Thursday, January 26, 2017

Naughty Horse Part 3: The Inconclusive Conclusion

horse tracking
The morning after that escape, I followed Percy's tracks backwards from the pony pen. As I mentioned earlier, I have a track which goes around the arena. There is pasture surrounding the arena so this track allows me to open up various parts of the pasture for grazing. I had placed the jumps for the jumping lane on the eastern side of the track, as that side is used if the track is used at all. The southern and western sides of the track only give access to the small pasture along the road so they aren't in that part as often. For the winter, I remove the eastern track fence so they have access to the entire field. I then put a short piece of electric rope across the opening to the southern and western track to keep them out of it entirely. Yet this is where Percy's tracks led. 

When I got to the rope closing off that portion of track, I discovered that the increasing depth of snow had left the rope only about 18' above the snow. The tracks indicated that Percy had jumped over it, possibly from a standstill. The tracks went right up to the rope on the takeoff side, but didn't begin until about 4 feet out on the landing side. He might have walked up to it in order to assess it and then backed up to trot up and jump as I have seen him do. I'll never know. 

I had swapped out my yak tracks for snowshoes when I climbed out of the plowed barnyard into the track and now I maneuvered them carefully over the rope. One end of the rope was attached to an insulator which was then attached to an arena post by wire. I had not turned the fence off before coming out. In the summer, it would have been a quick walk back to the barn to do so, but when snowshoes and yak tracks are both required, I decided to do what I could in the moment. I pulled off my gloves and slowly worked the wire up the post, being careful not to let the hot rope touch the insulator wire. I doubted there was much tingle in it this time of year but I didn't want to find out. I raised it until the rope was at my waist height. Since I was on snowshoes, Percy's weight to surface area ratio on hooves was going to put him deeper in the snow. And yes, I crossed my fingers and went in the house.

All was peaceful for a few days. I was careful to put hay out far from his new escape area and plenty of it. I made sure I was not late for chore time. Any time my obligations kept me from being home on time, I confined everyone to the small sacrifice area near the barn. I hated to do it, but I also didn't want to come home to find horses out everywhere. So far I'd been lucky that no one else was following Percy out. They must have decided he had some kind of magical power. Ande and Stowaway had both been doing the jumping lane every time Percy did and Ande had done plenty of free jumping in the arena as well. But thankfully, they did not use their skills the way Percy did. 

Then one morning I had to leave very early. I committed the cardinal sin of putting horses out with hay and water but not cleaning stalls. I really, really hate leaving stalls dirty but just did not have time that morning. I love surveying a nice clean barn before I walk out of it, knowing that it has hours to air out before horses go back in. To add insult, I forgot they weren't clean until I went out for afternoon chores. Ugh. Shortly after I started in on cleaning Percy's stall I heard a commotion outside. When I opened the aisle door, there was Percy. It was clear by the tracks in the dusting of snow that the commotion was him falling on the ice. Interestingly, the UPS man was also out there. I'm not sure who was more surprised but Percy and the UPS man were both wide eyed and staring at the other. I calmly took the package from the UPS man while Percy trotted around the barnyard on the ice with his tail up over his back. I waited until the UPS truck had left and  took the time to observe that Percy didn't seem to have any ill effects from falling on the ice. Then I called him, all the while thinking:

behavior which is repeated has been reinforced

I decided that being allowed to play in the barn while I prepped stalls the other evening had encouraged him to jump out again and come to the door. I didn't want to strengthen that habit, plus I still had two dirty stalls to clean. Had I been a good girl and done the stalls earlier, I could have put everyone in and prepped stalls around them but I didn't want to put them in dirty stalls. Instead, I opened the gate and put Percy back in with the others where they were waiting for me to finish chores. He did get a treat for going in. I thought perhaps falling on the ice might function as a punisher completely unrelated to me and make him think twice before going that route again. And he wasn't going to get to play in the barn this time.

I had moved on to the next stall when I heard footsteps crunching in the snow again. I swore, went to the aisle door, opened it and stepped out. This time Percy trotted right past me and out to the driveway and around the barn. That answered that. Being put back in paddock with no fun was more closely related to coming to me, than it was to jumping out. Putting him back had served to punish his voluntary recall. I swore again and followed him into the dark. 

