Monday, August 24, 2015

Do Horses Really Need Routine or Is It Just Cues?

I was taught growing up that horses like and need routine. They should be fed and turned out at the same time every day. I adhered to that for years, religiously showing up at the barn for chores with no more than a 10 minute window of flexibility (and feeling horribly guilty if a family outing disrupted it). And it certainly appeared that it was true. The horses always gave indications that they were desperate to be fed or were found waiting impatiently at the gate if I was late. 

In recent years, I have started to question this and now am feeling a lot less convinced. One argument backing this requirement is the sensitive nature of the horse's digestive system. I won't dispute that horses can suffer maladies from ulcers to colic if their routine is upset. But is it routine they crave? I recently read a highly respected trainer's website which stated that the horse is a creature of habit with an internal clock. I can go along with that, but it went on to say there are certain times to graze and certain times to rest. This is where I question.

I think we all have an internal clock ("all" meaning humans, dogs, cats, horses and livestock: the species with which I am most familiar). I think those do become finely tuned, as people who have dogs and cats who know dinner time within one minute will attest. Anyone who has traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast with a toddler and been joyously woken at 4: AM because it's breakfast time on the East Coast can support me on that one. And anyone who has then tried to tell that toddler that it's not breakfast time will understand that yes, there is a NEED for breakfast at that time.

So it seems like I'm arguing against myself but think about the following: we are the ones who have clocks that we set to feed animals. In the natural world, horses eat almost constantly; they don't have a meal time at all. Wild canines and felines eat when they catch something, which is determined as much by what is being pursued as by when the animal decides to go hunt. So I say we are the ones who set their internal clocks and I question how necessary that is.

I'm not suggesting that anyone who feeds two or three meals start feeding them to their horses at random times of the day. I am suggesting that if we respect the true nature of the horse by having something available to go through that digestive tract at all times, then they won't really care whether that arrives at 6: AM or 10: AM. We do know that grain is not the best food for horses and many of us avoid feeding it. With the invention of the slow feeder hay nets or boxes, we can make a flake of hay last much longer than if we throw it on the ground and in my experience, the horses are much less desperate when I show up with the next meal. They don't behave differently if I show up an hour early or an hour late from any random time I choose to do my chores. That's a 2 hour window rather than a 15 minute one. More than that and I think the tummies have been empty long enough that they are impatient.

The reasons we have times to feed is for human need.  We need to get a shower and get to work or the employees show up at a certain time and need to get the feeding and mucking done so that the riding and training can begin. When we are consistent for our human needs, then yes, the internal clocks of the animals, who are under our complete control as to when and what they eat, get set as well.

In my corner of the world, many people, including myself, turn horses out at night during the summer which is when the heat and bugs are least bothersome. During the winter, we turn them out during the day when it's warmer and they are snug in their barns at night when it's bitterly cold outside. Every Spring and Fall, there is The Switch. When does one change the turnout schedule? Labor Day? Talk about a random date! First frost? Also random and not necessarily indicative of what the next several weeks' weather will be. 

If left to their own devices, this schedule would be much more gradual. I do believe horses in this climate like to be locked in away from the wind at night in winter and I also believe they like being in their stalls where it's cooler and less buggy during the summer days. However, I like to let them choose as much as possible. If I have someone arriving for a lesson, I make sure the horses are in and have had their breakfasts before then. But on days like today, when my schedule doesn't require their cooperation, I watch to see what they choose. On hot, muggy days, they come up to the barn earlier, tails switching and feet stomping in the run-in until I let them in. On cooler, breezy, late summer days, they come up for a drink, but then go back out to graze some more. The "grain" they get is simply a forage supplement but they do get this each morning. Yet the opportunity to move and graze, come and go, seems more compelling than getting in their stalls for this artificial meal. If they truly had an internal clock which either their bodies or their minds needed, then wouldn't they be waiting for this routine at the same time each day?

Many times we are simply cueing our animals to expect to be fed or turned out. Because of chubbiness, I bring the two smaller ponies into a dirt paddock at dark, rather than leaving them out on grass all night with the others. Everyone gets turned out together at about 4: PM. When I go out as it begins to get dark (which happens just a tiny bit earlier each night), those two ponies come up to the barn. This isn't 100% consistent but any time it happens, it does surprise me. They are coming off grass, to be put on dirt with a flake of last year's 1st cut hay. I think the reinforcement is different for each. Kizzy gets her grazing muzzle taken off and she must find eating hay without a muzzle preferable to fighting for grass with one.  She's usually the first one to appear. Rumer likes Kizzy and likes to be with her, so when she sees Kizzy come up, or sees me move her to the other paddock, she comes running as well. So in that instance, I think we have a cue (my arrival at the barn and Kizzy's arrival at the barn) which predicts a behavior (their arrival at the barn) and then reinforcers (hay/no muzzle and companionship). 

Likewise, I think that given freedom to choose when to eat and when to rest, environmental cues are a lot more causative than "routine". Therefore, I make a point to be inconsistent so that my horses don't fret if something changes. I make sure there is sufficient forage for digestive health, that they have free access to water and shelter, and then I do chores when it's convenient for me, or when it's convenient for them.

