no CT. I was just taking a step and letting her explore. Our winter tires were stacked in there, four to a pile each covered with a white plastic bag. I led her between the two stacks, just barely room for her to fit. I lifted up the big overhead door a couple times, but she was a bit reactive about that and I didn't want her backing into the hanging bikes such that they came crashing down on her head so we just played with the door going up and down a foot or two- then back out to the sunshine.

I asked if she wanted to jump up onto the porch. She looked like she would be fine with that but unfortunately we have no porch steps and it would have required jumping over her knee height. I didn't want her slipping on landing so instead she just investigated all the flower pots and things she could reach.

Then we came to the laundry line. Again, she followed me to it and sniffed the clean laundry hanging from it, but when I asked her to follow me under it, she said no thank you. First I asked just the way I had done all afternoon- I walked forward a step and waited to see if she would follow, no pressure. The line was high enough that she wouldn't guillotine herself on it but low enough that the socks were going to drape over her back as she walked under. But she was concerned enough that her head was up and the socks were at face height. I put the tiniest bit of pressure on the rope- no more than a suggestion. She still thought it was not safe. Considering how many things she had done already even when she was worried, I knew we had reached a new level of concern.

So I put out a fist. Oh- there's a target, she said, and took a little step forward to target my fist- CT. I stepped back a little and did it again. It was as if the laundry had magically disappeared. Two touches to my fist and she was under the laundry line without dislodging a sock.

My only reasoning is that all her life, targeting has been a fun and successful thing to do. It's never failed her. If it was as easy as targeting my fist, she lost all fear and was able to be successful.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Using What Comes Up (or The Difference Between Angus and Holsteins)

Apparently, from an equine perspective, there is a difference between black cows and black-and-white cows. We have Black Angus. The photo above shows some of our weanling calves, pastured about 75 feet from the horses. The horses see them daily and in the short lives of my youngsters, the cattle have been pastured on all sides. They hear them, see them, smell them and watch them daily. They watch them with interest, but not usually concern.

Today, however, they saw black-and-white cows. Holsteins, to be precise. The neighbor's heifers got out and although they stayed on their own property, they came in sight of my horses. I had just put Percy in the round pen for a little training session and had gone to get the mats out when I noticed the heifers...or rather I noticed Percy notice the heifers. I called the neighbor (good friends) and he said he'd go fetch them back to where they belonged. It was a bit of a hike from his house to the far field that adjoined us where the heifers had wandered. It would be a few minutes at least. Percy was doing his Standing Stallion Statue pose as he watched the heifers at the bottom of the hill. Every 10 seconds or so, he'd terrrottt around the round pen very importantly only to freeze and stare some more. All the other horses were rooted to the spot in their paddocks as they watched the strange black and white creatures.

A training opportunity had arisen. I was in complete management control- he was in a safe place and so was I. I could see how much I was worth to him compared to the side show of Holsteins. I wasn't interested in forcing him to pay attention to me. I wanted to know just how much of a "cookie" I was. How much value had I built up? I had a pouch full of treats since I was about to work with him anyway so I was ready. I stood on the opposite side of the round pen- he was facing away from me- and I called him. He turned immediately and trotted to me. Well, that was impressive and earned him a people-peppermint (his favorite).

I can't remember exactly what order I did things in, but my mind was whirring as I tried to figure the best approach. I know I asked him to put his head down and he promptly did- C/T. He trusted me enough to relax into that- good. I considered working on 300 peck pigeon since I wasn't sure I wanted to get any more complicated than head down considering the distraction. I thought it would be good to see how long he would keep his head down in that situation. But then I realized that would break one of the 4 D rules. I didn't want to increase the criteria in more than one of the 4 Ds- distraction, distance, duration or difficulty. We already had Distraction to the extreme, so I didn't want to up the duration as well. I was also changing the cue on him a bit so I was really pushing things. Normally I place my hand on his poll for a non-rope cue for head down but because he was on the other side of the panels and was at high alert, I couldn't really reach his poll and was doing a modified cue of just raising my hand. He seemed to get it, but I needed to be careful to keep things successful even if it was a bit of a test.

So we did a bit of easy targeting, then some head down for a count of 5. He'd give me some good responses and then trot back to check on the heifers. After a couple seconds, he'd come back to me. I did not call him back to me after the first time. I was hoping for, and in fact I got, him to choose to come back and play with me. I'm not sure I was overwhelmingly more interesting than the heifers, because he did feel the need to go check on them regularly, but he did return to me each time on his own. I checked to see if he'd offer head down if I didn't cue him after we'd done it a couple times. He's currently offering Pilates moves when given the choice and I didn't want to encourage him to puff himself up any more so I went back to asking for head down or targeting. His eyes softened considerably and I was able to get a head down for count of 10. That was enough so that I decided to take the mats and go into the round pen with him for our original lesson plan.

By this time, the heifers had disappeared over the rise in the distant field. They were not forgotten, but I did have Percy's full cooperation. I was very pleased to notice improvement in his work from the previous day (we're working on a pre-riding pattern of three mats) even with the higher level of excitement. All in all, I was very pleased.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Schooling ditches

I love fall- it's such a great time to ride with no bugs, cool temperatures, and beautiful scenery. It's not hard for students to convince me to take them on a hack so we can work on riding "in the open"...something many kids and adults sorely miss in these days of disappearing open land available to ride on.
This fall, I've gotten confident enough to ride Ande with students...I needed to be sure he was quiet enough that I didn't need to worry about him sparking an unusual moment in an otherwise quiet lesson horse and also that I could focus on a novice without needing to be on alert and horse training every second. Yesterday, at the end of a short ride with a student on Mariah, I decided to introduce the rider to ditches. We'd done uphill, downhill, steep ups through low woods (in other words on Mariah, she had to duck a lot more than I did!) and I was pretty confident Mariah would step quietly over the ditch so she could practice correct position without my needing to worry that she'd really need it.

When my daughter was younger, we'd practice ditches along the road- she could jump from the road over the ditch up onto the hayfield or lawn- uphill with less worry about bucking on landing. The town road crew had cleaned out the ditches with the grader after Hurricane Irene, so they were clear and obvious. Mariah was a champ and stepped carefully into and then over the ditch- the only challenge being keeping her head out of the deep grass on the other side. Ande, however, wasn't too keen on following her. As sure footed as he is, he is the one who still likes to leap over the little spring on the way to turnout in one of the fields when everyone else will simply splash through. I only had one peppermint in my pocket and I bit it into as many pieces as possible. Every tiny step toward the ditch (he had no problem going right to the edge, but then got worried), got a click and a tiny peppermint bit. The hardest thing of all was not going into complete "do it!" mode. Amazing how old habits kick in. Luckily, I knew the student's ride home was coming soon and so when the peppermints were gone, I shushed all the little trainer demons in my head who were telling me I couldn't let Ande "win" by not going over the ditch. I hopped off and led him over it. Sure enough, he leaped high and wide enough to make a Training horse proud. I let him graze and then led him back and forth a couple more times. Each time he avoided the possibility that any alligators in the ditch could reach him. Each time he got 10 mouthfuls of grass as reward and then we went back to the barn.

the ditch full of alligators

Today, I put a pouch full of treats on me and a halter and lead on Ande and we returned to the ditch. Standing him in the road, I asked him to step a tiny step toward the ditch. I knew he would gladly leap the ditch but I wanted him in it. Some schools of thought say never to teach a horse to step in a ditch because in competition, you want them going over it, not in it. I decided I'd risk it because I think it will be more important for Ande to be a quiet trail pony, rather than a high level event horse. And I figured, once again, he could be my guinea pig for Percy. If Ande proceeds to be unwilling or difficult to teach to jump ditches in the future, I'll do it differently with P.