It was when I saw him scamper around to the other side of the barn that I had to really stop and wonder just how calculating he was. I had dropped a bale of hay out the loft door on the east side of the barn into the snow in preparation for the following morning. Percy made a beeline for it. Had he seen me do that and figured out that's where he was going from the start? He had left the other ponies in the shed, crossed the sacrifice paddock, gone all the way down around the full length of the arena, in the dark. On a warm summer day in bright daylight, there are sometimes monsters at the far end of the arena. Apparently monsters hibernate in winter. Or don't come out in the dark (which is not the way I remember it from my childhood). In any case, he'd circumvented the entire arena, slid his way across the icy barnyard, out into the driveway, down the length of the barn and around to the far end where the hay bale was. 

taken looking out the window with the aisle lights reflecting
Once again, I found myself at "now what?". This horse is exhausting. Stalls still weren't clean. I couldn't put him in his stall (the one clean one) because he would be unhappy alone in the barn. There was no point in putting him back with the others as I'd seen how well that didn't work. I left him where he was, tearing at the hay bale. I thought he might decide to come back on his own but each time I peered out the window, he was happily wrestling with the hay bale. 

When the barn was finally ready, I went out to him. I was cursing myself for not keeping the eastern doors to the aisle shoveled out. I hardly ever open those doors in the winter and had let the snow pile up against them. It would have been so much easier to open them, right where he was, and bring him in from there. Instead I had to walk around on the ice. Normally he would happily leave a bale of hay to come to me (after all, he left all that lush grass in the summer to trot up to me after escaping), but I had to remember how I had "punished" him by putting him back with the others the last time I caught him. I had to walk up to him and it took a little convincing, but with a decent rate of reinforcement every few steps, he came along. I hadn't even taken a halter with me because I needed to force myself to correct my previous errors, not create more by taking away his choices. 

 When I followed his tracks backward the following morning, I discovered my rope gate had been taken down entirely. The insulator wire I had so carefully pulled to the top of the post, he had lifted right off the top and it lay in the snow. I'm not sure whether he did that the first time or the second, but I replaced it, and tightened it all up so that it would not be so easy to lift off. 

He's far from secure. I continue to feed generous amounts of hay (so that the ponies turned out with him are about to pop even though they get a scant fraction of what he does when they are inside). I make sure I am on time for chores. If there is any chance that I won't be home from training others at the appropriate time, I confine them to the sacrifice paddock. 

Current reinforcers for jumping out include:
  1. hay
  2. adventure
  3. interaction
  4. treats

In effort to find ways to reinforce him for What I Want (always where we should start with any training plan), I have wondered how I can use those same reinforcers to keep him in. The hay I am already doing. What I am working on is ways to use adventure, interaction and treats to encourage him to wait in the sacrifice paddock for me to come to him, rather than having him come to me by jumping out.

I am going out for chores early. Forgive me for whining but training here this time of year is not fun when it involves freezing hands. But we are having mild weather in the 20s and 30s so I'll do something with him, whether it's husbandry practice or games or letting him play in the barn, as long as he is in the paddock when I go out for chores! I'll also let him adventure a little as long as the ice isn't too bad. We're expecting several more inches of snow tomorrow. If it's the kind that sticks to the ice and improves the footing, we'll go out and play in the driveway together.

And I'm counting the days until Spring.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Naughty Horse Part 2 in Which Reinforcers and Punishers Are Analyzed

So now I had a horse who was jumping out of of his paddock whenever he wanted. If they had been given a new section of grass, which happened every day or two, he was happy to stay and eat. It didn't take long for "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" to set in and he'd hop out. There was a particular strip of grass near the house that was incredibly thick and lush. It's where the runoff from the barn paddock occurred, so it was heavily fertilized. That is where he would go to as soon as he was out. It was conveniently located beneath the house window and so I knew as soon as he had escaped. This only occurred a few times over a day or two while I wracked my brain for a solution. 

I raised the fence as high as I could without risking the ponies escaping underneath it. Scaling height was not a problem. Giving him fresh grass only kept him busy for part of a day. Finally, I took a chance and relocated their grazing to the far end of the field. It meant giving up on a section of grass I really wanted them to clean up, but I started them over on regrowth as far away from the tempting spot as possible. I also left in place the border fences of the paddock they had been, so that he would have had to jump three fences and go a distance from his buddies to return to his desired grazing. That did the trick. I was on overwatch for several days before I could relax, while realizing that it was only a short term solution.