As always, I'd love to hear what others think about this. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Expectations: Consistency in Training Routines

snuffling up the pellets
I've been amazed for a long time, and commented before on how much Percy seems to like his hay stretcher pellets that I use for training reinforcement. It's an extension of the way clicker trained horses feel about the training itself.  They will leave amazing reinforcers such as grass to come and work for a couple pellets.  Today he showed me again how powerful the training is, and how much that transfers to everything involved with it. 

In getting ready for our Training Intensive Practical Clinic with Cindy Martin and Katie Bartlett in two weeks, I am trying to work with each of my horses (it's been a busy Spring and early Summer so they haven't gotten the attention I'd hoped and I need to decide the best projects for our clinic participants). The last one I got out to play this afternoon was Ande. When we were done, I realized it was turnout time so I led him to the paddock they are currently grazing and turned him out.  Percy is usually the first one out because most days they go out through his paddock so it makes sense to let him out first. So this was unusual and he became very animated seeing Ande go out first. He galloped the fence line, did some bucking and squealing, ran back into his stall and back out again.

I opened his stall door with his halter in hand, and he came running to stuff his head into it, but then pulled it back out and ran back outside again. Choice is important.
I stepped into the aisle, closed the door and put Stowaway out instead. This got Percy more excited and I felt stupid for doing it.  Thank goodness Mariah was still in and though she was whickering to go out, she didn't do anything to further exacerbate the situation. 

I stepped into Percy's stall again and this time he managed to put his head in the halter and hold still while I pulled it over his ears and buckled it. This is always a difficult moment for him because even when the situation is calm, he gets excited about training and has a hard time being patient about leaving his stall but we've developed a routine that works.  I don't ask for anything in the stall, but immediately take him out to explore the aisle (thank you to Katie for this process!). But today I knew he wanted to go out to pasture, not explore the aisle, and I felt he needed help with calming before we stepped out. 

We worked on head down and targeting for a while until we got up to a quiet 20 seconds of head down with no fidgeting. Then I stepped into the aisle and repeated it.  The head down exercise was working its magic; when I clicked, his head only came up about 12 inches from the ground for the treat, compared to when it had been way over my head initially. 

We stepped outside the barn and he eagerly looked to Stow and Ande in the paddock, but willingly repeated the head downs again; this time he was able to immediately go the full 20 seconds so I walked him to the gate. He was polite while I opened it, he turned carefully and quietly, and did another nice head down. Here by the gate, the grass had been chewed short. I had opened an additional gate for Ande and Stow where the grass was ankle and knee deep. But Percy was quiet and I carefully slipped his halter off over his ears, expecting him to spin and gallop to his buddies.  But he stood and looked at me expectantly.

The routine.  There are rules we follow.  End of session means he gets a handful of hay stretcher pellets on the ground before I leave. He wanted them. I dug a handful out of my treat apron and dropped them in front of him. Rather than running off to fresh grass and buddies, he began lipping up the pellets from the ground.

When I returned with Mariah, he was still vacuuming and I had to wait for him to find the last one or two before I could go in with Mariah (she was happy to be kept busy with some targeting). When he did finish, he stepped back so Mariah could come in and it was then he remembered what he was out there for.  He turned quietly and trotted toward his friends, then broke into a canter as he reached them and instigated some play before settling down to graze. 

It's always nice to see the results of our training!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Clicker Training Clinic with Alexandra Kurland at Cavalia's Home Farm

A distant view of the Cavalia home farm
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending an Alexandra Kurland clinic at the Cavalia home farm in Quebec. I was there as an assistant but it felt like a holiday: the education was of the excellent caliber which Alex always provides; the site was ideal with two indoor arenas, a classroom, dining room and beautiful setting; and we were very well fed throughout! The horses at the farm are magnificent and supported by a team dedicated to their care.
One of the amazing catered meals

Our host for the weekend was Dominique Day, one of the co-founders of Cavalia. A beautiful person, inside and out, Dominique is very involved in the daily activities at the farm. She knows very one of the more than 50 horses on the farm as well as anyone and is both knowledgable and passionate about their husbandry. Dominique was only willing to pursue this dream of a performance show if the welfare of all the horses was at the forefront. She has researched every facet with tenacity. Researching the most humane methods of training horses led her to Clicker Training. Researching Equine Clicker Training led her to "the best": Alexandra Kurland. Dominique says when she met with Alex the first time, she was ecstatic to find a kindred spirit.

Dominique shared some of the history of the Cavalia show and its early development. When they began exploring what was possible, they saw that in traditional circus shows, the horses worked in a small circular stage so they were always within reach of the whips.  That's not what they wanted for Cavalia.  They wanted the horses to be actors just like all the other performers, so they expanded the stage, and took away the whips. If a horse leaves or did extra laps, that's okay and becomes part of the show. They want the horses expressing their personality. 