I approached the ditch the way I approach a horse who is difficult to load into a trailer. It's not about the end result, it's about each tiny step of the way. I wanted him comfortable approaching the ditch and being in it, just like I want a horse comfortable approaching a trailer and comfortable being on the ramp. If you can get that, the rest is easy- and the training sticks. It's not just a one time deal. So I only asked for 2 inches forward at a time. And I made sure those were two inches straight ahead (using the Tai Chi wall if necessary), not toward me. I did not want him leaping onto me for safety (if you've seen the Thelwell sketch of the pony with his legs wrapped around his owner's neck when he sees a mouse, you know what I was picturing). When we had gone forward 6 inches down the little slope, I asked him to back up so we could do it again. Pretty soon, he was happily going forward and back, further and further down into the ditch until- ta da- he could reach the grass. So we stood and grazed there, another couple inches and he'd forgotten all about the alligators.

We went back and forth several times and he never again tried to leap. Next- I'll put the saddle back on and try again while mounted. I need to find a fairly level spot though because riding him with front feet in the ditch and head down in the bottom of it grazing will be a challenge!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


As a clicker trainer and TAG teacher, I have tried to remove the word "don't" from my vocabulary. It hasn't been easy, but it has been very worthwhile. Positive reinforcement techniques are all about focusing on what we want as opposed to what we don't want. Initially, this can tie a person in knots. Working with a young student whose horse was trying to bite her as she tightened the girth, I asked her to tell me what she wanted the horse to do. She simply couldn't figure out anything beyond "not bite me!" (yes, consideration was given to all the things which could be causing this behavior before trying to re-train it).

Step 1 in Alexandra Kurland's Step by Step book is "decide what you want your horse to do". Susan Garrett, dog trainer, does all her training in "do-land". TAG teach instructs us to make tag points of what we want. The easiest way I have found to explain this to people is to quote the title of a book. I tell them to close their eyes and then I say "don't think of an elephant". Then I ask, what is the first thing that popped into your head? In all cases, it's an elephant. But I said DON'T think of an elephant! Why did they? Because that is the way our brain works. Our brain thinks in positive images. It doesn't have a picture for "no". It pulls up the things we think about. So if we go through the day thinking "no chocolate, no chocolate, no chocolate", our brains are hearing "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate".

Having raised a few young horses in recent years, there were plenty of things I didn't want them to do. I didn't want to be bitten, or kicked, or run over for example. I didn't want them to rear, or pull back on cross ties or bolt away from me. For all these situations, I had to do what clicker trainers call "train an incompatible behavior". That meant I had to come up with things to train them to DO, that made it impossible for them to do the things I didn't want. Don't bite became "mouth closed and head away from me". Don't kick became "four feet on the floor". Don't run me over became "walk a safe distance from me". Pretty soon, these things I taught became incompatible behaviors for other things I didn't want. "Four on the floor" also meant they couldn't rear and couldn't pull back on cross ties. Walking a safe distance from me meant they couldn't bolt off.

Now there was a lot of management that went into the process as well. You don't turn your backside to a young colt and just leave it hanging there begging to be bitten. I know that colts are all about biting. Not because they are bad, but because they are colts and that's what colts do! It wasn't personal- they bit everyone- their moms, their pasture buddies, the cat. It's part of their play which is part of their education. So while I was around them, I protected my backside (and arms and legs and face) by keeping a safe distance and training them to do something else with their heads which they got reinforced for. I had to make not-biting more reinforcing than biting.

I still remember exactly where we stood the first time Percy, as a weanling "struck" with a front foot and caught me in the back of the leg. At least that's how I saw it at the time. My mind was yelling "DANGER, RUDE, AGGRESSIVE" while this little clicker angel on my shoulder was saying "reward the positive". That little clicker angel and I had quite a discussion.
"But it was dangerous", I argued.
"Keep yourself in protective contact", the little angel said.
"I can't keep myself protected every second!"
"You know horses are dangerous big animals", the little angel said, "you have chosen to work with them and specifically with young ones".
"Why can't I punish this behavior?", I demanded.
"Punishment has unintended consequences", the clicker angel said.
"LIke what?!"
"You know perfectly well"

She was right, I did know. I didn't want this little horse to fear me, fear being with me or fear offering things because I might hurt him. I taught Percy to walk next to me, not behind me, where an enthusiastic paw wouldn't catch me in the back of the leg. I taught him how to turn and stay next to me when we went through gates so I could shut it behind us (the instance that had him behind me on that memorable day).

Now he's three and even though I never punished him for it, he doesn't strike. And many repetitions and a high rate of reinforcement for being next to me mean that when he gets startled and shoots forward, it's not been over the top of me. Am I absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, sure he'll never hurt me? Nope. He's a horse. A young horse right now. He weighs half a ton and he has hooves. Accidents happen. I must take responsibility for my own safety as much as I can and hope for the best.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Who's Your Trainer?

On a list serve I'm on, earlier this summer there was an active discussion about choosing a trainer. Some people get regular assistance from a trainer (this person can focus on training the horse and/or teaching riders) but even for people who do most of their own training, it can be very helpful to enlist the assistance of someone else occasionally. Trainers offer help with many issues- someone to lay out a thoughtful plan and help you pick realistic goals; maybe you've hit a bump in the road and need some fresh ideas or a different set of eyes; sometimes you just need any set of eyes to tell you how things are looking as opposed to feeling; sometimes you are ready for a different approach than the one you've used in the past or you have become uncomfortable with or even outgrown the trainer you've been using. The list goes on.
So how do you choose who to go to for help? Some of us have more choices than others but everyone should do careful research before entrusting themselves and/or their horses to another person. It's always good to start with asking around but don't limit yourself to only the well-known or big-name people. Someone posted a great quote on Facebook:
"It does not interest me who you studied with, what certificate you have, or what video clips you show, I want to know what my horse thinks of you after 15 minutes of working with you" - attributed to Ben Hart
While I actually am interested in who someone studies with and what certificates they might have (it gives some background and general impressions on approaches and certainly experience), I love the conclusion drawn. Or to quote Alexandra Kurland, "go to people for opinions and horses for answers".

So how do you know what horses think of a trainer? Peggy Ferdinand wrote a great post in this discussion and she has allowed me to re-post some of it here:

* Do horses she is working with look relaxed when she handles them? Or do they tense up and guard themselves? Do they seem to nuzzle her or otherwise feel comfortable "checking her out" when she's around? Do they stand relaxed when she is there? Do they seem to be trying to figure out what she wants, or just trying to "get through it"? If the horses she's working with are coming out of training sessions as relaxed or more relaxed than when they started, then that trainer is doing something right. And, if some horses seem to respond well to her, but others don't (or, she works well with some horses but not others)---which type is your horse more like?

* When the horses aren't doing what she wants them to do---how long does she keep trying the same thing, or trying the same thing with more emphasis/force? In other words, does she have a big enough "toolbox" to adjust her way of asking for/setting up a behavior if her first attempt or attempts aren't working? (I watched Mike Schaffer work with a big Shire mare in a clinic. She absolutely refused to give to the bit---a behavior that, with every other horse in the clinic, took him from about 5 to 15 seconds to achieve. It took fifteen minutes of him experimenting with this and that and the other thing, and finally he removed her cavesson, and presto---she gave at the poll and relaxed and he could go on with her. But my point is that he wasn't doing the same thing over and over and over. He HAD fifteen minutes' worth of other techniques he could use, without throwing up his hands and reverting to punishment.)

* Is the trainer's "discipline" for horses consistent and fair? Does she always want, and expect/train, to the same standards of behavior (rather than being more irritable at some times than at others)?