At this point I had:

  • unwanted behavior- leaving a chosen confined space by jumping a single strand of electric rope over 3' high (with only 15' of approach as that was the width of the grazing strips)
  • reinforcer- lush grass
I had to set it up instead as:
  • desired behavior- remaining in specified paddock
  • reinforcer- lush grass
  • making the unwanted behavior less desirable by 
    • adding distance to the previous reinforcer
    • adding more fences between him and the previous reinforcer
    • no reinforcement available for jumping the first fence (which put him in grass that had already been grazed down)
Problem solved. Temporarily. As summer turned to fall, I was careful in how I arranged paddocks and that he had plenty to eat each day so that we did not experience a resurgence of the jumping. He was eventually turned into the paddock with the lush grass and given free access to it. 

That solution lasted until all the fall grazing was gone. Once the good grass had been eaten from the rotational grazing, I opened the paddocks up to larger and larger spaces so that they could forage for spots they'd either missed or been too fussy for previously. They get a lot less fussy as the fresh grass stops growing. They soon had the entire field to play in and hunt around in. Which is when Percy realized that the hayfield which hadn't been mown since the end of summer had regrowth far better than what was in their pasture. And he jumped out again. 

At this time of year I had to realize that there was nothing I could give him as a reinforcer inside the pasture which could compete with the grass he was finding in the hayfield just on the other side of the fence. I could have made it harder for him by increasing the height of the fence, but that meant I would have also had to add an additional strand to the bottom for the ponies. I knew once we got snow that would just be buried and cause more problems. Hay kept him happy short term but before it was even cleaned up, he chose to jump out for dead grass on the stem over dead grass from a bale. 

I had to confine them to the paddock near the barn, as much as I hated to do so. Snow came and covered all the reinforcing grass. I gave it another try. He wasn't that easily discouraged. Whether he remembered, could smell it, or just took a chance, he jumped out and was soon digging through the snow for the grass underneath. 

This brings me to the other reinforcers for jumping out. Me. Leaving him loose just increased the value of jumping out. But preventing that by going out to retrieve him was also reinforcing. He'd hear the door open, pick up his head, and trot right to me. At that point I could have put a halter on him and returned him to his confinement...but that would have been connected more closely to being caught than to jumping out. Had I done that more than a time or two, he wouldn't be so foolish as to be caught. So yes, I offered him a peppermint or a piece of apple and he happily followed me to the barn, sans halter. We'd play a bit together before I put him out with hay (to bring the other horses back in) and I'd close the gate to eliminate access to jumpable fences. 

Finally we had enough snow that I thought he might think twice before trying to jump in the deep stuff. I put hay out far from the house (interestingly, he never tried to jump out from any other part of the fence) and after several days was relieved to see him staying in. Well, except for the days I was a little late getting out for chores in which case I'd look out the window to see him using teeth and neck to dislodge the fence posts so he could step out. And yes, he'd watch the window for me as he did it. There are advantages to being a reinforcer oneself, but sometimes disadvantages. 

Last week (we've made it to the middle of January), I was a little late writing up some behavioral follow ups for clients and it was dusk by the time I left the house to do afternoon chores. I hadn't seen him playing with the fence post so I was concerned when I only saw four, not five, equine figures waiting for me. I squinted. All I could see were white markings in the dusk. Rumer's paint body was easy to see, and Kizzy's blaze and even Ande's strip were there. Stowaway's spotted rump was visible. But no big blaze and stockings. Where the...

For the first time I hoped he had finally figured out how to do the snap combination on the barn doors and had gotten in there but when I hurried into the barn, no Percy. No one seemed upset so I couldn't believe he'd gone far and only hoped he wasn't lying out in the field with a broken leg. I dashed down the aisle to the far end of the barn and slid open the doors. 

Through the dark I saw him in the pony pen. The gate was wide open and he stood looking at me interestedly. 
"What are you doing out THERE?", I asked. 

Once again, I was faced with what to do now. I felt I had to reinforce him for coming to me, especially since it was dark and cold and he was oh-so-willing. I did not click and treat, but simply let him follow me into the barn and closed the doors behind him. I knew that being locked in his stall would feel punishing, when the others were still outside. Instead, I let him do one of his favorite things which was to explore the barn while I prepped stalls for the night. He wandered in and out of the different stalls, took a bite of a hay bale in the wash stall, poked his nose in places that interested him, and generally behaved like a dog until I had all the stalls ready. Then I put him in his own stall and quickly brought the others in. 

Did this reinforce his coming to me? Did it reinforce the fence escaping? There would be no way to know until I saw what he did next time. 