The Cavalia trainers and show designers have always been innovators. Now Dominique is taking that a step further by bringing Clicker Training to the Cavalia Retirement Farm. The horses at the home farm are the retirees from the show, the occasional layups due to injury and the horses on vacation from performing. Some horses who retire from the shows are adopted out through a very careful process, again overseen by Dominique. Hearing her talk about the requirements for adopting a Cavalia horse, one is confident that she looks into all aspects of the horse's physical, mental and emotional needs before releasing them and she follows up with them. Those who are not adopted out have a home for life. In fact the very first Cavalia horse is still there. You can see a brief video with Dominique and footage of the home farm on youtube.

As you can imagine, horses coming off of a high energy show like Cavalia or Odysseo take some time to adjust to a quieter farm life. If they need to be confined to a stall or hand walking due to injury, the transition is a larger challenge. From daily turnout and handling to veterinary procedures, these horses are managed and enriched with Positive Reinforcement.

Marla and Bilbo
After Dominique's initial meetings and discussions with Alex, she asked her to recommend someone to come to the farm as a full time trainer. Marla Foreman was the ideal candidate.  Having been raised on a remote ranch in New Mexico, with experience in many equine disciplines, as well as being a veterinarian, there isn't much that intimidates her. She had been attending clinics in Washington State with Alexandra for twelve years so is very familiar with her work.

All the horses come into the barn with the energy of a fit performance animal, but they also seem to come in sizes big, bigger, biggest and enormous. From Arabs, Quarter Horses and Appaloosas to Draft Horses, warmbloods and Iberic breeds (with necks that put their heads in the clouds), walking through the barn can feel as if you are walking though a book on horse breeds of the world. The fabulous Bilbo, pictured here with Marla, is a perfect example.  An Ardennais, Bilbo weighs in at about a ton and was one of the vaulting horses in the show. Cavalia retires their vaulting horses after only three years: before they show signs of the wear and tear they are predisposed to from their difficult work. Although a draft breed, Bilbo is fit and quite active; he loves to gallop and play. Marla's excellent skill set lets her work with that energy while still maintaining the soft and and listening demeanor of a Clicker Trainer. 

Rounding out the support team for these horses is the lovely Gabriela as barn manager. With an impressive history in hotel management, Gabriela keeps things running like clockwork. She greets everyone with a welcoming smile; anticipates the needs of her employer, the horses and the guests; and is as much a student of positive reinforcement training as everyone else. 

Being able to attend a clinic with Alexandra Kurland at his amazing site with these amazing horses as demonstrators is an opportunity not to be missed. They are hosting regular clinics and I highly recommend attending! I will save my actual clinic report for a future post.
Gabriela and Alexandra demonstrating the Minuet Dance of working with horses
(more on that in the next post!)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sharing Attention: Improving Relationships Between Horses and Dogs

This is my first blog post with training tips for the HORSES AND DOGS CLICK! challenge on my Bookends Farm Facebook page. If you aren't on Facebook and want more information, let me know and we'll get you involved somehow.

I was inspired by seeing a video clip of a Dog and Horse Trail competition in Germany. I shared the video and wished we had something similar.  A friend suggested I start an online contest, so I did! It's very casual, the purpose being to encourage people to work with their dogs and horses together and train them, rather than avoiding the problems that sometimes come up when you have both species. 

I've had a lot of interest and I want to keep this fun, collaborative and encouraging. I'm going to post videos and blog posts about the way I would go about working toward this goal myself.

In order to start a project like this, I think of two main approaches.  One is to work each animal separately on the various criteria required (I'll copy the details at the end of this post). The other is to be sure the animals are comfortable in each others' presence. 

Since we still have complete snow cover here, I can't be working in the arena but there are certainly things I can start working on. One is the relationship piece. As we have six dogs and six horses, I have lots of pairs to choose from. I'll be using different individuals for different posts, depending on which ones I think will best demonstrate the topic.

For this post I have chosen to use Beetle as the demo dog.  Beetle is 15 years old and while he has always been very comfortable and confident around the horses, he never had what I would call a good relationship with them. He was comfortable and confident because he would quickly snap at them if they got too close.  He didn't chase them; just didn't want them in his bubble. As a senior citizen, he deserves some training time and anything to make his life more pleasant is a good goal. He no longer sees or hears well, so can be pretty anxious in the barn. I hope this will help.

The horse I have chosen to use is Mariah. She also is a senior who deserves some training time. She's a good match for this job because although she is enormous, she is very, very good with the terriers.  I once locked Eloise in her stall by mistake shortly after I got her and didn't discover it until I got back to the house.  I didn't realize what happened so I went hunting for her and finally checked Mariah's stall. They were both in there, Mariah happily eating her hay and Eloise safe as could be. 

In the past, if a horse has threatened Beetle with lowered head and pinned ears, he'd fight back. I am confident that Mariah won't do this so I can focus on Beetle's emotions. If I was concerned, I would begin with them much further away. 

Since this is the beginning of this project, I like to begin with a bit of a dry run.  This is something I have heard Ken Ramirez speak of on several occasions. Set up the training and run through without the animals to make sure you have the equipment, yourself, props, etc all as you need them. It doesn't eliminate the possibility of missing something, but it helps and you will see me find a couple problems here. 

I decided that shavings bags would be a good platform for Beetle in order to get him closer to the height of Mariah's nose. Keeping her in her stall keeps her big feet out of the equation and her head can still come out of the grill window for training. Rather than doing a complete dry run, I try a little session with just Beetle.