* Is she observant about what's happening to affect the horse's behavior? I watched a trainer react to a horse who was fidgeting in the crossties. She kept yelling at him, "STOP THAT!", and I actually rushed over to him just in time to avert blows from her to "punish his misbehavior". He was fidgeting, yes, but he was doing so because he'd been brought in hot and and sweat was rolling down his face, and it must have ITCHED like crazy. I took a rag and gave him a good scratch, took off the bridle, and then, he stood there very quietly. So---you want to be sure that the person you choose has better observational skills than that. They very often mean the difference between safety and grave danger, in working with horses (BTW I have no problem with a lot of the "good behavior definitions" that horse people have (I love Alex's way of describing them---for example, "Please be quiet; the grownups are talking" is just PERFECT). But a trainer must, I think, be able to assess WHY the horse is "misbehaving", and deal with it appropriately. Even better, they ought to be aware of the possibilities, and manage things so that the "misbehavior" doesn't occur because the stimulus (pain or discomfort or fear or whatever) has been headed off before the horse decides he has to handle it himself.)
The same goes for you, the rider or handler. Some people are very compassionate when working with horses, but have no patience with people! I understand this, because having a lot of compassion for a horse means we do not want to see their owners being rough or sloppy or careless because it hurts the horse. Nonetheless, the better we are at explaining things to people, the better off the horses will be. I've ridden under plenty of instructors who want to chew students up and spit them out. In that situation, I am tense and afraid of making a mistake- which makes it much more difficult to learn (the same is true for horses of course!) I prefer instructors who are quiet, methodical and patient.

So whether I'm the student or the trainer: quiet, clear and patient are what I'm after. Many thanks to Peggy Ferdinand for sharing those great thoughts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #3

The third and final day of the clinic was a rainy one. This didn't affect the learning possibilities in the least. Alex actually likes rainy days because it means we can spend more time on the people. Since it is the people who work with the horses, they need to learn it first. The facility which hosted the clinic does have an indoor arena so that was an option and one horse and handler pair did take advantage of that. The rest of us worked our horses in the stalls. Percy has never been in an indoor and this one was not attached to the barn but a short walk up the hill...further than I had taken him. He had settled in so beautifully by this point that I did not want to throw anything newly stressful into the situation. I wanted him to get on the trailer that afternoon thinking "well, that wasn't so bad- actually it was kind of fun!". This way, he does not need to fear or worry about where he is going the next time I ask him to get on the trailer.

Another area in which Alex has done amazing work is Microshaping...or Pony Pilates. She has a wonderful DVD on the topic which is such fun to watch and study- all her DVDs and books can be purchased at her Clicker Center website . Through microshaping, or shaping movements in tiny little increments, one can actually teach horses to activate individual muscle groups. I had given this a try with Percy earlier in the year, and once again, he caught on quickly and took it to such an extreme that I dropped it because I didn't know where to go next. I had focused on his pectoral muscles in his chest and in no time, he would stand and make those little pec muscles jump like a body builder trying to impress. When I tried to go on to other areas of his body, I had a hard time being in two places at once and also felt I needed some guidance as to where I should be focusing. Since we had decided to stay in the stall that rainy Sunday, I showed Alex what we had and asked for her help in where to go next.

I was very glad that I hadn't done more with him because she was concerned about his getting jammed in his spine, putting as much "oomph" into these little muscle contractions as he was. She asked him to target her hand with his chin, effectively bringing his chin back toward his chest. I say TOWARD, not TO. This was a full body movement for him, rocking onto his hind end a bit, lifting his back, and stretching at the poll. Alex made it look as easy as falling off a log. I could certainly step in and ask him to target my hand but two things happened: one, his movement was much less fluid and two, he didn't quite get the stretch through the poll we were looking for. I think I got better at it through the session, but it was a good final lesson for me because it summed up a few themes that had been brewing for me over the weekend.

First, I need to channel Alex when I work with all horses, but especially Percy I think. She has such a quiet, fluid way about her which in no way do the horses perceive as indicating a pushover. A significant realization in this came for me when I watched Emily, the woman who was using my Kizzy pony for the clinic. Unfortunately I didn't get to watch her much because I was usually preoccupied with Percy who was across the aisle and needing some attention. Emily is a relative newcomer to Clicker Training and her first lesson was working on organizing herself for the foundation lessons. She struggled a bit, as we all do- it looks so easy and then you get all tangled up in clickers and ropes and treat pouches etc! But the second day, she was transformed. It was amazing to watch her move. We had spent the morning working on the rope handling skills and there had been the usual connections to Tai Chi. It turns out, Emily has been studying Tai Chi and once she made the connection, her movements became smooth and graceful. Kizzy responded accordingly. I have done a little Tai Chi myself and the slow movements of this Chinese martial art intended for defense are really wonderful for working with horses. Moving in this way negates any need for swinging ropes or blatant body positions. The horses instinctively understand and respect it without becoming alarmed or fearful. So- more Tai Chi for me.

Secondly, microshaping. I told Alex afterward that just when I thought I understood baby steps, she unpeeled another layer for me. Her reply: "there are always more layers". I guess the way I have defined it for myself is that baby steps are about chunking the training down into smaller and smaller steps, whereas microshaping is about focusing on the tiniest of physical movements. One of the horses which Alex worked with in the stall that day was Georgia. Georgia (and her owner) had come with a pretty solid understanding of Clicker Training even though she'd never been to a clinic before. But Georgia overdid it when it came to the flexing and bending. She curled her head and neck way down and around so the first couple days had been spent working with her to straighten her out. On Sunday, Alex showed how tiny a flexion she was looking for, asking with the rope and halter. It was so tiny that sometimes we couldn't even see it, but she could feel it. Why? Because it was a correct movement which would lead to greater things. The gross movements skip all the little steps in between. Alex took us into the tack room and once again guided us through people exercises. I was fortunate to be one of her "horses". Standing behind me and placing her hands on the base of my head, she guided me through tiny movements to the right: a slight turn to the right, a slight tip of the ear and a slight drop of the chin. We repeated this several times while observers oohed and aahed over how much softer I was looking....!?!? I couldn't feel it happening but there it was. When she was done, I could turn to the right feeling soft and relaxed, but still felt stiff (though I wouldn't have described it that way before) to the left. Lesson learned- these exaggerated over bending and over flexing things we do with our horses are unnecessary and unhelpful. Or at least that's where my thinking is right now.

Lastly, there is no "right" position. When the subject of frame or positioning comes up, Alex says, "find an image that pleases your eye" and work toward that. In addition, horses come in all shapes and sizes so it makes sense that the balance point is going to be slightly different for each individual. So when working with Percy and microshaping, I need to think more of flexibility that I can mold to my choosing, rather than trying to find the "just right" spot. I need to be able to ask for him to put his head at any height I ask and flex just as much as I ask- but not in a demanding way. More of a "try this" way so that he frets less about being "right" and instead thinks about his own body and comfort.

Certainly plenty to work on but I already can't wait for the next clinic. Many thanks for Caroline Albert of Click for Confidence for organizing this clinic!!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #2

On the second day of the clinic, we spent the morning doing people work. This portion of Alex's clinics may look the least appealing to the inexperienced but anyone who has felt what the horses feel by walking through her many exercises comes away a better handler/rider and grateful for it. Below is a photo of Alex demonstrating the slide down the rope utilizing Tai Chi bone rotations on a "horse".

Percy had settled down wonderfully in 24 hours. There was a window in his stall that he could put his head out of and view most of the farm. This was wonderful because he could study it all he wanted and nothing looked different when I took him out to work. In addition, I was on "farm time" and was awake well before everyone else each morning. I took advantage of that to get Percy out to hand graze. It couldn't have been more peaceful and he could eat and look and walk and eat and look and walk. Each day he ventured a little further but he really didn't want to go very far- his eyes needed to get full with right where he was!

When it was time to work horses, they had all been brought in from the paddocks and were dozing in their stalls. I chose the area right outside the barn to work this time. There was a little more room and he had had time to settle in and observe the goings on there. Plus, we were easily in sight of the other horses so there was no whinnying back and forth (to give Percy credit, Kizzy would whinny to him each morning when I took him out to hand graze but I didn't hear Percy make a sound all weekend). Everyone was assembled on the grassy hill to observe our session and I brought Percy out the door and down the little slope to where Alex and I had set up the cone circles and mats.
As I brought him down this tiniest of slopes, Alex commented, "He doesn't know how to go down hill".
"How can he not know how to go down hill?", I exclaimed, "he grew up in Vermont!".
I was picturing the side hills he played on daily in turnout, the hill I had to lead him up and down just to get to some of the paddocks, and the steep little thistle patch he'd been BORN on.
"I don't know," she said, "but he doesn't know how to go down hill in balance".

