Friday, March 14, 2014

One of those "art of training" questions: when should you stop?

The morning after
In previous blog posts, I have recommended Alexandra Kurland's Online Clicker Course, for which I am a coach.  One of the privileges of this course is the ability to participate in a yahoo group list specifically for the course attendees.  Students share their experiences and what they have learned.  Coaches write in with comments, and frequently Alex herself will write a post to everyone.  

One (of many) things I really admire about Alex is that rather than just giving a student "the answer", she invites and encourages people to think, to explore and to work things through.  There are many ways to train any specific behavior and the variables of horse, environment, history and trainer all need to factor in.  

Recently she wrote a great post and included the phrase which I have used above as my title: "one of those 'art of training' questions: when should you stop?".  New trainers and horses start with 10 treats so they have frequent resting places to consider how things are going before continuing.  Experienced trainers and horses may take a break after 10 treats, or 10 trials, or 10 minutes or half an hour or….how do you know?  That's why it is an "art".  One must use the specific situation, experience, education, and that elusive "feel" to determine whether you should quit while you're ahead or push on through a difficult spot.

I had an experience related to this yesterday.  Actually, Percy's life has been related to this topic.  In my traditional training education, "he'll get over it", was a familiar term.  "Leave him alone to settle" was a variation.  Percy taught me he can go weeks without settling if something makes him nervous.  Alex taught me how to help him settle in those situations.  

Alex and I have also shared barn building joys and nightmares in the past couple years.  I love my new barn but one little glitch is the ridge line of the roof.  The contractor designed it to ventilate, but it also allows snow in.  Every time it snows, we get a strip of snow, as deep as what we get outside, in the loft under the peak of the roof from one end to the other.  We're waiting until warm weather to see about fixing it.  In the meantime, we moved all the hay to either side of that line and simply shovel out the snow each time.  

In the last two days we got slammed with an enormous March snowstorm.  The wind blew too hard to measure it outside, but there was a swath of snow 30- 32" deep down the center of the barn loft.  My husband decided to shovel it out last night just after I had brought the horses in.  In our previous barn, there was no loft so it took Percy a while to adjust to hearing people (and the cat!) overhead, but 6 months in, he is fine with it.  My husband, however, was not just walking and moving hay overhead.  He was alternating between sweeping with a big push broom (sweep sweep bang bang as he knocked the snow off it), shoveling and scraaaaaping with the snow shovel, walking back and forth on very cold snow (SQUEAK SQUEAK) and then throwing the snow out the loft door to come filtering or crashing down outside Percy's and Rumer's stall windows.  

Mariah and Kizzy were fine- just kept munching their hay.  Rumer and Percy were wide eyed with heads high and circling in their stalls.  I could have asked my husband to stop and done it myself another time.  That would have avoided the need to work through it and I could have made that decision based on the fact that this wasn't something he'd need to deal with often. Alternatively, I could have turned him back out.  But the wind was still howling, it was dinner time, all his buddies were in and he wouldn't have been happy with that solution either. I could have left him alone to deal with it and settle or not on his own, which I have learned in the past simply does not work.  So I chose to work with it. 
The pile of snow at one end AFTER I had reshoveled much of it away from the door this morning.

I began in the aisle and just dropped 2 hay stretcher pellets in Percy's feed tub, then crossed the aisle to drop two in Rumer's tub, then back to the first again and repeated.  Each of them stopped circling to gobble up the treats.  When my pocked was empty, I went to the feed can, refilled, came back and began again.  When the second pocketful was gone, I noticed Rumer had hay in her mouth when I reached into drop the treats in her tub.  She was relaxing enough to eat her hay.  This was great because even though she's a pony who one would think should be pretty sensible, she had some traumatic experiences last fall (involving hormones and wildlife) which has left her with nervousness in her stall at times.  But she seemed to be ok now, so once the third pocketful of treats was gone, I left her alone (checking occasionally to be sure she was still ok) and changed tactics with Percy.

Since he was no longer spinning in circles, I decided it was safe to go in with him (safety first!).  Every time Alex has met him, whether at clinics or when we went to spend a few days at her Clicker Center, she has helped him to calm by engaging him in training.  Going back to my traditional education, I relate this to being told to "put him/her to work" when a horse is nervous or fractious.  I think truly good trainers do this with a similar expertise as Alex.  Too often, though, I think horses are simply forced, by strong bits, tight nosebands, martlngales and the like to Work and given no option.  They remain ticking time bombs until fatigue sets in.  

With Clicker Training, the horse has choices.  Our tools are the many lessons and choices we have given the horse in the past.  So when I entered the stall to engage Percy in training, I simply offered him the option to play, and reinforced him when he did.  I carefully chose what cues to offer.  Years ago, I would have gone immediately to Head Down as it is a calming exercise.  But reading Percy in this instance, I thought that would be too much to ask as he wasn't close enough to being calm for him to appreciate and benefit from that.  He was worried and he needed to keep his head up to feel safe for now.  Instead I simply offered my fist as a target, right in front of his nose, as I would when teaching a horse about Clicker Training for the very first time.  It was so easy, he didn't even have to think about responding- it was automatic- click/treat.  Repeated three times and we were communicating.  His head was still high, his eyes still wide, his pulse and respiration still reacting on alert and he'd startle in place when the snow came past his window.  But I had opened a crack of communication to work with.

After the three reps of the simplest of targeting I simply stroked his neck and clicked and treated.  He is very reactive to touch and I wanted to see if he could tolerate that and if it would help him relax or irritate him further.  He seemed ok with it so I alternated three reps of that with three reps of targeting, now moving my fist a little to the right or left each time.  Then I began offering the target a little lower.  He was ok with right or left but didn't want to drop his head as low as his knees to target.  That was very interesting because he was now offering Head Down all the way to the floor at times.  Sometimes after I treated and before I could cue, he would drop his head to the floor. Head Down is a known behavior.  He offers that a lot.  I rarely ask him to target my fist  down low.  So it wasn't the head height that was difficult, it was a known behavior vs an unusual behavior.  

I don't know how long it took my husband to finish in the loft.  But a swath of snow two and a half feet deep the length of a 40 foot barn takes a while, especially when it's being swept completely clean so it doesn't melt when and if it warms up.  I worked with Percy the whole time.  Each time my pocket was close to empty, I'd drop the last small handful in his tub, leave his stall and go refill.  In this way he learned not to panic when I left…I'd be back.  He'd be left with his worry for only a short time before I returned to help.  Each time I returned he was quieter.  I could have chosen to leave completely at some point, but even though he relaxed enough to turn his rump to the aisle (turning his back on the scary noise) and was working on newer and more difficult behaviors (targeting body parts, right and left verbal cues), I chose to keep going.  He needs lots and lots of practice with background distractions and this was a perfect opportunity.  I wanted him to experience that when he focused on me, the scariness went away.  I didn't want him to keep checking to see if it was coming back.

Peaceful and calm 10 degrees with the snow showing
the effects of the wind the day before.
My limiting factor was my left hand, exposed to the cold for feeding.  The temperature was about 5 degrees and even though Percy is a very neat treat taker with warm lips, that tiny bit of moisture was freezing fast.  It was becoming painful to put my mitten back on when I left for another handful.

Fortunately, just when I thought I couldn't take it any more, the noises upstairs stopped and I heard my husband coming down the stairs.  A couple more reps, a peppermint from the other pocket and I could leave Percy to eat his hay in peace without worrying that he'd get worked up again.