What did I learn in my run through with Beetle alone? Before I began, I thought about my treat situation. Many years ago I accidentally used the same pouch for horse treats that I had liver treats in for the dog earlier. That horse was NOT happy. Since then I have been careful to make sure all horse treats are clean of anything which might offend their noses or taste buds. The dogs are fine if I feed them a hay stretcher pellet by mistake, but not the other way around. In the winter, I keep my left coat pocket well stocked with hay stretcher pellets for use during the day. I keep a pouch clipped on to my right pocket with dog treats. I realized that put the treats on the opposite side of the animals the way I had the setup in mind but thought that might actually be a good thing so that I could turn to each animal, rather than getting sloppy in my treat delivery which could encourage them to come for the treat rather than wait for it. And in practice, it felt right. 
The first thing I noticed after turning the camera on is that Beetle wouldn't be able to get up on the shavings bags by himself.  A couple years ago it would have been no problem but he isn't as spry as he used to be.  I had to pick him up and he really doesn't like to be picked up so for the next run I add a step for him (and you will see why that turned out to be a very good thing!). 

The next problem is that I automatically expected a polite sit from him. That's kind of a default for me in expectations of dogs. Sit before we do anything. I really wasn't thinking clearly to expect this of Beetle because he has not been comfortable sitting for a couple years. His knees pain him and when he, along with my other older dog, became reluctant to sit when cars passed us on walks, I realized it was because it hurt! I no longer ask him to but here I was expecting it. After a couple times when he slowly does sit, I remember and stop expecting it. 

Finally, you saw me find that even though I had carefully placed the shavings bags where I thought they should be, I had my back to the imaginary Mariah and needed to change my position.

I was ready to bring Mariah into the next session and here's how that went:

I thought about having Beetle stay on the lower step at first but he jumped right up to the top so there we were. Another Ken Ramirez tip: when working with multiples, everybody gets reinforced even if they haven't been cued for a specific behavior.  If nothing else, they have to sit there while somebody else gets attention! In this case, I just wanted both animals to find out that there was reinforcement for both and they could be happy together. 

First I ask Mariah for a fist target. She complies (not a touch but close and we're not looking for precision at this point) and I click and both Beetle and Mariah get a treat. Then I ask Beetle to target but oops! I give him a fist target and I use a flat hand as a hand target for dogs, while I use a fist for horses. I switch and open my hand. My brain is starting to smoke already. 

I wanted to start out by asking for something specific from each animal to give them something to do and reward each so they knew they were both "working" and wouldn't be tempted to offer unwanted behaviors. Once they had each responded to a hand target, I moved to seeing if they could both just be patient.  And I measure patience in nanoseconds. We aren't building behaviors, or duration or precision. The goal here is to just be together and see that it's good. As long as Mariah keeps her head away from me, I click. We do that three times but I begin to feed them closer and closer so their heads are practically touching. So close that poor Beetle gets bumped (by my hand, not Mariah!) and tumbles backwards off the bags. Next time I will turn the bags the other direction so he has a better platform!
At the end, I give each of them a final handful: Mariah in her feed tub and Beetle on the lower step so that they are separated a bit and no problems ensue when my back is turned as I turn the camera off.

Safety and comfort is a priority here. I didn't exactly set that up successfully for Beetle by having him take a tumble. Next time I will be more careful. I am happy with the behavior from each of them, however! I saw no unpleasant emotions. Beetle might look worried from someone else's point of view- his tail is pretty tight. But at his age and in winter, that's not unusual. I will keep an eye on this as I don't want him climbing up on the shavings bags just for food if it hurts or he's uneasy. I will probably do more with him alone and might see if I can find something with a little better grip for him to stand on. Mariah was her saintly self and I think would be happy to repeat this again.

Here are my rules/guidelines for the contest:

Team of three: one human, one equine, one canine
Goals- to promote happy interactions among species in practical setting using positive reinforcement training.
Criteria- marker and food reinforcer must be used for each of the 10 exercises for both horse and dog. 

Course- design your own! Must include:
1. Dog to be on leash at beginning, let loose for all exercises, then put back on leash at conclusion.
2. “Heeling” of dog next to horse’s shoulder and/or person’s side; minimum of 10 yards at walk and 5 yards of trot. 
3. Horse and dog together over a rail type obstacle of any height
4. Horse to demonstrate correct nose-to-tail bend through 2 consecutive changes of direction, using cones or similar object (handler may change sides in-hand)
5. Dog to stay in marked, but not confined, area (rails, colored sand) while horse and human go 10 yards and demonstrate backing of 5 steps minimum
6. Dog to recall over or through any obstacle while horse remains calm and still
7. Horse, dog and handler to cross “bridge” of any safe material (plywood, secured tarp), large enough that all four of horse’s feet will be on it at once (no height necessary)
8. Dog to stay at safe distance while horse and handler open gate, pass through, recall dog to stay again while horse and handler latch gate.
9. Dog to demonstrate sit and down for minimum of 5 seconds (can be during any of the above exercises)
10. Bonus- dog to retrieve object to handler while horse remains calm and still. Object can be thrown or placed prior to retrieve.