Thus began the day's lesson.

We took turns working him in small circles on this tiny slope. As Alex explained the exercise, he had to coordinate himself going just a couple steps down hill, then he got to go across the hill, then a couple steps coordinated up hill and then a couple more across the hill again. What I began to see was the way he'd let his body tumble down the hill once he got going. He did not maintain a steady rhythm of footfalls down hill and he'd speed the tempo up going up hill. This is another example of the beauty of Alex's work. Outside people looking in may see Clicker Training as tricks or even behavioral work; Alex is all about Classical training- building a horse who is strong, coordinated and aware of his body. It is why I couldn't wait to get Percy to a clinic with her. I was starving for this sort of thing with him so he'll have a head start when I really start to ride him. I'm not interested in just getting on his back and going- I want that beautiful piece of art underneath me. And I want his development to help keep him sound for many years to come. By teaching him how to use his muscles and joints, he will be less likely to break down.
In this photo, you can see he has begun to pay attention to his body. There is slack in the rope but he is stepping under himself (not completely, but at least his hind end isn't trailing), his body is bent gently toward me from poll to dock and his topline is slightly raised, rather than hollow. This was achieved not just with practice going up and down hill (he's been practicing all his life after all), but by carefully observing him and clicking for the correct moments. When I worked him, I wasn't completely sure what I was looking for, but observing Alex and re-watching the little video clips Sarah took (thank you Sarah!), I could see that when she had him, she was asking him for lateral steps on that hill. At the end of the session, she had people walk down a slope, feel our thumping steps, then practice a couple circles of lateral work, to return to the down hill and feel how much more balance we had in our own bodies.

I realized that as much time as I have spent leading him up and down hills, my focus has been on his behavior, not his body. I have been dealing with a youngster who desperately wanted to get out on his grass paddock and all the attention was on keeping the marbles in place. Now we have something else to work on. I have done it since getting him home and he is ever so much better. By giving him his body to focus on, he forgets about the silliness and we get both body and mind under control.

Oh- and he did get to practice his colors and standing on a mat for break
s from his hill work!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Alexandra Kurland clinic blog post #1- Magic

In our area, there is an amazing magician whom you can hire for entertainment at parties and such. He also works the tables at a local restaurant on Sunday nights and I love to watch the faces of people as he performs his tricks- especially kids! He's no simple magician- this guy is good. Last time we watched him, he had a diner draw a card from a deck, look at it, and replace it. The magician then pinched the flame on the table candle...and 3 appeared in a blister on his finger and the spade symbol appeared as a blister on his thumb!!! (and yes, the woman's card was the 3 of spades). This weekend, Alexandra Kurland worked similar magic.

Saturday morning was the first day to work horses. We had turned everyone out and the trick was to find a place to work Percy that would be least upsetting to a young boy on his first overnight. We chose the driveway between the barn and paddocks, hoping his turnout time had allowed him to get a good look at that area and it also kept him fairly close to Kizzy (who had come along as companion) in the paddock nearby.

Percy likes to look at things. He can get his head way up in the air and his eyes open wide. It isn't a matter of just looking for a few moments...he really needs hours to examine a new area. I have confidence that this will change as he gets older and more time off the farm but this was only his second trip "out" and his first overnight. When I brought him out of his paddock, he couldn't decide which way to look first. He wanted to keep on eye on Kizzy on one side, but the other clinic participants were gathered along the barn on the other side to watch. People kept popping around a corner, cats wandered through the scene, more people appeared around the other side of the barn, the tractor was being used to transport manure to the pile, people were carrying chairs and wearing interesting hats. The minimally traveled dirt road was on yet another side and when cars or trucks did pass by, one could hear them coming from a ways away and I could see Percy mentally mapping the area as he first heard a vehicle and then tracked it like a periscope as it came closer and closer. There was a LOT to look at and he couldn't figure out which direction needed most attention. His front feet came off the ground a time or two, but I had to give him credit because it wasn't the full stand I have seen on rare occasions before. He wasn't trying to drag me around or plow me down...but it was definitely borderline meltdown territory. I began trying to run through the foundation lessons in order to get his attention, give him something to focus on and show Alex his scope of behaviors. He did target my hand, back on a light request and put his head down on request, but was so wound up that he wouldn't take the treat as reward- or took it but neglected to chew it. I had to give him a lot of credit for trying.

Alex quickly set out two very small circles of cones and two mats. We made a round of each circle as I used the Tai Chi wall to try to get him to bend toward me and pay attention, rather than stare off to the outside and push in with his shoulder. I told her I didn't consider mat work to be a very strong behavior for him because he tends to try to get his feet "just right" on them, rather than relaxing- but to my surprise, he did very well on them. One was a largish one made of medium width rubber. At one point, he pawed it and it curled up under him so he had to leap away but (on Alex's direction), I took him right back to it and he did stand on it. The other mat was a small (12"?) one of plywood. He stepped right over it, not paying any attention but coincidentally got a toe on so got a click and treat for that. So, he'd made one round of this training "loop" and on a scale of distractedness came down from a 9 to an 8.5. At this point, Alex told me to bring him to the inside of one of the little cone circles where she was standing. I was expecting her to have him target her hand as a simple behavioral reward to keep the Rate of Reinforcement (ROR) high. Instead, she said "Red. Touch." very clearly and presented a red cone from behind her back. Percy loves to target and so while I don't think he even looked at her or the cone, he absent-mindedly quickly reached out and touched the target for a click and treat. She immediately put the cone behind her out of sight again and then repeated the exercise. The third time, after saying "Red. Touch", she brought two cones from behind her back- one red and one green. Percy targeted the red one.

As an aside, this is the way I remembered it after much consideration at 4:30 the next morning when I woke up and thought about it. In all honesty, as it happened, it was as mysterious as watching that magician in the restaurant. Alex was the magician and I was the 6 year old with my mouth hanging open as she taught, in a matter of minutes, my 3 year old, highly distracted TB cross boy the difference between red and green. And Alex got as much of a kick watching my reaction as I always do watching the magician's observers. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Back to Saturday morning. Alex then said "Green. Touch." and presented both cones. Percy targeted the green one. I was dumbfounded as Alex grinned and sent us off for another round of "Why Would You Leave Me" on the cone circles and standing on the mats. We were down to a distraction level of 8- he was still watching the people, making sure Kizzy was in sight, listening to vehicles all while doing everything I asked with a minimum of attention. But he was now taking treats. And we returned to Alex and her red and green cones. He nailed it each time, regardless of whether she said red or green and even though she switched hands behind her back so that green was sometimes on her left and sometimes on her right and vice versa with the red. Off for another round of circles and mats. Now I could get head lowering on the large mat and at least get him to pay attention to the smaller one.

At some point, Alex introduced a yellow cone. At this point Percy made his first mistake with the colors. In the entire morning (which was in some sort of warp time so I have no idea how long we worked him...20 minutes?) he made three mistakes in probably 25 attempts. And I think he only made a mistake when she tried the yellow. She then returned to green and red and for the rest of the weekend, he was error-free.

This entire process illustrates Alex's "Loopy Training" method. She creates a loop of behaviors for the horse to progress through, each one reinforcing the previous one. The loop of

behavior -> click -> treat -> behavior

is the first loop. One looks for "clean" loops. She defined "clean" as fluid and prompt with no unwanted behaviors creeping in. So a simple clean targeting loop would include the horse immediately responding to the presentation of a target by touching it, the handler promptly and smoothly offering a treat which the horse immediately and politely took at which point the handler would smoothly offer the target again. If the horse were to hesitate at either the presentation of the target or the offering of the treat for any reason- unsure, looking away, trying to graze, etc, that would be an example of a loop that is not clean.

