In the September issue of The Whole Dog Journal, Pat Miller wrote an article called "Daily Training" in which she detailed how she reinforces her dogs throughout each and every day. At the end, she encouraged readers to do a daily tally of reinforcers and submit them. I thought it was a wonderful exercise and went through it myself, but never submitted it. So now I'm going to do the same with the horses and share it here.
Many people begin clicker training by having "training sessions" and indeed that is a good place to begin- get organized, count out your treats, have a plan, train and then assess how things went. Once you and your horse discover how great this system is and you become a smooth handler, you can begin using clicker training in other situations and at this point, you become one of those people who always has treats in her pocket. I can no longer say I always have treats in my pocket because although I stuff them frequently, I also dole them out frequently and before you know it, my pockets are empty again. So I have to go refill.
How do I go through so many treats? Here's a typical day, keeping in mind that it is mid-winter and "typical" could look very different in mid-summer:
The very first thing I do each morning is turn horses out. Messy stalls are a pet peeve of mine and I like to get them out asap! I approach the barn at the exterior dutch doors, calling a greeting so they know I am coming. I open Percy's door first. Because he has had so much practice at backing when I open a door, I am now actually working on getting him to come out, rather than stay in. I have to hold the door so it doesn't blow in the wind so It's challenging because I can't target him all the way out or I'd have to let go of the door. I get him started with a fist target and then use a verbal "walk on" to keep him going. When he walks out far enough for me to shut the door behind him, that is his first click and treat for the morning. I then shut his door and let Mariah out. She comes out very politely and continues out to find the hay I have scattered in the pasture- her own reinforcement. Percy follows her.
The ponies on the other side of the aisle need to be led across the aisle and through Mariah's stall to be turned out (well, that's the way I do it). They are still learning about backing when I approach a stall door (having lived outside previously). I rest a hand on the door and wait for a step back, click, open the door and treat. Kizzy is great about going with me if I just use a hand under her jaw. But she can be a little quick. So I take a couple steps, click and treat for staying at my side, before she gets ahead of me, take a couple more steps, click treat, etc.
Rumer and Ande love to investigate the barn and aren't as focused on getting out to the hay piles. A hand under the jaw doesn't always work well with them. Sometimes I use a rope around the neck and reinforce every couple steps as with Kizzy. Sometimes I put a halter on in which case, they get a click and treat for pushing their noses down into the halter when I put it on. Ande is very good at this, Rumer prefers if I stand in front of her so we're working on haltering from the side. I do a lot of clicking for ear work this time of year. There is so much FUZZ and HAIR on ponies in midwinter it's sometimes hard to even find the ears in order to get halters over them. And sometimes they are extra sensitive due to the cold. So ear handing gets reinforced a lot. When we get outside, Ande likes to gallop off to the others and to the hay piles once released. So he gets reinforced for turning around and waiting quietly while I remove the halter or rope. I click the turn around and feed while I remove the halter over his ears. In that way, he both stands until it comes off and he associates the halter removal with quiet standing, rather than twisting his head to get away.
Rumer, on the other hand, would much rather stay and play with me when I let her go, so I don't reinforce her…it's all about balance. I want her to move right off so she doesn't get chased by one of the other horses. Nobody chases Ande. Stowaway is his slow and steady self, who likes to be tugged everywhere he goes. So he gets clicked and treated for stepping off when I do, rather than lagging behind.
We are covered in snow and ice these days, so there is no riding or longeing possible. I come up with different projects for the winter. The current project for Percy is his husbandry skills. I regularly practice for things like worming, injections and blood draws (see these two blog posts for more on that).
At noontime, the horses all get more hay. With anything resembling a plant now buried under snow and ice, they get pretty excited when they see hay coming. The get lots of clicks and treats for walking politely beside me until I drop it, rather than ripping it out of my arms.