Judging to be both objective (completion of all 10 exercises) and subjective (happiness of all three team members, quality of work). I will choose my own favorite (or maybe favorite 3?) and will also tally “likes” of each video submitted.
All riders must wear a helmet! (or your video will be removed)

Two divisions- one ridden and one with horse in-hand. For in-hand division, horse must be connected to handler (no horse liberty work).

Videos may be submitted starting July 1 and ending July 4 at midnight EST. Judging by myself and likes will be July 5th through the 12th.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sparkle and Drive

Whenever my daughter and I heard words like this paired, we’d immediately think what great names they’d be for a pair of driving ponies. I’m not thinking of anything nearly so concrete with these words. 
As a science based trainer, I have been taught by many that behavioral criteria must be definable, measurable and observable. What exactly are we looking for when we ask the dog to stay: can he wander around the area we’ve left him; or must he be statue-like still; or somewhere in between (in which case define that!). If we ask a horse to trot, is transitioning upward with one trot step acceptable (ideally that is what is reinforced at the beginning of training) or must he maintain a certain number of steps? Is there a certain amount of time in which he must respond? Clarity is critical for shaping better performance.

Drive is a word that is not defined with clarity, yet it is used all the time in dog sports. When I took Susan Garrett’s Recaller course several years ago, I found myself wondering how drive related to horses. I came up with the same ambivalence. The clearest example would be a Thoroughbred breaking from the starting gate and digging into the dirt as he or she raced down the track. Similarly, an event horse in the start box, fidgeting as the timer counted down to “Go!” would then leap out of the box with great drive to attack the course ahead. It is more than speed, which is something which could be measured. It is a readiness to respond and a willingness recover from a stumble on the course and fight on.

But it’s even more than that. I think Dressage horses, trail horses, and even horses being clicker trained in a barn aisle can have drive. For these it seems more appropriate to transition to “sparkle”. The word sparkle is from a conversation I had with Alexandra Kurland last Fall.  We were actually discussing horses with whom the clicker had been used, but sadly these horses were missing the clicker sparkle. Just as some people “train with a clicker” while others are “clicker trainers”, there are horses who understand the clicker, but do not have the clicker sparkle. And they are related. 
A sparkling morning

There are some really good trainers (of many species) out there with young children. I’ve seen the kids on Facebook and oh, those lucky children. They have a clicker in their little hands as toddlers. Their parents are serious trainers so no animals are having to endure ill-timed clicks.  These kids are rock stars who are learning from the beginning how to be a clicker trainer.  The positive reinforcement mindset is how they are being raised themselves. Those kids will be able to say they truly started as clicker trainers. They will sparkle.

The rest of us have baggage and we have to start by “training with a clicker”. Regardless of how much training, with whom or for how long, we probably have a history of something other than positive reinforcement. Then we may meet “the horse” who inspires us to explore something different. Or as with me, it might be a more gradual crossover as I tried it, stepped back, and then tried again over many years. It takes time to get oneself living completely under the clicker umbrella, which is when we become “clicker trainers”. Even when we are willing, we have all these punishing habits and self defense mechanisms popping up like monsters on a carnival ride. 

Horses respond to the crossover process differently. Some start to sparkle right away, happy to offer little behaviors and be reinforced for it. My retired event horse Smarty was one of those.  He caught on quickly and would give a little nicker when he heard the click. It warmed my heart every time. Other horses are more cautious. They suspect a trick or simply cannot really believe this is true. This may be due to their history or temperament. Or it may be trainer related.  A person who teaches his horse with a clicker but will still use a stick or a yell or a sharp movement in certain situations, will create a horse who decides she just cannot trust. It sounded good for a while, but if punishment is still used, the sparkle cannot emerge. And the longer this goes on, one moment getting treats for one thing, the next moment getting punished for another, the less hope the horse has. The fear of punishment runs deep.

Don’t get me wrong, punishment happens.  It happens in the environment, it happens from other horses, it happens by accident. Dr. Susan Friedman says that it’s the ratio of reinforcement to punishment which is important.  If we strive for 100% reinforcement in our training, the occasional unavoidable punishment can be overridden. By unavoidable, I don’t mean planned punishments for something we perceive as “unacceptable”. I mean things like veterinary intervention. We can train and train in preparation for vaccinations and blood draws, but the fact is, when it happens, it might still hurt. Ken Ramirez says the protocol for his trainers is one hundred reinforcers in a training situation for every one actual veterinary procedure. Those animals sparkle. They have one hundred times the experiences of reinforcement to punishment (the punishment being the possible physical pain of an injection).  

As someone who teaches others how to train, I can’t count the number of times I have heard “but what do I do when...”? The problem with this question is that people are planning to fail. They want to know what they can do when the horse or dog is “wrong”. Guess what? The horse or dog is never wrong. They do what they have been trained to do. Period. A behavior which is reinforced is repeated. If a horse has been reinforced many times for biting someone (perhaps the horse preferred begin left alone to unpleasant training), then adding a little reinforcement isn’t going to magically change things. You need to overwhelm the previous history with reinforcement for what you want.  This takes time. Training requires planning. Rather than planning to fail and asking what to do when that happens, it is our responsibility, as trainers, to set things up so the animal succeeds and we can reinforce that. Keep yourself in protective contact if you need to feel safe but don’t ask what to do when the horse does something “wrong”. Train “right”! 