She also states that "when a loop is clean you get to move on. Not only do you get to move on, you should move on." Therefore, I asked why she had presented the color training to Percy that morning when, in my opinion, his loops were far from clean. He was looking everywhere but at what he was doing, he didn't consistently take the treats, he tried to wander off and the behaviors he did offer were far from his standard. She agreed completely, pointing out his baby rears. Her explanation was that she felt he was an individual who would benefit from something new and fun. While I can see some horses would become frustrated or worried when asked to do something completely new in a highly distracting environment, Percy loved it and that got his focus when his well-known behaviors didn't. He even became fascinated by something over the roof of the barn while Alex was presenting colors but it didn't affect his success rate.

And that was only Day 1.

This clip was taken the second day after he had calmed down considerably but illustrates the color training.

Thank you to Sarah Memmi for catching this video clip and taking great photos!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Backing Percy

Wow- I can't believe it's been 2 months since I last posted. One kind reader even emailed me to check in! Summer is so busy. I've been posting little things to my Facebook page so if anyone is on Facebook, you can find me at my Bookends Farm page.
The most exciting recent news is that Percy has been sat upon. It was highly UNeventful. Just as training should be! Last fall I had leaned on him and patted him all over from atop a mounting block with lots of clicks and treats for keeping all four feet still as I did so. We practiced Alexandra Kurland's mounting block lessons- having him line himself up at the mounting block. I also put an old saddle on him so he could feel that a little bit. With saddle on, I let him loose in the round pen to see if he wanted to try to buck it off but all he did was go to grazing. This Spring we revisited all these same lessons with no further problems. He was so comfortable with the saddle that I entrusted my dear old Stubben Siegfried to him. He looked very handsome in it! We walked about the paddock with it and I let the stirrups dangle and bump him in the sides. He remained totally focused on me and halted with my voice commands.
When I backed both Ande and Rumer, I did it bareback. I felt I could more easily "emergency dismount" if necessary. But I found that MY balance is so much better in a saddle that they were more comfortable and balanced with a saddle. Plus, Percy is not skinny but he does have withers that the ponies don't! Thirdly- he's bigger! I could sit down onto the ponies but even using the muck bucket, I had to go up to get on Percy. So I opted to try this one in a saddle.
I wrote into a list serve asking if anyone else has trouble with these horses trying to get on the mounting block with the rider and yes, I found I am not alone. They have learned about standing on a mat and plastic, etc. Once they find you are clicking them for coming closer to the block, they jump to the conclusion that you'd like them up there with you and they are more than happy to oblige. This has resulted in me going ass-over-teakettle backwards off the block on more than one occasion. I was relieved to know others have had the problem and have dealt with it in g
ood woman even posted pics of her horse with front feet on the top step of the block and back feet on the bottom step! I admired her training innovation but didn't want to go that route. Instead I did a lot of review of having him step away from a touch on the shoulder. He is very good at that and so going back and forth from approaching the block to stepping away enabled me to prevent him from stepping too far into me. Without the saddle I would simply touch both hands to his back when he was in the right spot and then click and treat. With the saddle I would grab pommel and cantle and just wiggle the saddle a bit as Alex does, then click and treat.
As much as Percy likes to be correct, when he figures out what I want, he thinks that bigger, faster and more must be better. It didn't take long for him to start hustling to the overturned muck bucket. I learned from another poster to alternate the calm, quiet behaviors with the new ones to counteract such over-enthusiasm. We would approach the block and if he got quick, I'd calmly
stop him and we'd work on head down before proceeding. I have to be careful not to use head down as a punishment or a test, but rather with the true intent of helping him relax. Sometimes we'd have to do it between steps in lining up as well but it did result in a much quieter mounting block process.
My final decision was to back him in a halter and lead, rather than a bridle, and to do it with no one holding him. He can be enough of a live wire that I did not want to rely on "equipment" or someone else to control him. I wanted him calm, quiet and happy enough with the proceedings that he would offer to stand. I needed to be SO confident in him that I did not feel I needed anything more. So for a couple days, we lined up to the block in halter, rope and saddle and I'd just play with weight in the stirrup and leaning over. He was so nonchalant about it that it was
really tempting to climb aboard! I always wear a safety vest in addition to helmet when I ride the youngsters so I also made sure he saw me in that getup and heard the velcro of the vest.
Finally the big day arrived when my husband volunteered to be close enough to take a couple pictures and Percy was just as happy as could be with the whole thing. I was bursting with happiness.
That was three weeks ago and I haven't done it again since. My goal was not to get on and "break him" in short time. It was to show him- look, this is something else weird we can do, then go back to the old games and some day soon I'll get on again and maybe take a few steps. In the meantime we are working on Pony Pilates to strengthen his back so he is better able to carry me when we do more riding.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Turnout Practice

Under the heading of Taking Advantage of Problems, I am using yet another rainy week to work on behavior of horses while being turned out. With record snowfall that melted at the same time as record Spring rainfall, we have very wet paddocks. Last week was beautiful and I was finally able to turn out on grass- but now it's too wet again.

Last week I had developed an exercise I was using with everyone. Each individual had to earn the right to eat grass. So rather than work on "walking politely" to the grass paddocks by using a tidbit from my pocket, I had each one walk x number of steps (each horse or pony had his or her own "average or better" number of steps), then clicked and treated from my pocket. Then, they had to stand for an "average or better" count, at which time I used the verbal cue "graze" and they could drop their heads and feast for 10 or 15 bites. Then I said "head up", and we walked on again.

I was really pleased with how this worked. I was using a former distraction- ankle deep, Spring-rich grass, as a reinforcer. I also used treats from my pocket...this was to prevent them from diving for grass. They had to wait to hear the cue "graze" which taught self-control. What I found was that I was working with two distinct distractions- when we got to the paddock, the horses got to graze as well as buck and play. Simply being handed hay stretcher pellets on the way out did help over the years, but the anxiety level could still be pretty high even though they managed to keep a lid on it. By using grass as a reinforcer on the way out, they didn't have to wait until they got to the paddock to get the grass. This took a lot of the energy out of the situation. I also cued "graze" when we got into the paddock and before I removed the halter.
This confused a couple of them, but it removed the connection of "through gate = explosion". When I did remove halters, there was no explosion! They just kept grazing. I sometimes heard a little explosion behind me as I walked back to the barn, but that was glee for being out, rather than glee at getting away from me finally. When weather warmed up this Spring, I began leaving them out in their "dirt paddocks" at night, rather than putting them in stalls, so it wasn't as if they'd been locked up all night and needed to move.

On Saturday we had a little glitch in the system. I had been turning Percy, the youngest, out first. He was doing very well. Saturday morning I needed to leave early to teach at a Pony Club clinic so my husband offered to help. I told him he could start turning the lesson ponies out while I fed Percy his breakfast and did water buckets. Oops. When I took Percy out and he discovered that others were already out there eating without him, he got rather more excited than usual. I should also explain that because we do rotational grazing, it is sometimes a bit of a hike to get to the paddock of choice. In addition, there is a very steep hill (really a very long bank) we have to walk down to get to many of the paddocks. This can be challenging when you are leading a boisterous youngster and you're both slipping and sliding on the dewy grass. Percy got so excited at the top of the hill that his energy burst out and he stood up, once, twice, thrice, four times. He wasn't really trying to get away from me because one time he got a leg over the rope and it came out of my hand but he just walked a couple steps and started grazing, perfectly happy to let me catch him. We proceeded to the paddock as in days before with me mentally kicking myself all the way there and back for not seeing this coming.