Two days ago, my husband and I were working on the fence (which was supposed to be a permanent fence by winter but too many other things were ahead of that on the list and then the ground froze). Since Percy and Rumer were both entertaining themselves by chewing on the electric rope, they eventually took it apart and let themselves out three times in 2 days. I had locked everyone out in the big field with hay and then hung some strands of surveyor's tape on the gate when I closed it, to make it more visible since it had been left open in recent weeks. When they finished their hay, they came over to the gate and Percy promptly grabbed the surveyor's tape and ripped it off. It landed in two pieces under his nose. Envisioning a colic surgeon removing surveyor's tape from his gut, I dashed over to pick it up. Percy thought I was coming to play so he stepped forward to greet me. Because he was in a corner, I couldn't ask him to back up and I couldn't figure out how to get him to move. Being human, I said, "You need to get out of the way so I can pick that up" and pointed to the tape. He understood the point. And he reach down and picked up a piece of the tape and handed it to me. Good thing I had treats in my pocket at that moment, though my laughter would have sufficed. So I pointed to the other piece and he picked that up as well. This time, however, he lipped at it in transit and the whole thing went in his mouth. More visions of colic surgery…he didn't seem to know how to drop it when it was all inside. I quickly gave him my "open your mouth" cue and like a good patient at the dentist, he opened wide. I was able to reach in and retrieve the soggy tape from the back of his tongue. Disaster averted.
At afternoon chore time, it can be tricky getting Mariah in because Ande wants to be first in. To keep this from getting too long, I'll avoid telling you why that's not possible and just say I ask him to back away from the door and stand to the side while she goes in- clicks and treats for Ande, and dinner waiting in Mariah's stall to reward her for going by him when she'd rather not. Then I have to do the same for Percy. He isn't afraid of Ande, but nonetheless, I have to keep Ande out while letting Percy in. When it is Ande's turn, he backs away from the gate and waits while I enter for another click and treat. Sometimes I put Stowaway's halter on first and sometimes Ande's. Clicks and treats for putting noses in halters, clicks and treats for waiting patiently while the other gets a halter on. And again for standing quietly when halters are removed inside.
When I lead Kizzy to her night paddock, we are working on getting that thick little Welsh pony neck to bend into a hip give halt. She can outwalk and I'd almost bet out pull any horse on the farm. When she's headed for dinner is a great time to work on bending to a quiet and graceful halt for treats here and now rather than booking it to the supper in the feed tub.
Sometimes at late night chores, I'll work with someone in their stall- if blankets need to go on or come off, that is another opportunity to reward standing quietly. My biggest problem with blankets is that all the horses are so sensitive to being asked to back that I often get backing when I'm fiddling with chest buckles. That is an opportunity to click before they move so they understand that standing is what is wanted.
So there is a day full of reinforcement. Is any of this necessary? Depends on who you ask. Anyone could come and do chores for me without using treats to do anything. I could as well, and sometimes I do. But maintaining behaviors with daily reinforcement keeps them clean and prompt. Also, there's always room for improvement in daily behaviors.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
The scene- I had just let four of the horses (two ponies) out into a foot of fresh snow and fifteen degrees. Normally I put hay out the night before so it's waiting for them in the morning, unless, as in this situation, the weather made that impractical. I hate leaving horses in their stalls while I put hay out because the stalls get messier. So there they were, romping in the cold fresh snow, galloping about looking for their hay piles. My husband offered to put a bale on the sled and drag it out to the far side of the field where we like to put it to encourage the horses to move and spread the manure more evenly in the field. I gratefully accepted and I went out the other door to take hay to the other ponies in the shed.
When I was done, I saw that we had a problem.
Instead of going around the field and tossing or carrying hay in, Ed had struck out across the middle of the field. Four horses were grabbing at the hay bale as they chased it and him across the field, yanking the bale off the sled every step of the way. My husband can swear a blue streak when he's in a good mood- he was not presently in a good mood. They were all about 100 yards from me but I took a chance. I ducked into the field, stepped into the run- in shed and yelled Percy's and Ande's names. I couldn't believe they could hear me over the wind and Ed's expletives, but they did. When they turned to look, I stuck my arm out to the side- heavily gloved hand in a fist.
And they came. At a gallop, kicking snow up all around them, they came right to me, leaving a full bale of hay and the fun of yanking it out of its strings, when they hadn't eaten since 10: PM. I had one handful of hay stretcher pellets in my pockets. They each got two on arrival. I then rationed them out, one at a time, for pulling their noses away from me. Mariah and Stowaway had returned at a more sedate pace, and then I had four horses giving me polite "Grownups" positions, in exchange for one hay stretcher pellet at a time, taking turns with each other. Fortunately the hay pellets lasted until the hay was distributed and even though I didn't have leftovers to put on the ground when I left, they seemed happy to wheel and race each other back out across the field to their waiting hay piles.