It can require a lot of creativity to set up a situation in which we can be safe and the horse can keep learning what we want. If our brains don’t have practice, it’s even harder. Luckily, these days there are more and more positive reinforcement trainers out there from whom to learn. Ask for help, get some coaching from a reputable trainer, reach out to peers to brainstorm.  It can often feel like the cards are stacked against us due to our environment. Not everyone has their own ideal training facility with staff (oh, how we wish we did). But we have each other to look to for support.

While removing Ed's hat is reinforcing to Percy,
 it does not reinforce my husband for helping to shovel the run-in!
Just be sure that have a good long think about the responses you get. Play it through in  your mind and ask, “Am I trying to stop a behavior or teach a behavior?”  If someone gives you a suggestion that will stop a behavior, it is not a “clicker compatible” method. You are risking the sparkle. Toss that suggestion out the window and look for one which is clickerly; look for the suggestion which is a creative approach to train something incompatible with the unwanted behavior.  You will be training your horse what To Do and you will be polishing your horse’s sparkle, not dulling it or throwing dirt on it.

It’s easy to fall for the folks who say “I’ve been there and I had to do “x” to stop that”.  That’s exactly how we feel and we feel vindicated when someone else offers a solution. But if all we want is someone to validate punishment, well those are a dime a dozen.  As true clicker trainers, we instead need to challenge ourselves not to fall for the easy out.  

And remember that punishment is defined by the learner. I still find myself having the occasional accident. Percy loves to nibble on my clothes in the winter.  I trained that when he was a youngster by finding it amusing when he fetched gloves, tugged at my zipper and took off my hat. My physical expression of amusement was reinforcing to him. He’s gentle: there is no danger involved, but it’s annoying to have an adult horse grabbing at my clothes. I have to own that, however. 

I did not want to punish him, so I simply pulled away quickly and left. He showed me that’s still punishment. It’s negative punishment (removing something the horse wants to stop a behavior), but it’s still punishment. And Percy began to respond. He’d nibble at my coat and then pull away quickly. Not the goal I was after.  And no sparkle. There was always sparkle when he played with my clothes. I need to substitute one sparkling behavior for another. If I don’t want him tugging on my sleeve, I need to train him what To Do instead. He’s a smart horse. He’ll figure it out. Just as long as I come up with a creative solution. 

Please, set up your environment and training sessions so your horse can sparkle. 
Sparkle is not always easy to catch in still photos, but this young horse has it in spades. You can see it here in his attentive ears and curious eyes, even though this was his first introduction to flexions. The tilt of his head shows he is still being shaped for a correct flexion, but he has not been told this effort was "wrong". He was clicked for his effort and asked again.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Equine Enrichment in Winter- Keeping Horses Happily Busy

Ande grazing at 10 below zero in January

One of the newer concepts to come along in horse management is enrichment.  I first heard of enrichment as it relates to zoo animals.  Those who are responsible for animals which are meant to live in the wilds of the world and who are now kept in captivity have been working hard to come up with ways to provide stimulation.  Horses were also originally designed to live in the wild and while the majority of them could not survive in the wild today due to their breeding or upraising, they maintain many of the needs of their wild cousins living on the plains of the world. Enrichment is a way to provide for some of those needs. I have incorporated a few management practices toward this end.

Horses are grazers.  Grazing fulfills many equine requirements including nutrition, movement and entertainment. When we take away their ability to graze, either by confining them or keeping them in climates where grazing is not available, we take all of this away from them.  

I start my daily routine the night before, after my night barn check, when I throw a bale of hay out the loft window into the snow below.  From there, I load it onto a sled, and drag it to the fence closest to the house.  There it sits, until I go out in the morning.  In this way, I can put hay out for the horses without going into the barn and stirring everyone up.  I drag the sled as far as I can out into the pasture before cutting open the bale.  Then I drop one flake and slog at least 20-30 steps through the snow before dropping the next flake.  I continue in this way until the entire bale is spread across the field. 
If you look closely, you can see the dots of hay I have distributed in the distance

This gives the horses plenty of walking to do when I let them out (and has the added advantage of getting my own blood flowing so I get warmed up). They hike out to where the hay is and have plenty of walking and eating as they move from pile to pile cleaning up the hay. They make paths in the snow and the next day I use those paths to get started, but then push off further so they keep going new places, until we get another snowfall and start all over again. 

While eating hay off the ground mimics the position of a grazing horse, it is not the same as grazing.  Grazing involved tearing the grass from the ground with teeth and muscles. It involves using whiskers and muzzle to find the best parts. I have found my horses really enjoy the slow feeder nets I fill with hay for noon feeding because they get to do that combination of nibbling and biting and tearing. My own favorites are the Busy Horse nets  but there are several different brands.  The Busy Horse nets have no strings to get tangled up and since mine frequently manage to get them off their hooks with all the tugging they do, that is important to me. None of my horses wear shoes so I don't need to worry about a shoe getting caught in them.  As such, I hang them low, to keep chaff from getting into eyes and to better replicate the browsing of low bushes they would do in the wild. 
Early on this morning, Percy left the free hay on the ground in favor of wrestling with this slow feeder net.