The next day, I resumed my previous arrangement, but Percy thought standing up was fun the day before so he did it again. Not good. I jerked hard on the rope, said "NO" and he dropped his head. We proceeded as before. The following day it was too wet to turn out but I decided to "practice" anyway, later in the day. Again, we got to the top of the hill and he stood up. Again I jerked on the rope, said "NO", but this time I walked him right back into his stall. There was no hay or grain in there and I just left him for several minutes while I walked out of sight. My guess was that I'd built a behavior chain. Rearing was OK in his mind because even though he got jerked and yelled at, he still got to go out. The punishment was not strong enough to stop the behavior. I was not willing to go to harsher punishment. The reinforcement of standing up was stronger than the reinforcement of waiting politely. It was time to break things down further so I had no more rehearsals of this very inappropriate behavior. When I took him back out, we just hand grazed for a minute or two and then returned to his dirt paddock- no turnout after rearing.

Since I can't turn them out on grass, this week is turnout practice...without ever leading to actual turnout. There are two criteria I'm after: walking quietly next to me with slack in the rope and standing quietly when I do, also with slack in the rope ("quietly" also includes no head tossing) There are two distractions: grass and anticipated freedom.

Phase 1- get my criteria without either of the distractions. Practice leading around the dirt paddock building duration. Our "average" for him has been 15 steps and a count of 5 wait. I need to build more reinforcement history of this behavior and increase my duration by a lot before I ask for much less when I introduce distractions.

Phase 2- introduce lower level distractions. Put hay out in the paddock and ask him to walk to it while meeting criteria. Ask him to walk past the hay while meeting the criteria. (this has proven pretty easy). Today I will move on to less enticing grass and not in the direction of turnout. I will test the value of my training by seeing if he can meet his average while walking through already grazed grass right in the vicinity of the barn. If not, I will find his average under those distractions and build up duration from there.
Phase 3- Practice walking toward the paddock but not getting turned out. I can hand graze him on the way out and teach him that maybe that's all that happens. He doesn't get to anticipate being turned out any more. I will do this at times of day other than early morning at first (which is usual turnout time).

Phase 4- Practice walking out to hand graze in the paddock. No freedom, just grazing in the paddock with me occasionally asking him to pick his head up and walk or just stand.
Phase 5- Hopefully we'll dry out some day and can turn out and with luck, by then I'll have the little beast under control again!

The beast- watching young cattle buck and run on the hill. (in desperate need of a spring trimming of mane, whiskers and cat hairs!)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Recaller Course Review

I've been raving about this online dog training course I took to everyone who will listen. The name of the course was The 5 Minute Formula to a Brilliant Recall, or Recallers 2.0 for short and it was presented by Susan Garrett of Say Yes Training. The Recaller part of the name is because that is what they course proposed to do- build a Brilliant Recall into your dog in 5 minutes a day. The 2.0 part is because it is the second time she offered it and I imagine it will be offered again in the future. If anyone is interested and has a dog, I highly recommend it.

The course was 5 weeks long and I found the setup to be very worthwhile. It consisted of
  1. A new game presented each day. Each had a fun name and fun was a major ingredient in the entire course. With names like "Cookie in the Corner" and "Smoke Ya", how can you not have fun? Susan is a fun person and her attitude is contagious: she wants training to be fun for handler and dog. The games introduced new skills and built upon previous ones. Most days, there was a 2-5 minute video posted to illustrate the game and sometimes links to her site for supporting articles etc.
  2. The course had a strong social networking piece to it. Each game was posted on a different page and each of us could comment or ask questions on the games. There was a section for asking the staff questions, for bragging among ourselves, etc. Many of the questions were answered by other participants; some were taking this course for the second time and helped out tremendously.
  3. In addition, there were webinars and coaching calls. These were amazing and lasted between 1 and 2 hours each. There were three coaching calls plus a taped one from the previous course as well as two webinars. In the webinars, we were give a "lecture" to watch 24 hours ahead of time and then she took live questions. For the coaching calls, we were encouraged to post questions to the website and then she answered them live during the "call" (online).
  4. Depending on the level one signed up for, there is access to the course for different lengths of time- until either June, August or a full year. In addition, the different levels offer some of the materials in an e-book form as well as DVD and podcast.
Personally, my tank was full after 3 weeks. I haven't even looked at most of the last 2 weeks yet, after following diligently for the first three. Partly this was because Spring finally came to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and the outdoors has demanded my attention (horses, garden etc). But also because I realized I really needed to cement some of the earlier games before trying to progress any further. At the beginning of the games, she gives the prerequisites and I got into territory where I could not honestly say we had mastered some of the prerequisites. So I am very thankful for having this course available into the summer, as well as the materials I will be able to keep in written, audio and video format.

How does this course relate to horses? In so many ways that my mind was absolutely exploding with possibilities on a daily basis. Initially, I looked at whether each game could be transferred to horses. Then I began to see bigger connections. Her mantras, her goals, and her methods are applicable on so many levels that I don't know where to begin. I have shared several of my thoughts on my Facebook page but I'll include the following:
  • Average or Better- the concept that we need to know our horses' behaviors well enough that we only reinforce behavior that is at least as good as they are capable of on average. I tell myself "average or better" all the time now because I found I frequently rewarded mediocre behavior because "he's so cute" or "he tried" or "I need to maintain that". I look at things completely differently now and see a difference already.
  • Don't allow rehearsals of bad behavior- this is one of those things that of course I knew, but somehow, that statement has jumped out at me and I'm seeing ways to apply it constantly. I think it's because I followed "reward the good, but ignore the bad" for so long. But ignoring the bad doesn't always work if it's self-reinforcing or if you haven't given them something else to do instead. So now I look at unwanted behaviors with a sharper eye and find ways to eliminate rehearsals of it, even if it means that it takes more time. Better to take the time now, than deal with this forever.
  • Record keeping- we've heard it before, but this course supplied us with a downloadable journal and I have adapted it for my horses. It includes details I didn't think of before and on Susan's suggestion, I committed to using the journal for the course and am trying to build it as a habit. Wow is it helpful to write things down after they happen and use that to develop a plan for the next session. Otherwise, I'm doing same old same old each day.
  • Find the Joy- this can be said best by reading Susan's blog post. I'll put a link at the end. Another complete game-changer for me.
My only warning about this course is the 5 minute bit. I think the intention is that one can train a dog for 5 minutes a day and get great results. But this course takes a LOT more than that. Not necessarily in training time (although she does state that 3 5-minute sessions a day are better than one), but in reading, watching the videos, combing the site for questions and answers to questions, watching the webinars and coaching calls, etc. I was very glad that I chose to do this in "down time" whereas some people were doing it while leading full lives!

Here is the link to Susan's blog which made me look at my training in a whole different way (of course it helps to watch some of her videos to see how utterly thrilled her dogs are to work for her every second of their lives).

Criteria is...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Crate Games for Ponies

I have been having great fun transferring one of the dog games onto my horses.

The game is actually part of a whole group called Crate Games. Susan Garrett sells a DVD by this name which I bought last summer after getting Eloise. She'd spent a lot of time in a crate before I got her and while I don't keep dogs in crates, she was not reliably housebroken so I had to put her in one if I left her in the house for any reason. I wanted to change her feelings about the crate and I thought this looked like a fun way to do so.

The Crate Games are in the Critical Core exercises of the e-course and therefore the lessons from it reverberate on into many other behaviors. One of the criteria in this game is that the dogs pop into a sit whenever you touch the latch on the crate. I had this in my mind when I went out to the horses one day and as I watched Percy give me his now-standard three steps back as I approached the fence, it occurred to me how useful it would be to teach all the horses to back three steps whenever I touched the latch of a door or a gate handle. Rather than asking them to back, touching the handle itself would become a farm-wide cue for backing. No more heads popping out of doors as soon as they opened, no more crowding at the gate, no more rushing to get out...the benefits were endless. The beauty of course, is not only the vastly safer behavior, but the mindset which would result! Instead of "I wanna", I'd have a conscious polite waiting to be released from three steps back (as this is also part of the behavior- it's not a three steps back and then ricochet forward again). I LOVE it!