To Be Continued!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Real Life Reinforcers, Punishers and a Story of a "Naughty" Horse

The naughty horse in this story is my own and I take full responsibility, as I must, for his behavior. "Naughty" is just one of many adjectives we hear when describe animals. Stubborn, willful, spoiled and even arrogant are just a few others. The more we learn about behavior, the less we need these labels, although I still need to stop myself from using them occasionally.

If I were to replace "naughty" with kinder and possibly more helpful descriptors, I'd say he's a good problem solver. The challenge is that that we have different ideas about which things are problems and which are solutions. I consider fences to be a solution to the problem of having a horse somewhere I consider unsafe: in the road, on bad footing, eating pasture too lush for his digestive system. He considers fences a problem to be solved so that he can eat tastier grass and explore places. I consider his penchant for escaping to be a problem. And around we go.

I do have one fence which contains him. It's a five foot high woven wire fence on solid posts set well into the ground and topped with one strand of electric. I don't like to keep him there because it's a small area and one I feel badly about confining him to. Also, if I confine him, I must confine everyone so they each have access to shelter and water.

The larger pastures are fenced with electric rope. That is sufficient for everyone else, as long as I make sure that the fence is on, no wildlife has gone through it, the height is appropriate for the individuals confined, and other basic maintenance.

Before last summer, that at least functioned to keep Percy (aka "naughty horse") in as long as there was grass to eat, which, after all, is a horse's natural behavior. Giving an animal appropriate natural behaviors and fulfilling their natural requirements of food, water, companionship and shelter goes a long way toward keeping the peace.

Previously he had several ways of conquering the fence problem. When he got bored in the winter he would play with the fence posts, taking them in his teeth and pulling them out if he could. If not, he'd rub his neck gently on them until they loosened and tipped. While playing with them, he'd discover that in the winter, the fence wasn't as "hot" as in the summer. With the earth solidly frozen, there was no moisture to provide a "ground" for the electricity to go to, and the little tingle it gave off didn't deter him from playing with the rope itself, sliding insulators up and down and removing them entirely with his clever lips.

As if that wasn't enough, last summer I taught him how to jump out.

That wasn't my intention of course. With my history in eventing, I know that a horse can learn how to use his body over fences best without being encumbered by a rider. One can build a jumping lane of fences and chase the horse down through it so that he jumps the fences in his way and practices his gymnastics. Because it involves chasing, I came up with a reason for the horses to want to jump through, rather than needing to chase them through. I already had a lane for them to go out to pasture and back, so I simply starting placing things in their way. First it was a rail, then a couple, then a small jump, then a couple, etc. I've been working up to larger jumps over the past couple years and pleased to see them each becoming more and more comfortable. They seem to enjoy it and I don't leave the larger jumps up for them to need to do multiple times a day. I usually set them up for them to go over on their way out, then lower them to smaller obstacles for their trips back and forth. Percy showed a knack for clearing the jumps I set.

step one of teaching Percy to jump out
I also taught him to jump in a more thoughtful and controlled manner by doing some agility with him. A somewhat new sport with varying levels of contact and liberty work, it was the theme of the August clinic I hosted last summer, along with Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin and Marla Foreman. So I spent the earlier part of the summer playing with Percy on the various obstacles to become acquainted with them: a tractor tire filled with sand, weave poles, hula hoops to station in, etc. Oh, and little jumps. While all the horses and ponies liked to race out through the lane to pasture, Percy took a much more casual approach to our agility jumping. He really didn't think he should get ahead of me and I can't go as fast as he does so he learned to jog up to jumps carefully and hop over them, not leaving me too far behind. That, apparently, was phase two of teaching him to jump out.

The first time I looked out to see him grazing, alone, in some deep and lush clover on the opposite side of the fence from the others, I searched to see where the fence was down. It wasn't. No one else was out. I thought he must have been reaching underneath the fence to graze, and mistakenly pushed through it, somehow allowing it to spring back. I put him back with the others, checked to make sure the fence was on and watched from the barn.

He trotted down to the narrow strip of grazing they have each day and walked carefully up to the fence and reached out to test the fence with his whiskers (this is how he assesses whether it's on or not). I saw him pull back quickly and then buck several times in place. Aha, I thought, now he won't try anything again. But then he backed up about four steps, did a lovely little lift of his forehand off the ground, trotted forward...and jumped the rope.

I won't tell you what I said.

So that's the background for this past week's tales of naughty.

To Be Continued