One problem I have had is a certain large gray mare discovered she could just stuff her nose down into top making the "slow" part of the name irrelevant.  The only solution I could come up with is to weave the tops closed with baling twine which adds a time-consuming (and finger numbing on cold mornings) chore to the process. It's a bit dangerous as well since George, the barn cat, enjoys attacking the bale string as I weave it: cat enrichment. Putting the horses' noontime hay in these feeders makes the same amount of hay last several hours, as opposed to one hour. The guts stay occupied; the mouths stay occupied; the brains stay occupied. They are often just finishing it when I go out in the late afternoon to bring them in for the night. On days which I have to leave the farm, I can put the nets out in the morning in addition to their bale spread in the field and I know they have food and and are occupied for longer than they would otherwise.

Note- on windy days, all hay is fed in these nets to prevent it from blowing away before the horses can eat it!

Rumer happily munching on the Christmas tree
Another fun thing to chew on is tree bark. Please be careful to make sure you know your toxic plants in the area before offering your horses anything like this to chew on.  Our favorites are evergreens, including our Christmas tree when we're done with it, and poplar trees. The horses will strip the bark right off the poplars and make it look like a family of beavers has been through the paddock. If I get desperate toward the end of winter and have some apples which have gotten a little too soft for eating, I will sometimes adorn the poplar branches with apple chunks. 

I have one other enrichment activity that I do, but not daily.  I save it for a particularly cold day or one when I think they need a little something extra. I collect plastic bottles and put a couple handfuls of hay stretcher pellets in each. I don't know that horses ever have to work this hard to get their food in nature and interestingly, I found out that it can really bring out some aggressiveness in them as they resource guard the bottles.  So I wait until I have one for each horse and then I distribute them far apart so they each have one to work at and play with.  Each has his or her own style.  Percy uses his prehensile lips to maneuver and gracefully spin the bottle so the pellets spill out.  Ande paws at it with his feet.  Mariah bats it with her whole head. These are a one-use-only toy but they're free, and even easier to recycle after having been flattened. And amazingly, rarely do I find any pellets left in the bottles so they must get them out before really squashing them.

All these things help to keep everyone a little less bored through the long winter days as we wait, not so patiently, for Spring to return. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Weary of Winter? Training Skills to Make It Easier

That's pretty wild.  I just uploaded this photo and the blogging program made it snow on it.  It was snowing when I took it.  Sometimes the internet is really creepy.  

It is appropriate since this post is about dealing with winter. Winter means different things to different people. Living close to the 45th parallel (amazing the things I learn while writing), and at an elevation of 1658 ft, this is about as harsh a winter as I ever want to deal with.  I know some have it harder, but this is enough for me.  It is beautiful, it is refreshing, it is a welcome break from all things hot and sticky (see previous blogpost for examples!). But it is enough.

Winter presents new management challenges: water freezes, grass disappears, many layers of clothes are required for outdoor activities. Last fall I thought it would be a good idea to write about some specific training goals to make winter more bearable.  Unfortunately, I did not get it written before hard winter hit, so if you find some of these things potentially useful, you can try working on them now (depending on the conditions you live in) or you can put them on the calendar to work on when it's warmer so you'll be well prepared when next winter comes.  I had some of these things trained already, but when I posted my proposal on my Facebook page, people had suggestions for other things which I'm working on this winter, when I can.  
Kizzy has frosted eyelashes at 9 below zero
Two things which I had trained for general purposes but which come in very handy in winter are following a fist target and backing at gates.  In the winter, a fist target becomes a glove or mitten target.  It seemed to be an easy transition for the horses, probably due to my body position (arm extended out to the side) being the real cue, and following whatever was held out is the behavior.  They have learned to follow target sticks, pinwheels, flapping tarps and other things I hold out, so a heavily mittened hand was not strange.  Why is this handy in the winter?  Because haltering is not easy in frigid temperatures.  My horses all "self halter"; I hold out a halter and they put their noses down into the noseband.  But then there are two options depending on how you maintain your halters.  I prefer leaving the crown piece done up so I just have to slip it over their ears.  Others prefer to leave the throat latch done up and do the buckle behind an ear each time.  Doing up buckles is not easy when you really don't want to take off gloves.  And if you do take your gloves off and your hands are the least bit damp, your fingers immediately freeze to the metal buckles.  ouch. 

Leaving the crown pieces buckled allows me to slip halters over ears but I have found that when ears are the least bit damp, they become more sensitive.  Individuals who have no problem with ear handling in mild weather will pull away.  That tells me that they probably feel the way my fingers do when they are cold: a lot less tolerant of manipulation or being bumped.  

In any case, one solution is to just avoid halters altogether and target horses where they need to go.  Paddock to pasture, pasture to stall, stall to paddock.  There aren't a lot of reasons to go elsewhere so they quickly learn the routine even without a target, unless I decide to swap something around and change the routine.  In that instance, a fist target is just as reliable as a halter.  