I began with Percy as my test case since he was already familiar with his three steps back. He is offering backing regularly now and so when I slid the latch on his door and hesitated, he backed right up. That was easy. Now I must say, there is some punishing that goes on here and I'm curious to see the results. If the dog tries to leave the crate before being
verbally released , the instructions are to shut the door, blocking him in, wait a bit and try again. (there is more detail to all this with plenty of reinforcing going on for staying in). It's very effective but I don't kid myself that this is all positive. Unfortunately it was aversive to Eloise because the noise of the latch scared her but that's a different story and she's much better now. But how aversive to a horse? From three steps back, if Percy tried to come forward as I opened his door, I had time and room to slide it shut again before he got to it. This wasn't terribly different from when I approached him at the fence and he stepped forward before I ducked under. If he did, I would back up. So in both cases, I was removing myself (and my attention), to stop the behavior of him coming forward...negative punishment. I could have done it all with the clicker and +R...simply building duration and adding the "distraction" of my entering the stall. But it's really no different than the "you can't make me eat that" game where the food is removed if the horse reaches for it. So I accept that it's not all +R, and am watching each individual to see if I see any unwanted consequences. By the way, I don't verbally release the horses from their position, I approach and ask them to put their halters on where they are or else cue them for something different if I'm not taking them out.

Mariah was the next one I tried it on. It was like falling off a log. She's had so much training that she's a quick study in any situation. She already knows her grain won't land in her tub unless she turns away so it was a very short step to get her to offer to back away from the door when I had hay, and on we went to backing away from the door in all situations. She does not need the reminder of me hesitating at the door like Percy sometimes does.

Next were Rumer and Ande. They are trickier because they share a paddock and this is where the jockeying for position happens as they push each other to be first to me. I had some help from someone else one day and we both worked on "you can't make me eat that" while they were several feet from each other so they could each be reinforced individually but while having the distraction of the other nearby. I am continuing to work with them singularly before expecting much cooperation while together.

The lesson ponies don't crowd the gate, but tend to go up to the top of their paddock and wait where I feed them so I simply ask them for a step back before putting their hay down to introduce the idea, if not the cue.

Conceptually, I have also begun to see if Percy can figure out how to back out of my space regardless of how I approach him. He will easily back if I approach him head on, but I'm also playing with approaching him at an angle to see if he understands that I have a line that I am walking, and if he intersects that line, he needs to back away. So far, so good!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Transferring Value

I might do a complete review of this dog training e-course when I'm done but just for clarity's sake now, I should point out that there isn't a lot of explanation in the course. There aren't reading assignments or discussion of operant training. It's stated as a self-directed course; the format being these daily games. Each day, another game is described on the site and we do it with our dogs. She does explain what to look for, troubleshooting tips, her recommended number of sessions and environment etc as well as the ultimate uses of each. I think that may be what I'm enjoying most. The instruction isn't highly analytical...I'm exploring the various games and mentally comparing them to work with horses and seeing what gets results; what is easy, what is difficult, etc.

So today I'm thinking about "transferring value". Susan talks about "high value rewards" and "low value rewards". You can probably figure out the difference and this goes back to ranking your animal's rewards and using them appropriately depending on the difficulty of what you are asking for. What's interesting is Susan's focus on our ability to change what an animal finds valuable...transferring the value of one thing to another. This is something we do with horses all the time, but again, just working through this with dogs, a new "trainer" and the corresponding different vocabulary helps me to look at everything from a different angle and explore its uses.

Working with our horses with positive reinforcement changes our value to the horse. We love to see our horses come running when we show up and that is because we have become high value to them. Even horses who don't like to work will come running if the bugs are bad or the weather is miserable in order to be put in a more comfortable environment. But when the grass is green and the day pleasant, our horses who come running to see us are showing us there is more value to us than just as caretakers.

Something which Susan advises that we put a lot of value in for our dogs is tugging. A lot of dog trainers use tugging as a reinforcer. Some dogs inherently love to tug and some don't. She has several ways of teaching a dog to enjoy and value tugging so that it can be used as a reinforcer. The best correlation I have for horses is the mat. Many horses are skeptical of putting their feet on any sort of mat at first, but every one I know of learns to love the point of going straight to it if given a choice. Once they love it, we can use the mat as a reinforcer, and Alex does this frequently in her work- the horse does some nice work and she says, "OK, you've done such a nice job you can go stand on the mat". We have, of course, built that value into the mat work by giving it a great reinforcement history- we have reinforced the horse many times for going to and standing on the mat.

A further correlation is that both tugging and mat work have associated emotions. Tugging winds a dog up and gets him ready to go be active in whatever sport we may be engaging in. Further, a dog who has done a great job racing through an agility obstacle can race right to the handler and be rewarded by grabbing the tug and engaging in a fierce game of it (certainly a predatory reaction). Conversely, we often use the mat as a soothing tool (or at least I do, maybe it's because I so frequently use it for young horses just starting under saddle!) When they get to the mat, they can stand and be quiet and relax for a bit.

Another example is grooming and this activity can mean very different things to different horses. Some horses love it and some horses hate it. Foals start life with some very itchy spots and one of the easiest ways to get a foal to stand still for you and learn to enjoy human company is by scratching those itchy spots. There are other spots which aren't itchy though and the foal will not appreciate your contact there. Adult horses have different skin types and hair quality which will affect their tolerance or enjoyment of being groomed (which we can respond to with different types of grooming tools) but a lot of it I think can be attributed to training- whether the horse over his lifetime attained any value for being groomed. Frequently this is one of the first things people do with a horse and as a result, a horse's reaction to it can be pretty ingrained. It can be very difficult to change the value of grooming for some horses.

Most of what we call default behaviors are behaviors that we have transferred a high value to. Behaviors such as mat work and head down can become self reinforcing if a horse finds value in their calming qualities. A horse who is consistently given his earned treats in the Grownups position will quickly find that to be a high value position.
So now I am thinking of what other activities I can transfer value to...
Here is a photo of Mariah, taken just a few mornings ago after a fresh snowfall. She still looked like the snow queen. Mariah LOVES to be groomed...her owner tells me sometimes her hand would get tired of scratching her and she'd go to the pitchfork! She's also one of those horses who loves to have you poke your fingers right down into her ears to scratch. Her head goes to the ground, her eyes close and she just leans into it. When I use the shedding blade on Mariah these days, I leave a fresh blanket of white on the muddy ground.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ABC's: Critical Core and Foundation Lessons

Before even beginning the daily lessons in Susan Garrett's dog training course, we were supposed to work on what she calls her "Critical Core" games. From a training system standpoint, these bear a striking similarity to Alexandra Kurland's Foundation Lessons. I don't mean that they are the same exercises for both horses and dogs, but they serve the same purpose.
  • they are designed to keep both animal and handler safe
  • they begin to build a positive relationship with the animal
  • as their names imply, they are the foundation and core of all the other work to follow.
I have ridden with many different instructors over the years and observed even more. The good ones have a system. Some pieces may have been created by this individual but many are exercises which they picked up from coaches they rode under, although they may have tweaked them to their own unique format. The point is, they don't just start training willy-nilly without a planned progression for which each ingredient has been carefully assessed, measured and put into place.

For Susan, the safety leans toward keeping the dog safe while for Alex, it leans more toward keeping the human safe, although I'm sure they would both agree with me that they go hand in hand. It's just that with dogs, some of the most frequent dangers are when they get away from us- so two of Susan's Core games focus on getting the dog to come back to us and then being able to get a hold of them when they do. With horses, we're back to the size factor. Head down and backing out of our space keep the horse calm and prevent them from running over us.

Managing the food is another component for both of them. Each of these masters have a game to address teaching the animal self control around food and how to take food politely. Both horses and dogs have teeth! But self control carries through into so many other areas of our training and management that it isn't just about the food.