Backing up when I open a gate is just polite manners.  I don't need six equines crowding each other and trying to rush the opening to get inside for dinner.  In the summer, there is less pressure on the situation because they've been out in the sleepy sun grazing (unless of course they are desperate to get away from bugs).  When the temperature can't decide if it's above or below zero, the horses want to eat non-stop, they want to move to keep warm and they want to get into the barn out of the wind at the end of the day.  I make sure that my pockets are stuffed with hay stretcher pellets when it's time to turn them in.  Anyone who backs away from the gate or door gets a handful on the ground in front of them.  That both reinforces them for the backing and keeps them busy for a moment while I bring other horses in.  My over achiever then does not want to go in when I leave the door open.  He shows me he can wait until everyone else has gone in and then still stand waiting politely while I hold the door open. This is where the "walk on" cue comes in handy. I do not want to target him in because if I go inside, I let go of the door and the wind slams it on him.  So I need to get him to walk past me into his stall.

In addition to these two basics which my guys already know, I am working on two others this winter: walking behind me (as opposed to next to me) and standing for blanketing.  
Narrow paths through the snow. It doesn't look deep on either side, but trust me, step off that path and you're over your knees. 
I have a very strong preference for a horse who walks beside me when we are together.  For me, it is a safety issue. I do not want a horse behind me in case something startles him and he scoots forward.  Others think differently but this is my strong preference.  In the winter, it becomes a challenge when the horses have worn narrow paths through deep snow.  There isn't room for walking side by side.  Somebody has to wallow through the snow if you try.  In thinking about how to train this, I decided simple targeting, again, was the answer.  I have played with both Rumer and Percy with this.  Their initial confusion points out that my body position for following a target is the cue, rather than the fist itself.  When I tried to walk holding a fist behind me, they did not "see" it.  I had to introduce this position slowly.  I could have done it by gradually moving my hand from out to the side to a position further and further back until it was behind me.  That is what I would do if I was training it in the summer.  But I am training in the situation of narrow paths already existing.  Therefore, I changed my body position, rather than the arm and horse positions.  I stood sideways in the path and had the horse target my hand close to their nose.  Then I rotated slightly, facing further forward and repeated.  I proceeded this way until I was facing forward, with the horse/pony behind me, targeting my fist behind me. I did this all at a standstill. Then I took a step, click/treat.  Both Percy and Rumer took bigger steps than I did and were immediately breathing down my neck.  But this turned out to be a good thing because when I stopped, they stopped and had to back up to touch my fist and get the treat.  I decided this was a good lesson- to watch me and be ready to back up if I stop. If I take a header into the snow, I'd like to know the horse behind me is watching in case I stop and will be ready to stop and back up!  Once they are comfortable with this, I will decide what cue to put on it.  If I am carrying a hay net or water bucket, I cannot also hold a fist out behind me so there will need to be an alternate cue.

The last thing I am working on is holding still for blanketing.  You might think this would be easy and if you had asked me, I would have said so as well.  The problem I have is that I have trained each of mine to back up from a very light contact cue on the chest and/or when I face them and step close to the chest.  Well, guess what?  I do exactly those two things when doing up the chest buckles on a blanket. I face them, close to their chests and have hand contact as I fiddle with the buckles.  They back up. Because I don't blanket often, this isn't something that we practice much so with the recent cold biting wind, I've been thinking how to resolve this (the surcingles and leg straps and tail strap are not a problem- doing them up does not mimic any other cues).

My first thought was to have them target something with their nose and my second thought was to use the "stand" cue.  The problem with both of these is that while I know they would comply with those two requests, it remains that touching the chest and facing them would still be a cue to back up and in any other situation, I would expect them to move on to that next cue.  So they are doing exactly as trained.  I have also foolishly allowed them to back until they get to a wall, hoping that might stop them but they have each either learned how to back through a corner (to teach them to displace hips toward me) or learned to problem solve well enough that when cued to back when their butts are up against a wall, they adjust and find a way to keep backing. 

Right now I am thinking that the blanket itself needs to be the cue to stand, regardless of where I stand and what I do.  So I am training it from the start, recognizing that I will need to really micro shape and click often to catch them standing before they start to back.  Something I noticed the first couple times I tried, is that using food as a reinforcer also gets in the way of keeping them from backing, since I have trained a default of drawing back a bit after a click (as opposed to reaching toward me for the treat). 

My solution for this is to use scratching as a reinforcer.  There are many complicated ways to train secondary or alternative reinforcers but I took the direct and easy approach. Blanket wearing also causes the itchies.  So I touch a blanket buckle, and then scratch the chest (no click since for me click=food reinforcer).  Scratching the chest makes them want to lean in to me, rather than back away.  I pull out the end of the blanket strap or undo a snap and scratch again.  Any thought of backing away is negated by that scratch.  Slowly repeating this process has changed horses who want to back away, into horses who gladly stand for, what they think, is a chest scratching, but for me is an opportunity to do up or undo chest buckles.
Blankets piled on the door after being taken off for a sunny day.
Next topic- some simple ways I enrich my horses' winter days.