By beginning with these games, a relationship is budding. Animals love to think, to learn, to interact with others and certainly to be rewarded for doing all of these things (learning isn't fun when it includes punishment). They look forward to the lessons and will come running to their person for more. The importance of having this type of relationship cannot be underestimated whether the long term goals are to have a competition animal or a companion animal.

Many trainers use clicker training to teach tricks or improve the quality of certain skills, but the real genius in the formats of both these women (as well as other professionals) is how their introductions serve as substructures for everything they do after this. While I do not compete in agility, I have already heard many references to start lines, contact points, front crosses and other mysterious terms and how a particular game relates to these skills. Likewise, I continue to be amazed at how Alex's work builds a well-balanced and physically stronger horse which helps no matter the future career path of the animal. The physique of young horses who have been started under her program is amazing...and they've not had restrictive tack put on to accomplish it.

Both individuals stress the importance of revisiting these basics regularly. Many times we can (and should) build these basics into our daily routines. Certainly food manners are given ample practice opportunities. The problem is that I, for one, tend to get sloppy in my daily habits at times. I let less-than-ideal behavior slip by in an effort to get chores done and get on with life. Pretty soon, I see pushiness and impatience creep into the picture. A horse who grabs for the hay as I walk by, a dog who bursts out the door when it's open. I have no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, I have core foundation lessons to return to and if I'm smart, I'll not wait until things fall apart to do so.
Eloise showing self-control by staying in her crate with the door open and me lying on the floor with food! (sorry for the sideways...took it with the phone and too lazy to go through the hoops of importing it into a program to edit it!)

Sunday, April 3, 2011


One of our first assignments in this online dog training course was to make a list of possible distractions for our dogs- things which might take their attention from us and what we are asking them to do at any given time. After making the list, we were to rate them from 1 to 10 with a 10 being very distracting and a 1 being just a little distracting. We could then begin to test our dog's responses to our requests in the presence of a "1" distraction. If successful, we could move on up the list of distractions. If not successful at any point, then we knew we needed to put more "value" as Susan calls it, in what we are doing. This can be done by increasing the reinforcement history of the game and/or by offering a higher rated reinforcer (which was another list to create).

It was fairly easy to come up with a list for Eloise. It included: poop (poop of any specie is a fascinating find outside); birds (for chasing); food on the floor; good smelling food anywhere around; other dogs- playing, barking, etc; arrivals by car or on foot; the compost pile; bones, bare ones lower on the list than meaty bones; mice, rats, squirrels, and other creatures or even the scent of them, and so on.

When I decided to create a similar list for horses, I ran smack into the predator vs. prey issue again. I was first thinking that it's easier to remove the food element from a dog training area than with horses...grass is everywhere! But after that, I was thinking about what interrupts a horse training session and I realized that while dog distractions are things that attract a dog, horse distractions tend to be things which worry a horse. In fact, the vast majority of horse distractions could be subtitled "Things Which Appear on the Horizon". At our farm that includes: cattle, sheep, dogs, cats, birds, farmers, tractors, neighbors, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, cars, snowmachines, deer, turkeys, laundry on the line, plastic on the round bales, etc. These things could also be distractions for a dog but
rather than wanting to run toward these things, as a dog might, horses are going to want to run away from them, preferably back to their herd and/or barn.

So how does this affect our training? With dogs, we make the game more fun or the reinforcer more appealing. Eloise finds a dry bone of interest and if I call her and she comes, I can pull out a piece of meat or cheese so she finds it worth her while to have responded. (OK, it has to be said- dog treats are far nastier to carry around in one's pocket than horse treats) The dogs' decision is: which good thing do I go to? With horses on the other hand, they are looking for safety. Do they follow their instinct to, at the very least, watch that thing instead of paying attention to the handler's requests or do they feel safe enough to turn their attention from the scary object and focus instead on the exercise of the moment?

It seems to me that we have to have even more reinforcement history with our horses than with our dogs. When the dog gets his piece of beef, he knows he made a good choice. When the horse stays with us and gets his treat, we have to also make sure that he feels safe in the choice that he made, thereby building a reinforcement history worthy of his trust.

Below, Percy and Eloise share a little reinforcing quiet time- he with his hay, and she with a bone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Canine Correlations and Conflicts

I've been able to think of two horsepeople I know who don't also have dogs...and I read an amusing piece in the Chronicle of the Horse about Boyd Martin too. However, I think the vast majority of us have dogs as well as horses. Working with both has caused me in recent years to think more closely about training the two different species. I don't compete with our dogs (I did compete in Sheep Dog Trialling with some of our Border Collies for several years while I was learning and while my kids were very young but dropped it once I could start the dogs well enough and then got back into the horse thing...). So there's difference number one right there for some of us. Our dogs are companions and our horses are for sport. Not everyone- some people have horses as companions or for pleasure. But that affects our expectations of them.

Another difference is that one is predator and one is prey. Our horses' instincts call for flight first...the dogs not necessarily. That affects what our animals may find rewarding. Many dogs love to be chased around the yard for fun. I don't know any horses who enjoy that. I think it really helps to think about this In the big picture as well.

Another difference is that horses are bigger, of course (some exceptions with large breed dogs and minis). I know there are dog people out there who like to argue it but you can't make me believe that horses are not inherently more dangerous as a result. Put it this way, not many dogs can kill you by accident. Horses can. So their management and training has to take this into account.

Most of us also have our dogs sharing our living quarters (although in mud season, I wonder about the sanity of this decision). They come in the house, they snuggle on the furniture, they sleep in our bedrooms, if not our beds. When you believe that we are training all the time we are with the animals, this makes for a lot more training time (as well as the potential for a lot more screw ups) with our dogs than our horses. We can manage our horse's training time more carefully- when we take them out of their stall or pasture, the next 5 minutes or hour can be focused and then we put them away.

I have recently enrolled in a dog training e-course. Since dogs are not my business nor do I compete with them, I fought the urge to sign up (it was not cheap) but finally succumbed for a couple reasons. First, I had some surgery a month ago and was on "stall rest" for several weeks. I was going stir crazy. I couldn't do my chores, couldn't even get to the barn for weeks because of the icy footing and my condition. Once I could get around, I still had to avoid the horses for fear of getting accidentally bumped or knocked into. (side note- all is well and no long term repercussions other than a hormonal maelstrom). So I was ready for a diversion!

Secondly, Eloise the Jack Russell has been here a year now and has made great strides in becoming a farm dog. But Spring is a challenging time when all our dogs are enticed by creatures coming out of winter hiding. When the woodchucks start whistling, I get ignored a discouraging number of times. She's turned into quite the hunter terrier and I don't want to lose her down a groundhog hole without at least knowing what hole she's down. So- this course advertised that it would build a great recall into our dogs.

Last but not least, the horse connection. I wanted to explore more options for horses. Due to my surgery, I had to cancel my plans to finally attend Clicker Expo. That was a huge disappointment so this was somewhat of a training consolation prize. I've heard others, watched videos, read write-ups about the amazing things trainers were accomplishing with other species. One thing I have learned from attending TAG teach seminars is that stepping out of your own "specialty" can be a wonderful way to learn. Having spent a lifetime with horses, I sometimes have tunnel vision on how horses learn, what can be expected of them, what SHOULD be expected of them, etc. I want to really examine the pieces of this course through the eyes of a horse trainer. I'll use Eloise as my guinea pig. She's already showing great improvement.

The dog trainer who is offering this course is Susan Garrett. I've read her blog for a year or more and found some fascinating and fun ideas. Plus she has Jack Russells and Border Collies (she's had several World Champion Agility successes). While
she strongly advocates positive reinforcement, the course is not specifically clicker training even though she has experience with CT. So that's another thing which piqued my curiosity. I intend to share what I find either on this blog and/or my Facebook page, depending on whether it's a little "aha" or a big one. I would love to hear feedback from others and make this a conversation. Please share your thoughts!